Things are pretty miserable for the Calgary Flames right now.
After suffering their fifth consecutive loss, Calgary saw its current spot solidified: out of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, if they began today. They’re “below .500” at 10-11-3, and whenever they need to add insults to their injuries, they merely need to glance at the latest snarky update about James Neal vs. Milan Lucic.
Johnny Gaudreau (and to an extent, Sean Monahan) haven’t been immune to tough times, either. Their lackluster play relative to their usual work is a cause for concern.
One might look at, say, Gaudreau’s RAPM chart from 2018-19 (via Evolving Hockey):
Then compare it to the slow start so far in 2019-20:
And start to wonder if there are deeper concerns than merely a star player experiencing a slump that also is extending to a big chunk of the team around him, one that came into 2019-20 with pretty high expectations.
That’s when things start to get a little bumpy. On Monday, The Athletic’s Darren Haynes goes as far as wonder: if it’s time for the Flames to trade Gaudreau (sub required)?
Amusingly, in arguing that the Flames waited too long to trade Jarome Iginla, Haynes uses basically the exact same phrasing I would deploy to talk Calgary off the ledge if there was any notion of trading the superstar winger.
Iginla’s situation remains a textbook example of the perils of listening to the heart, not the head, when it comes to the handling of star players on a team getting worse, not better, or underperforming and in need of a shake-up.
For those who actually need it, here’s why the Flames would be using anything but their heads in the hypothetical knee-jerk reaction of trading away Johnny Gaudreau.
1. Obvious buy-low situation for other teams
Any team pondering a rash decision with a player should do one almost-agonizingly obvious thing: look at their shooting percentage, and general luck.
Ding, ding: Gaudreau’s shooting percentage is just 7.8 so far in 2019-20, well below his career average of 12.5, and a far cry from last season’s 14.7. On-ice shooting percentage is a decent (but not perfect) quick-reference way to see if a playmaker’s passes aren’t resulting in as many goals as usual, and Gaudreau is cold there, too, with a nine-percent mark versus his career average of 10.6 percent.
Basically every sign (including PDO) makes this point: if this sustained for all of 2019-20, it would be easily the unluckiest in Gaudreau’s career. As we’ve learned from players ranging from Taylor Hall to Jeff Skinner, the best way to become a notoriously ridiculed GM is to trade someone when their value is at an all-time low.
2. The Flames’ overall luck has been bad, too.
In 2018-19, quite a few Flames enjoyed the best years of their careers, with Mark Giordano finally winning a Norris Trophy and Elias Lindholm loving life with Gaudreau and Monahan. The problem with career years is that, sometimes, you won’t be able to repeat them.
The truth about Calgary is likely somewhere between the red-hot run of the 2018-19 regular season and the ice-cold 2019-20 start.
The instinct might be to make a bold move to shake things up, but that’s exactly the type of situation that could lead to other teams taking advantage of your desperation.
3. Gaudreau is a steal
Thanks to bargains on other second-contract stars like Nathan MacKinnon (somehow $6.3M AAV through 2022-23), Johnny Gaudreau’s contract isn’t the biggest steal in the NHL. That said, Gaudreau carrying a $6.75M AAV through 2021-22 is still “maybe you should have a little talk with your agent” material.
At 26, Gaudreau remains deep in his prime, and at an attractively cost-controlled price. Giving up on that value because of a brief swoon is the sort of mistake that makes you an eternal — and, honestly, justified — punchline on social media.
4. Gaudreau is really popular
Flames GM Brad Treliving has been described as a “riverboat gambler,” but trading Gaudreau would probably be close to losing his deed in a bad bet than even losing his shirt.
Trading away Gaudreau wouldn’t just run the risk of being a bad hockey move and a bad bit of cap management. It would also be a dangerous PR gamble for a team that’s already dealing with some frustrated fans.
Look, the truth is that the Flames might not be quite as potent as they thought they were. That’s a bummer, and it’s understandable that they might grasp for answers, but panicking would likely only make things worse — especially if that meant parting ways with Gaudreau.
Frankly, it would be a troubling sign if they’d even consider it.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.