James Neal has scored more than 250 NHL goals in the past decade. Elias Lindholm was the 2013 draft’s fifth overall draft pick and has the potential to add another wave of offense and secondary scoring. Derek Ryan is an experienced right-shot center who was among the NHL’s top 10 faceoff specialists this past season. And, at 21, Noah Hanifin is a rising star just scratching the surface of becoming a top-four defender.
These are the newest members of the Calgary Flames, all of whom joined the club in a two-week span from the NHL draft through free agency in a series of moves GM Brad Treliving hopes will provide what the team was lacking in 2017-18. “I said it at the end of the year: we wanted to look at the mix of our forward group,” Treliving said. “We had some specific targets in mind when we looked at the depth at the center position, adding some right shots to the center position and adding some faceoff acumen. And addressing our right wing position and, overall, adding depth to the forward group and addressing the higher end of the lineup with that top six. Where everybody plays and who everybody plays with, we’ve sketched in pencil. But that certainly gives us depth and slots everybody accordingly.”
On top of the fact Neal is a left-shooting winger – a seemingly perfect fit for Calgary’s top line with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau or on the second line with Mikael Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk – the 6-foot-2, 221-pounder has been to the Stanley Cup final each of the past two seasons. That kind of playoff experience, with its necessary do-what-it-takes-to-win focus, is an ingredient the Flames sorely need.
Neal will be 31 when the 2018-19 season begins – and 35 when his five-year deal expires, at a cap hit of $5.75 million through 2022-23. The contract makes one wary, especially for a team that overpaid for Troy Brouwer in July 2016, absorbing a $4.5-million annual hit for a player who had six goals and 22 points in 76 games this past season.
But Neal, who had 25 goals and 44 points in 71 games for Vegas, is good enough to gamble on. “It’s always an inflated market when you get into the UFA market,” Treliving said. “To get the player, you have to make that decision…we felt comfortable doing the contract we did. We’ve liked him for a long time. He’s been successful for a long time at one of the hardest jobs in hockey, and that’s shooting it in the net. He’s a perennial 20-plus goal scorer every year. He’s an ultra-competitive guy. He’s had playoff success. He’s played the last game in the league for the last two years in a row. He checks a lot of boxes for us and gives us a lot of options.”
Neal wound up as the centerpiece of the Flames’ moves. But Lindholm, who along with Hanifin was part of the trade that sent defenseman Dougie Hamilton, power forward Micheal Ferland and blueline prospect Adam Fox to Carolina, is expected to bring another element the Flames need. The 23-year-old native of Boden, Swe., is a right-shot forward who could relieve Monahan on certain situational faceoffs on his strong side. Lindholm skated for new Flames coach Bill Peters for the past four seasons and played the last 20-plus games for the Hurricanes at center. However, the 6-foot-1, 192-pounder can also play right wing. “I haven’t even thought about the line (combinations) or where I’ll fit in,” said Lindholm, who had 16 goals and 44 points in 81 games in 2017-18. “If I end up playing with Monahan and Johnny, that’d be fun. They’re two world-class players. But wherever I end up playing, it’s going to be fun to try something new.”
For a team that finished 27th in scoring in 2017-18 (2.63 goals per game) and 19th in faceoff efficiency (49.4 percent), an improvement in both areas is paramount. Enter Ryan, who finished eighth (56.5 percent) among players that took 900 or more draws this past season. Making his NHL debut at 29, the now-31-year-old Ryan brings a versatile element and can give the Flames some added offense among their middle-six forwards, having racked up 15 goals and 38 points in 80 games in 2017-18. “We felt like Calgary was a great fit for me, being able to move in and be a middle-six forward, move up and down the lineup and produce from anywhere,” Ryan said. “It’s a playoff team in my opinion right now.”
On top of bolstering the defense corps with 2015 fifth overall pick Hanifin, who the Flames believe has tremendous upside, Calgary added to its depth up front with the signings of right winger Austin Czarnik, left winger Buddy Robinson and centers Tyler Graovac and Alan Quine.
This story appears in the August 20, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.