The 2022 offseason has been a particularly memorable one thus far and is still not over. When we think back to this offseason years from now, the likely storyline that will be remembered most will be the major contracts and superstar shuffling that primarily involved the Calgary Flames. In a matter of days, Calgary lost franchise cornerstone Johnny Gaudreau to the Columbus Blue Jackets in free agency, found out that their other cornerstone Matthew Tkachuk would not consider a long-term extension with them, traded Tkachuk with an extension in place to the Florida Panthers, who proceeded to send their own franchise player in Jonathan Huberdeau back to the Flames alongside star defenseman MacKenzie Weegar, with Huberdeau ultimately signing his own massive extension.
That’s enough franchise-altering transactions to last some teams a decade or two, but Calgary fit it in in under a month, and all of this before even considering the impact these all had on Columbus and Florida. With the dust finally starting to settle and only Weegar left to deal with in Calgary, the attention can begin to turn to how these players will fit in with their teams, how their teams will build around them, and of course, how these contracts will ultimately play out.
Seeing as the three star forwards have a combined zero games played on their current contracts, it feels a bit premature to judge the contracts. However, given previous history with big-money deals like this and the fascinating nature in which they all came about, seeing how they all compare to one another and what each team might be faced with is an interesting exercise. Because it’s premature, we’ll look at previous history and we’ll consider what is more probable to happen rather than what is possible to happen. In other words, it’s possible Huberdeau immediately regresses into a third-line winger, but not probable. Instead, it’s probable he’s a similar player to the one he has been with some regression in his mid-30’s.
So, on this quiet Sunday in the NHL, take some time to carefully compare and contras these different contracts, not only to each other, but those from recent NHL history.
The Contract: Gaudreau signed a seven-year, $68.5MM contract on the opening day of free agency with Columbus, who was then considered a surprise dark horse for his services. The deal carries a $9.75MM cap hit, comprised of $7.75MM in base salary and a $2MM signing bonus in each year of the contract. It also comes with a no-movement clause and a modified no-trade clause in the final three years of the deal where Gaudreau can submit a list of 10 teams he is willing to be dealt to.
Reasons for Optimism: Even at just 29, Gaudreau is a seasoned veteran of the NHL who has had plenty of personal and team ups and downs throughout his career. He was fortunate to have by far the best season of his career prior to hitting the free agent market, but this wasn’t exactly a breakout season either. Gaudreau put up 115 points this season, 40 of them goals, but has had as many as 99 points in the past, 36 of those goals, in 2018-19, a season where offense wasn’t up nearly as much as it was this year.
Also worth considering is Gaudreau’s production while playing alongside players like Tkachuk, Elias Lindholm, and Andrew Mangiapane. Some may argue that players like these simply serve to enhance Gaudreau’s numbers, however he was able to balance his need for puck control along with the needs of his teammates, creating a heap of goals and assists for not only himself, but the others, Tkachuk and Lindholm hitting the back of the net 42 times apiece and Mangiapane 35 times this season. On top of this, his 90 even strength points this year serve to show Gaudreau’s impact is not simply felt when his team is in the most offensively-favorable situations, but rather when the game is at its most balanced.
Reasons for Concern: Listed at 5’9″ and 165 pounds, Gaudreau is among the smaller players in the league, though size hasn’t been an issue thus far. The primary reason Gaudreau has been as great as he has, even with his size, is his elite skating. Gaudreau has been able to utilize his speed in order to protect the puck, create plays and make space for himself and his teammates, driving much of his dynamic gameplay. The forward hasn’t taken much of a step back and doesn’t figure to for a few more seasons, however as he gets into his mid-30’s, it stands to reason that some of his speed may be lost, and though he’ll be far from slow, what impact that has on his play style, especially given his frame, could have an impact on his performance.
Another worry as far as the value of the contract is concerned is Gaudreau’s previous inconsistencies. Yes, he has played near this level of elite in the past and his “lesser” performances have still been All Star level, but with a cap hit of $9.75MM, now Gaudreau’s ability to perform at this elite level year in and year out will be a prime factor in how his contract is evaluated long-term.
The Contract: Unlike Gaudreau and Tkachuk, Huberdeau’s contract doesn’t kick in for another year. The longtime Panther forward signed an eight-year, $84MM contract that will begin in the 2023-24 season, with one year at $5.9MM remaining on his current deal. The upcoming contract carries an AAV of $10.5MM with varying signing bonuses and base salaries. In sum, Huberdeau will take home a $7MM signing bonus in the first, second, third, and sixth year, a $9.5MM signing bonus in the fourth, fifth, and seventh years, and a $5MM signing bonus in the eighth year, with the remainder to be paid in base salary, constituting an even $10.5MM per season. His deal will also provide a full no-movement clause which allows Calgary limited trade availability in the final two years, Huberdeau picking 12 teams he is willing to be traded to. Given the even spread of salary, high signing bonuses and very strong movement protection, one could consider Huberdeau immovable and buyout proof for the next nine years.
Reasons for Optimism: Huberdeau’s 115 points in 2021-22 tied him for second in the NHL alongside Gaudreau. Also like Gaudreau, 2021-22 represented somewhat of a breakout for the winger, who was already playing at an elite level, but took another step forward in his production. The former Panther averaged 1.12 points-per-game in the three seasons prior to this one, stepping up to 1.43 this season. While Calgary is surely betting on him being the player he was this year for Florida, if Huberdeau is more like the player he was in the few years prior, he will still be worth at or around his $10.5MM cap hit, meaning that the Flames do have some room for Huberdeau to take a step back from his 2021-22 without it significantly impacting the value of the deal.
Additionally, Huberdeau’s game is one of an elite passer and playmaker that can find the back of the net plenty as well. However, his game has never necessarily relied on his skating, but instead his hands, vision, and hockey IQ on top of quality skating. It stands to reason that Huberdeau, like Gaudreau and many other players, might lose a step in his mid-30’s, which would be the middle of the contract, however given that his game relies primarily on skills that are unlikely to take the same kind of step back, he should be able to maintain his level of play or something close to it for longer than might be expected.
Reasons for Concern: As discussed, Huberdeau’s contract will be near impossible for Calgary to buyout or move down the road, but that alone is not necessarily a reason to be concerned. The trouble will come if Huberdeau cannot maintain the level of play that turned him into one of the NHL’s premier forwards of the past few years. Although it would seem he could maintain that level of play a bit longer, perhaps into his mid-30’s, the contract runs through Huberdeau’s age-37 season. Even if he were to age well, there are very few recent examples of players at that age that have been worth a cap hit of around $10.5MM. Still, the issue doesn’t have to be black and white, and if Huberdeau can produce at a high level, even if not necessarily worth every penny of his cap hit in the later seasons of the deal, it may not be a bargain, but may not be a disaster either.
The Contract: Tkachuk’s contract was an interesting case of a true sign-and-trade. The forward technically signed with the Flames, who then turned and dealt him to the Panthers. Nonetheless, this was one that both Florida and Tkachuk had wanted and has no effect on the Flames outside of their return. The eight-year, $76MM contract carries a $9.5MM cap hit, the lowest of the three players compared here. The deal carries a largely front-loaded structure paid primarily through signing bonuses, each year of the contract paying just a $1MM base salary.
The first year of the contract contains no protections from movement or trades, but then contains a full no-movement clause through 2027-28. Starting in 2028-29, the final two years of the contract contain a modified no-trade clause where Tkachuk can submit a 16 team no-trade list.
Reasons for Optimism: At just 24 years old, Tkachuk’s eight-year deal carries him through his age 32 season, putting him on the UFA market a few months prior to his 33rd birthday. The main advantage to Tkachuk’s contract as compared to the other two is clearly his age, this long-term deal essentially covering his entire prime. Being able to secure one of the games better two-way forwards, a true elite point producer and perhaps the league’s best agitator all rolled into one for under $10M for his entire prime is nothing short of a major win for Florida, especially as they deal with their own salary cap issues. Even considering the cost to acquire Tkachuk, the team now has two of the games best players in Tkachuk and Aleksander Barkov signed through the 2029-30 season for under $20MM, giving them two players at a set price they can build around for the rest of the decade.
Reasons for Concern: A $9.5MM AAV for a 24-year-old coming off a 42 goal, 104 point season sounds hard to beat in today’s NHL, and it very well might be. But, say, what if that 1.27 points-per-game player actually only provided 0.88 points-per-game? This question will be the main point of concern for the Florida Panthers as they embark on this eight-year journey with Tkachuk, who averaged those 0.88 points-per-game over the three seasons prior to last. The player Tkachuk was over those three seasons, or his entire career for that matter, is no doubt an incredibly valuable asset, but for a cap-strung team, any overpayment on that player, no matter how good, could be an issue. Given his age and previous track record, it’s highly unlikely Tkachuk will be an objectively “bad” player during this contract, but living up to his AAV given he has only produced at this incredibly elite level just once, is of concern.
Not at all Tkachuk’s fault, he will have to contend with the price Florida paid to acquire him. Huberdeau, Weegar, prospect Cole Schwindt, and a first-round pick is a hefty price to pay for any player and that return package will be tied to Tkachuk and his performance as time goes on, especially with Huberdeau and Weegar both in their prime right now, and Huberdeau signed long-term in Calgary. This won’t have any bearing on the overall value of Tkachuk’s contract, but it is worth mentioning given how polarizing the trade itself is.
The three contracts, all tied to one another and given in short order, will forever bond them to each other. However, since they are all their own, they will have to be evaluated that way as well, and not based on the performance of the others. Also considering that the players haven’t played a single game under their new deals, it’s hard to truly forecast them. One way to make those guesses more educated though, is to look at a few previous examples of similar contracts.
One example is New York Rangers winger Artemi Panarin, who signed a seven-year, $81.5MM contract carrying a cap hit just over $11.64MM per season. Panarin’s cap hit is over a million more per season than Huberdeau at $10.5MM but as a UFA, headed to a brand new team, is a relatable player in some form to all three. Signing Panarin gave the then-rebuilding Rangers a jumpstart, pushing them back into competitiveness quicker than many had imagined, and the winger has played up to his contract thus far. But, having taken somewhat of a step back in this year’s playoffs and on the wrong side of 30 with four years left, the reality of just how immovable Panarin is has resonated with many.
Panarin signing just prior to age 28 aligns most closely with Gaudreau, who signed just prior to turning 29, but carries with him an interesting distinction to all three here: his breakout to superstar status happened after he signed with the Rangers. After tallying a career-high 87 points in 79 games with Columbus in 2018-19, Panarin hit 95 points in just 69 games in his first season in Manhattan, taking his game to new heights. As well and good as this is, it raises the question: if Panarin took another step after signing and hasn’t taken much of a step back at age 30, what will Gaudreau, Huberdeau, and Tkachuk need to do to live up to their contracts?
Another example is John Tavares, who left the New York Islanders to sign a seven-year, $77MM deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs in July of 2018. Much like Panarin, Tavares was everything Toronto was hoping he would be when they signed him, scoring 47 goals for 88 points in his first season. However, since then, the Islanders captain turned Toronto captain hasn’t been able to repeat his success with either team, failing to be a point-per-game player since his Maple Leafs debut. Now 31, admittedly needing to work on his skating, Tavares is far from a bad player by any stretch of the imagination, but his $11MM cap hit has been the subject of almost every Maple Leafs-related contract discussion as the team is forced to make tough decisions about its depth and let some key pieces go. In effect, the Tavares example is one of the player being a great addition and player for his new team, but a big question as to whether the cap hit was worth it in the end.
A final example is Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn, who signed an eight-year, $76MM contract extension to stay in Dallas during the summer of 2016. Signed three days ahead of his 27th birthday, the deal began in 2017-18, Benn’s age-28 season. Benn was, following a trend, every bit the player they hoped to extend the first year of the deal, putting up 79 points in 82 games, but hasn’t found that production since, finishing this season with a mere 46 points over 82 games. A relatively similar style of player to Tkachuk, Benn’s sharp regression at the age of 29 is a warning sign for any team looking to sign a long-term contract, but especially those seeking to ink a power-forward much like Benn. On the bright side for a Tkachuk comparison, even if the exact same trajectory was true for Tkachuk, an age-29 regression would only impact the final three years of his pact.
Wrapping up, it’s of course way too early to judge these contracts and in all honesty, it will be way too early to judge them halfway through (unless they’re bought out, of course). But considering the polarizing nature of all three, and the readily available examples of long-term, big-money deals, it is an interesting exercise to see what these could look like, not only compared to the league and its salary structure generally, but to one another, given that they will almost certainly be linked together for the remainder of their careers.