Cross another one off the restricted free agent big board. With one week remaining before the start of the 2019-20 campaign, the Calgary Flames and Matthew Tkachuk have come to terms on a bridge deal that will see the 21-year-old in the lineup come opening night. And it sure seems the Flames have Brayden Point to thank for ending the impasse.
In almost every way, Tkachuk’s contract appears a near one-for-one replication of the deal Point signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning Monday. In fact, the only real difference between the two pacts is a grand total of $750,000 – Tkachuk is set to earn $21 million, more than Point’s $20.25 million – but it’s a sum that’s all but negated by the tax benefit Point receives by spending the majority of the season in the Sunshine State. Beyond that, the breakdown of the contracts is nearly identical: three years for both, similar cap hits and an escalating base salary that culminates with identical $9-million paydays in the contract’s final year. Of course, that apes the now en-vogue RFA strategy employed by Timo Meier earlier this summer that allows RFAs to increase the price tag of qualifying offers should they not ink extensions before their bridge deals run out.
The structure of the contracts isn’t the only similarity, either, as the situations facing both teams were somewhat similar, as well. Though not as highly publicized as the cap crunch the Lightning were facing, the Flames were in a difficult position with Tkachuk. On one hand, there’s little doubt Calgary would have loved to lock him up long term on a seven- or eight-year pact, but the price of buying years of unrestricted free agency was made near impossible by the lack of financial flexibility available to the Flames. Thus, the bridge deal makes this work for both sides: Tkachuk gets a pay hike now with the near certain promise of a richer deal down the line and Calgary is able to fit him under the cap without the need for major roster surgery.
Make no mistake that finding a way to get this done before the season began was priority No. 1 in this final week, too. Last season, and truly over the past two campaigns, the feisty winger, who has already become part of the leadership group, has been an integral part of the lineup and his growth last season in particular turned him from a middle-six contributor into a legitimate top-line threat. He registered 34 goals and 77 points last season, second and fourth among all Flames scorers, respectively, and Tkachuk’s ice time average sat fifth among all forwards, though there was a chasm – nearly three minutes per outing – between him and the next-highest ice time average among forwards.
This is to say that having Tkachuk in the lineup for the entire season, particularly at a time when Calgary is set to defend its regular-season division crown and counted among the true contenders in the Pacific Division and Western Conference, was of utmost importance. In a parity-driven league, each point counts and Tkachuk’s presence will help ensure the Flames aren’t dropping unnecessary points early in the campaign.
The likeliest scenario now for the Flames, who are projected to be only slightly over the cap limit, is that a two-way contract is shuffled to the minors, quite possibly that of Dillon Dube. But beyond Tkachuk's deal necessitating only a minor move right now, the shorter term actually has another benefit. As noted, it comes at a lower price than a long-term deal likely would have, which opens up cap space over the next three seasons. That's especially important next season, when only two of the seven defensemen with which the Flames are set to enter the season, Mark Giordano and Noah Hanifin, are under contract. The additional spending space opened up by bridging Tkachuk, even if it's less than $2 million, gives Calgary some extra room to bolster their blueline at a time when their window is open.
However, if you want to consider potential drawbacks of the deal, there is the possibility of one, though it has almost nothing to do with the present.
In the year of its expiry, which comes ahead of the 2022-23 campaign, Tkachuk will almost certainly be seeking another raise, particularly given the price now attached to his qualifying offer and that he’ll be entering his prime, not to mention in line to sign the first long-term deal of his career. In a sense, too, this deal set a precedent for his next contract, one that says Tkachuk is to be paid commensurate with the very best on the Flames’ roster. After all, he is now the highest paid Flame, his $7-million cap hit exceeding the previous high-water mark of $6.75 million set by Mark Giordano and Johnny Gaudreau.
Given the current cap outlook, and that Calgary has a projected $54-million in cap space for that season excluding the certain rises in the spending limit, maybe that doesn’t seem a problem. But it’s trickier to navigate when you consider a few things.
First, Johnny Gaudreau will also be up for a new pact that same season, and unlike Tkachuk, who will still have his rights held by the Flames as an RFA, ‘Johnny Hockey’ will be eligible to hit the open market. Retaining him is going to cost a pretty penny, particularly considering his continued offensive growth and the ever-changing market for top-tier scorers. By the time he’s ready to sign a new deal, an eight-figure pact isn’t out of the question. Next, the Flames will also have to consider a new deal for Giordano, who won’t be top priority and may even be ready to hang up his skates in three seasons’ time, but if he returns it won’t necessarily come cheap. And finally, consideration will have to be given to what comes after Tkachuk and Gaudreau are wrapped up. Each of Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm and Mikael Backlund have contracts which expire not long after. It’s going to have to take some sacrifices or some clever cap maneuvering to make the money work barring an incredible uptick in the spending limit.
The fact of the matter, however, is that any salary cap navigation is a problem for Flames GM Brad Treliving to contend with when the time comes. In Tkachuk, Calgary has a remarkably talented young player who is fresh off of a 30-goal, near 80-point campaign and still maturing. There’s untapped upside and it gives the Flames enough flexibility in the next couple of years to add where necessary to chase a Stanley Cup while their window appears wide open. That’s enough to call it a win for Calgary, who will now enter opening night with every piece in place.
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