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Happy Accidents

Why Losing Their Marquee Men Was Calgary’s Best Case Scenario

2022 NHL Media Tour - Las Vegas Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Famous painter and artist Bob Ross had a saying:

“We don’t have mistakes. We have happy accidents.”

The phrase popped up if he ever made a below-average stroke with his paintbrush, as he would then rework the accidental smudge into something else. From a screw-up came a new shrub, or mountain top. He would go on to explain that loss or misfortune can simply be an opportunity for growth you never would have found if the bad thing didn’t happen in the first place.

If that’s the case, the Calgary Flames have had the happiest accidental summer in franchise history.

Poised to hand out monster contracts to their two star players, both of them said no thanks and skipped town. But beyond jersey sales and some concept of loyalty, would that have been the best course of action in the first place? Let’s take a look at how backing up the Brinks Truck for Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk would have been a serious mis-stroke of the paint brush:

The Mistake

Their faces were on lunch boxes and tee shirts. Those very faces had been the face of a hockey franchise for years on end. When people from out-of-market thought of the Calgary Flames, they thought of “Johnny Hockey” and the league’s peskiest rat of a power forward, “Chucky”. And at a face-value level, it seemed like you would want to stick with the familiar faces you knew and pay the asking price to keep them around. But maybe a deeper dive beyond those first layers of paint on the canvas reveals a different story.

By the heartbreaking end of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Matthew Tkachuk was simply not the player the Flames had drafted him to be. In fact, he never really got there beforehand either. Billed as some mythical combination of high-end scoring ability backed up by grit and physicality, directed by a high-end hockey IQ that knew exactly when and how to psychologically affect opponents, the package seemed to good to be true. And over a long enough time line, it might have been.

More often than not, the Flames saw some of the scoring but none of the grit, or the edgy side but none of the offense, or at the worst stretches none of either. The legend and reputation of the Tkachuk/Kassian rivalry or the Tkachuk/Doughty rivalry lived on well past when they mattered anymore, and Tkachuk’s game slipped further away from peak nights like that. At a certain point in an empty rink after getting a puck flipped at him, in a fateful game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Number 19 threw an epic on-and-off-ice tantrum and decided he wasn’t getting his hands dirty anymore. His scoring ability hit higher levels, but crease-crashing, elbow-throwing, and getting under people’s skin were completely off the menu. A points guy can be a points guy but he shouldn’t carry the reputation of being a gritty game changer along with him, and he certainly shouldn’t command the money of one either. After Tkachuk’s 2022 playoff run featured so few effective games that you didn’t even need all the fingers on one hand to count them (see also: his playoffs in 2017, 2019, and 2020), the trend had become clear: Chucky had left his big game swag somewhere in a London Knights dressing room stall.

A year prior to Tkachuk’s last gasp as a game-changer winning a Memorial Cup with the London Knights, his future linemate was creating a buzz in Calgary. Johnny Gaudreau scored a last second game-tying goal in Game 3 of the second round against Anaheim, and rounded out his first full NHL year with high expectations. Billed as the franchise guy, the “straw that stirs the drink” and an offensive driver, Johnny unfortunately didn’t actually get there very often. Over his next seven seasons in red, Johnny was a below point-per-game player more times than he hit or surpassed that mark. While his peak season of 99 and 115 points were his highs, he also suffered from alternate years of severe lows and disengagement. With Johnny’s clutch Game 7 winner in 2022 against Dallas coming a whopping seven years after his other major playoff moment, he struggled on the big stage much like Tkachuk did. Gaudreau’s 2019 and 2020 playoffs were highlighted by some serious cherry-picking for breakaway passes that he couldn’t score on when he got them, and his disengagement from the play reared its ugly head again when he dipped on the backcheck that lead to Connor McDavid’s Battle-Of-Alberta-ending goal in the 2022 playoffs. Much like Tkachuk, the market perception of Johnny’s abilities outran the on-ice execution. And much like Tkachuk, you should only be able to live with it if the price tag stays fair. At anything north of $7M/per, it was getting unrealistic to justify.

The Happy Accident

While General Manager Brad Treliving stayed dogged and determined to keep Gaudreau in Calgary, Number 13 eventually left town for greener pastures and saved the team from throwing Scrooge McDuck vault money at a largely inconsistent and ineffective winger who happened to excel in a contract year under a coach-of-the-year award winner. Gaudreau was essentially laterally replaced with Jonathan Huberdeau, who has his own history of playoff struggles but scored at an identical clip to Gaudreau last season. After eight years of issues with Johnny Hockey, would it really have been wise to stick with the devil you knew? Or at least, with Huberdeau, get a different look with the devil you don’t?

Gaudreau’s departure then forced the Tkachuk trade request, with Huberdeau coming back as the centerpiece along with defenseman Mackenzie Weegar. The new addition on the blue-line brings Darnell Nurse numbers at one-third the Darnell Nurse price, solidfying an already excellent defense that still has a Vezina Trophy finalist in the crease. The addition of Stanley Cup Champion Nazem Kadri and departure of Sean Monahan has revamped the Flames core from what was not just the disaster of losing marquee names, but from the disaster of almost keeping them.

Because while the hockey world is rightfully singing the praises of Treliving’s rescue from the brink, it should be duly noted that the retool into a more mature and experienced squad happened completely unintentionally. Up until the eleventh hour of free agency, the team seemed fully content to keep both Gaudreau and Tkachuk around (long-term and at higher price tags) and assume that both of them had suddenly shed years of playoff mis-steps and rumoured locker room issues. If the Flames had kept those marquee names, are their odds to compete better or worse than they are now? Is the cap structure similar enough that the other roster dominos would or wouldn’t have fallen? While management had decided that the best case scenario was to keep trying what had already failed, the best case scenario might indeed be that the players doing the failing were tired of it too, and left.

The only answer we have at this point is that the initial smudge on this painting could have ruined the canvas, and spiraled Darryl Sutter back to the farm and the franchise into a rebuild. Instead, we at least have the Happy Accident of the team coming out ahead, or breaking even, instead of tossing the whole thing in the dumpster.

It might not be as pretty as Bob Ross, but this summer’s Brad Treliving compilation can still probably be called a work of art.

The Happiest Accident of all.