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Gaudreau, Tkachuk headline offseason of Flames free agent questions

Gaudreau, Tkachuk headline offseason of Flames free agent conundrums

CALGARY, AB - MARCH 31: Calgary Flames Defenceman Oliver Kylington (58), Calgary Flames Left Wing Johnny Gaudreau (13) and Calgary Flames Right Wing Matthew Tkachuk (19) line up for a face-off during the first period of an NHL game where the Calgary Flames hosted the Los Angeles Kings on March 31, 2022, at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary, AB. (Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Right now, the Calgary Flames are picking up the pieces after stunningly losing “The Battle of Alberta.” For players such as Chris Tanev, undergoing surgeries may make it feel like they’re literally getting pieces put back together.

Speaking of going under the knife, the Flames will likely require surgical precision to overcome the free agent/salary cap challenges they face this offseason.

Naturally, Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk present the Flames with their biggest, riskiest procedures. Yet, you’ll see the list of questions goes beyond them.

[McDavid clinches series for Oilers in OT after controversial disallowed goal]

For the sake of simplicity, we’ll stick to the roster. That said, it’s worth noting that GM Brad Treliving’s been around a long time. And you at least have to ask if 63-year-old head coach Darryl Sutter returns after being plucked from his tractor-heavy retirement to save the day.

After a bountiful harvest of a regular season, the Flames suffered this playoff disappointment. To have another great chance at a deep run, they have their work cut out for them this offseason. Let’s roll up our sleeves and dive into the many questions.

Gaudreau, Tkachuk, and other big Flames free agent questions this offseason

According to Cap Friendly, the Flames are projected to have almost $27 million in cap space this free agent summer. That space is misleading, though, as it would only account for 12 roster spots being filled.

Even if the Flames fill some spots with cheap, young players, they need to make crucial, potentially franchise-altering decisions.

Johnny Gaudreau: stay or go?

Want a snapshot of how Johnny Gaudreau makes the Flames offense go? You could do worse than his Game 7 overtime-clincher against the Stars.

It’s not just that Gaudreau finally broke through against a keyed-in Jake Oettinger. It’s that, before that, he also set up Elias Lindholm with a Grade-A opportunity:

For six seasons, Gaudreau’s been wildly underpaid at a $6.75 million cap hit. By the Athletic’s model, Gaudreau presented a whopping $16.3 million in “market value.”

Gaudreau won’t get that, and isn’t likely to set a new high mark compared to Connor McDavid’s market-diluting $12.5M. But either the Flames or someone else will ensure that Gaudreau gets paid.

[Probably wise not to use the incomparable Connor McDavid as a comparable]

Evolving Hockey’s great contract projection tool spits out a seven-year projection at a $10.87M cap hit. On average, it projects a six-year pact as likely, and some projections slip it down to $10.6M. Those projections fall in line with those from Flames Nation and Sportsnet, as well.

While steep, those costs line up with Gaudreau’s value. He really probably is worth more.

Yet, in the near-certain case of it being a long-term deal, you must also ask how long Gaudreau will be worth top dollar. Gaudreau is 28, and turns 29 on Aug. 13.

Painfully, the Flames may determine that this franchise has gone as far as it can with Gaudreau, and let him walk in free agency. If they keep him, that would squeeze others, possibly his partner in crime ...

Matthew Tkachuk: An RFA with a lot of leverage

The “restricted” part of restricted free agency is often on the money. Most RFAs lack leverage to land deals at maximum value.

Maybe Matthew Tkachuk will experience some of that squeeze, yet for the most part, he has a ton of leverage. He’s not far from UFA status, and his qualifying offer would be a hefty $9M.

So, there’s not much of a question: Matthew Tkachuk will get a raise in 2022-23. It’s instead a question of who will do the paying, and for how long.

The Flames could decide to buy themselves time by signing Tkachuk to that $9M qualifying offer. From there, they could sign a future deal after getting some clarity, or trade Tkachuk at the 2023 deadline. The extreme option would be to trade Tkachuk’s rights during this offseason.

Evolving Hockey’s projections present a few possibilities. On average, their model projects a six or seven-year deal (technically, “6.3") with an average of $10.45M. Yet the front-and-center projection would be eight years, $11.27M.

At 24, Tkachuk carries fewer long-term risks than Gaudreau. What if the Flames believe Gaudreau is more essential to their success than Tkachuk, though? There’s ample room for things to get messy.

Should the Flames keep one, both, or neither of Gaudreau and Tkachuk? If the answer is “both,” the Flames might as well assume that the price tag would be around $20M. As a reminder: their current projected salary cap space is about $27M.

Kylington, Mangiapane, other Flames free agents of note

Again, Tkachuk and Gaudreau are the Flames’ biggest free agent puzzles, but there are other pieces to consider.

  • After years of being a hidden gem, 25-year-old forward Andrew Mangiapane blew away his previous career-best totals, collecting 35 goals and 55 points. While he’s an RFA, he’s not far from UFA status, and has arbitration rights.
  • After bouncing between the AHL and NHL for years, Oliver Kylington blossomed with a 31-point breakthrough season. Really, the Flames may want to try to sign Kylington to a long-term contract as a hidden gem. Maybe the franchise isn’t so convinced that he’s such a find, though.
  • There are quite a few UFA forwards (Calle Jarnkrok, Trevor Lewis, Brett Ritchie) and defensemen (Nikita Zadorov, Erik Gudbranson, and Michael Stone). Obviously, some will need to go. However, an old-school coach like Sutter might not be pleased with losing both Zadorov and Gudbranson.

Some room to trade away/LTIR some space?

If you went by Evolving Hockey’s contract projections for Tkachuk, Gaudreau, Kylington, and Mangiapane, they’d cost the Flames $31.245M.

Screen Shot 2022-05-27 at 12.07.32 PM

Obviously, those projections aren’t gospel. Players take discounts to stick with teams. Teams sometimes exploit every bit of RFA leverage they can to drive prices down.

But it sure seems like the Flames may need to get creative. There’s some interesting room to do so, too.

  • Could Sean Monahan and his $6.375M cap hit go to LTIR? He’s had serious hip issues. If not, he has a 10-team no-trade clause ... but maybe he’d be amenable to a chance at a featured role with, say, a Coyotes rebuilding team that will take bribes for iffy contracts?
  • Yes, it’s true that buying out Milan Lucic would be virtually pointless. It’s intriguing how feasible a trade could be, though. While Lucic carries a painful $5.25M cap hit after small retention from the James Neal trade, his payouts are much smaller in 2022-23. Lucic carries a $3M salary bonus and $1M in salary (pre-retention) next season. Lucic’s contract could be gold to a rebuilding team, particularly if the Flames paid that salary bonus before a trade. Of course, Lucic has his own trade clause, and that could create a snag even after he was a good sport by waiving his NTC for the expansion draft.
  • The most painful idea might be to trade valuable, if aging, forward Mikael Backlund. It’s worth asking because the 33-year-old carries a $5.35M cap hit through 2023-24. Keeping with an uncomfortable theme, Backlund has a NTC. That said, a contender would almost certainly be more interested in trading for Backlund than these other players. Such an omission would sting Calgary, however.

That list features a lot of money, no-trade clauses, and at least some hope for wiggle room.

Move a pick and/or a prospect?

As far as bribes go, the Flames already lack their first, third, fourth, and sixth-rounders for the 2022 NHL Draft. There are other scattered missing picks, including their 2023 third-rounder.

However, they have next year’s first and second-rounders. If the Flames believe they can contend, and they can find a trade partner (plus a player or two willing to waive clauses), then it would probably be worth burning those assets.

Speaking of futures, for all the Flames wheeling and dealing, they didn’t trade away top prospects. While not a top prospect pool, the Flames’ farm earned semi-recent rankings between 16th and 18th.

Prospects such as Connor Zary and Jakob Pelletier could either step into roles, or be traded as sweeteners to get the Flames out of salary cap trouble.

Some closing thoughts on the Flames

Could this have been the Flames’ best chance for a Stanley Cup push? One way or another, there are probably going to be some painful losses this offseason.

One may also wonder if their might be more literal pain in the future; the Flames enjoyed unusual injury luck this season.

A pessimist might believe that this team overachieved, driven by health luck, and several players knocking contract years out of the park.

But consider an example like the Washington Capitals. Messaging-wise, they fell short in their best two-year window to win a Stanley Cup ... then broke through a season later.

If the Flames believe that this core can win a Stanley Cup, then they need to bring back the right free agents, and do the messy work to navigate the salary cap. If they think there’s a path with just one of Tkachuk or Gaudreau, then things get even more messy and interesting.

Either way, it’s unlikely to be easy, yet that makes it a fascinating situation to watch. Sort of like the peaceful feeling one gets observing farming (when the work is done by someone else).