As Plan Bs go, this isn’t bad.
Remember, Plan A in Calgary was to give Johnny Gaudreau the keys to the Flames vault and to lock up 24-year-old power forward Matthew Tkachuk to a long-term contract. Sean Monahan? That was a problem of a former core player becoming a seemingly deteriorating asset. Those types of talented athletes always cause consternation for teams because nobody wants to give up on a special, frequently injured player too early. It was an issue that needed resolution with one year left on his long-term deal.
So that was Plan A for GM Brad Treliving. Lock up the 100-point players, maybe get something for Monahan. But just as the best way to make the Almightly laugh is to tell her your plans, so too do the best laid concepts of NHL general managers tend to be buffeted suddenly and violently by unexpected influences.
Gaudreau took the money in Columbus, of all places, and Tkachuk said he didn’t want to pay in Calgary any more. On top of all this, Monahan had another round of hip surgery and had little value on the open market.
Treliving had to scramble, and like a golfer faced with a double bogey who turns it into a par, his scrambling has turned out pretty well. Or at least, more accurately, his scrambling has been met with enthusiastic applause by Calgary’s rights-holding hockey media. Somehow good old Brad made the team better! Maybe the Flames are more of a contender today than they were six months ago! Hurrah!
Well, maybe. Losing Gaudreau and Tkachuk, and trading Monahan to Montreal, left three major holes. Acquiring Jonathan Huberdeau last month and signing Nazem Kadri on Thursday filled two of those slots.
Then it gets a little more complicated.
For starters, the Flames had to give the Canadiens a wildly complicated conditional first-round pick to take Monahan off their hands. It was a nice little piece of business by Kent Hughes for his rebuilding team on the same day he got the bad news Carey Price may not play at all this season.
As well, Treliving lavished $84 million (U.S.) over eight years on the 29-year-old Huberdeau, then gave the 31-year-old Kadri seven-year deal worth $49 million. These, folks, are tricky contracts. In five years, when Huberdeau is 34 and Kadri is 36, they’ll be eating up $17 million of Calgary’s payroll with multiple years left on their deals. Losing the youthful Tkachuk and the first-round pick to Montreal just underscores the reality that Calgary is trying to win now and isn’t worrying one bit about the future any more.
If these moves don’t make Calgary a better hockey team, well, it probably won’t be Treliving’s problem any more. He’ll have been replaced.
These were probably necessary contracts the Flames had to accept. They faced an image problem, with three American players — Adam Fox, Gaudreau and Tkachuk — making it clear that, given a choice, they didn’t want to play in Cowtown. The uncertainly over how American players feel about Alberta remains. But the Flames have convinced two older, well-known Canadian players to take the money.
Now they can say elite NHLers obviously are willing to play in Calgary. Particularly if you give them retirement contracts.
Despite all the rah-rah stuff, nobody really knows whether the Flames are better or worse today. This has been an unexpected whirlwind of change. The best that can be said is that the damage could have been worse, and Treliving has done pretty well to salvage what should still be a winning hockey club after a 111-point season a year ago.
The addition of Kadri will be fascinating. He flourished as a secondary player in Colorado on a Stanley Cup winning team, and now he will have to be a central figure in Calgary, perhaps the team’s No. 1 centre. It’s the kind of evolution the Maple Leafs once imagined for him until they abandoned hope and made a bad trade to move him to the Avalanche.
Kadri can be an outspoken, polarizing figure, and some in Calgary remember he once refused a trade to the Flames. Most believed he was going to be a prime free agent catch this summer after his outstanding playoff efforts in Denver, but then the first few days of free agency turned into weeks and nobody signed him. There were rumours the Islanders were going to put pen to paper with him, but that didn’t happen.
Now Calgary has signed him to a long-term deal at a salary that is probably less than what Kadri was hoping for. Since 2012, he has scored 20 or more goals four times, and twice more than 30. Both of those were on high-scoring, offensively oriented teams, the Leafs and Avalanche.
He’s a sturdy two-way centre with an ornery side who, in theory, should fit with defensive-minded Darryl Sutter. But Kadri’s a different personality, and not everybody fits with Sutter. So that will be interesting to watch.
If Calgary had been able to retain Gaudreau and Tkachuk, and then add Kadri, the case could have been made the team had been strengthened. Now? The Flames are definitely very different, and they’ve taken on some long-term contractual liabilities.
More than ever, the focus will be on 32-year-old Jacob Markstrom to carry the Flames at least to the Stanley Cup final. If Markstrom can have another Vézina Trophy-type season, then sure, the Flames could end up getting further next spring and this blizzard of moves could end up with a positive conclusion.
The Flames, without question, have been the NHL’s most interesting franchise this off-season. Now we’ll see if they can make the leap from interesting to improved.
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