Monday, July 18, 2016

What is Taking so Long? Spitballing Some Theories for Why 13 and 23 Remain Unsigned

When will the Flames sign Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan? What the heck is taking so long?

It's the question I'm being peppered with multiple times every day as fans grow increasingly restless about Calgary's two young stars still being without contracts for next season.

I get the angst too. No disrespect to Marcus Johansson, Tyson Barrie or Jacob Trouba but of the NHL's remaining unsigned restricted free agents, Gaudreau and Monahan rank 1-2 in terms of importance to their team.

The bad news is I don't have an answer for you. Sorry.

Calgary general manager Brad Treliving has been steadfastly tight-lipped about this topic since day one. If I was to pen a column based only on what the confirmed negotiation stumbling blocks have been, it would be a pretty short piece. In fact, we would already be at the end.

Left only to speculate at the reason(s) for the hold-up and why the two sides cannot agree on money and term, I got down to spitballing some theories this weekend. Here are 10 that I came up with:

1. Gaudreau's Road Woes

Two years ago as a rookie, Gaudreau's home-road splits were typical of what they are for most players. He had 35 points at home and 29 on the road. But that wasn't the case last year, not even close.

On home ice in 2015-16, Gaudreau ranked No. 1 in the NHL with 23-33-56 in 40 games. That was two points better than Patrick Kane, four better than Jamie Benn and five more than Sidney Crosby.

But on the road, it was a completely different story. Gaudreau was just 7-15-22 in 39 games, which tied him for 106th. Lee StempniakJamie McGinn and Travis Zajac are among the players that put up better numbers in enemy rinks.

Further, four of his seven goals came in so-called 'garbage time', aka the final three weeks of the season after the Flames were long ago eliminated from playoff contention.

While one should never put too much stock in plus-minus, it's also noteworthy that Gaudreau's minus-17 on the road ranked 891st. Only five players in the league were worse.

Now maybe last year was just a blip but that type of split would suggest there's still some question about how effective Gaudreau can be when he matches up against an opponent's shut-down defence pairing and top checking line. If you're the Flames, that's naturally going to result in some apprehension because for the team to be successful, they'll need to win more often on the road and to do so, they need to get more from Gaudreau.

2. Uniqueness of Johnny Hockey

For Monahan, there are four specific comparables that help us narrow down the range in which his annual average value should end up falling.

Consisting of a similar draft class, position, role, age and experience, even more convenient is the fact all four were signed in 2016:
  • C Sean Monahan, 21, 80-79-159 in 237 gm, TBD 
  • C Nathan MacKinnon, 20, 59-94-153 in 218 gm, $6.3M AAV (7Y/$44.1M)
  • C Mark Scheifele, 23, 58-87-145 in 227 gm, $6.125M AAV (8Y/$49M)
  • LW Filip Forsberg, 21, 60-73-133 in 182 gm, $6.0M AAV (6Y/$36M)
  • C Aleksander Barkov, 20, 52-67-119 in 191 gm, $5.9M AAV (6Y/$35.4M)

The greatest point of differential is Monahan's 80 goals although on a goals-per-game basis, Monahan (0.34) is just a smidge ahead of Forsberg (0.33) so that provides a decent parallel. The primary difference with those two though is Monahan has the additional responsibilities of being a centre while Forsberg plays left wing.

When it comes to Gaudreau, however, the comparable list is much shorter. 

The one name that repeatedly comes up is Vladimir Tarasenko, who signed an 8-year/$60 million deal last summer. Tarasenko's AAV is $7.5 million.

However, while each has a similar impact on their team, they're such different players otherwise including how they're built. At 6-foot-0 and 220 pounds, Tarasenko is a tank. Gaudreau, who weighs about the same as Tarasenko's left thigh, is more like a jeep.

At the time he signed his contract last summer, Tarasenko was 66-69-135 in 179 games over three seasons. Gaudreau is 55-88-143 in 160 games in two seasons. Less goals for Gaudreau, but more points. On the surface, it would appear to be a push. However, a key distinction is Tarasenko has been able to score on the road.

Vladimir Tarasenko in 2015-16:
  • Road - 41 gm, 18-18-36, +0
  • Home - 39 gm, 22-16-38, +7

The Blues winger had similar splits the previous season with 33 points on the road, 40 at home.

As for other comparables of similarly-aged players, the well runs dry quickly. Ryan O'Reilly is also at $7.5 million AAV but he's a couple years older and on his third contract. Brandon Saad ($6 million AAV) is similar in age and also a left-winger, but he isn't nearly the same calibre of playmaker.

Bottom line is with Gaudreau having just two NHL seasons compared to Tarasenko's three, mix in his unusual path of being a fourth round draft pick, add in his home-road variance and you have a player in a somewhat unique situation, which I imagine can make for a complex negotiation.

3. Monahan's 80 Goals

Yes, Monahan has had the benefit of playing beside Gaudreau the past two seasons but that doesn't change the fact that he has been a prolific goal scorer ever since he arrived in the league in 2013-14.

His 80 goals over that period is 21 more than Nathan MacKinnon, the next closest guy from his 2013 draft class. In fact, it's also eight more than Alex Galchenyuk, the leading sniper from the 2012 draft. Heck, go back another year to 2011 and from that draft, only Gabriel Landeskog (100) and Brandon Saad (83) have more goals.

While analytics has taken on a greater role in player evaluation, hockey is still a game in which the most goals wins and scoring goals -- and often important ones -- is all Monahan has done his first three seasons. Over the last three years, he is 21st in goals. He has more than Jeff Carter, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Marleau, Claude Giroux and Matt Duchene. He's 21 years old.

They say the hardest thing to do in the NHL is score goals and Monahan has figured it out and understandably is looking to be fairly compensated for that elite skill.

4. Every $100,000 Matters

When you go beyond $6 million in AAV and I expect to be the case with both contracts, it's easy for the numbers to begin to blur. At that altitude, the difference between $6.1 million and $6.5 million seems nominal.

But it isn't.

In fact, it could make a huge difference.

When you turn your focus to filling out the remainder of the roster and those bottom six forwards and third pairing/depth defencemen that are so often the unsung heros in the post-season, what you can get for $1 million can vary considerably from what you can get for $600,000. That could end up being the difference between being able to sign Jakub Nakladal and not being able to afford him.

So while you gotta believe the two sides are getting closer to an agreement, one can also understand Treliving's determination to not just compromise and meet in the middle but to dig in his heels and ensure the club is spending only as much as they have to.

The Flames project to be up against the upper limit of the salary cap for many years to come so every dollar saved -- especially hundreds of thousands of dollars -- can have significant ramifications.

5. Waiting on Each Other

Of all the contract comparables that could be used for either Gaudreau or Monahan, arguably the most useful would be each other's contract.

In that regard, one wonders if each camp isn't waiting for the other deal to be signed first so they can build their case off of the other guy's term and AAV.

Say Monahan signs for $6.5 million. I can see Gaudreau's agent lobbying that as the guy that is the engine for the top line, he should be in line for at least $1 million more. Thus upping the salary expectations for Gaudreau to $7.5 million.

Similarly, say Gaudreau signs for $7 million. Monahan's agent could respond by saying hey, my client has played one additional NHL season, he has 80 goals and Gaudreau would not be where he is today without Monahan's presence as his centre. So, why should he be paid any differently? Thus upping the salary expectations for Monahan to $7 million.

6. Gaudreau Loves His Family

Last week Gaudreau was on a Philadelphia sports radio station and while he was there to promote his upcoming golf tournament, plenty of hockey talk took place also. Among the topics was the idea of one day playing closer to home and returning to the area around around Philadelphia where he grew up.

In a courtroom, the line of questioning from not-so-impartial show co-host and head Gaudreau recruiter Al Morganti would be deemed inadmissible due to him leading the witness. e.g. Wouldn't there be more prestige playing in the U.S. instead of Canada? Come on Al, settle down.

That said, it's no secret that Gaudreau is tight with his family. When he returned to Boston College for that third season, a big factor he cited was a chance to play on the same team as his younger brother Matt. He spends his off-seasons back East and he clearly loves the home cooking.

With him having such a huge following in that New Jersey, Philadelphia, Boston area, and considering two-thirds of the Flames regular season games start at 9:00 pm ET or later, you can understand the appeal to Gaudreau of someday playing in his family's time zone. In that radio he talked about how his parents have to stay up so late to watch his games.

While to my knowledge Gaudreau has never admitted to such, perhaps it is an eventual Eastern re-location that is a consideration when it comes to the term of this next deal.

7. Avoiding the Stamkos Situation

The problem with going anything less than full term with either of these players is the fear of losing them for nothing while they're in their prime, which would be crushing for the organization.

For example, Gaudreau for six years and Monahan for five, are contract lengths that would put both players on a path to hit the UFA market at age 28 and 26 respectively. Talk about scary. If you remember the circus swirling around Steven Stamkos in Tampa Bay last year, you can understand why this would be a complicated and contentious issue.

Tampa Bay got off lucky this summer in retaining Stamkos after he became a UFA. The cushy Florida tax rate certainly didn't hurt. Safe to say this isn't how those stories typically end when a big star reaches the open market while still in his prime.

The counterpoint to that is to think of the haul of assets the Flames could get in return for either player by trading them before they do become a UFA, but that's not as simple as it sounds.

Trading them with at least one season remaining is the best way to maximize the return. Teams will obviously pay more for a full season of Gaudreau than six weeks of him at the trade deadline. That said, if the Flames are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender come the summer of 2021, how do you trade away your best player? A difficult enough trade to pull off in the off-season, it becomes nearly impossible to pull the trigger if Calgary has the best record in the Western Conference at the trade deadline.

So if these next deals for Gaudreau and Monahan are not bridge contracts that expire before unrestricted free agency would set in -- and let's face it, bridge deals may not be extinct but they're certainly endangered -- you would want both deals to be for the maximum allowed term of eight years or darn close to that.

8. Future Cap Uncertainty

Depending on where you think the NHL's team salary cap is going in the years to come, that could also influence the type of money and term that Gaudreau and Monahan are asking for.

If you're of the mindset it's going to keep going up and up and that the $73 million upper limit for 2016-17 will be $83 million by 2020-21, that's a factor the player will want to take into consideration and either ask for an incremental increase in salary in those latter years or or to maximize their ability to make money, don't commit to too much term right now.

Consider Tyler Seguin, who signed a six-year/$34.5 million extension in September 2012. It was good money at the time, but every year that passes and he still has three more seasons to go at $5.75 million, he'll become more and more underpaid, relatively speaking.

On the other hand, if the team views things differently and expects the salary cap to become stagnate, they will be more cautious with the AAV and term to ensure they don't paint themselves into a 'salary cap jail' type of corner a few seasons from now.

To add to the debate about where is the cap going, you can mix in uncertainty about the state of the CBA that is set to expire on Sept. 15, 2022. That's six years from now and could end up a factor in contracts with term that runs beyond that.

9. Treliving is Stubborn

Last month in this Dragons' Den-themed piece I wrote about Treliving, I looked at his cold, business side and suggested he gets those qualities from his Dad, who is one of Canada's wealthiest people.

What we have learned about Treliving is he can be stubborn, will stick to his guns, and is very aware of the business side of hockey. Qualifying Joe Colborne likely would have resulted in an arbitration ruling of $3.5 million. Rather than saddle the team with that salary for that player, he ultimately ended up cutting him loose altogether. Colborne later signing in Colorado for $2.5 million suggested his read of Colborne's market value was accurate.

Similar situation for Josh Jooris.

The easy decision would have been simply qualifying him by offering Jooris the required one-way deal for $1 million to keep the player. I get the sense that many fans would have done exactly that. But he made the difficult choice instead and sure enough, Jooris' actual value as set by the league's other 29 GMs ended up significantly less. After being on the open market for over two weeks, Jooris settled for a one-year, two-way deal with the New York Rangers for a reported $600,000.

Instead of $4.5 million for Colborne and Jooris, he has Troy Brouwer instead. Opine away on whether the team is better off but the market price for the aforementioned duo ended up $3.1 million. The point is Treliving acts with conviction and doesn't seem be the kind of guy that lets his heart get in the way of his head when it comes to decisions.

Now Gaudreau or Monahan aren't going anywhere, that's not my point, but there's no doubt Treliving is a tough guy to negotiate with and that could very well be a big reason why talks continue.

10. Looming Pressure Point

As I see it, typically the player in these kinds of stand-offs has all the leverage. Sure, I get that the player can't go anywhere else so is stuck, but sitting out part of a season if it comes to that hurts the team more than the player. The player takes a financial hit in the short-term but it's just a drop in the bucket compared to the big pay days to come in the future. 

But for the team, the absence of a star player (or two) could lead to a bad start and an early hole in the standings and like we saw in Calgary last year, overcoming that to make the playoffs can be very difficult.

However, I wonder if this summer isn't an exception to the norm. Could the allure of playing in the much ballyhooed World Cup in September be a milestone date that Treliving has in his back pocket.

Does Calgary ultimately care if Gaudreau and Monahan play for Team North America in the World Cup? Sure it would be a great experience, but there's also the chance of getting injured. While they would never admit so publicly, the Flames are probably indifferent when it comes to their participation.

On the other hand, as gimmicky as the tournament is, you can bet Gaudreau and Monahan are both anxious to play in it. It's a tournament with the best players in the world and guys want to be part of that. However, would they play in it if we get to September and they still don't have a contract for the upcoming NHL season?

Because it's a joint NHL-NHLPA event, perhaps insurance coverage could be arranged for both players but even if that is the case, there's still an element of risk in taking to the ice and engaging in an intense, physical competition when you're in the midst of negotiating what could be the most lucrative contract of your life.

Seems hard to believe it would take that long and come to this, but it's food for thought.

Final Word

These are two of the most important contracts to be issued in Flames franchise history. Gaudreau's deal will likely be the most expensive.

One can understand Treliving's determination to, regardless of how long it takes, make sure he gets them right. For better or worse, these contracts will be forever linked to him and his tenure as the GM.

While this list is unofficial, here are 10 of the most lucrative deals issued by Calgary historically in terms of AAV:
  1. Jarome Iginla, $7M (5Y/$35M, 2008-09 to 2012-13) 
  2. Jarome Iginla, $7M (3Y/$21M, 2005-06 to 2007-08)
  3. Mark Giordano, $6.75M (6Y/$40.5M, 2016-17 to 2021-22)
  4. Jay Bouwmeester, $6.68M (5Y/$33.4M, 2009-10 to 2013-14)
  5. Dion Phaneuf, $6.5M (6Y/$39M, 2008-09 to 2013-14)
  6. Miikka Kiprusoff, $5.8M (6Y/$35M, 2008-09 to 2013-14)
  7. Dougie Hamilton, $5.75M (6Y/$34.5M, 2015-16 to 2020-21)
  8. Dennis Wideman, $5.25M (5Y/$26.25M, 2012-13 to 2016-17)
  9. Alex Tanguay, $5.25M (3Y/$15.75M, 2006-07 to 2008-09)
  10. TJ Brodie, $4.65M, (5Y/$23.25M, 2015-16 to 2019-20)

This topic will remain a hot topic as long as Gaudreau and Monahan aren't signed. Still two months away from the start of training camp, there is certainly no need to panic yet. There is still plenty of time to get them done and Treliving has been unrelenting in insisting that both deals will get done eventually.

Hockey is a business and all this off-the-ice stuff is why players let their agents do the talking when it comes to a potentially sensitive thing like contract negotiations. I'm pretty certain we're not at the point yet where the players are starting to sour on the situation. I think everyone understands how the process works.

That said, things could change quickly if both of them end up watching the World Cup from their sofa. But surely it won't come to that.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


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