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Can the Calgary Flames keep Gaudreau and Tkachuk? Some salary cap scenarios

At first glance, the Calgary Flames’ salary cap situation may not seem too daunting.

General manager Brad Treliving has approximately $26.9 million in cap space to fill out his roster heading into next season — the fifth most projected space available ahead of the 2022-23 season, per Cap Friendly.

That number conceivably includes space for big-ticket deals with Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. However, Oliver Kylington and Andrew Mangiapane need new contracts, too. And the club only has 12 NHL regulars under contract.

Tkachuk and Gaudreau cost the Flames $13.75 million on their previous deals. Add in raises for both and extensions for Kylington and Mangiapane, and that $26.9 million starts to disappear in a hurry. What’s clear is, if the Flames do not move out a significant contract (or two), they are going to find it incredibly difficult to both keep their top talent and improve elsewhere.

The team has some options to explore this summer — and we’re going to do that here. But first, some basics.

The 2022-23 Calgary Flames: NHL players under contract

Salary cap space: $26.9 million

Players required: Seven

The Flames have several players heading to UFA and RFA status. Some core players are signed — Elias Lindholm, Rasmus Andersson and Jacob Markstrom — but there are four significant negotiations at the top of the lineup, and some work to do when it comes to depth in the bottom-six and on the blue line.

With the salary cap increasing by $1 million and Troy Brouwer’s $1.5 million in dead money off the books, there’s an extra $1.5 million available to the team this summer — and every bit helps. One thing that might help the Flames early in the season is sliding Chris Tanev to LTIR. He said his recovery timeline was four-to-six weeks; naturally if he’s back by the start of camp, LTIR won’t be necessary. But if he misses the first few weeks of the season it could get the club some cap relief. Either way, this is not a long-term solution.

With the roster above, the Flames have 13 players signed, not including prospects – except for Juuso Valimaki who is on a one-way deal – and just under $27 million in space to fill out the rest of the roster with at least another eight players.

Gaudreau could make at least $9.5 million on an eight-year deal. Matthew Tkachuk is due a $9 million qualifying offer and would certainly make more than that on a long-term extension. He has a ton of leverage after a 42-goal and 104-point season, and a summer that includes arbitration rights and puts him one year from UFA status.

For the purposes of this exercise, let’s say Gaudreau and Tkachuk combine to make $20 million next season. That leaves the Flames with just under $7 million in cap space and six more roster spots to fill that include Kylington and Mangiapane.

That feels pretty close to an impossible task, doesn’t it? That’s why moving money out the door is critical.

Now, let’s dig into some potential paths forward.

Option 1: Milan Lucic

Conversations around creating more cap room in Calgary typically begin with figuring out what to do with Milan Lucic.

In an ideal world, the Flames would be able to get out from under his $5.25 million cap hit. Lucic, 34, brings physicality, leadership and championship experience, but that cap hit is too high for a fourth-line winger who plays 12 minutes a game.

First things first: Lucic is buyout-proof due to his contract structure. He has one year remaining with a $5.25 million cap hit. His final year’s salary is $4 million split up as $1 million in base salary and a $3 million signing bonus. With only $1 million in salary remaining, a Lucic buyout would only save the Flames $333,333, per Cap Friendly. His cap hit in 2022-23 would be $4.67 million in 2022-23 and $291,667 in 2023-24.

I know I said every bit counts, but under $400,000 in savings against the cap doesn’t help a whole lot.

While Lucic’s contract is prohibitive for a buyout, it’s intriguing for a trade with a team that needs to get to the cap floor, but doesn’t necessarily want to spend a ton of money. If the Flames were to pay the signing bonus and move Lucic out, an acquiring organization would only need to spend $1 million in actual cash. That’s attractive, sure. But there’s still Lucic’s trade protection to consider — an eight-team trade list that becomes a 10-team trade list on July 1 — and the question of what kind of a market there could be for him.

Last month, Arizona Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong said the team will be in the market for other teams’ bad contracts again this summer, with the hope of acquiring more draft assets or promising prospects in exchange.

The Coyotes are projected to have around $33.2 million in cap space next season, so Lucic’s deal shouldn’t be an issue. There would still need to be some sort of sweetener going the other way, though.

Last summer, Armstrong took on Loui Eriksson ($6 million cap hit), Jay Beagle ($3 million), and Antoine Roussel ($3 million) from the Vancouver Canucks in a trade that saw a top-10 pick go back to Arizona, plus a 2022 second rounder and a 2023 seventh. The Canucks got Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Conor Garland in the deal.

Arizona also added Shayne Gostisbehere ($4.5 million), a 2022 second-round pick and a seventh for future considerations. In February, it cost the Leafs a second rounder to dump Nick Ritchie ($1.4 million) in Arizona (the Leafs also got Ilya Lyubushkin).

The Flames don’t have much draft capital this summer — a second, fifth and seventh rounder — and Arizona can only take on so many bad contracts, so you’d think there will be some competition from around the league. Can the Flames pay that price?

If the Flames are keeping Gaudreau and Tkachuk, maybe. But if some of their talent goes out the door, I’d hesitate moving top picks.

One final possibility with Lucic: What if he were to consider retirement?

The Flames value Lucic. Darryl Sutter certainly does. No one is forcing him out the door; it is completely his choice whether he wants to play and finish out his deal.

But if he doesn’t, the Flames would be off the hook of his contract without losing any assets and no cap recapture.

Here’s what the team would look like without Lucic on the books — for any of the scenarios above.

The 2022-23 Calgary Flames: Without Milan Lucic

Salary cap space: $32.2 million

Players required: Eight

There’s more flexibility here, for sure. Again if we estimate Gaudreau and Tkachuk to come in around $20 million combined, that would leave the Flames with $12.2 million to get the rest of their work done.

Is that enough?

Kylington and Mangiapane have leverage this summer after good seasons and arbitration rights. Mangiapane could make around $5.5 million on a five-year deal. While Kylington could make five years at $4 million, per Evolving Hockey’s contract projection tool.

The 2022-23 Calgary Flames: Add in the free agents!

Salary cap space: $2.7 million

Players required: Four

Adding $9.5 million to the cap calculus would give the Flames less than $3 million to fill out at least four more roster spots. Even just four $800,000 contracts add up to $3.2 million. That’s how tight things will be.

Because of that, maybe the right play would be to simply sign Kylington and Mangiapane for shorter terms on “cheaper” deals. That could be OK with Kylington, but Mangiapane is only one year from UFA status and could walk in 2023 if signed to a one-year deal. If the latter were to happen, Mangiapane might become a trade candidate rather than risk losing him for nothing in 2023.

He scored 35 goals this season, is a spark plug for any line and has become an easy fan favorite; you don’t want to lose players like that, not via trade or them walking for nothing.

The 2022-23 Calgary Flames: Less money from Kylington and Mangiapane 

Salary cap space: $5.2 million

Players required: Four

Even taking each player down a notch would give the Flames $5.2 million to fill out at least four more spots. It’s manageable, but how can you improve with that many league-minimum deals?

So, moving only Lucic might not be enough to make everything click. Let’s move on to a few more options that could happen in addition to a Lucic move, or on their own.

Option 2: Sean Monahan

Another potential path for the Flames involves Sean Monahan.

He had hip surgery in April and Treliving said he’s five to six weeks ahead compared to the recovery timeline from his last hip surgery. That is great for Monahan, however, he is still technically recovering from an injury sustained during the season. That means he cannot be bought out in the offseason buyout window, which is July 1 this year.

In 2016, the Leafs bought out Jared Cowen, who then claimed he had a hip injury and therefore was not eligible. There was a lengthy arbitration process that ultimately confirmed the buyout. The point is: You can’t buy out injured players. Not unless Monahan were to give his permission, but that would mean he’d become a free agent and be leaving $2 million from the final year of his contract on the table.

Even if that were to happen, the cap savings for the Flames would be $4 million. That wouldn’t be enough on its own.

A trade would probably be the better option with Monahan, either in a deal to Arizona or in a more traditional “hockey trade.” Monahan was a great, reliable goal scorer. And there’s reason to be optimistic he will bounce back this time, but there’s also reason to think he might not. If you believe the latter, then removing his $6.375 million cap hit would give the Flames some much-needed breathing room.

The Athletic’s Max Bultman in Detroit brought up Monahan in a recent story about “creative moves” the Red Wings should consider this summer. He wrote:

“The Red Wings need a second-line center, and while Monahan’s last two seasons have been rocky, he’s not that far removed from being one. They also have the space to manage Monahan’s cap hit (which is only for one more season).

He probably won’t turn out to be the answer, but by helping Calgary out of a squeeze, it’s a flier the Red Wings could even get compensated for taking.”

The Red Wings got a second-round pick for taking Marc Staal’s $5.7 million cap hit from the Rangers two seasons ago, which seems like a natural starting point for taking a similar-sized contract. The Flames’ second rounder is their only pick in the first four rounds this year. Could a pick in 2023 get it done for Detroit? Would they take on a young player instead? I doubt they’d have a need for someone like Valimaki, given they have Calder-winner Moritz Seider. Maybe there’s a forward they’d be interested in.

Monahan would still need to let this happen, too; He has a 10-team no-trade list. As Max said, the fit for both sides is logical enough. But, as with most speculative ideas, it may turn out to be tricker to do in reality.

Still, for the purpose of this exercise, here’s what the roster and cap situation would look like without Monahan’s full deal on the books.

The 2022-23 Calgary Flames: No more Monahan

Salary cap space: $33.3 million

Players required: Eight

This would give the Flames $1.1 more room than what was laid out with the Lucic options. That would mean paying Gaudreau and Tkachuk $10 million each and the lower cap hits to Mangiapane ($4.5 million) and Kylington ($2.5 million) would leave the Flames with $6.3 million in cap space and at least four roster spots left to fill.

This is where I get a bit more speculative, but we can fill this roster out a bit more. Let’s add in Connor Mackey, and Jakob Pelletier. Sign Adam Ruzicka to a similar deal, and bring Trevor Lewis back.

The 2022-23 Calgary Flames: Adding depth!

Salary cap space: $2.9 million

Players required: One right-shot defenceman

It’s not perfect. Lucic is still overpaid for where he is. That fourth-line is a mess. There aren’t really upgrades on this roster and there is still a hole on the right side of the blue line (Michael Stone’s music?). Still, this feels a bit more manageable — but only if Mangiapane and Kylington would sign for a little less as laid out above. Otherwise, the team would be capped out with a really young defence pair and one player (likely Mackey) on their off side.

Option 3: Let’s make a deal

If the Flames struggle to make a move with underperforming contracts, what about one involving a player who has more value?

What about Mikael Backlund?

This would be tough. He’s the longest-tenured Flame and a solid centre — you’d need to replace him if you lose him. Still, his trade value might be higher than it’s been in a while after a solid playoffs, and he makes $5.35 million for two more years. And because he’s been a reliable player, the Flames wouldn’t need to pad the deal with futures to entice a team to bite. They coul get something in return: A pick and/or a prospect, maybe?

This would help the Flames now — freeing up money. And in the future — acquiring assets. You can’t say that about any of the other options.

The 2022-23 Calgary Flames: Backlund traded

Salary cap space: $32.3 million

Players required: Eight

Replacing Backlund would be tough, especially with him playing the 2C role this season while taking on tough five-on-five matchups and penalty kill minutes.

Maybe you keep Calle Jarnkrok around as the defensive third-line centre and try to find another centre to put up the lineup? Finding a second-line centre for less than $5 million is easier said than done, of course. The Flames wouldn’t want to break even there. That would defeat the purpose. Perhaps a deal with Backlund would include a cheaper middle-six centre coming to Calgary.

This option, more than the others, feels difficult to predict. It also offers around the same amount of cap savings as the Lucic option. Still, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think the Flames might need to engineer a bigger shakeup to make everything work.

There’s no easy answer here. Everything laid out above is why the Flames are going to need to have some difficult conversations. The only way they can sign their key players and try to improve is by moving out a significant salary or two, and there are only so many options to do so.

Maybe you move Valimaki ($1.5 million) in a small deal and put Connor Mackey ($912,500) on the third pair; it’s not much of a difference, though.

I don’t see Tyler Toffoli as a need-to-move player. If the Flames want to be competitive, his goal scoring will help, and he isn’t exactly overpaid ($4.25 million). Not to mention, they’re not likely to get back what they spent to acquire Toffoli before this year’s deadline. Moving Blake Coleman — one year after being their big get in free agency — doesn’t make sense to me, either.

An ideal scenario would be some sort of replica of the Vancouver-Arizona trade from last summer: Moving out a few troublesome contracts in one deal. It’ll cost them assets, but maybe the Flames could get an affordable, useful player (like Garland) in return?

Moving both Monahan and Lucic off the books this summer would free up an additional $11.6 million in cap space, making things significantly easier for Treliving to get his work done. How realistic is that? I’m not sure.

I’m curious about the kind of combination of things we’ll see the Flames pull off to make things work: hockey trades, cap dumps, shopping the bargain bin, promoting young players, etc.

Of course, if Gaudreau leaves in free agency, the calculus changes … a lot. The amount of space the Flames are working with doesn’t change — they will still have $26.9 million — but they will no longer have $10 million (or more) earmarked for one player. They would still need to try to replace Gaudreau with another skilled forward, but perhaps that player won’t cost quite as much. That would free the team up to maybe lock in Kylington to more term, or Mangiapane. They’d be taking a step back without Gaudreau, to be clear, but there would be a bit more flexibility with the roster.

The domino effect of Gaudreau leaving could free up even more money, but we won’t get into that now. The fact is: If the Flames want to sign their guys, they need to let go of others.

(Photo of Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk: Brett Holmes / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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