Ask Johnny Gaudreau — whose current contract with the Calgary Flames expires in July 2022 — and he’ll tell you he wants to stay.

Calgary’s contingent of hockey media did just that at the Flames’ “garbage bag day” availability on Thursday afternoon. Gaudreau’s response was nothing if not clear.

#Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau on potentially signing long-term this summer:

“If Tree and the owners are happy with the way I’ve played, it’s something we can figure out. I would love to do that. I love the city. I don’t think I’ve ever once said I don’t want to be here.”

— Pat Steinberg (@Fan960Steinberg) May 20, 2021

The Flames signed Gaudreau to a six-year, $40.5 million contract (worth $6.75 million annually) on Oct. 10, 2016. Gaudreau has vastly outperformed the value of that deal in the years since, ranking 15th among all NHL skaters with 351 points (115 goals, 236 assists) in 360 games during that span.

According to Evolving-Hockey, Gaudreau’s play has been worth a total of 22.0 Standings Points Above Replacement (SPAR) over the last five seasons. The same site assessed his production since 2016–17 as having been worth $43.3 million; Gaudreau has been paid a total of $33.8 million over the first five years of his current deal.

Value provided by Johnny Gaudreau since 2016–17, according to Evolving-Hockey

(SPAR/GP) x 100*

* multiplied to better illustrate scale

Gaudreau’s next contract will take effect in the 2022–23 season. His current deal occupied 9.25% of Calgary’s salary cap when it was agreed upon in 2016; a similarly-proportioned contract signed today would boast an AAV of $7,538,750.

Such a deal would make Gaudreau the 49th-highest-paid player in the NHL, ranking between Minnesota Wild defensemen Jared Spurgeon ($7,575,000 AAV) and Ryan Suter ($7,538,461).

Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections tool estimates Gaudreau’s next contract would likely come in a cut above that figure. The model suggests a Gaudreau extension, signed this summer, would run for six years and be worth an average of $8,385,000.

No Calgary Flame has ever commanded more than a $7 million average hit against the salary cap. Jarome Iginla and Matthew Tkachuk are tied at the top of that list, both having signed deals with AAVs of exactly $7 million during their respective tenures in Calgary.

Can the Flames afford to re-sign Gaudreau to a new contract with a cap hit in the $8.5 million ballpark? Maybe. Starting in 2022–23, the Flames will no longer have to pay $1.5 million for Troy Brouwer’s buyout. Mark Giordano’s contract, worth $6.75 million annually, will have expired.

The Flames may even be able to clear room by trading Milan Lucic after his $3 million signing bonus is paid on July 1, 2022. Calgary would subsequently owe Lucic just $875,000 of pure base salary against a $5.25 million cap hit in the final year of his deal.

For the 2022–23 season, Lucic will submit a 10-team list of teams to which he would accept a trade. For a team looking to save money or to reach the cap floor, acquiring Lucic — with 50% salary retention by the Flames — would represent an addition of a $2.625 million salary cap hit but only $437,500 in actual financial commitment.

Even if the Flames can trade Lucic, they’ll still have plenty of work to do during the 2022 off-season that could impact their ability to extend Gaudreau. Andrew Mangiapane and Matthew Tkachuk will both be restricted free agents looking for raises. Head coach Darryl Sutter will be entering the final year of his contract.

Talk about a pile of responsibilities. The Flames will likely be swamped in negotations during the summer of 2022. For that reason, and one other, they would be smart to try and get a jump on talking contract with Gaudreau’s camp as soon as possible.

What if things go sour? Gaudreau has indicated his interest in remaining a Flame, but what if he balks at the figures offered to him? Conversely, what if the Flames decide the risks of a long-term Gaudreau extension outweigh the benefits?

This will not be the piece extensively weighing the pros and cons of keeping Gaudreau. That decision will, ultimately, boil down to how the Flames view their team. If they believe they can compete, signing Gaudreau to an extension will be critical.

If they decide to trade their star forward, they would be smart to do so in an expeditious manner. Gaudreau currently has no trade protection and can be dealt, without his prior knowledge or consent, to any of the NHL’s 31 other teams.

On July 28, 2021, the 2021–22 league year will begin. Gaudreau’s contract features a modified no-trade clause in its final year, allowing the Flames to trade Gaudreau only to five teams of his choosing. If the Flames agreed to a deal with a team not on Gaudreau’s list, he would have to personally agree to the deal and waive his no-trade clause to make it happen.

In other words: Gaudreau gains a great deal of leverage starting in the 2021–22 season. He will have almost full control over his destination and the Flames will only be able to freely negotiate with the teams featured on Gaudreau’s exclusive list.

If the Flames were to make Gaudreau available in June, however, they might be able to facilitate a bidding war involving certain interested teams Gaudreau might be less likely to include on his list. With more offers on the table, the Flames could be presented with an array of attractive pieces from a variety of teams.

Dealing with Gaudreau should be priority number one for the Flames before the unrestricted free agency period begins on July 28. If they can find a way to sign him to a mutually agreeable contract, they should. He’s consistently one of the NHL’s most productive and valuable players.

If, for whatever reason, talks break down, they should look to move him as soon as possible. Once Gaudreau’s no-trade clause takes effect, he’ll become much harder to trade and will likely command a lesser return.

Either way, the Flames should aim to clarify Gaudreau’s future in Calgary relatively quickly. After they make that decision, the signs outlining their next steps should immediately come into focus.

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