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Treading Lightly: Mark Giordano's new contract

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The league's best defenceman wants to get paid big bucks for a long time. How should the Flames respond?

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Treliving announced that it was his number one priority coming into the offseason. So far, the Flames have re-signed Mikael Backlund, acquired and signed Dougie Hamilton, had a steal of a draft, signed Michael Frolik, and have mostly dealt with the RFA period pending arbitration. Yet Mark Giordano still doesn't have his big contract.

Beloved by all Flames fans (97% of you gave him an A for his previous season), Gio has taken his game to the next level ever since the team officially started rebuilding. Taking over the captaincy for 2013-14, #5 has quietly become one of, if not the best defensive player in the entire league, but has also become one of the more snakebitten players in the league. Injuries cut him out of an Olympic spot in 2014, his first playoff appearance since 2006-07, and maybe even two Norris Trophies.

As a consistent elite defender, Giordano is due a new big contract. His current contract runs out next year, and for a player who is currently the best at his position, it would be folly to let him walk. Gio is the stone which the Flames are building on, we all know it, and he definitely knows it. Contract negotiations began with the max the team could offer, $72M/8 years, and we haven't heard anything since.

We don't know if there's something going on behind the scenes. Maybe talks stalled, maybe the Flames moved onto more immediate things, we really don't know. The Flames restocked their arsenal since talks began, shrinking the cap space to something that is a little bit less friendly to what Giordano is asking for.

Cap Crunch

Remember when the Flames were a team fighting to make the cap floor? It's what caused us to sign a bunch of terrible, terrible contracts with the thought that the team wouldn't be good for another two or three years. Instead of being $17 million dollars below the cap, the Flames are now only $7 million below, pending RFA deals being announced. Gio wants anywhere from $8 to $9 million. You can see the problem.

Thankfully, a few contracts are also expiring next year which could give the Flames a bit of breathing room:

Potential Free Agents for 2016-17

Jonas Hiller $4,500,000
David Jones $4,000,000
Karri Ramo $3,800,000
Kris Russell $2,600,000
Joe Colborne $1,275,000 (RFA)
Markus Granlund $767,500 (RFA)
Total $16,942,500

That's quite a lot of savings, putting the Flames below the cap floor if none of them are re-signed. Of the list, Jones, Ramo, and Hiller are most likely gone. Jones will be 31 come next season, and his points production isn't enough to justify a new contract. The goalies will change guard, making way for Joni Ortio and Jon Gillies. If the Flames don't feel one of those players is at the right place in development, they will re-sign one of those guys, probably for a bit of a raise.

The remaining three, Colborne, Russell, and Granlund, could be returners for 2016-17. Colborne and Russell both give me headaches, but their points production is too tempting to let walk. Based on how much they were valued during last season, they could be back for decent raises. This year is Granlund's year to break through, and if he doesn't, he is also gone.

But even with this breathing room, there are some contracts that could close that space right up.

Players the Flames need to re-sign for 2016-17

Jiri Hudler $4,000,000
Sean Monahan $925,000
Johnny Gaudreau $925,000
Tyler Wotherspoon $925,000
Joni Ortio $600,000
Total $7,375,000

One migraine disappears, and just as quickly, another one pops up. Yes, the entire first line needs new contracts next year. None of them will walk. Monahan and Gaudreau are due significant raises, maybe around the $4-6 million range. Hudler will also make that money (you could make the argument that the smart thing would be to trade him or let him go, but good luck arguing that to anyone). Thankfully, Wotherspoon and Ortio aren't established NHL players yet, and they can come cheaper, maybe making minimum qualifying offer money. Based on rough estimates, the salary chart for these players could look something like this:

Jiri Hudler $5,500,000
Sean Monahan $4,500,000
Johnny Gaudreau $4,500,000
Tyler Wotherspoon $971,250
Joni Ortio $660,000
Total $16,131,250

And we're right back to where we started (using extremely liberal estimates, too). If the Flames want to keep Giordano on board, they're going to have to make some space without sending away useful players. Luckily, we have plenty of those too:

Non-UFA players the Flames could do without

Mason Raymond $3,150,000
Brandon Bollig $1,250,000
Dennis Wideman $5,250,000
Ladislav Smid $3,500,000
Deryk Engelland $2,916,666
Total $16,066,666

It would be nice if the Flames could move these players off the roster with little cost to the team itself, but each of them present a myriad of problems.

The two most obvious candidates for a ticket out of YYC are Bollig and Engelland, two guys who no longer fit the team's philosophy of "be big and hurt people." Despite Brian Burke still holding an executive position, Brad Treliving has made moves that turned the team into a speedy, skilled, possession team; the anti-Bollig and Engelland.

Then we run into the problem of "who the hell wants Brandon Bollig and Deryk Engelland". They're two obsolete old dudes with bad contracts in a league that values value. There are few teams who will actually want them (have we called Jim Benning yet?), which leaves the team with two options: buyouts or low value trades where the Flames have to throw in a pick as a sweetener.

The latter is probably the best option for the club. Both could be on the move for late round picks or a low end prospect, sort of like the Brian McGrattan for Joe Piskula trade. The Flames could send roster players to bad teams for prospects they no longer want. If they find someone playing hardball, the Flames could toss in a late round pick. It's low risk, and the team will only benefit from the extra room.

However, don't rule out the buyout. If the Flames cannot move these players before the 2016 offseason, it's not the end of the world. Certainly not the best option for cap space, but Engelland and Bollig's contracts aren't big enough to damage the team in the long run. Here's what Generalfanager's handy buyout calculator gives us for Engelland's contract:

And for Bollig's contract:

When Gio's extension would kick in, the team would have a $1,466,665 cap hit instead of a $4,166,666 hit for 2016-17. The only pain in the ass being that they would also have a cap hit of $1,349,999 in 2017-18. More cap room will be found by then, but a buyout still is the less preferable option.

Raymond and Wideman are more attractive players but they have No Trade and No Movement Clauses respectively. Wideman is the more attractive trade option, despite his huge contract running out in 2017-18, but any move can be immediately vetoed by him. On a team barreling into the upper echelon, it's hard to see him want to leave Calgary.

Raymond could see himself in a Curtis Glencross type situation, being buried in the bottom six when he could be higher on the depth chart somewhere else. That makes him easier to move, the only problem being that no one really wants an aging depth scorer.

Smid presents a bit of a problem. Ever since his gruesome neck injury back in December versus the Penguins, Smid has played three games and missed 46. There really hasn't been any news on his injury. Even as players like Giordano and Byron among others were practicing and progressing during the playoffs, Smid was nowhere to be found. He's a candidate for Long Term Injury Reserve, allowing the Flames to write off his cap hit, increasing cap room from ~$7 to ~$10.5 mil.

The only issue is how long will he stay there? He hasn't shown any sign of returning or retiring, and he still has two years on his contract. The Flames can only get away with LTIR'ing him for so long. He can be traded on a salary dump basis, meaning the team will have to toss in a pick to get rid of him. He was a first pairing defender on the Oilers (snicker snicker), so he could prove useful to the bottom scrapers of the NHL.

It's a tough ask, but it certainly can be done. It's going to leave egg on the face of the front office to correct all these former mistakes, but it's necessary in the name of getting better. If the Flames manage to purge themselves of all these players come the 2016 offseason, then Brad Treliving deserves three GM of the year trophies (the 2016 one, the 2017 one to save time, and retroactively being given the 2015 one).

However, other contracts may not be the problem the Flames have with Giordano. It may just be the contract itself.

The eight-year plan

The Flames are going to be shedding some valuable cap space in the coming year, which bodes well for the team and Giordano, but the problem may not be that there isn't enough room. The problem may be that Giordano could be taking up too much room.

Now that the Flames are suddenly a contender, the team has the luxury of being able to meaningfully spend to the cap. With all the new contracts coming in, the team will come very close to the cap. Giordano's contract will eventually become a glut that could end up becoming a headache for the team.

This really isn't about the money. The standard set in the NHL is that if you have a top defenceman, you pay him well. Market price for elite defencemen is around the $6.5-9M range, and Giordano does deserve every dollar. The only issue is the price at the term he wants.

Gio wants to end his career as a Flame, and his contract guarantees that. His requested eight-year contract will take him until he's 40, where he will be heading towards retirement. Very few defencemen last past 35, with only some notable legends going further: Ray Bourque, Chris Chelios, Doug Harvey, Nicklas Lidstrom to name a few. If Giordano is as capable as these legends, then I'm all for long-term contracts, but he will most likely be like the rest.

If we're being honest, he may only be playing at his current level for two to three more years, and then might start slipping. Is it worth it to pay big bucks for a second pairing defender? What if he slips to third pair? Is it worth it to have a significant portion of your cap space dedicated to one player that is playing at the peak of his career and can only go downhill?

If Giordano starts slipping, and the team needs to get rid of him, he won't become a top target for anyone. A very old defenceman with a huge cap hit who is a shell of his former self will be a tough sell. The Flames will have to eat some salary, probably a significant chunk, if they feel that he is a detractor on the team.

Not to mention that this contract would significantly hamper any future re-signings or acquisitions for the team. The Flames could have a Blackhawks type situation where they have to offload young, useful players simply because they cannot pay them, or even have times where they cannot sign anyone because of them. Then Giordano's contract becomes even more of a burden. Buying him out would be even more of a disaster, as the Flames could have him on the books for a long time. Think "Monahan and Gaudreau in their 30s" long time.

However, time can also be a positive factor for the Flames. The salary cap has risen by $15M in the past eight years, and will hopefully continue to rise. One of the benefits of a long-term contract is that the cap hit is at a fixed rate, allowing the impact against the team to slowly diminish as the years go by. While it will still be a big contract in 2023-24, it won't be as massive as it seems now. Pray for more television money.

The Flames also escape a Chris Pronger situation by signing now. The Mogilny Rule allows for a team to completely wipe a contract off its books should a player retire, but only if that contract is signed before the age of 35. Since Gio is 32, the Flames don't have to worry about technically paying a player not on their team.

Even with the contract's value diminishing in later years, it will still be a tough pill to swallow. Like any other contract in the NHL, there are no guarantees that the contract will be worth its full value at the end of the term, and often times, it won't be. The cautionary tales of Alexei Yashin, Rick DiPietro, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Pronger have informed NHL GMs about the dangers of going long-term, and it should be an example the Flames follow.

Conclusion

It would be an absolute mistake to not retain the league's best defenceman. Giordano wants to be a one-team player, so let him be one. But be reasonable about it. The Flames must remember that he is a 32 year old defenceman in his prime, and that signing him until he's 40 could mean four years of good hockey and four years of dead weight. It is completely worth it to lock up Giordano, but maybe not for eight years. A slightly shorter term (say six years) would be more reasonable, and if Gio hasn't slowed down a step during that time, then it will be really easy to extend him again.

The Flames must also be careful not to offload any useful assets in order to make cap space for the impending contract. While the players I have focused on are definitely expendable, someone could become a sacrifice for the Almighty Gio, and it could hurt the team going forward. Even though the Flames are out of the rebuilding phase, the future still matters, and massive long-term contracts are a symptom of a decaying franchise.