Canada

Damien Cox: So long, Tkachuk. Goodbye, Gaudreau. What’s so bad about Calgary, anyway?

For inspiration, the Calgary Flames could look to Long Island.

Four summers ago, the Islanders’ leading man, John Tavares, shocked the team and its fans by walking out the door as a free agent and into the waiting arms of his hometown Maple Leafs. It looked to be a move that would not only demoralize the Isles franchise, but set it back years.

Instead, after missing the playoffs again in Tavares’s final season, the Islanders went out the next year, made the playoffs and won a round. The following year, they won two rounds. Then in the 2020-21 season, under general Lou Lamoriello and head coach Barry Trotz, the Islanders came within one win of qualifying for their first Stanley Cup final since the glory years of the early 1980s.

So, the Flames can surely use the Islanders as an encouraging case study after being rocked by the stunning back-to-back departures of star left-winger Johnny Gaudreau and hard-nosed forward Matthew Tkachuk.

Gaudreau walked out the door for Columbus as a free agent, leaving only cap space behind, while Tkachuk, after indicating he would not re-sign next summer, was dealt to Florida for star winger Jonathan Huberdeau, defenceman MacKenzie Weegar, a minor-league prospect and a lottery-protected first-round draft pick.

The departures of two U.S.-born players, four years after American collegian Adam Fox refused to sign with the Flames and went on to win a Norris Trophy elsewhere, creates some existential questions that will take some time to answer.

Do the Flames have a problem with keeping elite American players? Does it have something to do with playing in Calgary, or Alberta, or Canada? Or are the various situations completely different?

With Fox, the team exhausted all avenues in trying to get him signed and ultimately dealt him to Carolina, a swap that netted the Flames defenceman Noah Hanifin and forward Elias Lindholm. With Gaudreau, the Flames were at first understanding of his desire to play closer to his New Jersey roots after 11 years in the Calgary organization, then emotionally wounded when he decided Columbus would do just fine despite the fact it was seven hours west of his hometown.

With Tkachuk, the team responded in brisk, businesslike fashion, praising him for his honesty and accepting the fact it had to make the best of a difficult situation. GM Brad Treliving did a quick deal with the Panthers, divisional winners and disappointed second-round playoff casualties just like the Flames, who have also been hit hard by free-agent defections.

“A week ago this was not a plan that we had,” said Treliving. “We were not looking to move Matthew Tkachuk.”

After forming two-thirds of one of the most potent lines in the NHL with the Calgary Flames, Johnny Gaudreau, left, bolted for the Blue Jackets, while Matthew Tkachuk refused a contract extension and wound up with the Panthers.

On the surface, it looks like an old-fashioned hockey trade that sees the Flames acquire an elite attacker in Huberdeau and a defenceman in Weegar who can play in Calgary’s top four. If the intent was to rally the spirits of Flames fans and persuade Calgary media to adopt a more positive point of view, it worked.

But it wasn’t really an equitable deal. Huberdeau is 29, five years older than Tkachuk; Weegar is 28. Both players can also become unrestricted free agents a year from now, while Tkachuk agreed to an eight-year, $76-million (U.S.) contract with Florida before the transaction. This sign-and-trade would be very different if Huberdeau and Weegar were both under contract for another three or four seasons. But they’re not, and ignoring that to focus on their merits as players essentially ignores the essence of a trade that was an immediate home run for Florida for reasons of youth and cost certainty.

For Calgary, the cases of Fox, Gaudreau and Tkachuk — plus forward Sam Bennett, the fourth pick in the 2014 draft who demanded a trade part way through the 2020-21 season and was dealt to the Panthers — should generate some internal soul-searching.

Like it or not, fair or unfair, the Flames have an image problem.

A team that has trouble keeping its top prospects and star players can quickly have a stigma attached to its logo. The Islanders learned that. So did Columbus, which was part of the reason why signing Gaudreau was such an important move for that franchise. Winnipeg has long carried the rep of a team that struggles to get top players to stay, and lost another two seasons ago when Patrik Laine asked out.

For a proud city that once hosted the Winter Olympics and carries the defiant strut of a wealthy oil town, this refusal of elite talent to embrace Calgary has got to hurt. Flames supporters expressed that bitterness rather emphatically by booing Fox viciously when he visited with the New York Rangers. We’ll see how Saddledome customers respond next season to Gaudreau and Tkachuk.

A new arena, coming in 2024, will help to address any suggestion that Cowtown isn’t a first-class NHL city that can attract and retain the best players in the world. Treliving has clearly decided his best public relations strategy is to be viewed as a passionate, “us against the world” defender of Calgary and the Flames.

“(The city) and us as an organization have taken some body shots,” he said. “Quite frankly, it pisses me off. As a community, as an organization, we do not have to apologize for anything. We’re proud of who we are.”

Fair enough. Still, signing Huberdeau now becomes a crucial and symbolic priority to stave off more criticism, even if it requires paying a premium or agreeing to a contract that extends well beyond his 35th birthday.

The Flames have made it clear they intend to be a first-place team again next season. They may be able to do it. But they’ll still need to aggressively address their image problem and prevent it from metastasizing.

Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin

JOIN THE CONVERSATION

Conversations are opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of Conduct. The Star does not endorse these opinions.

Products You May Like

Articles You May Like

Today in Hockey History: Aug. 13
Blackhawks Well Represented at 2022 World Juniors
Canadians bring The Michigan to Edmonton in world junior hockey win over Czechs
Canada beats Latvia to open world junior hockey
2022 NHL offseason: Grades on biggest deals, including Pacioretty, Tkachuk, Burns

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.