Craig Conroy 1-on-1: On Calgary Flames’ uncertainty, a crowded crease and his vision as GM

PENTICTON, B.C. – Taking over after a season of underperformance and significant internal upheaval, first-year Calgary Flames general manager Craig Conroy has a lot on his plate.

His club has three good goaltenders, three key pending unrestricted free agents who remain unsigned and an aging team that failed to make the playoffs — largely because of lacklustre performance in overtime contests.

During a wide-ranging one-on-one conversation with Conroy at the Penticton Young Stars tournament, the Flames general manager discussed his club’s posture, his goaltending situation and how his long-term vision for the franchise fits within the reality of his club’s situation going into this crucial campaign.

This interview is part of a series of one-on-one interviews The Athletic conducted at the Penticton Young Stars tournaments with the general managers in attendance. It has been edited for length and readability.

There’s some local buzz in Vancouver about Sam Honzek being tried at centre with the Vancouver Giants. He’s playing wing at this tournament, but is that something that excites you?

It’s funny because when I walked in the first time to look at the lineups ahead of the tournament, Ryan Huska had put him down at centre for the first day at training camp.

And I said, “You know what? I think he’s played centre, but not in a while. Let’s put him on wing where he’ll be more comfortable to start.”

Ryan told me that watching him on video he looks like he could play centre. So it’s interesting that Vancouver is considering the same things. You can see it with the hands, the way he skates, his size.

We’re always looking for people that can play centre, it’s a hard position to find. When I was at the Hlinka tournament and I went out for lunch with Sam, I asked him about it “Where are you most comfortable?” He told me it was on the wing right now, but said that he’d be open to playing centre. So maybe that’s the conversation he had with Vancouver too.

It’s definitely intriguing that they might try him there, and if they do try him there, I’ll be curious to see how he does.

With a player like Matthew Coronato who is playing at this tournament, or a player like Jakob Pelletier who was here last year, is there going to be more opportunity in your lineup for some of these young players to break through this upcoming season?

Usually we bring in a lot of PTOs, or sign a couple of veteran guys, and I wouldn’t want to say we block our young players, but with veteran players they get extra games in exhibition and it can be tough for younger guys.

I do feel like there’s opportunity and positions on the team for someone to step up.

Now are we going to give someone a job? No. They’ll have to earn it.

A guy like Pelletier, though, he’s done a really good job. We really believe that he’s going to be on the team, and in my mind, he’d have to have a really poor camp not to be.

We do want to give these young guys a chance. We’ll give them a lot of exhibition games. And we’ll go from there.

Is that something your team could use after last season? Perhaps some change or some of the youthful exuberance, if you want to call it that, that young players can bring?

You talk to the older guys after the season, and one thing they mentioned was the excitement that a young guy like Pelletier brought.

I remember when I was young, I was excited when I first got up there too. Now as you see young guys come into the league, wins and losses are important, but younger guys, sometimes they’re just excited to be in the NHL. They bring that energy and I think everybody feeds off that.

How do you view your role in this? You come in after a season in which so many things broke against your team. How do you pick up the pieces and get this back on track?

The one thing I’m trying to say is: We believe in you guys. You need to believe in yourself, but we believe in you.

It was close last year, but there were a lot of games and a lot of times where we faltered and didn’t get it done. You talk to a lot of guys and to a man, none of them would say “I had a good season.” All of them were disappointed. All of them put a lot of pressure on themselves and took a lot of blame.

That’s good. When I talked to our players during the summer, they were focused. They were on the ice early. They would say “I’m going to show you, Craig, you have not seen the best of me.”

That’s what Jonathan Huberdeau told me. “You haven’t seen the best of me, Craig. Not even close. I’m going to show you.”

Last season is behind us. We’re looking forward. Ryan Huska is new, I’m new in this position.

We’re trying to build something here, but we can’t build this culture without you guys (the players). We’re all in this together and we need to start out fresh right from training camp.

You were a guy that had a long career and had some years where you’d have 75 points and then went down to 49 and back up into the mid-60s. Are you able to lean on that experience in creating a plan to support a player like Huberdeau to have a bounce-back season?

For sure, and we want to put him in a position to succeed with people that can help him succeed.

We want to show that belief in him early. Even when you’re struggling and sometimes he didn’t play much last season at times, but you can’t do anything from the bench.

We’re going to try and put him in positions where he has success, and then he gets that confidence going, he’ll know we had his back. If he wants to bounce things off me, I’ve definitely had big seasons and then maybe taken a step back and then bounced back again. It isn’t easy.

I also get it. A Canadian market is a little bit different than playing in Florida, where there’s not that attention day in and day out. I think him having been with us one whole year, knowing what it’s all about. He’s very focused, he’s very ready.

Not to put pressure on him, but if he just plays his game he’s going to be fine.

You’ve got the three guys, all pending UFA. You’ll answer a million questions about them and it’s going to soak up a fair bit of your time this season. I’m talking, of course, about Noah Hanifin, Mikael Backlund and Elias Lindholm.

How do you balance as a first-year general manager the uncertainty that creates with your desire to put your stamp on a future course for this organization?

When you are in a position to be an unrestricted free agent, and I went through this myself, you just want to see — and I think after last year, and some of them said this in the media — that you want to see where the team is going. How it’s going to look.

They do know me and they do know Ryan, but these players earn unrestricted free agency. So I want to show them that we’re different here, that we’re all in this together, and that I think once they get back to Calgary and we get going, and I get a chance to sit down with them — which I haven’t been able to do that yet face to face, we’ve only been able to talk over the phone — but as we do that and move forward we’ll have a better feel for how it’s going to play out.

What went into the decision to return largely the same group, minus Tyler Toffoli of course, and take a relatively conservative or patient path through this offseason?

You’re looking at all your options. The one thing that’s tough right now, and you didn’t very much of it, is making big trades and making big moves in the summer.

That’s what happens when the cap only went up $1 million you look at all of the teams that are tight, it makes it tough. A lot of teams can’t do big deals financially …

Now that we’re getting closer to the season, we’ll see how things go at training camp, so there could be more things that happen. Teams weren’t in a rush to make a bunch of trades this summer.

As for me, I really like these players. They’re very good players and they have no issue coming back to Calgary and being a Calgary Flame this year. I also understand, as I said in my first press conference, it’s asset management. We can’t let good players leave for nothing, but we also need to do things that make sense for our organization.

Jacob Markstrom. Dan Vladar. Dustin Wolf. It’s not really a secret that there’s a lot of bodies in that crease. They’re all good players, so perhaps it’s a good problem to have, but is that a situation you’d prefer to sort out prior to the season?

I’m not too worried about sorting it out before the start of the season.

The thing is, I want Wolf to play games. Talking to Jacob, he wants to play every game. Vladdy too, he wants to play a lot.

To have three goalies of that calibre, it’s one area when I go to bed at night I don’t really worry about it. Now, knock on wood, I probably shouldn’t say that, but I feel very comfortable.

I feel good that we have three guys that if they’re in the net, we have a good chance of winning that night.

When I think about watching you as a player, Craig, the attribute that most stands out in my memory is your vision. What’s your vision for what you want this team to be long-term?

I think with some of the uncertainty, I have an idea of what it’ll look like in five years, but right now I have to see how it plays out. I really do. I have to see where everyone is at. And even how we start.

What’s this team going to look like? We had a down year and I expect we’ll bounce back, but until we start playing games and see where the on-ice product is, there’s a bit of wait and see.

I believe in the guys here. They believe in themselves. They’re excited they’re back and I felt a really good energy at the golf tournament. Just to see this team finally interact together.

Now I want to see them on a day-to-day basis at the rink, and that’ll provide me with a fuller picture of what we’re going to do moving forward two or three or four years down the line.

(Photo of Jacob Markstrom, Dustin Wolf and Noah Hanifin: Christopher Mast / NHLI via Getty Images)

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