How much can the Calgary Flames afford to pay Tkachuk?

Ryan Leslie tries to get to the bottom of what went wrong for the Western Conference top seeded Calgary Flames, a team that believes they have the talented core to get it done when it matters most.

The Calgary Flames will almost certainly have to trade one of their veterans to sign Matthew Tkachuk.

An informal survey of some of the league’s top agents regarding Tkachuk’s worth as a restricted free agent confirms the 21-year-old power forward will come at a cost that far exceeds his projected annual salary.

That price tag could very well include T.J. Brodie or Michael Frolik.

Over the next few months GM Brad Treliving needs to ink Tkachuk, two starting goalies, Sam Bennett, Andrew Mangiapane and several depth players, which may also include unrestricted free agent Garnet Hathaway.

He has just $14.5 million to do so, which is problematic given Tkachuk is poised to shatter Jarome Iginla’s franchise record cap hit of $7 million.

“If five years is what Tkachuk wants he’s on the right track,” said one of the league’s most prominent agents.

“I would even argue four years, but the team won’t want that. I would use (Oilers forward Leon) Draisaitl as my floor to start negotiations (at $8.5 million annually). Tkachuk falls somewhere between $8.5 million and $10 million. I wouldn’t put him above (Auston) Matthews.”

Matthews and fellow Leaf William Nylander upped the restricted free agent market last year with deals at $11.6 million and $6.9 million respectively.

Draisaitl’s eight-year swindle moved the needle a year earlier with a deal that infuriated GMs around the league and sets Tkachuk up brilliantly considering he had 21 more goals and 37 more points than the Oilers star after their first three years in the league.

The ante will no doubt be upped again this summer by a crop of superstar RFAs that includes Mitchell Marner, Brayden Point, Mikko Rantanen, Patrik Laine, Timo Meier, Kyle Connor, Sebastian Aho, William Karlsson, Brock Boeser and Tkachuk.

Each signing has the potential to set new bars for the others, driving Tkachuk’s worth closer to that unfathomable $10 million mark.

While some in that class have more goals or assists than Tkachuk, none possess the bevy of intangibles the gritty Tkachuk brings as one of the game’s top young leaders, not to mention one of its preeminent agitators.

He has a history of being a big-game player whose 34 goals as a member of the Flames shut-down line (read: second unit) demonstrates he may one day be able to challenge for the 50-goal mark his father Keith surpassed twice.

His net-front presence certainly makes that possible.

He already wears an “A” on his jersey and is already being talked about as a future captain.

However, it’s hard to believe he’ll be around that long as the U.S.-born winger is almost certain to sign a five-year deal mirroring that of Matthews in terms of length.

“If I’m the team I want seven or eight years because I’m willing to overpay for the first few years, but the market will catch up to the deal,” said one agent, citing the lessons learned from contracts like Erik Karlsson’s.

“If I was repping (Tkachuk) I’d go four or five years. Look at Karlsson, arguably the top defenceman in the league. He locked in at $6.5 million (for seven years). Now he’s banged up as a UFA, and out of his prime, and he’s lost millions he’ll never get back.”

Thoughts of Tkachuk opting for a two-year pact made several agents scoff.

“A two year deal you’re not setting yourself up for life in case of a devastating injury,” said an agent.

“At five years you walk into unrestricted free agency for another big payday wherever you choose. Going back to 2004 there’s no justification for an assumption the cap is going flat. There’s been a shifting of allocation of dollars so the middle class is getting squeezed. But if you are a star, elite player, like Tkachuk, the money will be there.”

It’s here now, but how much can the Flames afford to pay Tkachuk?

Ryan Dixon and Rory Boylen go deep on pucks with a mix of facts and fun, leaning on a varied group of hockey voices to give their take on the country’s most beloved game.

Treliving has proven to be a shrewd negotiator on deals like these, locking up Johnny Gaudreau (six years, $6.75 million annually) and Sean Monahan (seven years, $6.3 million) to deals already considered to be below market.

However, the cards are stacked against him this time, and it’s likely to get worse with every high-profile RFA signing to come.

Last year the Flames’ goalie tandem cost them just over $5 million dollars as David Rittich made $800,000 and Mike Smith cost $4.26 million. The Coyotes paid an additional $1.4 million of Smith’s salary.

Rittich is in for a significant raise and a tandem-mate needs to be signed, realistically expected to combine for $5 to 6 million of the Flames’ $14.5 million pie remaining.

Bennett, who is arbitration-eligible, needs at least a 10 per cent raise on his $1.95 million to qualify him.

Potential top-six forward Mangiapane is also due for a raise above his $705,000 cap hit.

The numbers don’t add up if Tkachuk is due for at least a $9 million cap hit, meaning talk of trading Brodie ($4.6 million for one more year) or Frolik ($4.3 million for one more year) will likely heat up as we approach the draft June 21.

Moving either one before their contract expires makes sense on a number of different levels.

Brodie is coveted league-wide for his skating ability and offensive-upside and will have high value outside of his longtime home where his defensive lapses and a bevy of youngsters have made him expendable.

Frolik was not a favorite of first-year coach Bill Peters, who would love to move the 31-year-old checking line winger out of the top six.

Most importantly, swapping either could give the team breathing room to land the backup goalie they are comfortable with, while also keeping Bennett and maybe even Hathaway.

Signing Tkachuk and Mangiapane aren’t options – they are mandatory.

So, yes, the Flames can afford to pay Tkachuk upwards of $9 million, but it will force Treliving to do what he loves most – put on his trading cap.

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