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Flames must learn lessons from Gaudreau exit as Tkachuk future looms

Matthew Tkachuk Johnny Gaudreau Calgary Flames Matthew Tkachuk Johnny Gaudreau - The Canadian Press

The past 48 hours have been arguably the darkest in Calgary Flames franchise history. 

After weeks of endless speculation, following the Flames’ second round playoff defeat to the Edmonton Oilers in the Battle of Alberta, Johnny Gaudreau – the star winger coming off a career-best 115 points in 2021-22 – informed the team the day before free agency began that he would not re-sign with Calgary and instead test the open market.

He then shocked the hockey world by inking a seven-year, $68.25-million deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday.

"Calgary was a special place for me. I was part of their organization for 12 years,” Gaudreau said at his introductory press conference as a Blue Jacket on Thursday. 

“I loved every second I was there. But for me, it was just time for me to make a bit of a change. I'll leave it at that."

Negotiations between the Flames and Gaudreau continued through Tuesday, but the 28-year-old native of Salem, N.J., eventually left over $10 million on the table to move on from Calgary. It’s a serious blow to a team that would have been a legitimate Western Conference contender had he returned next season.

With a pivotal negotiation with 24-year-old left-winger Matthew Tkachuk on the horizon in an already-pivotal off-season, the organization has to assess how the past months off the ice have gone, learn from those experiences, and apply them to their upcoming business.

Gaudreau, who was drafted by Calgary in the fourth round (104th overall) in 2011, mentioned that he needed a fresh start and wanted to play in an Eastern Conference market to be closer to his family.

"I always dreamed about playing a tad closer to home,” he said. “It didn't matter where I was signing. Our decision was it was best for us not to go back to Calgary." 

The next priority for Flames general manager Brad Treliving has to be an honest heart-to-heart discussion with Tkachuk, his other star forward, who’s coming off a career-high, 104-point season. Does Tkachuk see himself playing in Calgary for the next eight seasons or, like Gaudreau, is the native of Scottsdale, Ariz., eyeing a change of scenery?

Should Tkachuk, the sixth overall pick by the Flames in the 2016 NHL Draft, even be slightly on the fence about an extension, Treliving must shop the winger on the trade market immediately. Moving the restricted free agent before the start of the 2022-23 season would net the Flames several assets in the form of young players, prospects and draft picks — but would likely start a re-set where the team would not be competitive for at least a couple of seasons.

That scenario might not appeal to Flames fans, but the franchise cannot afford a repeat scenario of what happened with Gaudreau. A Tkachuk trade would also result in questions about Elias Lindholm, Jacob Markstrom, Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifin – good players with significant trade value – on whether they will be on Calgary’s roster should a re-set built around a new core of younger players lead to another serious competitive window.

In recent years, the Flames have lost Gaudreau, TJ Brodie, and Travis Hamonic on the free-agent market and received nothing in return. With both Tkachuk and Mangiapane now in similar situations, Flames management has to evaluate if keeping pending unrestricted free agents until the end of their deals instead of trading them (and how they negotiate with them) is something that should change.

In the short term, Calgary has to find scoring in a now-depleted free-agent market. 

While secondary options like Ryan Strome, Andrew Copp, Max Domi and Mason Marchment found new homes (along with Max Pacioretty via trade) this week, Calgary’s biggest addition in free agency thus far this summer has been fourth-line centre Kevin Rooney. Regardless of long-term direction, Calgary needs at least one more top-nine forward right now.

If players are not taking their calls or have Calgary on their no-trade lists, Treliving has to endeavour to understand why, adapt their pitch, and improve what they can offer them outside of salary.

Gaudreau’s departure reinforces a tough reality in the salary-cap era of the NHL: Competitive windows are fleeting and can shut in the blink of an eye, even moreso in Canadian markets.

With Johnny Hockey, Tkachuk, Mangiapane, Markstrom and eight other players having career seasons – along with Jack Adams Award coach-of-the-year winner Darryl Sutter – Calgary won just a single playoff round in 2022 (and two rounds in total over Gaudreau’s nine-season tenure with the Flames).

Now moving forward without No. 13 on their roster and with no assets or playoff runs to show for during his time in Calgary, Flames management has to honestly assess whether they fully maximized this particular competitive window – and what they have to do differently as they search for the next one.