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Chris Johnston: Inside the NHL: The Flames’ pursuit of Jack Eichel shows they’re willing to change their core, plus five players in the Calder conversation

The Calgary Flames were a serious bidder in the Jack Eichel sweepstakes right until the bitter end.

That they swung and missed on the superstar centre does not guarantee they’ll soon be swinging big again. Nor should their strong 7-1-3 start to the NHL season suggest that everything will now fall quiet on the trade front.

The Flames identified in Eichel the same type of rare opportunity Vegas did: Here was a 25-year-old, high-end centrepiece that could be plopped on top of a strong top-six forward group and help raise all boats.

That alone was worth taking on any perceived risk associated with his pending artificial disc replacement surgery.

What Calgary’s pursuit of Eichel tells us is that the front office recognizes the need to strengthen its core, if possible. The Flames haven’t made an appearance in the second round of the playoffs since 2015, when Sean Monahan was a sophomore and Johnny Gaudreau a rookie.

They have won a lot of games in the years since, but not enough of them at the right time to fend off the possibility of larger changes now.

Gaudreau has had an inspired start to the season and is playing out the final year of his contract. The sides are vowing not to discuss that situation publicly but it looms as a major decision for both player and team.

Then there are two important restricted free agents to consider: Matthew Tkachuk’s qualifying offer for next year is $9 million (U.S.) and he’s eligible to become an unrestricted free agent in 2023; and Andrew Mangiapane, a former sixth-round steal of a draft pick, will need a new contract with a big raise this summer after emerging as dynamic difference-maker.

Meanwhile, Monahan’s career is trending in a different direction as he has been dropped down Darryl Sutter’s lineup. The 27-year-old is playing more than two minutes less per game than he did last season and he has just one year remaining beyond this one on his contract.

That leaves a lot of key pieces on the chess board for general manager Brad Treliving to make decisions on in the not-too-distant future.

The Flames regarded the availability of Jack Eichel as an opportunity — a 25-year-old, high-end centrepiece who could strengthen any team’s core.

Perhaps it has helped keep everyone grounded in the here and now, with Calgary emerging as one of the NHL’s most surprising teams over the first month and keeping pace with Edmonton at the top of the Pacific Division.

Pursuing Eichel was a long-term play for Calgary since he’s under contract through 2025-26. Only Blake Coleman, Rasmus Andersson and Jacob Markstrom are currently signed that far into the future.

There isn’t likely to be another trade target as appealing as him on the market in the near future, but the Flames are in a position where they have to consider everything.

NHLPA fallout

Don Fehr will continue on with his typical day-to-day responsibilities while an independent investigation is conducted into how the NHL Players’ Association handled the Kyle Beach matter.

The investigation is expected to take about three months to complete and is aimed at addressing how Beach’s situation fell through the cracks.

As that process plays out, Fehr will complete his series of fall tour visits with each NHL team. The NHLPA’s executive director told players on last week’s executive board call that he had no recollection of a conversation regarding the alleged sexual assault against Beach by a Chicago Blackhawks video coach in 2010.

The executive board had the power to remove Fehr from running the union, but there was never any push in that direction. They’ll first wait to get more answers from the investigation before taking any potential action or enacting systemic changes.

#AskCJ

If you were a betting man, which Leafs defender is more likely to be moved?@Noah_Banx

Justin Holl is the most likely candidate in my mind. As a big, smooth-skating defender with a right shot, he holds appeal to other teams. And it sends a pretty loud message about where he stands in the pecking order in Toronto with four straight healthy scratches. Holl is also five years older than Travis Dermott and earning $500,000 (U.S.) more than him this season, so from an asset management and salary cap perspective he makes the most sense to trade.

Is Topi Niemela Finnish Olympic team material?@MNLeafs

This one was beyond my scope of knowledge so I checked in with a trusted Finnish hockey source. “No chance,” came back the late-night reply from Helsinki. “He needs to improve in the D zone.” It’s worth noting that Niemela is still just 19 years old and Finland harbours legitimate gold-medal aspirations in Beijing. The Leafs draft pick is putting up strong offensive numbers for Karpat in Liiga, but he’s not yet a serious candidate for national team duty in best-on-best competition.

Can you find the Ottawa Senators a decent second-pair defencemen? — @Fffeisty

I’m still looking for a missing running sock that was apparently sacrificed to the gremlin in my dryer, so I’m probably not best-suited to find what you’re looking for. But there are defencemen out there, especially for a team with excess draft capital like the Senators. What about Holl?

When does team cap for players move from $81.5 million? Vegas really has to juggle its roster especially since adding Eichel.@mbbrennan

You should expect the salary cap to go up by $1 million for the next handful of years. So we’re looking at an $82.5-million ceiling next season and $83.5-million the year after that, etc. We won’t see a larger jump until the players repay all of their collective pandemic debt to the owners and the earliest that’s projected to happen is 2025-26. In the meantime, the leaguewide cap squeeze is real.

What’s your favourite thing so far about your new found freedom to create more of the content you want?@drewdekes

Life is short and careers are shorter. There was a fair amount of stress and anxiety as I navigated a summer where my contract was expiring and I had to figure out the best path forward. It’s still early days, Drew, but my favourite part of where I’ve ended up is that it just feels right. I’m working with great committed people and I’ve been granted the freedom to share more of myself with a column like this one, plus my new pod and a different television platform. Change is healthy and invigorating; I’d highly recommend taking the plunge into something new if you have any doubts about the road you’re walking down.

Ten Minutes with Butch

The NHL is a league where some head coaches still refuse to disclose the identity of their starting goaltender on game day, where a few believe labelling a player’s injury “upper body” or “lower body” is giving out too much info, where the vast majority barely allow themselves to seriously entertain a specific question on a rival player or team.

Against this locked-down, control-everything environment, Bruce Cassidy’s media sessions stand above the rest. They are appointment viewing for those of us paid to hold a microphone or notebook and trying to understand the league.

I remember Cassidy once greeting reporters the morning of a Game 7 and, not only disclosing his lineup, but listing each of his individual lines from left to right. He said something to the effect of that being the lineup he believed was going to win the Boston Bruins a Game 7 and he ended up being right.

On Saturday morning at Scotiabank Arena, Cassidy stood in a cramped space adjacent to the Toronto Raptors locker room and spent 10 minutes analyzing a range of topics thrown his way, providing illustrative examples and punctuating his thoughts with soundbite-friendly quips.

It was a master-class.

While the performance of every coach is ultimately measured by how successful his team is, there’s something refreshing about Cassidy’s apparent belief that discussing and dissecting his decision-making process doesn’t get in the way of the winning.

On Saturday he took a general question about Taylor Hall and mentioned that they’ve reminded the former No. 1 pick he doesn’t have to be the face of the franchise in Boston.

“I think he’s hard on himself,” said Cassidy. “That’s one area we’re trying to (work with him): ‘Hey, it’s not the end of the world if it’s a bad period or something goes wrong. This is how we play here 0—just keep pushing, keep pushing, keep the puck out of our net, help the team win however you can.”’

He broke down in meticulous detail what it takes to slow Auston Matthews. He said that the Bruins were trying to create “internal competition” between free-agent goaltender Linus Ullmark and 22-year-old Jeremy Swayman with the way they’ve deployed starts. He even took a question about Charlie McAvoy’s developing role on the top power-play unit and shared an anecdote about some battles he had with his predecessor, Torey Krug.

“Our power play doesn’t require a guy bombing it from up top. It helps every once and awhile to keep people honest, don’t get me wrong, but that was the argument I had with Krug for years, right?” said Cassidy. “He wanted to shoot a little more and I was like, ‘Well, we’ve got other guys that are options in front of you and that’s how we’re going to do it until it doesn’t work.’ ”

Tip of the hat, coach.

A little honesty goes a long way.

Tidbits

With no summer orientation camp to get familiarized with players, Canadian Olympic head coach Jon Cooper has been setting up chats when the schedule allows. Among those he’s spoken with: Sidney Crosby, Cale Makar and Tom Wilson … There will likely only be room for one of Morgan Rielly, Darnell Nurse or Josh Morrissey on the left side of Canada’s blue line in Beijing … Anthony Cirelli is a dark-horse roster candidate alongside Andrew Mangiapane, who was mentioned in this space last week. Zach Hyman was included on Canada’s long list and is under consideration as well.

Jeremy Colliton, fired Saturday by Chicago, will be paid through the end of next season … Anaheim Ducks defenceman Hampus Lindholm will be a hot commodity at the trade deadline, assuming he’s not dealt well before it … There is already some trade interest in reigning Vezina Trophy winner Marc-André Fleury … William Eklund would have triggered the first year of his entry-level contract had the San Jose Sharks allowed him to play one more game before he was assigned to Djurgardens in Sweden on Friday … Columbus has flexibility with 18-year-old forward Cole Sillinger because he’s eligible to be sent to AHL Cleveland, rather than major junior, after spending last year in the USHL … Sillinger probably is not going anywhere after leading the entire NHL in slot shots generated per minute so far and putting up six points in 10 games.

Leon Draisaitl scored 10 times on his first 33 shots this season … The Islanders are 5-2-2 and still haven’t played a home game while waiting for the finishing touches to be put on UBS Arena … Patrice Bergeron is quietly in the final year of his contract with the Boston Bruins and won’t decide on his future until after the season. I asked him Saturday if he’s taking any extra time to savour this potential final trip around the NHL: “Honestly, I’ve been trying to do that for the last few years. As you get older, I guess with experience you realize how thankful you are to be in this position and play the game that you’ve loved for so long.”

C.J.’s Top 5

While it’s far too early to make any Calder Trophy predictions, this is shaping up to be a promising NHL rookie class. These are the Calder-eligible players who have most caught my eye most so far:

1. Bo Byram, Colorado. After getting a brief taste of NHL action last season, the 20-year-old defenceman is already moving the needle. The Avs play a ton of offence when Byram is on the ice and it’s not all because of usage.

2. Moritz Seider, Detroit. His first NHL goal came in overtime on Saturday, but there’s more to like here than his 10 points in 12 games. The right-shot defenceman is already playing 22 minutes a night.

3. Lucas Raymond, Detroit. The leading scorer among all NHL rookies already has a hat trick and three-assist performance on his resume.

4. Jamie Drysdale, Anaheim. Another defenceman! Don’t let some tough puck luck with his boxcars distract you, the former Canadian world junior standout looks like a difference-maker-in-the-making for the Ducks.

5. Jonathan Dahlen, San Jose. A Senators draft pick and one-time Canucks prospect, Dahlen needed extra seasoning. Following two solid years at home in Sweden, he’s burst out of the gates with seven points in his first 10 NHL games.

Parting Thought

We probably aren’t talking enough about how Alex Ovechkin, at age 36 and in his 17th NHL season, just casually scored 10 goals in 11 games to start the season while playing more than 21 minutes per night. He’s the 15th oldest forward in the league! Crazy town.

Chris Johnston is a Toronto-based journalist with a new gaming company. His work will be seen on the website and app for the new gaming company, and also in the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterchris

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