The single most common question we’re hearing in regards to the Calgary Flames is “When’s Johnny Gaudreau going to sign?” The second-most common question is “And for how long?”
The challenge in forecasting Gaudreau’s deal is that there are a lot of different variables in play. What does the team want? What does the player want? Will their wants and needs change over the course of a long deal? What are the risks involved to each side?
After weighing as many variables as I could drum up, I’m beginning to believe that a shorter-term deal, something in the vicinity of three years, may be the best bet for everybody involved.
Gaudreau is an artist. When you see him in the locker room, there’s not a lot to him. He’s not big. He’s not an overly loud guy. But when you put him on skates and put a stick in his hands, he’s magic. Over the course of the past two seasons, he’s become arguably Calgary’s most dangerous offensive player and inarguably their most entertaining player. From a marketing perspective, he’s the team’s most valuable asset.
And he’s only played two full seasons.
The challenge for both sides is this: there aren’t a lot of comparables to Gaudreau in the entire league, in terms of what he can do and how important he is to his club (in so many different ways).
Based on how valuable he is to them now, you can see the incentives for the Flames to lock him up for as long as humanly possible. If he’s signed for eight seasons, even at a crazy-high cap hit, the Flames can work around the cap hit and move bodies/salary and make it work (when a player is that good, you make it work.)
But the length is also the risk. To get Gaudreau to sign away two years of unrestricted free agency, you’re going to need to open the purse strings. And as we’ve seen with the much-maligned Dennis Wideman deal, long-term contracts are risky because what if that player takes a step backwards in their development? What if they get hurt? Then you’re stuck with a diminishing asset with an albatross of a contract.
But if you’re the Gaudreau camp, the reason you’d rather not sign long-term is different.
First, let’s step around any whispering about Gaudreau wanting to go play back east, because it’s not really relevant to this discussion. The main aspect that’s risky for them is the length, because it locks Gaudreau in at a specific cap hit. The NHL is hoping that the cap will go back up as the North American economy gradually recovers and revenues increase. So in terms of just overall percentage of cap space allocated to Gaudreau, he’ll probably become relatively underpaid if he stays this good over a long-term deal.
But considering he’s super-young and has only played a couple seasons, what if he gets better? If you’re Gaudreau’s camp and you just saw him improve year-over-year for three seasons in college (and then for a couple of strong NHL seasons), you’re thinking he hasn’t plateaued yet. So why the heck would you lock a player that hasn’t plateaued yet to a long-term deal at what’s likely a lower cap hit than he can get in two or three seasons?
A three-year deal protects both camps in specific ways.
For the Flames, it allows them a chance to hedge their bets a bit in terms of injury risk or just the chance that the league figures Gaudreau out. In three more seasons, Gaudreau will have been in the NHL for five seasons and the comparable player pool will be much more clear. He will probably be what he’ll be for the rest of his career, and the Flames can feel less nervous about throwing a ton of cash at him.
And in the event that a deal is tough to hash out, Gaudreau would be eligible for salary arbitration. Otherwise, if the Flames decide they’d like to cash out and move him, it’s easier to move a player that still has RFA years left because the acquiring team doesn’t take on a ton of risk.
For Gaudreau’s camp, it allows him a chance to prove that he’s a bonafide superstar in the NHL and really increase that cap hit into the elite figures. More seasons of offensive success means it’s much tougher for the Flames to try to talk him into a lower cap hit.
In addition, the possibilities of salary arbitration and of an offer sheet provide extra incentive for the Flames to talk turkey early in the process rather than hem and haw about cap hits and comparables. If Gaudreau remains as good as he is for another three seasons, it’ll be time to (quiet frankly) shut up and pay the man. But right now, I can understand any nervousness about shelling out big, big bucks.
If I’m Gaudreau’s agent Lewis Gross, I look at the player and try to maximize the payout I can get for my client. (And, in a related note, to maximize the money I can make off him via my commission.) A shorter-term deal now, followed by a longer-term, higher cap hit mega-deal later on, allows for the most ability to tweak Gaudreau’s compensation as he further proves himself to be a superstar.
If I’m Flames GM Brad Treliving, I want to hedge my bets and mitigate risk. There are far fewer risks on the Flames end to signing a shorter deal now and perhaps giving Gaudreau a raise in three years than there are to signing him for eight seasons and seeing him regress in some way.
As much as we’d all love to see Gaudreau sign a really long deal with the Flames, the risk and rewards to both sides at the bargaining table seem to be working against that possibility. A shorter term, possibly around three years, would allow both sides to hedge their bets and maximize their bargaining position by essentially delaying a big commitment to a future negotiation.