Flames present a perplexing team-building puzzle for new GM Craig Conroy

New GM Craig Conroy will have the unenviable task of taking over a Calgary Flames team without a clear direction.

By naming Craig Conroy their general manager, the Calgary Flames have taken a step towards establishing a new direction for the franchise.

It's impossible to know how effective he'll be in that role, but one thing's clear: he doesn't have an easy job on his hands.

The Flames possess a win-now roster that just missed the playoffs. Their prospect pool doesn't rank particularly highly, and Calgary projects to have just $1.25 million in cap space for 2023-24.

All of that seems to point to a relatively inactive offseason ahead. There's not much flexibility for this team and young impact players don't appear to be on the horizon. The guys they stands to lose in free agency are role players like Trevor Lewis, Nick Ritchie, and Troy Stecher.

You could make a case for running this back with a new coach and hoping the firing of the unpopular Darryl Sutter energizes this group. After all, the Flames were one of the best 5-on-5 possession teams in the NHL last year, and a bounce-back campaign from a goaltending group — led by Jacob Markstrom — that posted an .893 save percentage in 2022-23 could be enough to fuel a significant turnaround.

Another issue is that much of this team is hurtling towards free agency. The Flames have seven players who will hit the open market after next season — including two-thirds of their top line and their top two left-shot defencemen. After losing Johnny Gaudreau as a free agent last offseason, Calgary is wary of letting anyone walk for nothing.

"I think it was a learning thing for me. I was hoping Johnny was going to come back, I thought Johnny was going to come back, but I don't think I'd let that happen again," Conroy said in his introductory press conference. "When he didn't it was disappointing. It was right down to the last minute, but then when you think 'uh-oh you just lost an asset, one of your best players of all time and you didn't get anything for him' that was a real eye-opener for me."

If Conroy is reluctant to ride into the season with any impending free agents he doesn't feel willing or able to retain, players like Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin, and Tyler Toffoli could become available via trade — and generate plenty of interest.

Because of this potential wave of free agents, the Flames have plenty of cap space starting in 2024-25 and beyond to get some extensions signed, but it takes two to tango. Conroy is about to find out who wants to be a Flame, and those who don't could be a part of his first major transactions.

As the new GM weighs possible extensions and trades, he'll be working around some less-than-ideal contracts already on the books.

The team has three contracts through at least 2028-29: Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri, and Mackenzie Weegar.

Craig Conroy will have little choice but to build the Calgary Flames around Jonathan Huberdeau. (Getty)
Craig Conroy will have little choice but to build the Calgary Flames around Jonathan Huberdeau. (Getty)

Weegar is fine, but Kadri turns 33 in October and didn't come close to equalling his magical 2021-22 campaign last year. Huberdeau has the 10th-highest cap hit in the NHL and he just put up his worst points/game total since he was 21 (0.70), which was less than half of his 2021-22 production (1.44).

Markstrom is also making $6 million per year through 2025-26 and coming off a rough season that saw him rack up minus-18.4 GSAA. He was excellent as recently as 2021-22, but it's possible his contract will be an issue for the Flames.

The only below-market deal Calgary has that extends beyond 2023-24 belongs to Rasmus Andersson ($4.55 million), who led the team in ice time per game during the season (24:05).

In summary, Conroy has taken the reigns of a team that doesn't project to be either a contender or cellar-dweller in the near future that's right up against the cap. He has a whole cohort of key contributors that need to be extended, some of whom he may find himself trading in the offseason. Most of the players he has locked down are on deals that looked overpriced.

There also don't appear to be any prospects on the precipice of making a significant impact the NHL level, though Matt Coronado might have something to say about that.

While that's not an impossible situation for Coronado to step into, it's far from an enviable one.