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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Is there anyone who can, right now, do what Tkachuk is doing (or better)?
- 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.
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.