Whether the Calgary Flames should move now to sign Johnny Gaudreau to a long-term contract extension is being debated in Calgary’s corner of the Twitter-verse. He becomes an unrestricted free agent (UFA) at the end of the 2021-22 season, and many are asking why the team would wait. Much of that decision depends on how the team finishes the season.
I hope the compact talented winger has thick skin as this debate unfolds. He needs it this season as fickle Flames fans alternate between singing his praises one moment then demanding that management include him in a trade package out of Cowtown the next.
Armchair GMs, this scribe included, have no shortage of opinions on what to do with Gaudreau. Here’s a look at the arguments, both for against a contract extension for “Johnny Hockey.”
Does Gaudreau Want to Be in Calgary?
Management can’t extend Gaudreau’s contract unless he wants to play in Calgary and only he knows the answer. He says all the right things, explaining in a postseason interview last summer that, “[Calgary] is a team I could see myself playing for – for the rest of my career.” Of the city he said, “It’s a second home to me. My family loves it there. My girlfriend loves it there. It’s a special place for us.”
Cynics would argue that he has to say he loves Calgary, especially when his contract will keep him in the Stampede City until the end of the 2021-22 season. Outside the Saddledome, he’d need to be in a witness protection program if he said otherwise.
Speculation as to where the young star wants to play is widespread. While he has never said he doesn’t want to play in Calgary, his remarks on a recent “Spittin’ Chiclets” podcast may have revealed his true feelings. He admitted that his mother broke down in tears when he was drafted by the Flames, protesting that it was too far away from the Gaudreau clan’s New Jersey homestead. What’s more, he said there was no escaping the pressure of playing in a Canadian city where his every move is scrutinized.
His childhood dream was to play for the Philadelphia Flyers. The City of Brotherly Love and cheesesteaks is close to his old stomping grounds in New Jersey and Boston College, but it’s not clear what a trade to the Flyers would look like. He also has a no-trade clause that would need to be waived unless Philadelphia is one of the five teams he agreed to be moved to in a 2021 contract amendment.
This five-team restriction may tie the Flames’ hands if they decide to trade Gaudreau. At the same time, however, general manager Brad Treliving can’t just let him walk away for nothing as a UFA. He will need to make a decision well before Gaudreau’s contract expires.
My feeling is that if Gaudreau believes the Flames have no realistic shot at winning the Cup in the next two years, he will probably want to go home to the United States and likely to one of the five teams in his modified no-trade clause. So much the better if one or more of them is a Cup contender.
Can the Flames Contend for the Cup?
If the Flames’ front office believes the answer to that question is yes, then signing Gaudreau to an extension may make sense, although the term will be up for discussion.
Yet, based on the Flames’ play this season and their repeated playoff flops, fans and management are right to ask whether the core, which includes Gaudreau, can deliver a championship. If Treliving believes they can’t, then his only choice is to blow the team up, move into a rebuild and get at least something in a trade for Gaudreau.
Would a Re-signed Gaudreau Make the Team Better?
Unless the Flames can trade for players who will bolster Gaudreau’s impact, then extending his contract really doesn’t move the club any closer to becoming a Cup contender. Despite his talent, he was never considered the Flames’ best all-around player. Only once was he a 99-point contributor, and he has gone missing in recent postseasons.
Treliving may be able to add some pieces to support Gaudreau. Trading an underperforming Sean Monahan with his $6.375 million cap hit is the obvious choice. However, he has been underwhelming this season and didn’t show up for the playoffs last summer. On the open market, it’s doubtful he would fetch a roster addition that would make the Flames a more formidable challenger in the postseason.
Trading Monahan is made doubly difficult because of the flat $81.5 million NHL salary cap. Most teams are up against it, and that makes anything other than dollar for dollar trades difficult. The cap is unlikely to go up until the league better understands the post-pandemic market.
Even so, it may be possible to pick up some pieces for Monahan that would improve the team and make Gaudreau better. In a depressed UFA market we may see some interesting additions to the roster.
What Would a Contract Extension Look Like?
Gaudreau and Flames’ captain Mark Giordano are the two highest paid players on the team. That is something Gaudreau would presumably not want to give up in a contract extension. However, given that he is not now, nor will be the biggest offensive weapon in the Flames’ arsenal why would he continue to be the team’s best paid player? How would that work?
Related: Flames’ Best Contracts for 2020-21
Gaudreau is likely to want a six-year deal if he re-signs, but by then, he will be 29 years old with his best scoring years behind him. Taking that into account, Treliving would probably prefer a two to three-year extension at most. However, the term should be easier to overcome than salary. Gaudreau will realize that a long-term deal with the Flames will be his last chance to earn big dollars. He will be pushing for a significant salary increase beyond the annual $6.75 million he makes now.
However, his bargaining position, like that of other big guns, may be undercut by the pandemic. Where he may have been able to run up his salary to $8 million per year in the pre-pandemic days, that is now unlikely.
All of this says that the Flames may be able to re-sign him at a bargain price, and they may have to because they will also need to re-sign Matthew Tckacuk and Andrew Mangiapane, who become restricted free agents (RFA) in 2022.
To Sign or Not to Sign an Extension?
Like anything in life, the answer depends on a lot of things. The Flames’ time is now and if they go deep into the playoffs this spring, then they should be able to remain Cup contenders for the next few seasons. They’ll need Gaudreau going forward and should try to sign him to a contract extension this offseason. If we see a repeat of their 2020 postseason performance, then the Flames will be moving toward a rebuild and Johnny Hockey will not be part of that.
My bold prediction? Gaudreau will not be wearing the Flaming C for the full 2021-22 season.
Paul covers the Calgary Flames, the Ottawa Senators and the OHL’s Ottawa 67s for The Hockey Writers (THW). He also hosts the Flames Faceoff show for THW’s Podcast Network.
Paul has been sought for media interviews for the thoughtful pieces he has written on hockey’s response to the major social and political issues of the day including the place of gay players in the game. Paul is also known for his interesting perspectives on the key issues and challenges facing the teams he follows.
Of his work with THW, Paul says, “I love to tell stories about the game of hockey and the personalities – both past and present, who have made it the greatest game on the planet!”
Follow him on Twitter at @pquinney