Gaudreau, Tkachuk headline offseason of Flames free agent questions

Gaudreau, Tkachuk headline offseason of Flames free agent conundrums
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Right now, the Calgary Flames are picking up the pieces after stunningly losing “The Battle of Alberta.” For players such as Chris Tanev, undergoing surgeries may make it feel like they’re literally getting pieces put back together.

Speaking of going under the knife, the Flames will likely require surgical precision to overcome the free agent/salary cap challenges they face this offseason.

Naturally, Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk present the Flames with their biggest, riskiest procedures. Yet, you’ll see the list of questions goes beyond them.

[McDavid clinches series for Oilers in OT after controversial disallowed goal]

For the sake of simplicity, we’ll stick to the roster. That said, it’s worth noting that GM Brad Treliving’s been around a long time. And you at least have to ask if 63-year-old head coach Darryl Sutter returns after being plucked from his tractor-heavy retirement to save the day.

After a bountiful harvest of a regular season, the Flames suffered this playoff disappointment. To have another great chance at a deep run, they have their work cut out for them this offseason. Let’s roll up our sleeves and dive into the many questions.

Gaudreau, Tkachuk, and other big Flames free agent questions this offseason

According to Cap Friendly, the Flames are projected to have almost $27 million in cap space this free agent summer. That space is misleading, though, as it would only account for 12 roster spots being filled.

Even if the Flames fill some spots with cheap, young players, they need to make crucial, potentially franchise-altering decisions.

Johnny Gaudreau: stay or go?

Want a snapshot of how Johnny Gaudreau makes the Flames offense go? You could do worse than his Game 7 overtime-clincher against the Stars.

It’s not just that Gaudreau finally broke through against a keyed-in Jake Oettinger. It’s that, before that, he also set up Elias Lindholm with a Grade-A opportunity:

 

For six seasons, Gaudreau’s been wildly underpaid at a $6.75 million cap hit. By the Athletic’s model, Gaudreau presented a whopping $16.3 million in “market value.”

Gaudreau won’t get that, and isn’t likely to set a new high mark compared to Connor McDavid‘s market-diluting $12.5M. But either the Flames or someone else will ensure that Gaudreau gets paid.

[Probably wise not to use the incomparable Connor McDavid as a comparable]

Evolving Hockey’s great contract projection tool spits out a seven-year projection at a $10.87M cap hit. On average, it projects a six-year pact as likely, and some projections slip it down to $10.6M. Those projections fall in line with those from Flames Nation and Sportsnet, as well.

While steep, those costs line up with Gaudreau’s value. He really probably is worth more.

Yet, in the near-certain case of it being a long-term deal, you must also ask how long Gaudreau will be worth top dollar. Gaudreau is 28, and turns 29 on Aug. 13.

Painfully, the Flames may determine that this franchise has gone as far as it can with Gaudreau, and let him walk in free agency. If they keep him, that would squeeze others, possibly his partner in crime …

Matthew Tkachuk: An RFA with a lot of leverage

The “restricted” part of restricted free agency is often on the money. Most RFAs lack leverage to land deals at maximum value.

Maybe Matthew Tkachuk will experience some of that squeeze, yet for the most part, he has a ton of leverage. He’s not far from UFA status, and his qualifying offer would be a hefty $9M.

So, there’s not much of a question: Matthew Tkachuk will get a raise in 2022-23. It’s instead a question of who will do the paying, and for how long.

The Flames could decide to buy themselves time by signing Tkachuk to that $9M qualifying offer. From there, they could sign a future deal after getting some clarity, or trade Tkachuk at the 2023 deadline. The extreme option would be to trade Tkachuk’s rights during this offseason.

Evolving Hockey’s projections present a few possibilities. On average, their model projects a six or seven-year deal (technically, “6.3”) with an average of $10.45M. Yet the front-and-center projection would be eight years, $11.27M.

At 24, Tkachuk carries fewer long-term risks than Gaudreau. What if the Flames believe Gaudreau is more essential to their success than Tkachuk, though? There’s ample room for things to get messy.

Should the Flames keep one, both, or neither of Gaudreau and Tkachuk? If the answer is “both,” the Flames might as well assume that the price tag would be around $20M. As a reminder: their current projected salary cap space is about $27M.

Kylington, Mangiapane, other Flames free agents of note

Again, Tkachuk and Gaudreau are the Flames’ biggest free agent puzzles, but there are other pieces to consider.

  • After years of being a hidden gem, 25-year-old forward Andrew Mangiapane blew away his previous career-best totals, collecting 35 goals and 55 points. While he’s an RFA, he’s not far from UFA status, and has arbitration rights.
  • After bouncing between the AHL and NHL for years, Oliver Kylington blossomed with a 31-point breakthrough season. Really, the Flames may want to try to sign Kylington to a long-term contract as a hidden gem. Maybe the franchise isn’t so convinced that he’s such a find, though.
  • There are quite a few UFA forwards (Calle Jarnkrok, Trevor Lewis, Brett Ritchie) and defensemen (Nikita Zadorov, Erik Gudbranson, and Michael Stone). Obviously, some will need to go. However, an old-school coach like Sutter might not be pleased with losing both Zadorov and Gudbranson.

Some room to trade away/LTIR some space?

If you went by Evolving Hockey’s contract projections for Tkachuk, Gaudreau, Kylington, and Mangiapane, they’d cost the Flames $31.245M.

via Evolving Hockey

Obviously, those projections aren’t gospel. Players take discounts to stick with teams. Teams sometimes exploit every bit of RFA leverage they can to drive prices down.

But it sure seems like the Flames may need to get creative. There’s some interesting room to do so, too.

  • Could Sean Monahan and his $6.375M cap hit go to LTIR? He’s had serious hip issues. If not, he has a 10-team no-trade clause … but maybe he’d be amenable to a chance at a featured role with, say, a Coyotes rebuilding team that will take bribes for iffy contracts?
  • Yes, it’s true that buying out Milan Lucic would be virtually pointless. It’s intriguing how feasible a trade could be, though. While Lucic carries a painful $5.25M cap hit after small retention from the James Neal trade, his payouts are much smaller in 2022-23. Lucic carries a $3M salary bonus and $1M in salary (pre-retention) next season. Lucic’s contract could be gold to a rebuilding team, particularly if the Flames paid that salary bonus before a trade. Of course, Lucic has his own trade clause, and that could create a snag even after he was a good sport by waiving his NTC for the expansion draft.
  • The most painful idea might be to trade valuable, if aging, forward Mikael Backlund. It’s worth asking because the 33-year-old carries a $5.35M cap hit through 2023-24. Keeping with an uncomfortable theme, Backlund has a NTC. That said, a contender would almost certainly be more interested in trading for Backlund than these other players. Such an omission would sting Calgary, however.

That list features a lot of money, no-trade clauses, and at least some hope for wiggle room.

Move a pick and/or a prospect?

As far as bribes go, the Flames already lack their first, third, fourth, and sixth-rounders for the 2022 NHL Draft. There are other scattered missing picks, including their 2023 third-rounder.

However, they have next year’s first and second-rounders. If the Flames believe they can contend, and they can find a trade partner (plus a player or two willing to waive clauses), then it would probably be worth burning those assets.

Speaking of futures, for all the Flames wheeling and dealing, they didn’t trade away top prospects. While not a top prospect pool, the Flames’ farm earned semi-recent rankings between 16th and 18th.

Prospects such as Connor Zary and Jakob Pelletier could either step into roles, or be traded as sweeteners to get the Flames out of salary cap trouble.

Some closing thoughts on the Flames

Could this have been the Flames’ best chance for a Stanley Cup push? One way or another, there are probably going to be some painful losses this offseason.

One may also wonder if their might be more literal pain in the future; the Flames enjoyed unusual injury luck this season.

A pessimist might believe that this team overachieved, driven by health luck, and several players knocking contract years out of the park.

But consider an example like the Washington Capitals. Messaging-wise, they fell short in their best two-year window to win a Stanley Cupthen broke through a season later.

If the Flames believe that this core can win a Stanley Cup, then they need to bring back the right free agents, and do the messy work to navigate the salary cap. If they think there’s a path with just one of Tkachuk or Gaudreau, then things get even more messy and interesting.

Either way, it’s unlikely to be easy, yet that makes it a fascinating situation to watch. Sort of like the peaceful feeling one gets observing farming (when the work is done by someone else).

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    Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

    Andrei Kuzmenko
    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

    The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

    The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

    Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

    His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

    Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

    He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

    He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

    A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

    Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.

    Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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    DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

    Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

    Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

    Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

    The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

    Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

    Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

    Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

    Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

    In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

    Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.

    UP NEXT

    Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

    Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

    Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

    Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

    Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

    Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

    The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

    The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

    Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

    He found a little of both.

    The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

    “I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

    Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

    His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

    The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

    “It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

    The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

    Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

    Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

    “That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

    Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

    Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

    “We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

    Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

    Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

    “It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”

    UP NEXT

    Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

    Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.