It is always fascinating to see how NHL general managers of (hopeful) Stanley Cup contenders will react to an early postseason exit. Will they step back and take a rational approach to the offseason? Or will they grow impatient with the lack of success, flip over a table, and do something highly regrettable that makes their roster worse?
This offseason is going to be even more fascinating because the 23 general managers that lose in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles will have to decide how much weight that want to put on an unprecedented playoff environment after a four-month layoff and what it says about their teams, while also balancing a flat salary cap that is going to reduce their wiggle room in building a roster. It could be chaos.
That brings us to one of the biggest wild cards this offseason, the Calgary Flames.
The Flames’ season wasn’t even fully buried in the ground when trade speculation started to surface regarding the top-line duo of Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. One of these players always seems to have their name floated out there, and it represents the maddening discourse this sport sometimes produces.
When an NHL team loses it is almost always greeted with a talking point that is centered around let’s trade the best players because … well … we just gotta shake things up, ya know? Can we win with this core? This is the only sport where this consistently happens. When the Anaheim Angels miss the playoffs no one argues they have to trade Mike Trout. Because that would be dumb. When the Baltimore Ravens lost in the first round two years in a row nobody with a functioning brain argued that maybe it’s time to float Lamar Jackson out there in trade talks and see what they can get. Because that would be insane. So why do we do it here?
None of that is to say Gaudreau and Monahan are the hockey equivalent of Trout or Jackson, but it doesn’t even necessarily have to apply to the Flames. It could be any random NHL team that loses early a couple of years in a row and the immediate suggestion is to think about breaking up that team’s core.
It is not a given the Flames will move one of them, but there is going to be increased outside pressure for it to happen after a second straight First Round loss.
The Flames have to resist that pressure.
Even if you want to argue that Monahan had a disappointing postseason, or that both players took a step back offensively during the regular season, that is all the more reason to want to keep them right now. Why would you sell them off what might be their lowest possible value? Trading a core player when their value is down is how you become the other team in Alberta.
We are not talking about aging players here that don’t produce. Gaudreau and Monahan are among the most productive forwards in the league, still in their mid-20s, and signed long-term through their primes at fair salary cap hits.
Since the start of the 2014-15 season both players are among the top-50 point-per-game forwards in the league (minimum 100 games played).
Players that produce like that don’t typically get traded unless there is a contractual issue, or their team overreacts and does something dumb. If you look at that list of top-50 scorers you will find that only eight of them have been traded at any point in their careers. Those players: Artemi Panarin, Blake Wheeler, Tyler Seguin, Taylor Hall, Mark Stone, Jakub Voracek, Phil Kessel, and Ryan O'Reilly.
You are unlikely to win a trade like this
Look at those names. Think of the trades involving them. Ask yourself how many of the teams that sent them away were better off because of it. Wheeler and Voracek were traded before they became stars, so they do not really compare to the others.
Stone (pending free agent) and Kessel were traded as part of massive rebuilding projects, something that should not apply to the Flames.
The others? Chicago has been far worse off after dealing Panarin in what turned out to be a nightmarish return. The Hall-for-Larsson swap remains a punchline while the Oilers still scramble for scoring depth. The Bruins traded a young Seguin after a bad postseason, and while they eventually rebounded a few years later, the fact remains they traded a franchise player for what quickly amounted to nothing. O’Reilly was traded twice, both times for packages that were worth less than he is on his own, with the latter of those trades (Buffalo to St. Louis) being the biggest black mark on the Jason Botterill era in Buffalo.
The Flames have their issues to work out (goaltending?), but trading one of your top-three players in an effort to fix those issues is not going to help.
You are not only unlikely to get fair value back in return, but you will also create another (and far bigger) issue in the process by no longer having that top-line scorer. Those are the hardest pieces to find.