A Pacific Division rival has added another superstar, and the Calgary Flames’ 25-year quest for a franchise center continues. That’s my budget line on the Vegas Golden Knights outbidding Calgary to land Jack Eichel.
For a 25-year-old star center, the price was shockingly low, even Eichel’s pending neck surgery. Top prospect Peyton Krebs, useful middle-six winger Alex Tuch, and a 2022 first-round pick. If you’d asked me when the saga started, I’d say that was the price to get in the door, not the whole package. So why couldn’t the Flames top it?
It’s the second time in three years Calgary has been outbid by the Golden Knights for a top-line star they desperately needed. It’s the most dramatic example to date of Brad Treliving’s tendency to get his team mentioned in juicy trade rumours but never close. And it throws into sharp relief something that had been apparent since last summer: minus Eichel, the path forward for the team remains treading water or worse. To point to their unexpectedly strong 6-1-2 start as justification for standing pat is pure homerism.
Would it have been worth it to give up Tkachuk? Yes.
Yesterday, Kevin Weekes set Twitter ablaze, reporting the Flames had upped their offer to include Matthew Tkachuk. Many questioned this, reasoning if the Flames had included such a valuable and young roster asset, the deal would be done already. It turned out they were correct, as Elliotte Friedman and Andy Strickland quashed the rumour hours later. Andrew Peters, who was first to break the trade was done, tweeted shortly after “There never was a deal with Calgary.”
There was never a deal with Calgary.— Andrew Peters (@TheInstigator76) November 4, 2021
#Sabres GM Kevyn Adams said details of #Flames trade reports were “not accurate” last night.— John Wawrow (@john_wawrow) November 4, 2021
I have been told by two league sources that Matthew Tkachuk was never on the table in a potential Flames deal with the Sabres. No contract extension talks, nothing. One source called it made-up "bullshit." Another called it an attempt to create leverage.— Craig Morgan (@CraigSMorgan) November 4, 2021
I think the “used as leverage” explanation is the most plausible. Friedman had Vegas as the overwhelming favourite for the better part of a week. VegasHockeyNow speculated the Tkachuk rumour was a leak to get Krebs in the deal. I believe Tkachuk was never in the deal, but he should have been.
The mention of Tkachuk provoked considerable sticker shock among some Calgary fans. Giving up a cornerstone two-way winger and possible future captain who is beloved by the fanbase for driving other teams and their fans insane would have hurt, a lot – especially considering more picks and prospects would have gone with him.
But a top-line young winger for a young top-line center is a trade you have to make, simply because the latter is nearly impossible to find without winning draft lotteries. The Flames have proven this perhaps more than any other franchise the past 25 years. The failure of Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett to develop into franchise centers meant that Eichel represented their best chance to land that piece you simply cannot be a Stanley Cup contender without.
Tkachuk was also the only main piece Calgary could have traded, partially for cap reasons. In order to add Eichel’s $10M cap hit, they needed to move out roughly the same amount in money, not being blessed with Vegas’ LTIR magic. The only plausible means to make the money work would have been Tkachuk’s $7M and one or two other players, (perhaps Dillon Dube’s $2.3M) or Sean Monahan and some combination of Nikita Zadorov, Dube, Andrew Mangiapane ($2.75M) or Juuso Valimaki ($1.5M).
"Buffalo knew exactly who was going to be part of that offer from Calgary and I think it was absolutely 3 of their top prospects and potentially a couple of draft picks and Monahan to make the money work and things like that. I think that was all there".— NHL Watcher (@NHL_Watcher) November 4, 2021
It was always wishful thinking, bordering on delusion, that Monahan would be the centerpiece of an Eichel trade. First off, he had a 10-team NTC, and despite what Kevyn Adams said today, nobody is “dying to be a Buffalo Sabre.” Even if he was willing to go to Buffalo, he would have arrived at the low point of his value. A series of catastrophic injuries and a corresponding decline in goal scoring have relegated him to the 4th line. And he has the same limited amount of team control as Tkachuk with none of the long-term upside, hitting unrestricted free agency in 2023-24. He would have represented a reclamation project at best for the Sabres. Without a doubt, Alex Tuch, signed at a $4.75M cap hit through 2026, is a better bet for Buffalo.
Not trading for Eichel may have been the riskier move. What now?
There is, of course, the risk that Eichel will never be the same after his disc replacement surgery, that he ends up like Erik Karlsson after his trade to San Jose. That’s a reasonable worry. But the bigger risk, from Calgary’s perspective, is this: when are they going to get an opportunity to acquire a top-line center again? And what happens if their ceiling remains, as it has been for the majority of the past 30 years, a first-round exit team? Without Eichel, or long-term extensions for Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau, they are staring down the barrel of a forced rebuild without high draft picks as soon as a year from now.
At the start of last offseason, the Flames seemed primed for a significant overhaul. Trade rumours swirled around Gaudreau, entering the final year of his contract and with a 5-team NTC kicking in. They let captain Mark Giordano go to Seattle – giving them $6.75M in cap space and presumably paving the way for Tkachuk to wear the C. They ended up spending that cap space on Blake Coleman, Erik Gudbranson, and Zadorov. No captain was named. No decision was reached on Gaudreau. They have tried to re-sign him, but the risk is very real Gaudreau walks for nothing.
Tkachuk’s contract situation also represents a considerable risk for Calgary. Because of the bridge deal he signed, Tkachuk is in line for a $9-million qualifying offer this offseason. What’s worse, he will be eligible for unrestricted free agency following the 2022-23 season (his seventh NHL season.) Either the Flames will reward him with a UFA-priced long-term extension, or he will leverage his way out of town. Had Tkachuk been traded for Eichel, the Flames would have been recognizing they could not afford both Eichel, Tkachuk, Gaudreau, and Mangiapane. Which would have been the case no matter who they traded for Eichel.
Ultimately, the idea the status quo is acceptable for the Flames rests on the notion they will go on an unexpected playoff run, like last season’s Habs or the 2020 Dallas Stars (never mind what happened to those teams afterward.) It rests on the notion their strong 6-1-2 start is different than all the regular-season hot streaks Flames fans have seen before with as good or better teams. It rests on the idea there will be a young top-six center out there who can move the needle as Eichel might have. (Connor Zary, franchise saviour?) It rests, in short, on hope as a plan.
For frustrated Flames fans, the desperation to land Eichel was less about his health and stats and more about some real path forward after years and years of mediocrity.