The person at the center of the NHL’s 2024 trade deadline will likely be Calgary Flames general manager Craig Conroy, who sits across from me in his office at the Scotiabank Saddledome and philosophizes. Conroy’s Flames have the top three players on almost every one of his NHL trade boards, including ours. The trio of center Elias Lindholm and defensemen Chris Tanev and Noah Hanifin are all pending unrestricted free agents, and all are on team-friendly contracts, making the NHL’s trade deadline three years away. Every day we are bombarded with rumors and speculation about what will happen in the days leading up to May 8th.
Last summer, Conroy took over as Flames GM from Brad Treliving, who left the organization and eventually became GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Organizationally, then and now, the Flames were at a crossroads. The team missed the playoffs last season after a 111-point season the previous year. It’s hard to know what they really are: a good team that had a bad year, or a bad team that had a good year not so long ago. It’s been an on-again, off-again pattern for them for a while now, but even in their on-again years, they haven’t had any success in the playoffs.
Now, in the second week of January, the situation in the Western Conference standings is looking grim, even though the Flames have been doing better so far. Three teams fell completely off the map from last place: Anaheim, San Jose, and Chicago. The top three teams in both divisions have created a nice cushion for themselves. Edmonton is on the rise, and it’s hard to imagine the Oilers not being able to capture at least one of the two wild card spots. This leaves the Central six teams chasing one playoff spot, and as of this morning, the Flames were in fifth place among those six teams.
That means they have plenty of teams they can leapfrog for a spot in the playoffs, even if the difference is just a few points. That’s why they can, and likely will, perform before this year’s deadline. How does Conroy see things unfolding? I’m glad you asked. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
How do you feel about so many players topping every trade board? It recognizes your reality, but at the same time focuses on you and your organization.
know. We are in the Canadian market. The situation we’re in — we’re not that far from the wild card, but he has four teams in front of us. So I can understand why people are talking about it. For me, I’m more concerned about the players because when I was a player, before I was traded to Calgary, when I was in St. Louis, I heard different things. People love trading. People like the idea of trading. The problem is that trades involve people, including the player, his wife and children. When I was playing, your name might be in the newspapers, but it wasn’t like it is today. Today, thanks to social media, everyone has an idea of what to do, and it’s everywhere. We understand that it contributes to the growth of the sport. It’s understandable why people take time off at the trade deadline. Because it’s fun. But on the hockey side, it’s a little more nerve-wracking and worrying for the players. I don’t like forcing it on them.
Your job as a manager is to balance short-term and long-term goals, but that’s not the world we live in. Many people want things to change and improve immediately. Some people believe in going scorched earth and starting over, but that can be long and painful, and it doesn’t always lead to success. Where do you stand from both a short-term and long-term perspective?
I know there are people who believe in a complete rebuild. Personally, I think you are competitive and want your team to win. Therefore, there is a balance between short term and long term. You never know what you will get from a particular asset you own or what will happen in the future. Or maybe someone here wants to re-sign with you. All that stuff is still there. So you’re looking at your team, but who will be on the top line? What positions are being filled? Who is coming to the system? What will this team look like in two years, three years? And who will be here long-term and who will stay here short-term? Having Mikael Backlund as our captain, I think it was a big bonus for us. it helps everyone.
But it’s a bit of a juggling act. We want to be competitive. you want to be successful. We want to get young players, but we also want to put them in an environment with veteran players who can teach them how the NHL works. Because (Connor) Zalies, (Martin) Pospisils, Dustin Wolfs are going to have their ups and downs.
I understand the philosophy of “I want to win every night.” The only problem is, you don’t get Connor Bedard that way. I can’t get Leo Carlson…
No, it’s not.
So perhaps part of your long-term planning includes recognizing that you probably won’t get your core players because you likely won’t pick first, second, or third overall in the draft. Masu. This is really, really bad.
That’s true. Unless you win the lottery, you have to be a really, really bad person. And now you can’t go that high. There are various ways. One way is to go to the bottom and try to rebuild it. They got the No. 4 overall pick and two No. 6 picks, (Sean) Monahan, (Sam) Bennett, and (Matthew) Tkachuk, and they did well. They were all very good players. But that’s over now.
No matter where you choose, you have to make the best choice you can. Being at the bottom is very painful. And one thing you don’t want to do is never want to accept defeat. Because you can’t say to your team, “Come on, let’s get better and win” when you’re used to losing. . For me, it doesn’t work.
Is patience difficult?
I have an idea of what I want to get from each man. An idea of what the return should be. You want fair value. I think on social media, people want every deal to be a home run. But if the two teams can work out a fair deal that helps both teams, that’s a win. As a new GM, I think they’re going to test you. We have patient ownership and I have experienced people around me like Don Maloney and Dave Nonis. I’m probably a little more impatient and want things done faster. But you also want to make sure it’s the right deal. I’m not going to do something just for the sake of it. That doesn’t make sense. But it’s a learning experience. I ask Don a lot of questions. How much should I call? how often? Am I bothering people by calling too much? Should I sit down a little longer? And I’m learning as I go.
One of the comments you made was that you can’t let a pending unrestricted free agent leave an organization without getting assets back. I specifically mentioned Johnny Gaudreau, who was in contract negotiations with the team through the (2022) deadline, but the negotiations were not completed.
Your team currently has seven potential unrestricted free agents, but three are getting the most attention. Do you still stick to that philosophy? Because a lot of people thought you might have cornered yourself with that comment. And now that comment is making you feel pressured to follow through?
No matter what happened, the pressure was always on. The first week I took the job, every day there was something, some rumor going around about our team. It would be best not to do so, as it will add fuel to the fire. But ultimately, I still believe that assets cannot be left alone. The difficult thing is, if we were the first in the West, it might be more difficult to do it. But my mindset has always been that you have to make sure you get your assets back. The question is, what is the value in the end? If you think back to when we traded Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester, I think we got about 87 games of NHL service time from all the pieces we got in return.
Obviously not enough. So, what is the current situation?
Things are always in motion. But inflows and outflows have become very important these days, and the cap is what it has been for the past three years. Most players were signed before the coronavirus outbreak, so while the amount is still going up, the cap is flat. So there’s not a lot of room for adjustment for our team and for many other teams. There are some teams that have a lot of space. But what about the rest of us? There aren’t that many. That said, the most difficult part of any transaction is money. Is money coming in or going out? Usually yes. And there are ways to keep it that way. He only has 3 slots.
Life would be a lot simpler if there was no cap and you just traded players and picks. In the old days, Detroit, Toronto and New York could spend as much as they wanted. Now, with everyone being so tight on the cap, sure there are deals you want to make, but you can’t make it work unless you have to bring back certain players you don’t really want — And you think: That doesn’t make sense. ”
I know people who trade in fantasy sports, they can just make a trade and move on. For us, we’re dealing with real people in real situations. We want to build a foundation to move forward, but it’s difficult. Some teams do not have draft picks because they acquired them the previous year. It was difficult to get a first-round pick in last year’s draft. We all know how valuable picks are.
What have you learned in the six months since you’ve been on that job that you might not have noticed before? Or have you been working in an NHL front office so long that you didn’t notice anything?
The most important thing is to supervise everything, that is, to have a hand in everything. I’m being pulled in a lot of different directions, like hockey and the outdoors. Therefore, you may not be able to sleep much at night, thinking about everything that is happening at once and thinking about how to build a team. That’s the most important thing. How can we better ourselves?
People weren’t very happy with me when I traded for Tyler Toffoli, and I get that. Toffoli had a great year here, scoring 34 goals. And probably did not know who Egor Sharangovich was. And for me, our pick, Aidar Sneev, is a player that I really liked in Penticton and is off to a good start this year at the University of Massachusetts. When we signed the deal, we knew people weren’t going to get too excited. But even if I get younger and start building the team the way I want, I can’t keep having the same team back all the way. So I understand that. It’s difficult to find players. We would like to continue to increase the number of stable young players.
Another objective was to get younger players into the lineup. Being able to get Pospisil, Zari, a little bit of Wolf, a little bit of Soloviev was part of the plan, and that was important to me as well. Because we have these players in the minors and we always wanted to see them, but we had to leave a little room and opportunity for them. It’s fun to see them come up and be successful. You can draft a million players, but if you don’t give them a chance, you’ll never know what you have.
You probably made one of the most impactful trades of the first half of the year when you sent Nikita Zadorov to Vancouver for a third-and-5 pick, but this is probably the most important trade in a tight trade market for most of us. Seems like a better value than I originally thought.
But I understand the (negative) reaction. He’s a big man who skates well and scored 14 goals last year. But that may be something people don’t understand. we are talking to everyone. I think the question was for 2 seconds. It wasn’t there. What I thought about was how I could get ahead of the curve and secure the money. We were able to do that and get two picks, so now we’re moving forward. That was the idea behind it.
So what does that process look like when you have assets that could potentially be moved? What’s happening now?
The team calls. you speak what are you doing? what are you thinking? My goal is to be open. I just want to make the team better. Obviously, with everything that’s in the media, they might call out what they read or hear to see if it’s true. And we end up having a private conversation. But many touch base to know where you are. By being able to see where people are placed on the leaderboard, everyone has a clearer idea of what they want to do. They give me a vision for their team and I give them a vision for our team.
(Top photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)