Pondering Flames’ free agent, future plans without Gaudreau

Pondering Flames' free agent, future plans without Gaudreau
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If late rumblings (such as this report from Frank Seravalli) are correct, the Calgary Flames made a genuinely legitimate offer to sign Johnny Gaudreau. With 2022 NHL Free Agency kicking off Wednesday, it seems like that offer may not be enough for the Flames to re-sign Gaudreau.

Multiple reports say that the 40-goal scorer will hit the free agent market.

It brings up an obvious question with a plethora of often-difficult answers: what do the Flames do without Johnny Gaudreau?

Broadly, there are a few paths the Flames can take here:

  1. The Flames may try to replace Gaudreau’s would-be large contract by going after another big-name free agent, such as Nazem Kadri.
  2. The Flames might opt to replace him “by committee.” Maybe they’d go after low/mid-range targets, like Dylan Strome and Sonny Milano after they didn’t receive qualifying offers?
  3. Calgary could do its best to keep other free agents, such as Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane. Beyond that, maybe they stand pat?
  4. After Gaudreau leaves, the Flames decide to do a rebuild or “re-tool.” That could mean trading the restricted free agent rights of Tkachuk and Mangiapane. (Among other possible moves.)

Let’s touch on all four paths for the Flames in their uncomfortable new reality without Johnny Hockey.

Should the Flames go for big free agent splashes without Gaudreau?

Simply put: superstars like Gaudreau don’t hit the free agent market often. He’s 28, and will turn 29 on Aug. 13. So, eventually, a long-term contract could get dicey. But he’s special.

Most obviously, Gaudreau puts up points. Honestly, it would be dangerous to expect a repeat of his 2021-22 season. It’s his first of 40 goals, and wasn’t just his first at 100+ points; he reached 115.

But Gaudreau’s an incredible catalyst, particularly as an absolutely splendid passer.

Evolving Hockey’s Player Cards provide a snapshot not just of Gaudreau’s peak 2021-22 season, but the last three years, all very strong:

Pondering Flames' free agent, future plans without Gaudreau Player Card
via Evolving Hockey

Throughout the NHL, few create offense at Gaudreau’s level. Pleasingly, he’s reasonably responsible defensively, too. (He even seemed to pass the Darryl Sutter test.)

As great as Kadri’s always been, I’m not sure I’d recommend the Flames chasing him or another splashy free agent to replace Gaudreau. Gaudreau doesn’t just consistently generate much more offense than Kadri, he also tilts the ice even more effectively. Consider this three-year RAPM chart for even-strength play, also via Evolving Hockey:

There’s no shame in being not-quite-as-good as Gaudreau. Yet, it sure sounds like the bidding war could get out of hand for Kadri, who’s also older at 31.

My advice to the Flames: either convince Gaudreau to take the big money after all, or sit out the bigger splashes. Painful, yes, but it’s a wiser path.

Alternate Flames free agent plan: bargains replacing by committee?

So, I wouldn’t recommend spending a ton on Gaudreau-lite in free agency.

Maybe the Flames could try to replace some of that offense “by committee?”

By the look of things, the free agent market could have some nice bargains. As usual, it’s best to wait out the initial rush. Sure, you lose a level of control, but big-ticket free agents rarely justify their prices.

Instead, it’s the bargains. Perhaps you eye a distressed asset who could be revitalized. Once, Valeri Nichushkin was such a player. You may wait and get a bargain, as the Canadiens did with Tyler Toffoli (who’s now on the Flames).

That might be a way of trying not to lose too much ground. That said, teams can also clog up their salary structures with mid-level players and end up, well, mid.

Another Flames plan: keep Tkachuk, Mangiapane, hope for the best?

How good would the 2021-22 Calgary Flames have been if they didn’t have Gaudreau?

It’s a complicated question. After all, Gaudreau is the sort of playmaker who improves others. Elias Lindholm is a good player who looked great thanks to Gaudreau’s world-class setups.

If the Flames retained Tkachuk, Mangiapane, and generally kept their roster mostly intact, it’s conceivable that they could still be quite good. Maybe that’s the best way forward.

Perhaps you stumble a bit, but a well-coached team with some sharp players could still hang in there. This is especially reasonable if the Pacific Division remains weak.

The plan could be to buy time. Instead of stretching beyond your grasp hoping that an overpriced free agent could replace Kadri, maybe an opportunity falls into the Flames laps? What if Alex DeBrincat wants out of Ottawa, and the Flames pounce? Could someone like Timo Meier or David Pastrnak become available?

That could be the equivalent of waiting for a seam to open up, rather than forcing a pass into traffic. (Gaudreau tends to be good at pulling off that form of hockey geometry.)

The most drastic plan: Flames rebuild without Gaudreau

Then, there’s the mystery and potential chaos behind Door Number Four. What if the Flames conclude that, without Johnny Gaudreau, their ceiling is lowered enough that they should rebuild/retool?

Note: maybe don’t tell Darryl Sutter you’re doing this. He probably won’t like it.

Tkachuk and Mangiapane are both RFAs. Another team could pay a serious price to trade for their negotiating rights. Maybe that’s more appealing to the Flames than giving both wingers big raises?

(What if Senators gambled their 2023 first-rounder [and more] on a Matthew + Brady Tkachuk combo?)

Neither Lindholm nor Toffoli have trade protection on their contracts. Both are cheap (Lindholm: $4.85M cap hit; Toffoli: $4.25M), yet each only for two seasons.

Would a contender in a cap crunch make a big gamble in picks and/or prospects for high-quality wingers on value contracts?

If they made the bold choice, the Flames could very well rebuild quite quickly. They could note that as recently as 2020-21, this team missed the playoffs entirely. Perhaps GM Brad Treliving would wonder: without Gaudreau, but with injuries, could the 2022-23 Flames slip quite a bit?

Blowing things up would make even more sense if the Flames believed that the Pacific Division was full of peril.

If the Golden Knights return to powerhouse status thanks to better health, the Oilers exploit salary cap space, the Canucks thrive with a few years of Bruce Boudreau, and the Kings keep climbing, spots could really fill up.

Punting would be bold, but not totally outrageous.

No easy answers without such an important player

What’s actually the best course of action?

Maybe it’s best to try to buy some time. Considering how long people have been asking about Gaudreau’s future, you’d hope that the Flames have brainstormed a variety of possible plans.

We’ll see if they figure something out, although the best-case scenario (at least short term) likely involved convincing Gaudreau to stay.