CALGARY – The Calgary Flames will open camp Thursday with questions about their goaltending, second-line personnel, the impact of Milan Lucic, Mark Giordano’s defensive partner and the status of Andrew Mangiapane.
Then there’s the debate over whether this team can handle the increased expectations that come with finishing second overall a year earlier.
However, the biggest issues looming over the team this fall currently revolve around Matthew Tkachuk.
The 21-year-old winger is amongst a group of the league’s top restricted free agents who continue to play the waiting game with designs on their brethren raising everyone’s price tag with every new deal.
Until Tkachuk shows up in Calgary with a new deal in hand he will continue to be the biggest talking point, as he was all summer.
Current cap space: $7.75 million
GM: Brad Treliving
Head coach: Bill Peters
Assistants: Ryan Huska, Geoff Ward, Martin Gelinas
Unsigned players: Matthew Tkachuk, Andrew Mangiapane
How much will Matthew Tkachuk be signed for?
Go ahead and predict whether Tkachuk’s annual salary will start with the number seven, eight or nine – Calgarians have been debating it all summer long.
Depending on the term, his annual take-home could sway several million dollars.
His desire is to follow his pal, Auston Matthews, by signing a five-year pact that will walk him to an even larger payday as an unrestricted free agent.
The Flames would rather he sign longer-term, which would likely land him a deal in the $9-million range.
The solution may be a bridge deal, bumping his cap hit closer to $7 million annually for a couple years, setting the stage yet again for another massive haul when that expires.
Either way, Tkachuk is poised to be a very wealthy man, which was evident when he scored 34 goals this season and had 77 points while playing an agitating/leadership role few others in the league are capable of.
He is a unique talent who is beloved by teammates and could be a future captain in Calgary, should he decide to stay long-term.
Whether the Flames organization decides it can afford such a luxury remains to be seen.
Clayton Keller just signed with the Arizona Coyotes as an RFA for eight years at $7.1 million annually, despite scoring just 14 goals and 41 points. Reckless deals like these justifiably have agents suggesting a talent like Tkachuk should be worth well over $10 million on an eight-year deal.
That’s not an option either side is looking at.
His price tag will still largely be determined by players such as Mitch Marner, Mikko Rantanen, Brayden Point and others RFAs who are all holding out for deals no one in the NHL fathomed would be possible for fourth-year players when the last CBA was signed.
When will Matthew Tkachuk be signed?
Many believe the answer is, “soon after Mitch Marner signs.”
All summer it has been clear the mindset amongst the impressive list of big-name RFAs awaiting deals revolves around the “last man in wins” mentality.
With Marner being the biggest fish in that pond, his signing would raise the bar even higher for lads like Tkachuk to better peg their perceived worth.
At this point, there’s little reason to believe any of this is going to get sorted out before camp, or even before the season starts.
The numbers these players are demanding are so unprecedented, no GM wants to be seen as caving first. Nor do they want to cripple their franchises with deals that will ultimately cost them important pieces down the road.
This is tricky, which is why players like Tkachuk probably won’t start the season with the Flames. Everyone involved is well aware him missing time could ultimately be as damaging to the team and the player as it was for William Nylander and the Toronto Maple Leafs last season.
As Nylander demonstrated, the ultimate deadline to sign Tkachuk is Dec. 1, otherwise, the CBA dictates he’d be forced to sit out the season.
No one believes missing an entire campaign is an option or remote possibility for Tkachuk.
But no one should be shocked if a holdout into October or even November is what this deteriorates into.
What are the ramifications of signing Matthew Tkachuk?
It’s one thing to eventually come to terms with Tkachuk, but it’s quite another to figure out how to open up space to fit him under the league’s $81.5-million cap.
The Flames have $7.75 million in cap space, which almost certainly isn’t enough to pay him, not to mention yet-unsigned RFA Mangiapane (who will undoubtedly sign for around $1 million).
Add in the fact you need to start the season with a buffer of roughly $1 million in case of injuries, and the math simply doesn’t add up.
Somebody has to go.
In fact, several people may have to go, either to the minors, or elsewhere via trade or waivers.
The Flames tried to trade T.J. Brodie and his $4.65-million salary, but were rejected by Nazem Kadri in a deal that would have also reportedly have sent Mark Jankowski to the Leafs and Connor Brown to Calgary.
With the off-season injury to defenceman Juuso Valimaki, the Flames now need a veteran like Brodie on the back end, at least until the trade deadline when the 29-year-old and his expiring contract could be on the trade block.
Michael Frolik was another Flame shopped heavily this year, but his $4.65-million cap hit interested no one. This late in the summer, there’s little chance anyone’s opinion league-wide will change.
Teams just don’t have the cap space to help the Flames in any way.
This is going to get interesting.
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Is depth forward Austin Czarnik ($1.25 million) a candidate to start the season in Stockton to save money? Well, he’d have to clear waivers first.
Dare they try sending Frolik down (and through waivers) to save dough?
If down on the farm for a whole season, each player would save the club $1.075 million in cap space.
Could the Flames dangle Jankowski again to sweeten the pot on a deal?
Treliving isn’t hinting at anything, but insists he’ll figure it out.