After a little bit of a slump through December and the early part of January (with some game postponements thrown in) the Calgary Flames have started to get back on track in recent games with some truly dominant performances.
On Wednesday night they systematically dismantled the Columbus Blue Jackets in a 62-shot rout to give them their third win over the past four games. It is a stretch that has seen them outscore Florida, St. Louis, Edmonton, and Columbus by a 21-7 margin to help them keep pace in the Pacific Division playoff race. By points percentage, they have the second best mark in the division behind only the Vegas Golden Knights.
Leading the way offensively has been the Flames’ two-headed monster of a top line that is centered around Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. They have been one of the the league’s best duos this season and are continuing to pile up impressive numbers both individually, and collectively.
Tkachuk is having a breakout season offensively and on track for the best individual season of his career. With 20 goals and 44 total points in 38 games he is on a pace for 38 goals and 95 points over a full season. Both numbers would be career highs.
Gaudreau, meanwhile, is on a 110-point pace that would also set a new personal best.
The timing of these seasons is pretty significant for both players and the Flames as an organization. Both of them will be in need of new contracts after this season as Gaudreau is eligible for unrestricted free agency, while Tkachuk is entering his final year of restricted free agent eligibility. Neither contract will be cheap.
Gaudreau’s future with the Flames has been a talking point for a couple of years now as his name has occasionally surfaced in trade speculation. But given the limitations of his no-trade clause (giving him a lot of control over where he goes), his overall play this season, and the Flames’ place in the playoff race there is virtually no chance he gets moved prior to the trade deadline. That is going to put a ton of pressure on the Flames to get something done contractually because the alternative is losing him for nothing in free agency. That would be a pretty devastating blow for the Flames’ offense because Gaudreau, 28, is still one of the best offensive players in the league and should still have several productive years ahead of him. His current contract carries a salary cap hit of $6.75 million per season, and there is little doubt given his play that his next deal could take him to the $8-9 million range.
Tkachuk, whose current bridge deal carries a $7 million salary cap number, is almost certainly going to be in the same price range.
The Flames currently have around $32 million in salary cap space to work with this offseason (give or take $1 million or so depending on any slight cap increases) with only 11 players under contract for next season. If they are able to re-sign their top duo, that is going to take around $18-20 million of that available salary cap space, while also still having to re-sign restricted free agent Andrew Mangiapane who is having a great season on his own.
The importance of the Gaudreau-Tkachuk duo should be obvious to anyone that has even remotely followed the Flames this season, as no two players have done more to carry them outside of maybe the goalies.
Gaudreau and Tkachuk have spent more than 492 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey on the ice together this season, with the Flames holding a commanding 38-8 goals edge during that time. They have done that while also controlling more than 62 percent of the total shot attempts, scoring chances, high-danger scoring chances, and expected goals. They have been a force to be reckoned with.
When only one, or neither, is on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Flames get outscored by a 45-54 margin, including a 39-48 margin neither is on the ice.
Over the past four games alone the goal differential with the Gaudreau-Tkachuk duo is a whopping 10-0 with a nearly 70 percent shot attempt share.
In the end it is going to be a significant few months for the Flames’ front office and how they juggle this scenario. If they can get both signed long-term it keeps a great foundation in place. Combined with strong goaltending and Darryl Sutter’s defensive structure and it could remain a very competitive team for the foreseeable future. But if they can not make that happen and ultimately lose one (or both) over the next year or two and it sets things back pretty much to the ground floor.