Matthew Tkachuk’s story can’t end in Calgary the same way Johnny Gaudreau’s did. After Gaudreau walked away in free agency this week, the Flames are now potentially a year away from being in the same situation with Tkachuk. Currently a restricted free agent, Tkachuk can become unrestricted as early as next July, depending on how the rest of this summer unfolds.
After how things played out with Gaudreau, though, Calgary cannot let that happen, which leaves them only a couple realistic options with very little grey area.

The best case scenario

If it’s in the cards, signing Tkachuk to a long-term contract is still the most desirable option. Tkachuk is an elite talent drafted and developed by the Flames and retaining players like him is almost always the best outcome. Furthermore, the ability to keep a high-end player in a smaller NHL market is always a win in my eyes. That’s even more evident after how Gaudreau left.
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And it’s not like a big contract for Tkachuk is lacking merit. I don’t know if he’s a perennial 100-point player, but I do know Tkachuk is one of the league’s most complete wingers. Year after year, Tkachuk ranks near the top of the NHL analytically and flirts with point-per-game totals. I’d rather go forward with a player like Tkachuk than not.
So what does a new Tkachuk deal look like? Well, let’s be honest: he has about as much leverage as a restricted free agent can possibly have. Tkachuk has a high qualifying number ($9 million), is a year from becoming unrestricted, has arbitration rights, and is coming off a career season of 104 points. Tkachuk’s camp holds a lot of cards.
We know the Flames had an eight-year deal at $10.5 million per season on the table for Gaudreau before he opted to sign in Columbus. Knowing he’s younger and has plenty of leverage, I think it’s fair to suggest a max term deal would look similar for Tkachuk.
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There are some who believe it’ll be hard for Calgary to convince Tkachuk to stay now that Gaudreau is gone. After all, Tkachuk played virtually every second last season on a line with Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm and it resulted in career numbers across the board. I could understand how Gaudreau’s departure might help convince Tkachuk to look elsewhere.
On the flip side, though, there are things working in favour of the Flames. Because they aren’t committing double digit millions to Gaudreau each season, Calgary has more salary cap flexibility and thus more room to get Tkachuk locked up. Additionally, Tkachuk would be positioned as the team’s centrepiece going forward and the path to captaincy would be clear.
In the end, Tkachuk makes the call. Coming off a career season, though, this summer could very well be the time to strike while the iron is hot when it comes to max dollars. He has plenty of negotiating power, but retaining Tkachuk remains Calgary best case scenario.
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The alternative

Because the Flames don’t call all the shots, or even most of them, the possibility of Tkachuk walking himself to unrestricted free agency has to be accounted for. More succinctly, Calgary can’t allow Tkachuk’s situation to get to that point, or anywhere close.
The approach is simple in my eyes: the Flames need to set a hard internal deadline. If Tkachuk is signed to a new deal prior to that deadline, that’s great. If not, however, Calgary would then start exploring a trade for Tkachuk. While there’s always potential downside in trading a player of Tkachuk’s calibre, it’s a whole lot less than letting him walk for nothing.
If Tkachuk isn’t going to sign, the Flames absolutely have to maximize their asset. That’s why I think an internal deadline prior to the season is the way to go. Trading Tkachuk ahead of the coming season allows both teams involved to integrate new players in training camp and allows some runway to get cap compliant.
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Going too far into a new season worries me if trading Tkachuk is the eventual result, assuming he’s playing on a one-year deal. The Ottawa Senators got poor return for Mark Stone in a similar situation a little more than three years ago.
Playing on a one-year contract leading into unrestricted free agency, the Sens turned Stone into a second-round pick and prospect defenceman Erik Brannstrom at the 2019 trade deadline. While Brannstrom’s story is still unfolding, it’s safe to say Ottawa didn’t get max value for a high-end asset.
Calgary can’t go down the same road if Tkachuk isn’t ready to commit long-term this summer.

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