Matthew Tkachuk, the Flames, and entry-level contracts

Matthew Tkachuk has another five games to play before we’re on the cusp of seeing whether the Flames choose to burn a year of his entry-level contract or not.

That’s still a little over a week from now. The Flames’ ninth game of the season is on Oct. 28, and a lot of things can happen over the course of eight days. Nothing is set in stone – not even Tkachuk’s future, should he play 10 games this season, as the 40-game mark carries another contractual quirk to it.

So he may or may not  stay in Calgary throughout the entire year. The early returns are looking pretty good right now, though; most recently scoring a goal and getting more emotionally involved in the game definitely helped out his team.

But Tkachuk isn’t the first high profile rookie forward the Flames have had to make a decision on. Let’s take a little trip down memory lane.

Sean Monahan

Monahan kicking off his NHL career with a five-game point streak, and six goals and nine points in his first nine games, was a pretty big part in his making the big league straight out of junior. How could it not have been? 

He wasn’t going to be able to maintain that scoring pace over the course of a full season; it’s extremely rare for a rookie to enter the NHL as a point-per-game player. But how do you tell a team – even one that should know its rebuild had only just kicked off, and they weren’t, in any likelihood, going to be playing more than 82 games that year – that you’re demoting one of its best scorers out of the gate?

You don’t. Monahan scored another 25 points in his remaining 66 games, dropping to a .38 point per game pace. He broke the 20-goal mark as a rookie, though, and finished the season fifth in Flames scoring.

The most concerning number about Monahan’s rookie season was actually his possession stats: 43.81% 5v5 CF, and a CF% rel of -4.07. He did, ultimately, flounder through parts of the season. Then again, floundering is a part of just about any rookie’s season. And the Flames weren’t a particularly good team to begin with, so there weren’t too many Monahan had to beat out for a roster spot. 

The Flames may have been able to keep him on the cheap for one more season had they not kept him up. This year, however, is more of a transitional one, so the benefits likely would not have been readily apparent. Having good players on ELCs helps the most when your team is contending, which the Flames are currently not doing.

Monahan forced the team to keep him up, and ultimately, nothing bad came of it.

Johnny Gaudreau

Gaudreau’s ELC ended a year earlier than it otherwise would have in the Flames’ rush to get him signed and under their control. Whether the fears in the fanbase before he put pen to paper (the first time) were legitimate or not, ultimately, the Flames got their guy, and it’s worked out pretty well for them.

While it would have been nice to have avoided the headache Gaudreau’s contractual situation caused this offseason – a headache both sides are at fault for – ultimately, the Flames got him to sign a deal friendly to them (in terms of cap hit) and the player (in terms of, well, term).

Gaudreau’s the only guy we’re talking about here who wasn’t a first round pick – but if the draft was done again today, he would have been one.

As it stands, the circumstances surrounding him were extremely different. And we’ll see how his new contract ultimately works out in the long run. But the first year was burned on just one game, a situation not likely to repeat itself.

Except…

Sam Bennett

The Flames avoided an initial conundrum with Bennett due to his shoulder injury that knocked him out for most of the season. When he was ready to play again, he was returned to the OHL. After all, this was an 18-year-old kid just getting in his first games of the year, nearly five months behind everyone else, and to put him immediately in the NHL would have been irresponsible.

He earned a playoff roster spot when the time was right, though. And ultimately, the Flames winning a round cost them one of Bennett’s entry-level years.

Had the Flames lost in the first round, Bennett wouldn’t have even hit nine games, and the 2015-16 season would have been the first year of his contract. Because they won, though, they were guaranteed another four games at minimum, which put Bennett’s total up to 12: his debut in the regular season finale, six first round games, and five in the second round.

That’s when the situation became somewhat similar to Monahan’s. Bennett had a good first round. To sit him in the second round because of his contractual status would have been a blow to the player and the team. Benching a player solely for contractual reasons in the middle of the playoffs? That would not have gone over well with anybody.

Logically, it would have made sense to sit him. The Flames had no chance against the Ducks, and burning a cheap year of Bennett on a far-off dream wasn’t the best way to manage him.

Logic doesn’t get to play into this area, though, because the game is not played by robots. It’s played by people, and both Bennett and his teammates would have had very legitimate grievances had he been sat to preserve a year of his ELC. The problem was a coaching failure – demoting Bennett to the fourth line because Lance Bouma came back – and not a GMing one.

Matthew Tkachuk

Tkachuk has more in common with Monahan than the other two. He earned his spot out of camp, and he started the season healthy. What he doesn’t have in common with Monahan is he isn’t putting up the numbers he was to start his career, and unless Tkachuk’s first goal opens up the floodgates, he probably won’t have the numbers that made it impossible to demote Monahan.

He’s been good, but he hasn’t been exceptional, and there’s been only one game in which he’s been a difference maker (so far).

This brings us to two questions:

  1. Is there anyone who can, right now, do what Tkachuk is doing (or better)?
  2. Is it worth it to keep Tkachuk cheap for an extra season by not burning the first year of his ELC?

Let’s start with number one. Hunter Shinkaruk, who finished his 2015-16 season in the NHL and didn’t look out of place, was one of the Flames’ last cuts of training camp. Shinkaruk is, in all likelihood, next in line for a recall. Through two games with the Heat, he has the Heat scoring lead with two goals and an assist (Mark Jankowski and Andrew Mangiapane also have three points, for the record; one goal each, but Shinkaruk is also the one with far more professional experience).

This is but one person’s opinion: I’ve mentioned in the past that a friend of mine is a season ticket holder for the Heat. He’s the only player on the team she’s watched and wondered why he isn’t in the NHL. (And hey, this is a nice-looking goal; apparently his first one was pretty, too.) So if a spot in the forward lineup opens, maybe it should be his.

There are three ways Shinkaruk gets into the NHL at this point: Ladislav Smid (or anyone else who may get injured, for that matter) going on LTIR, a trade in which very little cap comes back, or Tkachuk being returned to the OHL. Shinkaruk’s $863,333 cap hit means unless the Flames do something like demote Bouma, Kris Versteeg, or Jyrki Jokipakka – a thing that is probably not going to happen – Tkachuk has to go to fit Shinkaruk into the current cap structure.

If that happens, it’s a no-backsies trade. Tkachuk can’t be recalled from the OHL unless the Flames run into an extreme amount of injuries. So it would be like trading Tkachuk for Shinkaruk for the year, and if Shinkaruk doesn’t work out, well, then the Flames get their pick of Garnet Hathaway or dressing Freddie Hamilton, and that’s about it at this stage of the game.

Now, the second question.

Looking to the Flames’ future cap

As things stand right now, the Flames’ big deals are mostly staggered. Hopefully, Tkachuk joins this group; it’ll mean he’s been good. If he stays up this season, he’ll need a new deal for the 2019-20 season. If he’s sent down and makes the NHL for real in the 2017-18 season, then his new deal will be needed for the 2020-21 season.

This is where the potential problem comes in. Nobody needs a new contract for 2019-20. Mikael Backlund will for 2018-19, but that’s about it. (This is assuming Bennett signs a multi-year deal of decent term following this season, which is probably likely; teams tend to like to lock up their good young players. Except the Boston Bruins, for some reason?)

Three players on the Flames have deals that expire at the end of the 2019-20 season, and will need new contracts for 2020-21: Troy Brouwer (he’ll be 35), Michael Frolik (he’ll be 32), and… T.J. Brodie.

Brouwer will be in the 35+ contract spectrum, which carries its own host of problems; re-signing him likely won’t be a concern. Frolik might be, if the Flames decide to retain him. Brodie, who is hilariously underpaid at just a $4.65 million cap hit, will be 30 and in all likelihood looking for a big raise.

If Tkachuk plays nine games and is then sent down, he and Brodie will probably need new contracts at the same time. And it won’t be a Gaudreau-Giordano situation, in which one probably cancels the other out (Giordano will be 39 the season after; this is his last big deal, which should cover the inevitable Gaudreau raise): they’ll both be getting raises.

If the Flames want to keep their contract expirations staggered, then maybe it just plain makes sense to have the clock running on Tkachuk’s deal start this year. As of right now, nobody will need a new deal for the start of the 2019-20 season. He gets full focus that offseason.

In summation

Monahan, Gaudreau, and Bennett all came into the NHL differently, but all three saw the first year of their ELCs burned immediately. Tkachuk’s path is most similar to Monahan’s, but it’s different, too. And a lot can happen over the next three or four years; a lot of relevant variables that can change at any moment.

The Flames have been burned by having a player’s ELC expire a year earlier than necessary. This offseason with Monahan and especially Gaudreau’s deals got ugly. We don’t know what the negotiations will look like for Bennett, either.

But they also haven’t been totally burned by it. If the team was afraid of losing Gaudreau to free agency before he even put on a Flames jersey for real, then they nipped that in the bud. And they didn’t damage morale by demoting Monahan or Bennett at inopportune times, either.

The bottom line in this case is: if the Flames are comfortable and confident with Tkachuk’s game, and don’t believe he’ll be replaceable by anyone on the farm right now, then he should probably just stay up. At least until the 40-game mark – and we can go from there. But Tkachuk is here now, and especially as the Flames are just starting to get it together, he’s one of the guys now, too.

  • Scary Gary

    Although I enjoy his game I’m one of the send the 18 year old down advocates but you make a compelling argument Ari.

    In the meantime I hope he doesn’t hurt himself; he threw a hit after his goal last game that had him immediately head to the bench grimacing (shoulder, ribs?).

    • Ari Yanover

      Honestly, I’m in the “send him down unless he’s exceptional” camp, but it kinda sounds like they’re gonna keep him up so I’m just trying to rationalize that thought process.

  • cjc

    If I understand correctly, they can’t just LTIR Smid to bring in Shinkaruk because they are already at the roster limit. Smid counts toward the cap but not the roster limit.

    They’re pretty stuck until someone with a cap hit equal to or higher than Shink gets injured. Then that player can be moved to IR, Smid to LTIR, and then someone can be recalled.

    Only Bennett and Kulak are waiver exempt – but Kulak’s cap hit is less than Shinkaruk’s, and they aren’t going to demote Bennett.

  • Kensington

    To me if you burn the year, you will have 5-6 million less for the 2019-20 season (if he turns out to be a star), which could be when the flames are contenders and could add a free agent or two for the season.

  • Backburner

    Tkachuk doesn’t look completely out of place to me at all.. his playing style seems to translate well at this level. I’m not sure if he would benefit from being demoted at this point?

    I think it was a good decision for Gully to drop him down to the 4th line though, that will give him the opportunity to work his way up, instead of the other way.

  • supra steve

    Gaudreau re-signed in 2016 was much cheaper than he would have been in 2017.

    Bennett re-signed in 2017 is very likely to be cheaper to ink than he would be if he didn’t need that new deal until 2018.

    If Tkachuk stays for the year, he needs to be re-signed sooner, but in all likelyhood, he will be cheaper to sign at 21 years of age than he would be at 22 years. Having said that, It’s not a reason to keep him, only his play can do that.

    • Backburner

      I think you nailed it.

      Signing a 21 year old will be a lot cheaper in the long run, right before they hit that prime of 22-25 years. (Unless your McDavid).

      I know it’s early, but I think Tkachuk and Bennett are essential ‘core’ pieces that this team will need in the future and I think getting locked up long term the earlier the better.

      • Kevin R

        Yup. I have no problem keeping Tak up this year. I would rather roll with young players, look how exciting it is for fans in Toronto & Arizona with all their young guys in the lineup doing fairly well. Our little playoff year was hi lighted with so many young guys getting a chance. I can’t stand signing these old depth guys like Versteeg & Grossman. Let’s get young in there, our record probably wouldn’t be any worse than it is now.

        Benny will be cheaper to sign next summer. Knowing Tre, he’ll probably get at least a 6 year deal done at around the 5.0ish range, unless Benny explodes this year & then that would be a good problem trying to keep his cap hit under 6.0 mill. next summer.

  • The Last Big Bear

    “Hey kid, you’ve done everything we’ve asked of you, and you have unquestionably earned a spot on this team.

    But you’re cut.

    Because we’re trying to screw you out of some salary. Salary which, to again clarify, you have definitely earned.

    Looking forward to you pouring out your heart and soul for this team, while sacrificing your body (and hopefully taking a pay cut) the next time we see you!”

  • oilersuck

    Please clarify: Since Bennett played 12 games but didn’t hit the 40 game mark his first year he burnt a year off his ELC but his RFA status slid a year?

  • Derzie

    There are more reasons for him to stay then there are for a demotion. If he is contributing and growing, keep him up. It’s a young player’s league and he’ll fit right in.

  • Baalzamon

    Through two games with the Heat, he has the Heat scoring lead with two goals and an assist (Mark Jankowski and Andrew Mangiapane also have three points, for the record; one goal each, but Shinkaruk is also the one with far more professional experience).

    Small correction here: there was a late change to Stockton’s scoring summary last night. Shinkaruk’s assist was eventually credited to Jankowski, so Janko has four points and Crookshanks has two (both goals).