With free agency now less than a week away, the biggest question in National Hockey League circles is if the Calgary Flames can re-sign star forward Johnny Gaudreau.
Brad Treliving, the Flames’ general manager, remains hopeful a deal can be reached. Gaudreau has been sitting on a contract offer in the eight-year, $9.5-million-per-year range for a month now. While pessimists would say that Gaudreau not putting pen to paper yet is a sign he ultimately will not do so, Treliving had a different take at the NHL Draft in Montreal while reiterating that the team’s biggest priority is locking up Gaudreau and linemate Matthew Tkachukalso in need of a new deal as a restricted free agent, long-term.
“We remain optimistic,” he said.
“They’re important players and that’s what we’re going to focus the next few days on…I’m always optimistic until told otherwise.”
Treliving also said that both he and Gaudreau’s agent, Lewis Gross, were genuinely working towards a deal. Gaudreau has said on numerous occasion how much he loves Calgary, and his family has also said as much. The reality, however, is the Flames must have a gameplan if their franchise winger tests the free agent market on Wednesday.
Having to replace Gaudreau would almost certainly mean the team takes a step back offensively.
Few forwards in the NHL possess Johnny Hockey’s blend of creativity, shiftiness, and hockey sense. Under Darryl Sutter, Gaudreau, who tallied a career-high 115 points last season, also made numerous strides away from the puck. His defensive game grew by leaps and bounds, and Gaudreau was often on the ice protecting one-goal leads near the end of games. Gaudreau finished fourth in Hart Trophy (league MVP) voting, and garnered votes for the Lady Byng (most gentlemanly player), and Selke (best defensive forward) awards.
“Johnny has been really good in the playoffs,” Sutter said in May.
“For me, he’s taken that step. You could see it during the season and now during the playoffs. I’m proud of Johnny.”
While the Flames are almost certainly not going to get back Gaudreau’s offense if he leaves, there are ways they can mitigate his departure and still ice a very good top line without taking a huge step backwards.
1. Big game hunting
Calgary has indicated it is willing to spend to the cap in recent years, and if Gaudreau leaves, the Flames will have nearly $27 million in cap space to work with as they not only try and replace him, but show Tkachuk and others that they want to remain competitive right now. One route is to replace one high-end player with another.
Nazem Kadri, who just won a Stanley Cup with Colorado, may be the next-biggest name on the market and would fit in well under Sutter. Kadri is one of the league’s better two-way centers and is coming off a career-high 87 points. His blend of skill and tenacity is rare. Kadri vetoed a trade to Calgary three years ago, but that had more to do with family reasons than anything about Calgary or the Flames organization. The Flames, without Gaudreau, still have a good team–and Kadri as a 1-B center with Elias Lindholm could make them very dangerous come the spring.
Evander Kane brings a similar toolbox to Kadri as a rugged forward with skill that can excel in a big role. After a tumultuous tenure with the San Jose Sharks, Kane showed in Edmonton that he may be the league’s best power forward. Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ondrej Palat is another name to consider.
Treliving has shown to be a good closer in recent years. James Neal, Blake Coleman, Trevor Lewisand Jacob Markstrom all had different options on the free agent market, but chose to come to Calgary.
2. Make a bet on a non-traditional top-line player and re-invest cap space in a different way
A Gaudreau departure would open up fascinating roster composition possibilities for Treliving. Do they spend Gaudreau’s allotted cap space for another star, like indicated above? Or do they instead fundamentally change how they build their team?
Throughout the National Hockey League, there are players on top lines who don’t have the stats or draft pedigree on paper, but fit well in those roles. Zach Hyman was a fifth-round pick by Florida, was acquired by Toronto for a seventh-round pick, and got his start alongside Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, blossoming into a versatile forward who can play in all situations. Hyman, now with the Edmonton Oilers, had a career-high 54 points last season and, by most accounts, is a bona fide top liner. Michael Bunting, Bryan Rust, Valery Nichushkin, Jake Guentzeland Alex Killorn are similar – relatively unheralded, but able to play on first lines.
They all have similar traits: They can play with highly-skilled players, have tenacity and grit and drive the net, and do have some finishing ability. None of them would command Gaudreau’s $9 million-plus, and Calgary could reinvest that cap space into filling other roster needs.
Without Gaudreau (and assuming Tkachuk is back), Calgary’s top line consists of one of the league’s best defensive forwards in Elias Lindholm and a skilled, 100-point power forward in Tkachuk. Many of Gaudreau’s goals last season are the result of Lindholm’s hard work deep in his defensive zone winning one-on-one battles and finding his two extremely talented wingers. Lindholm has his own finishing ability with 82 points last season. Whichever winger plays on Calgary’s top line will likely get every opportunity to succeed given Lindholm’s elite two-way ability and Tkachuk’s offense.
Looking at the free agent market, there are a few candidates who Calgary could find for significantly less than what they would pay Gaudreau (and get less offense), but have a good chance of still getting first-line-caliber results.
Max Domi has a 72-point season under his belt and can play with skilled players, and Andrew Copp is a proven, capable and versatile forward who also has tenacity. Ilya Mikheyev is coming off a 21-goal season and could slot in nicely as well. Vincent Trocheck could slot in well, and Michael Raffl opened eyes around the league this season with his play against the Flames in Dallas’ opening-round playoff series.
With the extra cap space, the Flames could potentially bring back both of Erik Gudbranson and Nikita Zadorov on the third pair or target a more pricey top-four blueline improvement instead of likely bringing in replacement-level players if they have limited cap space.
3. Earmark the top-line slot for an internal promotion
Without Gaudreau, Calgary still has a deep forward group. Should they go the route of promoting from within, there are several options – Andrew Mangiapane is coming off a 35-goal campaign, Dillon Dube has shown flashes of potential, and Tyler Toffoli is a proven scorer.
A wildcard option would be Calgary’s top prospect Jakob Pelletier. The 26th overall selection in 2019 finished third in AHL scoring with 62 points in 66 games and has drawn rave reviews from coaches and teammates for his talent, work ethic, and willingness to learn.
Similar to the second scenario, this would open up Calgary’s cap space and enable them to spend in different areas.
Beyond Gaudreau and Tkachuk, Mangiapane is due a raise, as is Oliver Kylington. Calle Jarnkrok showed decently as Calgary’s third line center since joining the team around the trade deadline, but is likely looking for a bigger payday after signing a long-term, lower-dollar deal in his previous negotiation.
An intriguing name is Paul Stastny. The Winnipeg Jets center went out of its way to praise the Flames at its year-end media availability, saying:
“I look at Calgary this year and their coach there, and I don’t know what people say about him, that he might be hard nosed, but he holds guys accountable there. You look at those guys there, they play a whole different game than they did last year. They’re a more dangerous team and play a complete team game. When a good team game follows, all the individual success goes along with it.”
If Gudbranson and Zadorov walk, the Flames will need at least two depth defencemen. justin brown and Matt Benning would make sense. Calgary values size and physicality, and if the price is right, Ilya Lyubushkin would be an interesting fit as well.
Treliving’s work is cut out for him, but he does have one sales pitch no other general manager can counter: Last season under Sutter, half of Calgary’s roster hit career-highs in goals, assists, and/or points.