Sharks

NHL free-agency review: How Calgary Flames stack up in Pacific Division

NHL free-agency review: How Calgary Flames stack up in Pacific Division

Editor’s note: NHL free agency was fast and furious, and the moves that teams did (and did not) make set the tone for next season. All week, we’ll examine the Sharks’ Pacific Division rivals, and whether their free-agency approach put them in better, worse or the same position. Today, we dive into the Calgary Flames.

When it came to competing for bragging rights in the Western Conference last season, the Sharks and the Flames were neck-and-neck. The season series between the two squads was packed with intense games, some bad blood, and one particular hit that sent fans from both sides into a frenzy.

Then Calgary got the boot early in the playoffs by the Avalanche and that regular-season race became forgotten.

But make no mistake, the Flames aren't going to lose their status as a playoff contender anytime in the near future. While they weren't the loudest team on the first day of free agency -- like the Sharks, they have players they want to sign and not a lot of cap room to work with -- they still made some moves. Here's a look at how Calgary did in the opening of free agency.

Players who signed

Calgary made additions to all parts of its lineup when the market opened up, signing center Byron Froese, defenseman Brandon Davidson, and goaltender Cam Talbot. Sharks' fans are probably the most familiar with Talbot, who started for the Edmonton Oilers for a few seasons before being traded last year to the Philadelphia Flyers. Talbot is also, frankly, the most interesting pickup Calgary made.

The Flames got a big boost last season when David Rittich took over starting goaltender duties for Mike Smith, who was incredibly streaky during the regular season -- although Smith did come up big for Calgary when Rittich was sidelined with a lower-body injury. Talbot saw a dip in his numbers last season, but the Flames have expressed they think he'll have a bounce-back season with them.

With Smith not returning to Calgary next season and Rittich -- a restricted free-agent -- still not signed to a contract yet, one has to wonder whether Talbot was acquired as a backup or to compete right out of the gate for the starting job. 

Players who left

In addition to Smith heading to Talbot's old stomping grounds in Edmonton, free agency also brought about the departures of Garnet Hathaway, Curtis Lazar, Oscar Fantenberg, and Dalton Prout -- who, of course, was signed by the Sharks a couple of days after the market opened.

Outside of Hathaway's five game-winning goals -- tied for second-best on the team -- and the grit he brought to the ice, the Flames didn't lose anyone who was a significant contributor. The losses do, however, cut a bit into Calgary's depth. Since they only have $9,473,292 in cap space according to CapFriendly, it would appear the Flames are looking to find depth from within the organization as opposed to going out and signing a free agent.

[RELATED: Sharks might have to trade these players to free cap space]

Better, worse, or the same?

The Flames really haven't come out better or worse after the start of free agency, since the core of their team is still intact. The only major question mark is in goal, and how things pan out between Rittich and Talbot.

The real challenge for the Flames is going to be getting Rittich, Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk signed to deals before the end of the summer with the limited money they have to work with. Without those players, Calgary's depth takes a hit and the grit they've exuded against the Sharks over the last couple of seasons diminishes.

Sharks' biggest threats to winning Stanley Cup: Emerging competitors

Sharks' biggest threats to winning Stanley Cup: Emerging competitors

Editor's Note: Now that the Blues and Capitals have gotten off the Stanley Cup schneid, there's arguably no NHL franchise more "due" to win a Cup than the Sharks. This week, NBC Sports California will examine the five biggest threats to San Jose's championship aspirations in the relatively near future. We conclude with the emerging competition around the league.

Since the start of the 1997-98 season, the Sharks have missed the playoffs a whopping total of two times. 

That's a lot of postseason games. And yet, San Jose has never ended up on top. Moving forward, the greatest threat to the Sharks' ability to win their first Stanley Cup in the not-too-distant future will be the same one that has gotten in the way in all previous seasons in franchise history: the rest of the NHL.

There are currently 31 teams in the league. A 32nd -- the unnamed Seattle expansion franchise -- will join in 2021-22. The Sharks won't have to go through each and every one of them to raise the Cup, but there's more than enough to ruin their dreams.

Let's start small and look solely at the Pacific Division. San Jose has yet to win a division title under the new conference format, with last season's second-place finish in the Pacific being their best yet. The Flames improved by 23 points over the previous season to win the division title, and they're not going to fall off anytime soon.

Neither is the Sharks' newest major rival -- the Vegas Golden Knights. In two seasons in the league, they've given San Jose fits. The two sides are now at one postseason series apiece, but it wouldn't shock anyone if there were several more in the coming years.

Those three were the only Pacific teams to qualify for the playoffs last season, but the ones that didn't won't be down for long. The Coyotes are loaded with promising young players, the Canucks and Ducks are in the process of retooling, the Kings have nowhere to go but up and the Oilers have the best player in the NHL.

When Seattle joins the Pacific in 2020, San Jose better pray it doesn't hit the ground running like Vegas did in its expansion season.

Now let's move to the other division in the Western Conference. The Blues just defeated the Sharks on their way to winning the Cup, and they finished third in the Central Division. The Predators and Jets have some of the deepest rosters in the NHL, the Stars just added Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry, and the Avalanche have an abundance of young talent and cap space to continue their ascension. The Blackhawks just added another top-three draft pick, and while the Wild might not be headed in the right direction, a turnaround isn't out of the question.

That's just the West.

In the East, there's the record-setting Lightning, the always-formidable Bruins, Auston Matthews' Maple Leafs, Sidney Crosby's Penguins, the threatening Capitals and a bunch of teams poised to take a major leap in the coming years.

There's been formidable competition for the Sharks every season they've been in the NHL. It's not anything new, and is the main reason why they are one of 11 franchises yet to win a Stanley Cup. Of those 11, only the Canucks and Sabres have appeared in more playoff games than the Sharks in their respective franchise histories, and both Vancouver and Buffalo entered the league 21 seasons before San Jose did.

The Sharks can prepare for the upcoming expansion draft. They can hold out hope there won't be another lockout, use financial creativity to create more salary cap space and balance the roster with younger players to offset the aging core. All of that is within their control. 

[RELATED: Why salary cap issues are threat to Sharks' Cup hopes]

The 30 other NHL teams -- soon to be 31 -- most definitely are not.

The greatest threat to the Sharks' ability to win a Stanley Cup in the relatively near future is the same one they've yet to prove they can overcome.

Sharks' biggest threats to winning Stanley Cup: Aging core of roster

Sharks' biggest threats to winning Stanley Cup: Aging core of roster

Editor's Note: Now that the Blues and Capitals have gotten off the Stanley Cup schneid, there's arguably no NHL franchise more "due" to win a Cup than the Sharks. This week, NBC Sports California will examine the five biggest threats to San Jose's championship aspirations in the relatively near future. We continue with the aging roster.

Father Time comes for us all. Sooner or later, it's going to come for the Sharks.

It's not as if the concept of aging only applies to San Jose. Obviously, that's not the case. But one could make the case the Sharks are running out of time much quicker than most other NHL teams.

Simply put, San Jose's best players, on average, are older than their counterparts. Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Logan Couture are already in their thirties. Martin Jones and Erik Karlsson will join them next January and May, respectively. Evander Kane just turned 28, currently in the thick of his prime.

Then there's the matter of Joe Thornton. He's not technically under contract, but his pending return to the Sharks is the worst-kept secret in hockey. He's 40, with a couple of fairly recent serious knee injuries.

Other than Thornton, all of the aforementioned players are signed for at least the next five seasons. At that point, one can assume they'll all be on the downside of their careers, at best.

Once that core departs, who are the Sharks? What is their identity? Right now, it's too soon to know.

Now, it's not like all of San Jose's top players are dinosaurs. Tomas Hertl is 25. Kevin Labanc is 23. Timo Meier has the look of a prototypical power forward at the ripe age of 22. One would imagine those three will form a considerable portion of the Sharks' core for years to come. And, there are several promising young prospects like Mario Ferraro and Ryan Merkley blossoming in the lower levels.

Still, it's worth noting that Labanc is due to become a restricted free agent at the end of the coming season. Given San Jose's salary constraints, the Sharks run the risk of losing him if he plays well and is rewarded with a considerable offer. The point being: We know who the Sharks are now, but the future -- even just a handful of years down the line -- is a big mystery.

As such, San Jose's aging roster is one of the greatest threats to its ability to win a Stanley Cup in the near future.

[RELATED: Why 2021 expansion draft is threat to Sharks' Cup hopes]

Look around the Western Conference. Teams like the Oilers, Coyotes, Blackhawks and Avalanche haven't made much noise in recent years, but they should all be on the upswing with rosters littered with recent high draft picks. Across the league, young players like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews have taken over the reins, and you can fully expect their teams to be contending for many years to come.

The Sharks don't have that future certainty. The present is what they can bank on, and if they don't win a Cup with this core, there's no telling how long they might have to wait.