Pondering Flames’ free agent, future plans without Gaudreau

Pondering Flames' free agent, future plans without Gaudreau
Derek Leung/Getty Images
1 Comment

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.

Ducks hire former Leafs, Islanders assistant Greg Cronin as head coach

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Anaheim Ducks have hired veteran NHL assistant and AHL head coach Greg Cronin to be their new head coach.

Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek announced the decision to hire the 60-year-old Cronin, who will be a first-time NHL head coach.

Cronin has 12 years of experience as an NHL assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs and in two stints with the New York Islanders. The Massachusetts native has been the head coach of the AHL’s Colorado Eagles since 2018, and he spent six years as a collegiate head coach at Northeastern.

Verbeek called Cronin “the ideal fit” to take over a young, rebuilding team.

“I felt we needed a teacher of the finer points of the game, and someone who has worked extensively over time with talented young players, helping them develop into successful NHL players,” Verbeek said. “Greg has done all that and more.”

Cronin replaces Dallas Eakins, whose contract wasn’t renewed in April after the Ducks finished their fourth consecutive losing season of his tenure. Anaheim finished in last place in the overall NHL standings at 23-47-12.

The Ducks never finished higher than sixth in the Pacific Division during Eakins’ four years in charge. They’ve missed the playoffs in a franchise-record five straight seasons, and Anaheim was the NHL’s worst defensive team of the 21st century by several measures during the just-completed season.

Cronin takes over a struggling team that is still loaded with young talent, including the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft and a wealth of farm prospects seemingly ready to break into the NHL. Anaheim has a solid long-term base with playmaking center Trevor Zegras, two-time All-Star Troy Terry and promising forward Mason McTavish.

Cronin has never led an NHL bench, but he interviewed for the Boston Bruins’ vacancy a year ago.

He becomes only the Ducks’ fourth permanent head coach since Henry and Susan Samueli bought the franchise from Disney in 2005, joining Randy Carlyle, Bruce Boudreau and Eakins.

Canadiens sign Cole Caufield to 8-year, $62.8 million extension

David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens signed Cole Caufield to an eight-year, $62.8 million contract extension.

The deal, which will pay the 22-year-old winger an average annual salary of $7.85 million, runs through the 2030-31 season.

Caufield scored 26 goals and added 10 assists in 46 games in 2022-23 before he underwent season-ending surgery on his right shoulder in February.

Despite missing nearly half the season, Caufield led the Canadiens in goals for the second consecutive season, tied with Nick Suzuki.

Montreal selected Caufield in the first round (15th overall) of the 2019 draft.

Since making his NHL debut in 2020-21, the forward has 84 points (53 goals, 31 assists) in 123 NHL games.

Vegas Golden Knights come back to beat Florida Panthers in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

LAS VEGAS – Back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in five years and trailing the Florida Panthers less than 10 minutes into Game 1, the Vegas Golden Knights sent a very clear message.

“We were ready,” Jonathan Marchessault said.

Ready and dominant. Vegas rallied from an early deficit, got the go-ahead goal from Zach Whitecloud with just over 13 minutes left and arguably the best save of the playoffs from Adin Hill and beat Florida 5-2 Saturday night to take the lead in the best-of-seven series.

“We kept out composure, and it was good,” said Marchessault, one of six original Knights players left from the start of the franchise in 2017 who scored the tying goal in the first period. “We just wanted to play the right way and be disciplined, and tonight we were able to be the better team.”

Whitecloud put Vegas ahead, a crucial penalty kill followed and captain Mark Stone scored an insurance goal that was reviewed for a high stick and confirmed. Reilly Smith sealed it with an empty-netter to make the score look more lopsided than the game.

The combination of that offense and Hill’s 33 saves put Vegas up after a feisty opener between Sun Belt teams who wasted little time getting acquainted with big hits during play and plenty of post-whistle pushing and shoving.

“It’s exactly what we expected,” said Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore, who scored his first goal of the playoffs and ended a 27-game drought dating to March 7. “That’s how they wanted to play. We were just trying not to play into it.”

That stuff is just beginning. Game 2 is Monday in Las Vegas.

Before the Panthers even get a chance to respond, they ratcheted up the physical play late after falling behind by two. A handful of penalties resulting from a fracas with 4:24 remaining left the Florida bench well short.

The outcome was determined long before that.

After falling behind on a short-handed goal by Eric Staal that sucked the life out of the crowd of 18,432, the Golden Knights rallied for their ninth comeback win this playoffs. Marchessault – known since arriving in Las Vegas for scoring big goals – answered before the end of the first period.

Early in the second, Hill made a desperation stick save to rob Nick Cousins of what would have been a sure goal. The save was reminiscent of the one Washington’s Braden Holtby made against Vegas – in the same crease – five years ago.

“That’s an unreal save – it’s a game-changer,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “You need those saves at key moments.”

Giving up a tying goal to Anthony Duclair with 10.2 seconds left in the second did not slow the Golden Knights’ momentum much. Whitecloud’s goal, with two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky screened and unable to see, fired up fans once again.

Bobrovsky, in the final for the first time, downplayed any reason for concern after stopping 29 of 34 shots and losing for just the second time in 12 games this postseason.

“I played a good game,” Bobrovsky said. “I played a solid game. They created some good chances other than goals. They had lots of good scoring chances, and that was fun.”

Part of the fun came when play was stopped.

Less than 10 minutes in, Hill was none too happy about Nick Cousins crashing into his crease and gave the agitating Panthers winger a jab that incited a handful of scrums. During the second period, Matthew Tkachuk let Vegas’ Nic Hague know he wasn’t thrilled about a hit in the corner on Cousins and a collision with Brandon Montour after the whistle.

“If guys are going to come in my crease and try to push me around, I’m going to stand my own ground,” Hill said. “I’m not going to do anything too crazy or get too wild, but, yeah, I’ve got to stand up for myself.”

Florida coach Paul Maurice, back in the final for the first time since 2001, displayed a similarly calm demeanor as he did all the way back in the first round, when his team fell behind 1-0 then 3-1 to NHL-best Boston before winning in seven.

“It’s going to be tight,” Maurice said. “Everybody breathe.”

The Golden Knights are in the final for the second time in six years of existence, five years after making it in their inaugural season. Vegas won the opener in 2018 and lost the series to Washington in five games.

The Panthers are back playing for the Cup for the first time since 1996. Florida got swept by Colorado in that final 27 years ago, 18 months before Tkachuk, the team’s leading scorer this playoffs, was born.

It’s the 66th different matchup of teams in the Cup final in NHL history and the 46th since the expansion era began in 1967-68. This is the first time since Washington-Vegas and just the third time since the turn of the century in which the final features two teams who have never won the league’s championship.

Penguins name former Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas as director of hockey operations

Getty Images

PITTSBURGH (AP) Kyle Dubas wanted to take a breath and take a break after being fired as the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Then the Pittsburgh Penguins called.

The break ended shortly thereafter.

Dubas joined the Penguins as the team’s president of hockey operations, less than two weeks after a somewhat ugly exit from Toronto following a second-round playoff loss to Florida.

The 37-year-old Dubas goes from one type of hockey crucible to another. In Toronto, he was tasked with helping the Maple Leafs emerge from two decades of postseason futility. In Pittsburgh, his mission will be to prop open the Stanley Cup window for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang a little longer.

All three are 35 or older and haven’t won a playoff series since 2018. Yet Dubas believes strongly the issue isn’t the age of the franchise’s core but deficiencies elsewhere on the roster. Dubas replaces Brian Burke, who was fired along with general manager Ron Hextall in April after the Penguins failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2006.

“I heard a lot of people that were highly skeptical of the team’s ability to contend here and the way I view it, if the people want to bet against (Crosby, Letang and Malkin) they can go ahead and do so,” Dubas said. “But I’m going to bet on them and go with them here. I think it is a group that’s capable of contending to win a championship.”

Crosby and Malkin were excellent for much of last season and Letang showed remarkable resiliency while dealing with multiple setbacks, including a stroke and the death of his father. Yet save for a 14-2-2 stretch in November and December, the Penguins struggled to find consistency and ultimately stumbled down the stretch to snap the longest active playoff streak in major North American Sports.

While the Penguins do have $20 million in cap space and the 14th overall pick in this month’s NHL draft, significant changes or upgrades could be difficult in the short term.

Dubas inherits a team that was the oldest in the NHL last season and is littered with question marks, particularly in goal and the forward group outside of Crosby, Malkin and Jake Guentzel.

Two-time All-Star goaltender Tristan Jarry will become a free agent this summer and was beset by injuries over the second half of the season. Forward Jason Zucker, who served as the emotional sparkplug for long stretches, is also scheduled to hit the open market and may have priced himself out of town.

Pittsburgh also has several aging players with full or partial no-movement clauses, including 38-year-old forward Jeff Carter, 30-year-old Bryan Rust and 35-year-old defenseman Jeff Petry.

“I think that those are obviously very real situations, everyone knows that they exist,” Dubas said. “To me the effect on it … is what we can add in terms of depth pieces? What we can add in terms of younger players? That’ll be the real key.”

Dubas does plan to hire a general manager to fill the vacancy created when Hextall was let go after a short but largely unfruitful tenure. Dubas will serve as the GM on an interim basis until early July.

Dubas comes to Pittsburgh after nine seasons with the Maple Leafs, including the last five as general manager. Toronto won a postseason series for the first time since 2004 this spring before falling to the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference semifinals in five games.

Shortly after the Maple Leafs’ playoff exit, Dubas said that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to remain in Toronto. His contract was set to expire on June 30, but team president Kyle Shanahan opted to pre-emptively fire Dubas instead. Toronto hired former Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving as Dubas’ replacement.

Dubas helped build the Maple Leafs into a regular-season power during his tenure. Toronto set single-season records for wins and points, and went 221-109-42 in his tenure. Dubas also didn’t shy away from big moves – he fired Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Babcock in November 2019 and replaced him with Sheldon Keefe – but struggled to find the right mix in the playoffs until this spring.

In the end, advancing beyond the first round for the first time since 2004 wasn’t enough for Dubas to remain in Toronto.

He joked he was maybe a little “too honest” during his season-ending press conference with the Maple Leafs when he expressed reservations about returning. Shanahan’s abrupt decision to move on came as a bit of a surprise, and Dubas planned to take some time to hit the reset button before looking for another job.

Yet the Penguins – who’d already been given clearance by the Maple Leafs to interview Dubas – provided a compelling reason to speed up the timetable. Dubas’ due diligence included speaking to Crosby and longtime coach Mike Sullivan to take the pulse of a leadership group that remains firmly in place.

Dubas called them “some of the best competitors” in hockey. Competitors that have – for one reason or another – been unable to recapture the magic of their runs to back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017.

Time is running out for Crosby to put his name on the Cup for a fourth time in a career that will almost certainly end in the Hall of Fame. Dubas knows he’ll be judged in part on whether he can make that happen. After taking more than six weeks of searching before landing on Dubas, Fenway Sports Group Chairman Tom Werner believes Dubas is up to the challenge.

“Our philosophy is giving Kyle and his associates the best possible resources to win,” Werner said. “Kyle’s been very articulate today about his path to success … we’re very confident that Kyle will execute the plan he’s articulated to us.”