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What does the future hold for Johnny Gaudreau and the Flames?

gaudreau nhl free agent

CALGARY, ALBERTA - MARCH 27: Johnny Gaudreau #13 of the Calgary Flames plays against the Winnipeg Jets at Scotiabank Saddledome on March 27, 2021 in Calgary, Alberta. (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

NHLI via Getty Images

Johnny Gaudreau has been the Calgary Flames’ most dynamic -- and productive -- player for the past seven seasons. He is consistently their top offensive performer, is the player that makes a lot of their offense work, and has been one of the league’s top scorers during that time.

Despite all of that he has still found himself as the subject of trade rumors and speculation on more than one occasion (especially in recent years after some disappointing postseason showings) and enters the 2021-22 season with an uncertain future with the Flames.

He is entering the final year of a six-year, $40.5 million contract -- one that he has significantly outperformed -- and is one of the top players eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season.

Trying to judge the free agent market a year in advance is tricky because most of the star players that are playing on expiring contracts are going to re-sign with their current teams. Most teams do not let players of that caliber get away for nothing, and if they are not in a position to make the playoffs will probably look to trade the player for as much as they can get.

There has been little word on the status of contract talks, while Gaudreau has said all of the normal things you would expect to hear from a player in his position about wanting to stay right where he is.

(How often does a player in this spot say, “yeah, I am looking to get out of here as fast as I can?” Doesn’t happen, even if that is how they feel.)

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

But Gaudreau also holds a lot of control in this situation right now. Not only is he a season away from free agency where he could pick and choose his destination, but because the Flames did not trade him before the start of free agency this past offseason his contract now has a modified no-trade clause that allows him to pick five teams where he can be traded. It severely limits the Flames’ options and puts a ton of pressure on them to get a contract signed, or risk losing one of their franchise players for nothing this upcoming July.

If you are a Flames fan and want to be optimistic, you could look at that as a sign the Flames believe they can get him signed and are able to take their team with negotiations. But that is far from a given. You also have to expect given his current contract, as well as his production, that his next deal is probably going to be in the $7.5-$8 million range at a minimum. That is going to have to coincide with a new contract for Matthew Tkachuk (restricted free agent after this season), Andrew Mangiapane (also a restricted free agent after this season), and filling out the remainder of a roster that has eight pending unrestricted free agents after this season (including Gaudreau).

In a flat cap environment where the salary cap is not expected to rise much, if at all, that is going to make things tight when it comes to re-signing Gaudreau. And that brings us to another question that has not even been brought forward yet: Is that something either side is going to want to do?

From the Flames’ perspective, for as good as Gaudreau has been throughout his career his offensive production has shown some sign of slowing down the past two years. Still excellent. Still at a top-line rate. But not one of the league’s elite like he was three or four years ago. He is also going to be 29 years old when that new contract kicks in. There is a long-term risk there and the Flames are not really a team that is knocking on the door of a Stanley Cup right now. They have been a middle of the road team for the past few years and even though they play in the league’s weakest division are far from a lock to be a playoff team this season.

So if you are Gaudreau, a pending free agent that has never played a game outside of the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by age 28, why wouldn’t you want to explore your options in what will probably be your only opportunity to pick your destination and get a big pay day in free agency?

The path here seems set: Given Gaudreau’s ability to control the trade market the two sides are almost certainly married to each other for this season which puts the Flames in a really tough spot: Trade him to a place of his choosing with reduced leverage, re-sign him, or lose him for nothing. Until there is a solution here it is probably going to be the No. 1 storyline following this team all season.