The Calgary Flames have a lot of business to take care of this summer. Of course, the items at the top of the list are re-signing superstar Johnny Gaudreau and extending potential future captain Matthew Tkachuk, but the underlying barrier to these contracts is the salary cap.
The Flames are unfortunately in a bit of a cap crunch, primarily due to big money contracts for players at the bottom of their roster. Sean Monahan is one such player whose on-ice production and impact has declined considerably over the past few years. We broke down how the Flames could deal with Monahan and his contract this offseason yesterday. The other player is Milan Lucic.
Lucic has been an incredible Flame since coming over from Edmonton in the lopsided James Neal trade that ended up being a colossal win for the Flames. However, as Lucic enters the final year of his deal that pays him $5.25M (from the Flames—the Oilers are chipping in another $750K), absolving the Flames of his contract would go a long way in re-signing the stars.
In order of worst scenario to best scenario, here are the several options to deal with Lucic’s contract this offseason.
Option 1: Buying out Lucic
This option is an absolute non-starter. If you hear anyone talk about how the Flames should buy out Lucic this summer, please emphasize how this makes zero sense whatsoever. The reason why this does not work is because of Lucic’s contract structure.
If he’s on the roster next season, Lucic’s cap hit for the Flames is $5.25M. He will actually earn $4M, $3M of which is a signing bonus handed out on July 1. Since signing bonuses are not counted in the buyout savings, the only savings the Flames will get is 2/3 of Lucic’s actual salary, which is $1M. After taking into account the Oilers’ salary retention, Lucic’s cap hit for the Flames would then be $4.67M. This gives them an overall cap savings of just $583K.
In order for a buyout to be useful, the team has to be saving on the cap. With Lucic’s cap hit at $4.67M and the minimum salary for a player next season being $800K, the Flames will end up paying more to fill Lucic’s roster spot than if they just kept Lucic in the first place.
A buyout is not an option.
Option 2: Trading Lucic to a team with lots of cap space
Lucic no longer has a no-move clause (NMC) in his contract. It is now a limited no-trade clause (NTC) whereby Lucic has to submit a list of 10 teams he can be traded to.
The reason why this scenario is number two on the list is because it’s extremely unlikely that the teams on Lucic’s list are those with the available cap space to take on his contract since those teams are at the bottom of the standings. At this stage of his career, there really isn’t a good reason for Lucic to move to a bad team and play out what are likely the rest of his days in the NHL.
Like the very recent example in the Ben Bishop salary dump by the Dallas Stars to the Buffalo Sabres, this type of move will cost the Flames some sort of asset—usually a draft pick. Would the Flames be okay throwing away a draft pick to dump Lucic’s contract? Absolutely. But Lucic would have to allow that to happen.
Option 3: Trading Lucic to a contender
For the trade route, this option is more likely. However, contending teams—like the Flames are trying to be—don’t have a lot of cap space available, especially to take on a contract and player like Lucic. If the Flames were able to find a way to trade Lucic, it would likely require the Flames to retain 50% of his salary, and throw in an asset on top.
In short, it would be very expensive from an asset point of view to trade Lucic to another good team.
The cap savings would be fairly helpful, though. If the Flames kept half of this $5.25M cap hit, that would open up an extra 2.625M on the cap. Assuming they replace Lucic on the roster with a player making the league minimum $800K, that would result in an overall cap savings of $1.825M. It’s not a ton, but every little bit helps when you’re about to offer over $20M to two players.
Option 4: Placing Lucic on the LTIR
Following the dreadful loss to the Edmonton Oilers in the second round, it was announced that Lucic was playing through an acromioclavicular (AC) joint sprain. The AC joint is in the shoulder where two bones meet, the scapula (shoulder blade) and the clavicle (collarbone). It doesn’t sound like a fun injury.
Lucic just turned 34 and has a had an illustrious career that must have taken quite a toll on him. It’s possible that this injury prevents him from playing the style of hockey he is known for, and he does not get medical clearance to play on opening night. If that’s the case, the Flames could opt to put Lucic on long-term injured reserve as soon as the season starts.
The CBA allows teams to exceed the salary cap by 10% in the offseason, meaning they can have a total salary cap up to $90.75M before opening night. The Flames may have to do some gymnastics to be compliant on opening night before placing Lucic on LTIR, but it is a possible scenario here. This would give the Flames significant cap relief for as long as Lucic was unable to play, not require giving up assets to dump Lucic’s contract, plus allow Lucic to stay around the team to provide leadership and experience.
It’s unclear what the timeline is for Lucic’s injury, though. If it ends up being an easy fix over the summer and Lucic is deemed healthy enough to play, this won’t work. It’s something to keep an eye on.
Option 5: Lucic retires
This is the scenario that’s been talked about quite a bit lately, and it’s definitely the best case scenario for the Flames.
As we discussed above, Lucic has had a great career and has put a lot of miles on his body. He’s won a Stanley Cup and has turned into a veteran, fourth-line winger whose ice time has fallen steadily the past few years to a career-low 12:15 ATOI this past season.
In this scenario, Lucic’s cap hit would disappear completely, and the Flames would instantly be free of his $5.25M cap hit and would have that room to sign the rest of their free agents.
It actually makes the most sense, too. Remember, Lucic’s base salary is just $1M next season, a far cry from the $2.5M he made last season. Once the Flames hand him his $3M cheque on July 1, maybe it makes the most sense for Lucic, whose estimated career earnings eclipse the $71M mark, to forgo the measly $1M salary next season and hang up his skates after an impressive 15-year NHL career.
Throw in his shoulder injury and this option becomes not just possible, but maybe even likely.
Lucic is in control
Ultimately, Lucic holds his future in his own hands. He controls his 10-team trade list, he controls how he wants to deal with his shoulder injury, and he controls whether he wants to continue playing or not.
If he does decide to call it quits, he would be going out on a high note. He was able to rejuvenate his career in Calgary and find joy in the game of hockey once again, score 10 goals as a fourth line leader, and everyone knows his impact on this team will remain for years to come.
The stars might be dominating the storylines so far, but Lucic could play a major part in the Flames’ summer.