Five wildly intriguing longshot landing spots for star UFA Johnny Gaudreau

Watch as Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau snipes a shot from a steep angle to beat Dallas Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger and come away with the overtime win in Game 7.

Fresh off one of the wildest post-seasons we’ve had in recent memory, we’re now set to turn to an off-season that looks likely to be just as frenetic. The free-agency board is dotted with some weighty names yet to ink new deals for the 2022-23 season — all-stars and future Hall of Famers, talent that can alter franchises.

Take a look back at the additions made by Joe Sakic before his Colorado Avalanche ran through the opposition to claim the Cup, and the impact of the deals made over the next few months should be clear.

And top among that list of potential marquee additions is Calgary Flames standout Johnny Gaudreau.

After a career year that saw him amass 115 points — tied for second-most among anyone in the game last season, and his second time nearing or topping the 100-point plateau — Gaudreau’s now mulling a return to Calgary or a turn as an unrestricted free agent come July 13. Either way he figures to get a hefty raise on the $6.75 million he earned in 2021-22 — the question is what exactly he’s looking for in this next phase of his career.

The most likely landing spots for the star winger have been discussed plenty. 

The Flames have made clear they’re willing to break the bank to bring back their top scorer, with Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reporting Sunday that they’re open to signing Gaudreau for eight years at $9.5 million per year, with room to go even higher. Given the winger has said time and time again that he loves the city, given he and his Flames are coming off the best season of his career, and given the type of cheque Calgary’s willing to cut to keep him in town, all signs still seem to point to a return. 

Then there’s the Philadelphia Flyers. It’s a tougher sell now than it might’ve been in years past considering where the franchise is at right now, but Gaudreau’s famously spoken in the past about the possibility of going back home to play in Philly, not too far from where he grew up in South Jersey. The fact that close friend and former college teammate Kevin Hayes is in the mix helps, too.

Or there’s the New Jersey Devils. Another homecoming of sorts for the Salem, N.J., native. Another team coming off some rough years as well, though, but with a quality potential running mate for a star winger looking to make a move to the Prudential Center: top-line pivot Jack Hughes.

In all likelihood, Johnny Hockey’s wearing one of those three jerseys by the time the 2022-23 season begins. But sometimes, the game surprises. And while those three clubs seem the best bets, there are plenty of other teams who have the money to get No. 13 listening, and the talent to potentially lure him away.

That being the case, we’re looking at the most intriguing potential landing spots for the high-flying winger — not the most likely, the most rational, or the most logical. But the wildest, most interesting longshots that would leave us with some fireworks come Day 1 of the 2022-23 season.

MONTREAL CANADIENS

Why it’s a longshot: At a glance, it seems impossible. The Canadiens have less than $2 million in cap space to work with, according to CapFriendly, meaning they wouldn’t be able to get anywhere close to the type of offer Calgary or some of the other teams below could offer Gaudreau. And beyond the financials, the Habs are coming off a year that saw them mired in the league’s basement piling up losses. Gaudreau will have his pick of suitors if he opts to test the market, and the chances of him choosing a team struggling to get back to the middle of the pack — over Calgary, who seems on the edge of contender status — doesn’t seem likely. In fact, the chances of him opting to leave the Flames for another Canadian team, as opposed to a move stateside, seems even less likely.

Why it could work: The Canadiens’ cap situation is a bit deceptive, because so many moving parts have yet to settle. The first piece is Jeff Petry, who seems all but certain to be moved before next season rolls around. That opens up another $6.25 million. The bigger question is what happens with longtime netminder Carey Price. When the 34-year-old wrapped up his 2021-22 season, there were questions of whether injuries were pushing his time in the league towards an early end. With July 13 around the corner, it’s still unclear. If Price is unable to suit up long-term next season — a big ‘if’ but a consequential one — that leaves GM Kent Hughes with even more cap space to use in addressing other needs throughout the roster. Losing those two players would open up other issues in need of solutions, surely, but if the Canadiens find themselves with room to operate, do they take a run at Gaudreau? There’s no denying the club is in need of some elite-level scoring, some electrifying all-world talent, and scorers of Gaudreau's calibre don't hit the market often.

Why it could be great: There’s a deeper connection here that would make this an intriguing fit. Rewind back before Gaudreau’s days in the big leagues, and there was another diminutive forward he used to idolize, another dynamic talent he watched score at will despite the doubts about his size. There’s an undeniable bond between Gaudreau and Martin St. Louis — who, incidentally, was once himself represented by Gaudreau’s agent, Lewis Gross. If Gaudreau decided it was time to move on from Calgary, if Montreal wound up with enough space to make him a competitive offer, would the star winger consider a move to the Canadiens to play for one of his boyhood idols?

Not to be discounted is the impact St. Louis has shown he can have on players of a similar mold. Young winger Cole Caufield saw his game improve drastically under the Canadiens coach’s guidance, St. Louis passing on the tricks learned during his own decades on the ice. For all Gaudreau’s accomplished in the game already, perhaps the chance to learn firsthand from St. Louis could unlock even more success for No. 13. And for those on the other side of the glass, it would certainly be great theatre. Whether the Canadiens even get to the point of being able to make him an offer, and whether Gaudreau would ever leave Calgary for Montreal, are both massive longshots. But intriguing? Surely.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

Why it’s a longshot: If this was a year or two ago, when the Isles were routinely reaching the third round of the post-season, this might not seem so farfetched. But after a 2021-22 tumble that saw them miss the post-season for the first time in three years, and after the departure of head coach Barry Trotz — the architect of those playoff performances — the Islanders aren’t quite the attraction they were just a season ago. And while they have some space to make a free-agency splash, it’s going to be tough for GM Lou Lamoriello to compete with what Calgary can pay No. 13, meaning a move to Long Island wouldn't necessarily be a home run in terms of the paycheque or the chance to win.

Why it could work: That said, the Islanders could find room to offer up something hefty, provided a few things are shifted around. The club is sitting with about $12 million in cap space at the moment, with only a blue-line retooling to handle. A new deal for RFA defender Noah Dobson is sure to cut into a fair chunk of that cap space, but should the Isles need to open up some space, they have a plethora of quality forwards making $4-$5 million should someone need to be moved out to reshape the forward corps (Josh Bailey, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Kyle Palmieri, Anthony Beauvillier). Past the money, for Gaudreau, a jump to the Islanders would represent that move closer to home, but one to a club that’s more set up to win than the current iterations of the Flyers or Devils.

Why it could be great: Simply put, because Gaudreau lining up beside Mathew Barzal would be electric. It would be a game-changer for the Islanders, firstly, and it would be a game-changer for Barzal, too. Since dominating in his rookie campaign with New York courtesy of an 85-point outburst, the exceptionally talented Islanders pivot has seemingly taken a step back, his all-world talent not translating to consistent success on the sheet. Dropping in a creative, offensive dynamo like Gaudreau beside him might just allow Barzal to take another step towards reaching his full potential.

More importantly, it would be a treat for hockey fans across the league — the two would be an absolute terror flying up and down the ice together. And what’s more, a Gaudreau-Barzal duo could be just what the Islanders need to move into their new era, transitioning out of Trotz’s defensive-minded approach and into a quicker, more creative style that better matches up with the rest of the league’s best.

ANAHEIM DUCKS

Why it’s a longshot: Again, if Gaudreau chooses to move on, he'll have plenty of suitors. And as with Montreal, the chances he opts to join a Ducks team that's been stuck in the basement for half a decade, that hasn’t made the playoffs in four years, that just lost one of their biggest stars in recently-retired Ryan Getzlaf, aren’t high. If Gaudreau stays in the West, it’s tough to see him choosing a team pushing through a rebuild over the Flames, who are already closer to contending. 

Why it could happen: Mostly because the Ducks have a boatload of cap space — just shy of $40 million. Of course, they have plenty to do with that money, including inking a fair number of free agents to new deals and leaving space for a plethora of future long-term extensions for their young stars. Even so, it seems Anaheim would still have enough to get all that done and offer Gaudreau a sizable deal. What happens if they identify Gaudreau as the type of elite talent that could kick their rebuild into high gear, and offer an AAV a shade higher than where Calgary’s willing to go? And then there’s the allure of playing in Southern California, away from the scrutiny that comes with leading a Canadian club, and amid a vastly different off-ice lifestyle.

Why it could be great: Gaudreau and Trevor Zegras? That would be pure offensive chaos. In the young Ducks pivot’s first full campaign in the big leagues, Zegras proved himself as one of the most dynamic talents in the game. He figures to only get better in Year 2, and much like Barzal, there’s no question a Gaudreau-Zegras tandem on the Ducks’ top line could wreak plenty of havoc. It’s more than just Zegras, though. It’s Troy Terry, Sonny Milano, Jamie Drysdale — a crew of young talents who play the game the way Gaudreau wants to. And while the Ducks have sold off pieces, they still have some veteran talent on board, none more important than bona fide No. 1 netminder John Gibson.

Now, if Gibson ends up leaving town, and GM Pat Verbeek takes the patient approach to Anaheim’s rebuild, the chances of Gaudreau heading to California drop even lower than a longshot. But if the Ducks make things interesting this off-season, bringing in some other talent and offering Gaudreau something wild, could the prospect of teaming up with Zegras under the California sun lure No. 13 out of Calgary?

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Why it’s a longshot: The Pens have far, far bigger questions to answer before they get involved in bringing aboard star free agents. Franchise stalwarts Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are in need of new deals, and GM Ron Hextall has made it clear the team wants to bring both back — it seems all but certain Letang will return, but at what number is unclear. And how that impacts Malkin’s return, even less so. Even if Malkin were to move on from Pittsburgh, opening the door for a marquee signing, it seems likely the Penguins would opt to find a replacement centre rather than splurge on a star winger. Not to mention, regardless of how it shakes out, it’s unlikely the Penguins could offer Gaudreau anything close to what Calgary or the above clubs could.

Why it could work: While the perception out there is that the Pens are trying to make things work with little room to operate, the club has quite a bit of flexibility to work with, around $23 million in fact. If the Pens can get Letang inked for somewhere around $8 million per year, that still leaves $15 million to work with, and not too many other questions on the roster in need of answering. Past that, there’s been plenty of chatter about the team potentially moving a left-side defender this off-season given the surplus of talent they have on that side of the ice. Brian Dumoulin, Mike Matheson, Marcus Pettersson (and right-sider John Marino, for that matter) all make between $4–$5 million per year. Moving one of them opens up even more flexibility for Hextall.

Why it could be great: This one should be obvious. While Gaudreau won’t get top-line duties alongside Sidney Crosby — Jake Guentzel cemented his place in that spot long ago — the potential power-play magic alongside the No. 87 would be wild. And while Pittsburgh could opt to look for a centre if Malkin moves on, they do have Jeff Carter still in the mix, the veteran proving early last season he can hold his own in that 2C spot. Would Gaudreau take less than he could get elsewhere for a chance to be part of a club closer to the contender conversation?

The more intriguing question is what happens if both Letang and Malkin return. Let’s say the duo can be brought back for a combined $15 million per year. Let’s say a defender has moved out, opening up some more money, and the Pens brass opt to fill out the bottom six with younger, cheaper talent. Could Gaudreau be lured to the black and gold for the chance to play alongside Malkin on Pittsburgh’s second line, the chance to hop over the boards on the power play with Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Guentzel? The chances are slim, obviously, but he’d only have to look back at Phil Kessel’s time in the Steel City to get a sense of what can happen when a star winger is added to the Pens core’s mix.

COLORADO AVALANCHE

Why it’s a longshot: Alright, this one’s about as unlikely as it gets. Fresh off a dominant playoff run, the Avalanche have a ton of free-agent questions to navigate, from their starting netminder (Darcy Kuemper is a UFA), to the blue line (Josh Manson is a UFA), to the forward corps (Nazem Kadri, Val Nichushkin, Andre Burakovsky are UFAs, Artturi Lehkonen is an RFA, and there are plenty of depth spots to fill out, too). If anything, all signs point to GM Joe Sakic trying to bring back as much of his winning roster as possible, rather than adding a giant new piece to the puzzle. And like Pittsburgh, if Gaudreau’s primary concern is getting paid on this next deal (which seems likely), there’s no way the Avs are competing with the first few clubs mentioned in this piece in terms of what they can offer him.

Why it could work: It’s unlikely, but it’s not impossible. Like the Pens, the Avs actually have plenty of cap flexibility with which to rebuild their Cup-defending roster, with around $25 million in space to work. Of course, they have plenty of free agents who will eat that money up in no time, and some crucially important future considerations — namely the new deal Nathan MacKinnon is owed after next year. But there’s a world in which going after Gaudreau becomes a viable option. 

What happens if all of the names Colorado targets to return — Kadri, Nichushkin, Burakovsky, Manson — decide to cash in on the Cup run and sign elsewhere for more than the Avs offer? That would leave Colorado with an elite core — MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Cale Makar, Sam Girard, Bo Byram, Erik Johnson — but they would still need to rebuild the dynamic depth that allowed them to reach the summit they just climbed. More specifically, they would need to replace the offence lost with the departures of Kadri and Nichushkin. Given the way the Avs play, middling talents wouldn’t get that done. Might swinging a deal for Gaudreau do it?

Why it could be great: What would bring more fireworks than the Cup-winning Avalanche taking the ice in 2022-23 with Johnny Hockey added to the mix? A creative, 100-point threat added to a team that already seemed to roll over everyone in front of them with high-octane offence. Just picture the way the Avs’ offence operates, and the way No. 13 plays — it would be ridiculous. And for Gaudreau, the allure of Colorado should be clear: the chance to join the best team in the league, to potentially line up alongside MacKinnon, to be a part of a dominant offence that plays the way he does, without bearing the weight of being his club’s offensive focal point. And, of course, the chance to lift Stanley Cups.

Now, there’s no question the most likely scenario is that a bunch of those Avalanche free agents return to Denver. Or that, if Kadri departs, Sakic goes looking for a replacement centre. But if it all falls differently for Colorado, and if Gaudreau sees a chance to join the league’s top squad and collect some silverware at the cost of a few million per year that could be earned elsewhere, does it become a genuine possibility?

If it does, what a wild one it would be — Gaudreau and MacKinnon flying up the ice, with Rantanen to their right, Makar and Devon Toews trailing behind. A longshot? No doubt. But about as intriguing as it could get. 

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