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Gaudreau opts for free agency; Flames ‘have to move on’

Calgary Flames Johnny Gaudreau - Getty Images

You can call it one of the darkest days in Calgary Flames franchise history.

On Tuesday, July 12, hours before the start of NHL free agency, star forward Johnny Gaudreau – fresh off a career season in 2021-22 – told the Flames he would not return next season and instead will test the market starting Wednesday at noon ET.

The 28-year-old winger scored 40 goals and had 115 points in 82 games this past season and registered a league-best plus-64 rating. Gaudreau finished fourth in Hart Trophy voting after coming off a six-year, $40.5 million contract with an average annual value of $6.75 million.

After weeks of endless speculation for nervous Flames fans, TSN Hockey Insider Pierre LeBrun broke the news about Gaudreau on Tuesday evening.

The conversation between Gaudreau and Calgary general manager Brad Treliving was an emotional one.

"I had a good, long discussion with John,” Treliving said. “It was an emotional one.”

By all accounts, it was never about money for Johnny Hockey.

If it was all about Gaudreau getting the most money in a new contract, the Flames would surely be celebrating by now.

Calgary had the ability to offer Gaudreau an eight-year deal until Tuesday midnight ET, as opposed to the seven-year maximum he will receive if he signs a new contract on Wednesday or in the coming days or weeks. Treliving pitched Gaudreau the eight-year term that would have been the richest in franchise history,a deal that would have made him one of the league’s highest-paid players.

Instead, Gaudreau, a native of Salem, N.J.,who will become a parent in the coming months, has been focused on the best fit for his family. Both he and his wife hail from the Tri-State area on America’s East Coast. In the salary cap era, a player of Gaudreau’s calibre hitting free agency is extraordinarily rare – and the Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders are all expected to pitch Gaudreau that not only will he be highly compensated if he signs with their respective team, but that his grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins will be able to visit more often.

"We did everything possible to keep John here,” Treliving said, adding that the organization spared no effort or expense in trying to keep Gaudreau in Calgary. Selected by the Flames in the fourth round of the 2011 NHL Draft, the 5-foot-9, 165-pound forward scored 210 goals and added 399 assists in 602 games over nine seasons.

“It's a family decision and we respect that fully…John’s going to be a dad in the upcoming months. I want to wish him and his family all the very, very best.”

With Gaudreau leaving the Flames, several short-term decisions that will have long-term ramifications will have to be made.

How will Flames ownership react? Without his linemate, where does Matthew Tkachuk fit with the team, and will he want to sign long term, or will he be the next Flames star to leave Calgary and soon don new colours?

If both Gaudreau and Tkachuk leave, will the team opt for a rebuild and move other pieces? In the short term, who slots in on Calgary’s top line now?

Minutes after the news became official, Treliving preached patience. The Flames will not spend for the sake of spending and instead will be prudent, which they had been planning for in this exact scenario.

“The wrong move right now, I can tell you, is a knee-jerk reaction and just try to rush out and replace the player with the wrong response,” Treliving said.

“We’ve just got to take a deep breath. It’s been a long process, a long couple of days, but at the end of the day…we need to move forward. We intend to do that.”

With Gaudreau out of the picture, Colorado Avalanche forward Nazem Kadri is the next biggest name available on the market, followed by Evander Kane of the Edmonton Oilers. There are also mid-tier offensive forwards who have produced in top-line roles, including Max Domi and Andrew Copp, that could be available. Calgary may also elect to rely on internal growth and the likes of Andrew Mangiapane, Tyler Toffoli, Dillon Dube and the young Jakob Pelletier.

Regardless, the tight-knit Flames group that shocked pundits en route to a Pacific Division title in 2021-22 will look very different come training camp in September.

“The hard part of this business is that we have to move on,” Treliving said.

“We do that with nothing but great memories with John [and] his time here.”