If it’s true that Johnny Gaudreau is seeking $8 million a year in his next contract, the Calgary Flames might want to sign him to that deal right away and be happy they’re getting him so cheaply. You know, before he changes his mind.
One pre-tournament game in the World Cash Grab of Hockey™ does not a reputation make, but in Team North America’s 4-0 win over Europe Thursday night, Gaudreau did absolutely nothing to dispel the notion that he can hang with the best of the big boys of the NHL. If he keeps this up and is a star of the tournament, the Flames might wish they had signed him for that money when they had the chance.
But, alas, the Flames are clinging to the same old-school thinking that seems to be so prevalent in the NHL. They see a baby-faced 5-foot-7, 160-pound kid who has the temerity to ask for superstar money after just two years in the league. Somehow there’s this sense that Gaudreau hasn’t accomplished enough to merit making $8 million on a long-term deal. What exactly, though, has Gaudreau not accomplished?
He’s been a proven scorer and game breaker every level at which he’s played. He finished in the top 30 in scoring as a rookie and followed that up last season by finishing sixth in the league in points. Coaches and teammates with Team North America are raving about his skill level, his ability to hang onto the puck and his penchant for making plays with the kind of poise of an established veteran.
And forget about the fact that he would actually be playing for Team USA, and probably be one of its offensive go-to players, if World Cup rules didn’t prevent him from doing so.
Gaudreau has been favorably compared to Patrick Kane, last year’s scoring champion and, with the exit of Pavel Datsyuk, the undisputed best puck-carrying dangler in the NHL today. So what if Gaudreau, in the next couple of years, turns out to be just as good as Kane has been for the past few seasons? Well, the Flames would be getting a huge bargain if they were paying him just $8 million a year, considering Kane makes $10.5 million a season and would have been worth more had he not taken a hometown discount to stay in Chicago when he signed his latest contract.
All Gaudreau is doing is trying to make the Flames understand what seems obvious. And that is that players should be paid for current production and the potential to do even better, not for what they’ve accomplished in the past. Yes, $8 million for Gaudreau would put him just $500,000 in arrears of Steven Stamkos, who has established himself as arguably the greatest goal scorer on the planet. But here’s the thing. No matter how you look at it, Stamkos either is now or will be in the near future, a declining asset. Same goes for Anze Kopitar. He has done some phenomenal things for the Kings and may continue to do them for the next couple of seasons, but if his game hasn’t already begun to decline, there’s almost 100 percent certainty it will long before his eight-year, $80 million contract expires.
But unlike Stamkos and Kopitar, Gaudreau is only going to get better. He just turned 23, meaning that if the Flames could have him for eight years at $8 million a season, they’d be getting him for his prime years when he’d be most productive. And when you frame it that way, $8 million a year doesn’t seem like such a bad deal.
Part of Gaudreau’s problem here is that he has so few options that the Flames know they have him in a tough spot. He had no arbitration rights and could not be tendered an offer sheet, as though that would have made a difference. So he can do one of three things. He can sign with the Flames for $6.5 million on a long-term deal or a bridge deal. He can sign with a KHL team or he can simply wait on the sidelines until, perhaps missing training camp and some (or, gulp, all) of the season until the Flames either break him or he gets a deal that he wants.
But there is some risk for the Flames here, too. Do they really want to run the risk of alienating their top offensive player for what amounts to $12 million over eight years? That’s a dangerous game. So is the possibility of Gaudreau signing a bridge deal for two years, because as the Montreal Canadiens learned with P.K. Subban, the player then puts himself in a position to take you to the cleaners when that contract expires.
And above all, Gaudreau is not being greedy. He’s not being petulant or an entitled brat. If he hasn't already shown it, the fact that Gaudreau is playing in the World Cup without a contract should dispel any notions about that. He’s doing what the collective bargaining agreement allows him to do and if he doesn’t report to the Flames for the start of training camp, he is not holding out. You cannot hold out on a contract that does not exist. He’s simply asking to be paid what he’s worth and the Flames would be wise to make that investment.