It's been a relatively quiet offseason for the Calgary Flames, for whom almost all the shopping was done even before the free agency period began on July 1.
There was the housekeeping associated with re-signing a few restricted free agents (on contracts that ranged from solid to irresponsible). And they obviously traded for Dougie Hamilton, then extended him for a long time at a good price, giving themselves perhaps the deepest blue line in the league for the 2015-16 season. Apart from grabbing Michael Frolik to shore up a not-great forward group on Free Agent Frenzy Day, general manager Brad Treliving has had plenty of time to just hang out this summer.
When you improve a team that much in such a short period of time, maybe you deserve the days off.
But one thing that has been notably absent from Calgary news in the past month or so is word of what happens with captain and reigning two-time “would have won the Norris except he got hurt and missed 20 games” defenseman Mark Giordano.
Giordano has been hailed by just about everyone — fans, media, team officials, players, opponents, etc. — as central to Calgary's long-term plans, because he is an elite defenseman. And he became eligible for a new contract on July 1. And since that day, there has basically been no news at all about how negotiations are going.
Part of the reason for that, I think, is the news that came on July 1 itself: Multiple reporters stated that Giordano was looking for eight years and $72 million from his club. Now, an AAV of $9 million is a lot to give literally anyone, and if Giordano were five years younger, the eight-year term wouldn't be so bad. But the fact is that, good as Giordano clearly is, he's also going to be two days shy of his 33rd birthday when that new contract starts. Meaning an eight-year deal brings him north of 40.
Obviously that is a starting position for negotiations, but even allowing for a whole lot of wiggle room means you're signing a guy for, what, five years and $7.5 million per? It's still too much to pay a guy for three seasons of 35-plus hockey.
What do you do when you have a clear top-five defenseman who can't stay healthy and will be entering the final year of his current contract at nearly 32 years old? What do you do if he's your captain and leader? What do you do if you have several young potential stars whom you need to pay in the very near future? It all puts Calgary in rather a tough position.
The Flames are nowhere near a cap team right now; in fact, even with all the big money they've thrown around this summer (not only on Frolik and Hamilton, but also their own guys), Calgary is still almost $2.2 million away from the ceiling, and only 11th in the league in commitments for 2015-16. At this point, their roster is basically set.
But things will almost certainly get a little tougher to deal with next summer. We have to understand that this is a full season from now and things can change dramatically, but you can't imagine that going into this coming year with the whole, “Will they be able to re-sign Giordano?” question being asked every day is something the team would welcome. Odds are they want to get him locked up, and quickly. But there's more to consider than just his reasonably high contract demands.
In a perfect world, you pay him whatever money he wants, sure. He's almost certainly worth it right now. But that term? Forget it, bud, you're gonna be 33. However, this isn't a perfect world; the cap probably isn't going to go up too much in comparison with where it is right now, and next summer is going to be an extremely busy one for the Flames, which is something that's going to weigh heavily on Giordano's negotiations.
A sampling of players on expiring contracts this coming season: David Jones, Jiri Hudler, Joe Colborne, Josh Jooris, Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, Paul Byron, Markus Granlund, Kris Russell, Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo, and obviously Giordano. Several of those guys you bid adieu without a second thought. Let Jones, Colborne, Byron, Russell, and Ramo go without a second thought. A few more, like Hudler and Hiller, you can probably dangle in trades because they're getting up there and probably don't have much long-term value (certainly not in comparison with what they're likely to ask for), and get something back.
But the real issue is Monahan and Gaudreau (and then Sam Bennett a year later). These are guys with high ceilings who have already put up plenty of points at the NHL level, except Bennett, for whom that scenario seems a matter of eventuality rather than probability. So what do you pay them? That's not an easy question to answer, but here's the real issue for 2016-17: The Flames have more than $40.7 million committed to 13 just players. If they sign Giordano for anything in the neighborhood of what he wants, and the cap moves as little as it appears it will, that leaves something in the low-$20 million range to carry just 14 players, not including Gaudreau or Monahan. Add those two to market-level deals and it's more like low-$10 million to add a as many as seven more.
There are, however, things the Flames can do. Dennis Wideman has two years left on his current deal and trading him would be ideal both because it frees up a bunch of money ($5.25 million against the cap) and because he's never going to be more valuable than he is today. If they do the same with Hudler and Hiller — which they should — then that's even more cash freed up, but leaves holes to fill as well, in addition to the fact that a lot of the guys on the roster are signed to baffling deals.
Deryk Engelland at more than $2.9 million per? Ladislav Smid at $3.5 million? Brandon Bollig at $1.25 million? You can say a lot of that was spending to get the team to the cap floor last year (the Flames ranked near the bottom of the league in obligations), but the problems linger into today, when they're more willing to spend because of last year's improbable, unrepeatable performance. Indeed, even after all these improvements they're maybe/maybe not a league-average club based on the numbers. If anything, the likely drop-off in results should grease the skids for a veteran sell-off that should have happened last year. Wideman, for instance, will probably never score 15 again.
If the team's lucky, someone will take those contracts if some retained salary is involved, but in any event, all of it clouds Giordano's future. The obvious issue here is that Calgary valued the wrong things in hockey for so long (Grit! Toughness!) that it's now starting to bite them a bit when they have every reason — and, if you believe the talk and at least some of the evidence in their actions, the inclination — to spend wisely. How wisely will soon be revealed, though.
The fact that we've heard nothing about Giordano's status for more than a month shouldn't be a point of concern, but if they're trying to make things work long-term, that would be a major problem for this club. Even if Monahan and Gaudreau take bridge deals, which they shouldn't. There's so much cap space that needs to be socked away for the future, devoting a ton of it for a very long time to a guy north of 33 would be a big misstep. Going cheap and long-term, or expensive and short-term is the ideal scenario here, but if Calgary can't make that work, it has to think about trading not only Hudler and Hiller and Wideman and Russell and whichever other veterans it has on hand that are seemingly at values never again to be regained, but also trading Giordano.
It's an unpalatable end result, and also not one that seems too likely to happen. But if Calgary is serious about being competitive with this young and improving core between three and five years from now, not-paying a 38-year-old Ryan Suter money — though I guess Ryan Suter will be getting Ryan Suter money when he's 38, so... — seems like a good place to start.
You'd like to think that Treliving had all this in mind before he started making moves this summer. Hell, even if he has to offload Giordano (as letting him walk next summer simply cannot happen), the good news is he already got a top-pairing defenseman to replace him.
Anything more than three years for Giordano is probably an awful deal for Calgary for a number of reasons, and the player wouldn't — and shouldn't — accept anything that short given that he's never had a major payday in his career. But letting a Norris-level defenseman go is also a tough look for a general manager who needs to keep up appearances even as his team's results from last year cannot be replicated.
At this point, there just might not be a particularly good decision to be made here. But one has to come eventually.
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