If, for some bizarre reason, you want to be a pessimist and find negativity following the Flames’ vanquishing of the Vancouver Canucks and advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 11 years, there is one thing you can point to.
Playoff games count against entry-level contracts.
Sam Bennett is in the first year of such an entry-level contract.
That contract will slide as long as he plays fewer than nine NHL games.
Sam Bennett has now played seven NHL games, and his team is guaranteed another four.
Sam Bennett is, in all likelihood, playing in those four (or more!) games.
Wait, why is this bad?
Speaking exclusively in terms of money and cap space, it’s going to make Bennett a whole lot more expensive a whole year sooner. Having star players on cheap deals for basically just as long as ELCs allow can be incredibly important to Cup-contending teams. Two prime examples:
- Evgeni Malkin was still on his ELC when the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Cup in 2009.
- Both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were on their ELCs when the Blackhawks won the Cup in 2010.
With the Blackhawks, in particular, all that cap space they had thanks to three straight years of Toews and Kane on the cheap allowed them to load up on depth; depth they had to immediately jettison following the win thanks to their young stars’ raises about to kick in.
And here’s the thing: the Flames aren’t likely to win the Cup this year. They’re a lot of fun, and you want to believe they can, but at some point reality has to come in (especially if you’re part of the team’s upper management) and say, “Naw dude. Maybe in a couple years. But not this one.”
The Anaheim Ducks are definitely going to be a much more difficult opponent than the Vancouver Canucks, and the Flames will be in much tougher to make it out of the second round. They were the only Pacific team Calgary lost the season series to, after all. Also, second round’s usually harder than the first.
The Flames could be burning a valuable year of a cheap Sam Bennett for two or four extra games. When you take all the emotions and hope brought on by a playoff run out of the equation, it’s simply not a smart decision.
But do you really think a team on an unexpected run is going to pull its second line left winger from the lineup? That would be even more unexpected than making the second round in the first place. Especially when said winger already has two playoff goals and has proven himself a force throughout the few games he’s already played.
But there must be a good side to this!
Absolutely. For one thing: the Flames are in position to play Bennett in more than nine games to begin with. That’s awesome. This run is awesome. Beating the Canucks is awesome. Wouldn’t trade it for anything, no matter how short it ultimately ends up being.
Bring emotions back into the equation, and really, there’s no problem with burning a year of Bennett’s deal. Making the second round in the second year of a rebuild is beyond gravy. Not only that, but who’s to say the Flames can’t beat the Ducks, too? Just because the odds are against them doesn’t mean it’s impossible. This entire season has been impossible.
And of course, it’s a great thing that Bennett – yes, at just 18 years of age – is already a strong contributor to a playoff team. He’s getting NHL playoff experience, which is, of course, good. The fact that he’s doing it in a meaningful way only bodes for how good of a player he’s going to develop into (on the flip side: how expensive a player he’s going to become, too).
There’s another side to this, though, and it’s that if the Flames play it smart – outside of burning a year – they can afford to do this.
If Bennett plays just three more games, he’ll need a new contract by the 2017-18 season. The only guys currently signed for that year are as follows:
- Matt Stajan ($3.125 million)
- TJ Brodie ($4.650 million)
Calgary has been very, very smart in not committing to long-term contracts. TJ Brodie’s extension is only for five seasons; the same as Mark Giordano’s was, and the same then-impending free agent Dennis Wideman was signed for. The Flames have a history of not going beyond that, and considering how well it’s been working out, there isn’t much reason to think that’s going to change (extending guys like Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau possibly aside).
Players not signed for 2017-18, but who have a pretty good shot at still being around then, are mostly upcoming restricted free agents:
- Johnny Gaudreau
- Sean Monahan
- Mikael Backlund
- Joe Colborne
- Josh Jooris
- Lance Bouma
- Markus Granlund
- Paul Byron
- Michael Ferland
- Tyler Wotherspoon
It would be unreasonable to expect everyone to still be on the Flames three years from now. It should also be pointed out that some of these guys are closer to unrestricted free agency than others; for example, while Monahan will probably be getting a big contract through his RFA years, Byron will soon be a UFA, but he won’t command nearly as much money.
There are just a few upcoming unrestricted free agents you can expect to be re-signed and on new contracts by the time Bennett needs a new deal of his own:
- Jiri Hudler
- Mark Giordano
- Kris Russell
Those guys may be a bit more expensive. Hudler and Giordano command $4 million salaries, and with their contracts expiring when they’ll still be in their early 30s, may very well want raises (especially if they keep these performances up). Russell will probably come cheaper. Jonas Hiller or Karri Ramo could be dark horses for such a situation, but Hiller ($4.5 million) would likely take a pay cut, and Ramo ($2.75 million) probably wouldn’t cost much more.
The Flames are currently swimming in cap space thanks to smart signings and asset management. Burning a year of Bennett’s ELC now would, in all likelihood, be not-smart asset management, but also the only real flop on the Flames’ part since acquiring Brandon Bollig for a third rounder. And this move would be for a much better cause.
Should they keep playing Sam Bennett?
Yes, and no.
Yes, because the playoffs are fun, and you play to win. The Flames are a better team with Bennett in the lineup than not. Bennett increases the Flames’ chances at winning. So you keep him in the lineup, and whether you bow out early or not, you know you gave it your all and your next rising star was a big part of that.
Also: the Flames have put themselves in a position where they can afford to do this, as long as they keep being smart with their contracts, this one indulgence aside.
No, because it’s burning a cheap year and millions of dollars on a pipe dream, and it’s rather poor asset management to do that, not to mention it could accidentally hurt the Flames in the future.
Considering the intensity the playoffs bring about, not to mention the city’s full on embracing of this team once again, it’s pretty easy to see what the Flames are going to do. Sam Bennett will, in all likelihood, have a year of his ELC prematurely burnt.
For a team that so rarely treats itself, though, the Flames can afford this indulgence. It’s not smart, but it is very much okay.