Calling Flames back-end blitz

RANDY SPORTAK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:39 AM ET

CALGARY - Jay Feaster has referred to the Calgary Flames’ salary cap status as “jail.”

Some would see the team’s situation more as the looney bin. After all, the Flames were in a straight jacket last season at crunch time, and it proved costly when they couldn’t add any form of an impact player to make a playoff push.

Last week, it cost them the services of veteran blueliner Robyn Regehr, whose trade to Buffalo also rid the Flames of Ales Kotalik’s anchor of a contract so they could re-sign forward Alex Tanguay.

Most importantly, moving Regehr finally gave the Flames some much-needed salary cap relief in anticipation of the July 1 free-agent frenzy. Currently, the team has 18 one-way deals, plus Mikael Backlund’s entry-level pact, and roughly US$7.5 million of salary cap space.

It’s certainly not the allowance to try poaching restricted free agent Steven Stamkos from the Tampa Bay Lightning or chase pending unrestricted centre Brad Richards of the Dallas Stars, but it’s at least enough flexibility to try addressing some needs and — just as importantly — give some of the club’s young hopefuls a chance to make the NHL roster.

With a the July 1 deadline fast approaching, the Flames are in an OK spot. It would be better if they didn’t have a couple of those US$3-million per season deals with the likes of Matt Stajan and Niklas Hagman clogging up their forward ranks, but they have the opportunity to fill out their roster with legitimate NHL talent.

The biggest hole is on the blueline.

As it stands, the Flames have four legitimate NHLers under contract in Jay Bouwmeester, Mark Giordano, Cory Sarich and Brett Carson.

They’ve made qualifying offers to a couple of restricted free agents in Chris Butler — the key return in the Regehr trade, so bank on him being with the team when the season kicks off — and Brendan Mikkelson.

From there, we have a few wildcards in the mix.

Mikkelson will likely be in the same boat as a trio of youngsters by the time camp rolls around, with training camp deciding his fate. T.J. Brodie, who made the team out of training camp a year ago, should take a step forward this coming season, which could mean a full-time NHL gig. Chris Breen was a pleasant surprise last year, and the longshot has begun to state a case. John Negrin is also a longshot and must remain healthy after two injury filled seasons during which he had three knee surgeries.

Even with all those players, the Flames have to be searching for a top-four defenceman, either by trade or free agency.

The most obvious is Anton Babchuk, although you can debate whether the pending UFA who netted eight goals and 27 points in 65 games for the Flames last season, belongs in the top four.

Babchuk will un-doubtedly be looking for a raise from the $1.4 million he made last season.

What will be available to the Flames on Canada Day may not be any better. Joni Pitkanen’s deal with Carolina — three years, $13.5 million — has put more inflationary pressure on the few top-four defencemen out there.

Christian Ehrhoff, Tomas Kaberle and James Wisniewski are also potentially staring at deals the Flames may not be able to dole out.

There are several veteran defencemen who will available, although the term they may look for could kibosh any thoughts. It’s a list that includes Ed Jovanovski, Bryan McCabe, Roman Hamrlik and Scott Hannan.

The Flames, with a need to think long-term, would be better served looking players such as Andy Greene from New Jersey or Jonathan Ericsson of Detroit.

Up front, the Flames don’t have much to think about in a thin free-agent market.

Thanks to the remaining handcuff of salaries such as Hagman and Stajan, the Flames might be looking for a roleplayer with upside — someone like Joel Ward — to bolster their ranks.

Of course, sending someone to the minors and burying a few more million could make them contenders for the rare big fish.


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