With 27 games remaining on the Calgary Flames’ 2015-16 season, and a playoff appearance looking more unlikely with each passing game, the Flames faithful have begun turning their attention to the upcoming offseason.
This summer figures to be a significant one for the organization. Aside from the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, which will likely add another elite young scorer to Calgary’s roster, the summer will be a busy one in terms of ironing out the team’s free agent situation. The Flames have seven forwards, two defenders, and all three of their goalies heading to either restricted or unrestricted free agency after season’s end, meaning general manager Brad Treliving will have the opportunity to significantly reshape his roster as he sees fit.
Chief among the decisions to be made is the question of dollar amount for young marquee stars Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Both forwards will enter 2016-17 on new contracts, as their respective entry-level deals expire at the end of this current season. There is no question as to whether or not the two will be brought back – they remain the undeniable core of Calgary’s success – but the issue of precisely how much each will make is a little more hazy.
The recent standard for clubs signing a duo of top stars is uniformity. When the Edmonton Oilers inked their own core trio of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to new deals, they opted for identical $6 million cap hits. It wasn’t entirely uniform – Nugent-Hopkins’ deal came a year after the other two Oilers stars’, and he and Hall were awarded seven-year contracts as opposed to Eberle’s six-year deal.
The idea behind the identical cap hits is fairly clear. It avoids the messy internal battle of egos that comes with an organization essentially stating that one player is more valuable than another by way of a bigger financial commitment.
This isn’t an issue when the distinction between two players is clear, but between young stars that seem equally important to a team’s future success, the risk is certainly there – especially considering such contracts are usually near-maximum term.
The Oilers aren’t the only team to follow that logic. Chicago took a similar approach with stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, inking the pair to identical $84 million contracts ($10.5 million per year) in July of 2014.
There remains an interesting issue of worth involved in these identical deals. With Toews and Kane, the picture was crystal clear – while they were essential to the club’s success in very different ways, each had proved their worth by winning a Conn Smythe Trophy during the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup runs in 2010 and 2013.
Pittsburgh’s situation is perhaps a more interesting one. After the conclusion of Sidney Crosby’s and Evgeni Malkin’s entry-level deals, both were signed to matching five-year, $43.5 million contracts ($8.7 million per year). The identical deals in this case are intriguing, considering Crosby’s first three seasons saw him rise to become the biggest name in the sport and win his first Hart and Art Ross trophies in only his second season.
Malkin wasn’t too far behind, however, winning his first scoring title in the final year of his entry-level deal, along with the Conn Smythe for Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup run.
Considering the fact that Malkin had put up exceptional numbers, had won trophies, but still remained a lesser-known name than Crosby – who had already become the face of the league – there certainly could have been eventual in-house issues had the Penguins signed their Canadian superstar to a slightly higher deal. The identical cap hits avoided any future issues, however, and kept the duo at a seemingly equal level for five years. If not for a new collective bargaining agreement that prevented Malkin from signing another deal identical to Crosby’s (due to the limitations on contract length), the two would likely still be on matching deals.
So what of the Flames’ top duo?
Judging by these previously mentioned cases, it seems Gaudreau and Monahan should be locks for carbon-copy deals this summer. However, the issue is slightly murkier in their case. Unlike the stars in Edmonton, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, neither Gaudreau or Monahan came into the league with superstar pedigree. They were not first or second-overall draft selections, and they haven’t done quite as much as the previously discussed names – even though they’ve certainly done enough to earn sizeable dollar amounts from the Flames.
The central issue with Gaudreau and Monahan comes down to their progression this season. In 2013-14, Monahan made a name for himself when he cracked the 20-goal plateau as a rookie, scoring 22 goals and 34 points in his first NHL campaign. It wasn’t the stuff of Crosby or Toews, but it certainly turned heads in Calgary, as expectations for the sixth-overall draft pick were low.
In 2014-15, Monahan continued his ascent, upping his numbers to a team-leading 31 goals and adding 31 assists to nearly double his rookie total. At the same time, Gaudreau began his own NHL career, and put forth a stunning season in his own right, tallying 24 goals and 64 points in total.
The pair formed a dangerous duo on the Flames’ top line that season, both joining the 60-point club and becoming one of the most lethal lines in the league alongside veteran Jiri Hudler. Because of this, there came to be a general sentiment that the two were on equal footing. But truthfully, that isn’t the case, as that stellar season was Gaudreau’s first taste of NHL action, and he still managed to nearly double Monahan’s own rookie total.
This season, Gaudreau has proven once again why he may be of a higher ilk than his linemate. As Monahan has slightly regressed – posting 17 goals and 39 points so far (which puts him on pace for 25 goals and 60 points) – Gaudreau has continued to progress at a rapid rate. The diminutive winger has scored at a point-per-game pace all season and currently sits with 22 goals and 54 points through 54 games, good for sixth place in the league-wide scoring race.
That sixth-place ranking is no small feat – Gaudreau’s 54 points rank him higher than Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, John Tavares, and on and on. He’s been one of the league’s unequivocal best since game one, and doesn’t seem set to slow down any time soon. Adding another layer to the discussion is the league’s recent shift to 3-on-3 overtime. Gaudreau has become one of the league’s best in the context of the new format – he’s currently tied for first in the league with seven overtime points, and ranks first on the Flames with three overtime goals (and six game-winning goals overall).
It must be asked then, are he and Monahan truthfully worth an identical dollar amount?
Pat Steinberg of FlamesNation and Sportsnet recently made the case for Gaudreau being worthy of Vladimir Tarasenko money, around $7–7.5 million per year.
If we’re talking about identical cap hits, then Gaudreau is going to be the determining factor in the negotiation process. And if that number is over $7 million, there becomes a significant issue in regards to the potential of matching contracts.
Is it worth the Flames giving up $7–7.5 million per year to Monahan to avoid future issues of favouritism?
Given his slight drop-off this season, $7 million seems like a hefty price to pay Monahan as soon as next year. While he is certainly a promising talent, it remains to be seen if he is on the level of names like Tarasenko. Judging from past contracts, it seems a slightly lower range may be more apt for Monahan.
San Jose’s Logan Couture – who posted over 30 goals in each of his first two full seasons, and at least 20 goals in each season since – was given a $6 million per year following his entry-level deal. Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog, who’s posted similar numbers to Monahan thus far, was given a seven-year deal with a cap hit of $5.57 million following his entry-level contract. Even John Tavares – whose first two seasons were fairly similar to Monahan’s before his subsequent breakout – earned a cap hit of only $5.5 million following his initial deal.
That being the case, Monahan’s true worth likely lies somewhere close to $6 million per year, if his deal were to be signed in an isolated context.
But Monahan’s worth is a little more complicated to pin down in relation to Gaudreau. He is inherently more valuable in certain aspects simply because he is a center. It isn’t easy for clubs to find a bona fide number-one pivot in the salary cap era, and it usually takes a premier draft pick to find one via that route, so Monahan’s value surely reflects that rarity. He also plays a slightly bigger role in the leadership group, evidenced by the fact that he was given an ‘A’ this season while Gaudreau was not.
Thus, similar to Kane and Toews early in their careers, Monahan provides a certain level of stability and responsibility to complement Gaudreau’s thrilling, high-flying style. For that reason, it seems Treliving may in fact bite the bullet and shell out the extra million dollars or so for Monahan, just to keep him and Gaudreau on level ground in the coming years.
Also key to consider is the presence of Sam Bennett in this conversation. With 15 goals and 28 points through 54 games, Bennett is on pace to finish with around 22 goals and 42 points by the end of his rookie campaign – fairly similar to Monahan’s rookie total. The 19-year-old’s skill certainly seems to be on par with his slightly older teammates, and as the highest draft pick in Flames history (fourth-overall in 2014) it seems Bennett is destined to get the Nugent-Hopkins treatment when his entry-level deal runs out after next season – signing on at the same price tag as the previous top duo.
If that is true, then there’s a very good chance the Flames could be paying $21–22.5 million per year to their three offensive stars as soon as 2017-18 – which could end up being nearly 30% of their total cap space.
It’s a sizeable price to pay, but one the formerly offense-starved club will surely take to ensure they hold onto their prized young scorers. While the talent gap between the three could grow even more noticeable in the coming years, particularly in the case of Gaudreau and Monahan, the benefits of avoiding organizational favouritism with their core may reign supreme in the Flames’ contract dealings this offseason.
How that affects the rest of the team’s contract situations remains to be seen, but with $17.15 million per year tied up in Calgary’s top three blue liners and zero goalies signed past this season, Treliving will need to exercise caution while reshaping the roster this summer.
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