Through 50 games of the 2021-22 season, there’s one indisputable fact for the Calgary Flames: Johnny Gaudreau is their best, and most important, player. The 28-year-old winger leads the Flames in scoring, but is slated to become an unrestricted free agent when his current contract expires on July 13.
The Flames have a lot on their to-do list following the current season. For several reasons, figuring out Gaudreau’s contract is their top priority.
A product of Carney’s Point, a New Jersey suburb of Philadelphia – located just across the Delaware River – Gaudreau has been property of the Flames since being selected in the fourth round of the 2011 NHL Draft. Since then, he’s (in turn) become a promising college player, a dominant college player, a promising NHL player, a productive NHL player, and more recently a dominant NHL player.
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Heading into Saturday’s game, he’s tied for fifth in the NHL in points with 64. Since Gaudreau become a full-time NHLer in 2014-15, he’s seventh in the NHL in points with 557, 130 points more than the next-nearest Flames player.

Gaudreau is Calgary’s offensive engine

Gaudreau is the team’s top offensive player, but he’s also the team’s best creator of goals – whether he’s scoring them or setting them up – in every game situation. Simply put, he’s the engine of Calgary’s offensive system.
They either need to re-sign him to keep playing the same style of game, or they need to re-think their entire offensive attack. Either way, if they need to rework everything or not, it’s better to know earlier rather than later because Gaudreau staying or going determines what they need to try to find in the marketplace.
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(Spoiler: they will not find another Gaudreau in the free agent market. There simply is not another one out there, so they would need to either redo their offense or try to replicate him in the aggregate.)

The return of “the Giordano cap”

One of the first big things Flames general manager Brad Treliving did after taking over in Calgary was re-signing pending free agent (and the team’s best player back then) Mark Giordano to a lengthy deal with a $6.75 million cap hit. Not only did Giordano’s deal lock in a very good player for awhile at a good cap hit, but it set the team’s internal cap structure and sent a message to the team: if you want to make more than Giordano, you need to prove yourself as better than Giordano.
Only two Flames have since made anywhere close to Giordano: Gaudreau, at an identical $6.75 million cap hit, and Matthew Tkachuk’s $7 million cap hit. You can make a strong argument that the trio of Giordano, Gaudreau and Tkachuk were the club’s best and/or most important players, so the unofficial “Giordano cap” did what it was seemingly meant to do.
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Giordano’s spot as the Flames’ top player has been taken by Gaudreau, and locking down Gaudreau before any other business is conducted – notably a new contract for Tkachuk – could potentially impose an upper limit on other deals. And even if a “Gaudreau cap” isn’t explicitly used as a bargaining hammer against other players, having the team’s best player locked in establishes a clear internal cap structure and probably keeps a Tkachuk cap hit from creeping up terribly far – if Tkachuk gets a higher AAV than Gaudreau on a lengthy deal, it’s unlikely to be a lot higher.

Establishing the summer’s to-do list

The salary cap for 2022-23 is expected to increase by just $1 million to $82.5 million. The Flames have roughly $28 million of cap space for next season, per Puckpedia, but they need to not only re-up Gaudreau (or lose him to free agency), but they have new deals for Tkachuk, Andrew Mangiapane and Oliver Kylington to ponder as well.
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As a pending UFA, Gaudreau is the most urgent piece of business for the club. But locking him in not only allows them to set the tone for the Tkachuk negotiations, but it also more or less tells them what things they need to do in order to afford a full team for 2022-23. Do they need to buy out Sean Monahan for the cap space? Do they need to move anybody else out?
A Gaudreau deal doesn’t seem imminent – I would be surprised if a deal was signed before June 1 – but it’s incredibly important for the Flames to get done because of all the other things it will allow the Flames to do afterwards. Or put another way: the Flames cannot do any other off-season work until (a) they know they have Gaudreau long-term and (b) they know how much cap space they have left (or need to open up) to do everything else on their to-do list.
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