The Calgary Flames are going to be in scramble mode as free agency opens at 10 a.m. MDT on Wednesday July 13.
Johnny Gaudreau has informed the team he will not be returning to the franchise after 11 years with the organization. That leaves a massive hole in the lineup and in the Flames salary cap that begs the question: what’s next?
The team has a number of possibilities ahead of them not only today, but for the rest of the summer. As I see it, there are two clear paths they can go down starting today.
Plan A was signing Gaudreau, figuring out a way to sign all of the key restricted free agents, and contend again in 2022–23. That is now gone. That leaves Plan B and Plan C.
Plan B would be more optimistic, in which the Flames look to remain a competitive team and content in the Pacific Division. Plan C would be far more pessimistic, in which the team sells off its key assets and fully embraces a rebuild.
The first key step would be to actually decide fully which path the team wants to take and stick to it. After that, the Flames would need to enact a number of plans to see them to fruition.
Here are three key steps the Flames would need to take for both plans to work starting today.
Step 1: Re-sign all key RFAs
Cap space really isn’t a problem now for the team. Of course the last thing you want to do is completely fill it up the second you obtain more of it. That being said, the Flames have far more flexibility in order to sign Matthew Tkachuk, Andrew Mangiapane, and Oliver Kylington.
Presenting all three players with competitive and long term contracts allows the team to retain three young key pieces of the roster for years to come.
Step 2: Trade for, or promote, a Johnny “replacement”
To state the obvious, no one is replacing Johnny Gaudreau on this team. It can’t be done.
To state the even more obvious, trying to find someone to fill his massive shoes in free agency is even a worse idea. Teams are not built through free agency and handing out an overpayment of a contract for someone who won’t exactly fully help matters makes things worse.
That’s why the team could get creative by trading for someone available on the market. Do they go full chaos mode and try to take on James van Riemsdyk’s contract and extract an asset out of the Philadelphia Flyers? Or do they target a younger forward like Anthony Beauvillier or Travis Konecny? Or do they go completely off the board and look at Patrick Kane to truly fit that top line role. Given the right opportunity, a player could shine with Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk.
Or, speaking of opportunity, do they finally look at some of their key prospects and give them a true NHL shot? Does Jakob Pelletier or Matthew Phillips fit the bill?
Step 3: Fill our the rest of the roster
The team can look to trade for that one missing piece, but they still have some slight holes through the rest of the roster. The team could look to retain the services of Calle Jarnkrok and Erik Gudbranson, but also could try to find some key depth pieces to fit into place.
Step 1: Trade Matthew Tkachuk
We touched on this in detail earlier today, but if the Flames want to go down the rebuilding path then trading Tkachuk now makes a wealth of sense. Before teams fill our their salary caps with free agents, and with his value at an all-time high, the Flames could charge a premium for his services from a number of NHL teams.
The Flames may need to take back some short term money, but they could also try to acquire additional first-round picks in next year’s draft that could be a lottery pick depending on the team.
It’s a hard decision to make, but if Tkachuk doesn’t want to stay around then it’s a no brainer.
Step 2: Shed Salary
Without Gaudreau and Tkachuk taking up space on the cap, the Flames should look to shed even more of their long term salaries. I don’t think Blake Coleman and Jacob Markstrom would be looking to remain on a rebuilding team for the next four or five seasons. Both would be extremely key assets.
Tyler Toffoli, Mikael Backlund, and Elias Lindholm all have two seasons left on their deals and all three would be highly coveted in the market—with Lindholm being the crown jewel. Of course the team still needs players and their value could increase after they become pending unrestricted free agents with just one year left on their deals next summer with less long-term money attached.
By shedding space and contracts, the Flames could take on other teams’ brutal contracts and enticing them by taking on additional draft capital or prospects. It doesn’t sound pretty, but that’s a rebuild.
Step 3: Sign short term low-risk deals
The final step would be to identify low-risk, low-cost players in free agency that either need a fresh start or simply a different role on a team. By signing these short-term deals, and giving the players the chance to play consistent NHL minutes could term them into valuable assets at the trade deadline.
If the team’s plan is to acquire as much capital as possible, this is the quickest and most cost effective way of doing so. The return on some of the players may not be immense, but the difference between a few extra middle-round picks and none at all is significant.
Time is of the essence
The Flames had to wait until the eve of free agency before they had any idea of what was going to happen with Gaudreau. Now that they finally know, they have a shorter window to act on the rest of their offseason tasks and plan for both the short- and long-term future. Let’s hope they succeed at both.