For the past two years, or ever since his splashy arrival on the Calgary hockey-playing scene, Johnny Gaudreau and his Flames' teammate Sean Monahan have been linked in the public eye in the same way Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are in Chicago – minus the Stanley Cup rings, of course.
But their collective performance during Gaudreau's first two full NHL seasons signalled the beginning of hope in Calgary just as Toews and Kane turned around the fortunes of the Blackhawks, after a long, dark era.
Accordingly, the assumption was that when the Flames finally got around to signing their dynamic duo to contract extensions, it would happen the same day. That's the marketing template established by Chicago, and one that ideally the Flames would have liked to follow – get those linchpins wrapped up in a nice tight bow and wheel them out in front of the cameras well ahead of training camp.
For a lot of reasons, some of them procedural, it didn't happen. So on Friday, when the Flames announced that Monahan had agreed to a seven-year, $44.625-million extension that will pay him an average of $6.375-million per season, the lingering question was: What's up with Johnny Hockey?
Monahan's contract was relatively easy to do, even though it took until the end of August to complete. The market had been previously established by contract extensions signed by his peers – Nathan MacKinnon with Colorado, Aleksander Barkov with Florida and Mark Scheifele with Winnipeg – and Monahan received market value, what general manager Brad Treliving called "fair value" for both sides.
But Gaudreau is in a completely different category because of his unique value to the organization. The baby-faced, five-foot-seven scoring machine is the public face of the franchise, in the same way Jarome Iginla was previously and Theo Fleury before that.
Gaudreau leads the team in all the important categories – goals, assists, points, shots, jersey sales and clever nicknames.
Monahan and probably Sam Bennett will all help the team turn the corner on the ice; Gaudreau has the added benefit of keeping them relevant off the ice until they do.
Treliving expressed cautious optimism that a deal would get done before the season, noting: "We don't play until October." Tellingly, when Monahan was asked about Gaudreau's status, he referenced the same time frame, noting he was "positive" his running mate would be in the fold by the time the Flames start playing for keeps.
The price remains to be determined.
In Chicago, Toews and Kane have signed matching-dollar contracts twice now. Here, Gaudreau is going to get more than Monahan – maybe not a lot more, but more. On the plus side, where teams could have tendered Monahan an offer sheet and forced the Flames to match, Gaudreau doesn't have that right under the collective bargaining agreement. His only leverage is to hold out and not play.
In all, Gaudreau has 142 points in 159 NHL games, proving a player of his diminutive size can thrive in today's NHL. The Sports Forecaster, a fantasy hockey guide, projects Gaudreau as the NHL's third-leading scorer next season, behind Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Dallas's Tyler Seguin but ahead of Kane. It's that sort of promise – not just what Gaudreau's done, but what he potentially can do – that have the negotiations hung up for now.
Next month, Gaudreau is scheduled to play with Monahan for Team North America in the World Cup, and if he isn't signed by then, he will be obliged to take out insurance on his future earnings, a costly undertaking. The tournament starts Sept. 17. Getting his name on a contract between now and then would be more than just a timely resolution to a thorny negotiation. It would also quiet the minds of anxious fans, who want to see Johnny Hockey make a big commitment to Calgary – and probably won't stop fretting until he does.