Pandemic Punts: Patience running out for Flames’ Giordano-Gaudreau combo?

Pandemic Punts: Patience running out for Flames' Giordano-Gaudreau combo?
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Different NHL teams come into the 2020-21 season with different expectations. Yet, with COVID-19 looming to throw a wrench in even the best-laid plans, PHT asks: what if each of the NHL’s 31 teams had to “punt” their 2020-21 season? Some situations are more realistic than others, but hopefully this serves as an interesting exercise. In the latest edition of Pandemic Punts, PHT looks at the 2020-21 Calgary Flames.

For previous editions of Pandemic Puntsclick here.

Is the Giordano – Gaudreau era in danger of ending if Flames don’t go on a run?

Following another playoff disappointment, rumors were swirling about the Flames possibly shopping Johnny Gaudreau. Luckily for the Flames and their fans, cooler heads prevailed.

Well, those heads stayed cool … for now.

With another clunker of a postseason (or worse), the calls to trade one or more of Gaudreau and Sean Monahan will only get louder.

For a GM known as a “riverboat gambler,” Brad Treliving made some interesting additions to the Flames.

Most prominently, Treliving rolled the dice that Jacob Markstrom could be the true go-to goalie Calgary’s been lacking. (The 30-year-old needs to be, as that six-year deal with a $6M AAV isn’t exactly a modest swing.)

Adding to their Canuck-nabbing, the Flames also said hello to Christopher Tanev (with another deal featuring risky term), and said goodbye to T.J. Brodie. Your results will vary on the wisdom of that shift (personally, I think it could end up being a pretty significant downgrade.)

Unfortunately, Treliving didn’t really throw any darts at a problem that’s likely to continue plaguing the Flames: depth scoring.

It’s one thing to lay all of the blame at the feet of the likes of Gaudreau. That certainly turns the temperature up on your takes, and makes for more sizzling headlines.

But as much as the postseason is about stars etching their legendary lore, just about every deep run demands unsung heroes to break through. When Gaudreau, Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk falter (or get hurt), will anyone else step up?

It’s tough to say. Maybe the Flames can just limit the opposition so much that Gaudreau, Monahan, and Tkachuk merely need to score just enough to win?

Flames structure points to two big shots, but no guarantees

Logically speaking, it sure feels like the Johnny Gaudreau + Mark Giordano combination has two more big shots at a serious run. That said, a lousy 2020-21 season could prompt the Flames to shrink that window, too.

Barring an incredible offer, it’s tough to imagine the Flames winning any trade involving Gaudreau or Giordano. That’s because Gaudreau carries a paltry $6.75M cap hit for two more seasons, while Giordano’s $6.75M (also through 2021-22) should be easy to justify, even at age 37.

Perhaps you can sell high on one of them, but most likely, you’d be trading from an area of weakness if you decided to move on.

Either way, two years is that big flashing light at the end of the tunnel.

After two years, Gaudreau is nearly certain for a substantial raise, while Giordano — who knows? Maybe he’d go Chara-style with one-year installments; maybe he’d retire altogether. But even beyond that, Matthew Tkachuk is headed for a bump up from his $7M. With his $6.375M AAV running through 2022-23, Monahan breaks the two-year trend, yet the clock is ticking there, too.

Now, none of this absolutely shuts the door on this core making runs beyond 2021-22. (Granted, Giordano’s role would almost certainly be reduced as he approaches 40, if he doesn’t retire.)

But it sure feels like that could be a truly pivotal moment for the Flames’ franchise, unless they address that fork-in-the-road even sooner. That likely boils down to how the Flames fare in 2020-21.

An interesting structure

Either by design or coincidence, the Flames present a pretty interesting overall salary structure.

For one thing, Elias Lindholm (26, $4.85M for four more seasons) is really the only forward with significant term who the Flames would be wild not to trade. Mikael Backlund and especially Milan Lucic stand out as aging players whose contracts should make Calgary worried. (Backlund might age well, but at 31, we’ll see if the decline hits soon.)

Meanwhile, when it comes to trying to keep the puck out of the net, the Flames are locked-in.

Again, Markstrom brings a lot of risk, but potentially a lot of reward. Beyond Giordano’s short deal, the Flames have a lot of term locked up in their defense:

  • Noah Hanifin, 23, $4.9M cap hit through 2023-24.
  • Rasmus Andersson, 24, $4.955M through 2025-26.
  • Christopher Tanev, 30, $4.5M through 2023-24.

So, while the Flames’ forwards group is up in the air, they’re fairly secure “in their own zone.”

The youth of Hanifin + Andersson could really make these decisions sing, at least if they deliver. As someone who’s been lukewarm on Hanifin at times, it was heartening to see some of his underlying numbers looking reasonably solid. Judging by Evolving Hockey’s RAPM even-strength charts for Andersson and Hanifin, maybe you can mix and match them based on their strengths, and receive nice results?

Pandemic Punts: Patience running out for Flames' Giordano-Gaudreau combo? Anderson Hanifin Evolving Hockey RAPM
Some evidence to lean on Andersson defensively, and Hanifin on offense. RAPM Chart via Evolving Hockey

Now, it doesn’t seem like the Flames boast an obvious No. 1 defenseman whenever Mark Giordano ages out of that role. But if Calgary can figure that out, Andersson + Hanifin could have some use, at least at reasonable prices. And, ideally, Markstrom would clean up all of the rest.

Maybe the Flames should just play it cool?

Look, it’s understandable that the Flames might want to make changes. It had to be frustrating to see them get bottled up by the Stars after being throttled by the Avalanche in the previous postseason. And you can advance the argument that Johnny Gaudreau might be closer to “star” than “superstar.”

Blowing things up would likely only make things worse, though. Instead, the Flames should hold off on punting in 2020-21, and probably through Gaudreau’s current contract.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

    Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

    There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

    While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

    Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

    Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

    “It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

    Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

    The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

    “I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

    It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

    “This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

    Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

    Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

    “The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

    Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

    “We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

    LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

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    LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

    Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

    Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

    L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

    For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

    The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

    “I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

    The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

    Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    “He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

    Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

    “I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

    Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

    Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

    “First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

    Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

    The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

    “The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

    Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

    “It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

    Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

    Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

    “It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

    Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

    Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

    “Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

    The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

    “I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

    Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

    Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

    “On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

    The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

    “It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

    It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

    “(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

    Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

    “It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

    NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

    UP NEXT

    Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

    Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.