Calgary Flames stuck between a Huberdeau and a hard place

Article content

Kent Wilson, Special to Postmedia

When Brad Treliving signed Jonathan Huberdeau to an eight-year, $84-million contract in the summer of 2022, it was with the knowledge that the deal would eventually become a problem.

Article content

The intention, of course, was to prop open the club’s contention window for another four or five seasons and then deal with the fallout of a 35-year-old with a $10.5M cap hit down the road.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Unfortunately for the organization, that reality has arrived on an accelerated timeline.

Last year, Huberdeau fell from 115 points as a Florida Panther to just 55 as a Calgary Flame, the 60-point drop being a feat unprecedented in NHL history. The natural (and not unreasonable) hope was that the player would rebound this season, unshackled from the restrictive Darryl Sutter system, or perhaps by becoming more comfortable in the different Western Conference environs.

Instead, it has gone the other way.

Through 31 games, Huberdeau has just four goals and 15 points, which puts him on a career-worst 40-point pace. He currently is 10th on the team in scoring, behind a list of players that includes a rookie (Connor Zary) and three defencemen (MacKenzie Weegar, Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifin). And this is despite the fact that Zary has appeared in 10 fewer contests so far.

Huberdeau’s 35-year-old season arriving shortly after his 30th birthday has snapped the Flames’ contention window shut and put them on the path toward a rebuild. It also has left the player and franchise looking awkwardly across a gray room at each other like a couple reluctantly trapped in a badly arranged marriage. Both parties are no doubt wondering where the relationship can possibly go from here.

Article content

Advertisement 3

Article content

Usually, in the case of gross underperformance, there are three routine options: Healthy scratch, buyout or trade. Considering each in sequence will reveal that none of them offer obvious succor for the Flames.

Healthy scratches are typically employed by a coach to motivate or discipline a player, or simply because he is not as good as the other players available. None of these things readily applies to Huberdeau.

We apologize, but this video has failed to load.

The motivation strategy usually applies to young and fringe-level skaters who may need a prod to improve their details or intensity.

In Huberdeau’s case, a veteran of over 780 NHL games, few things would be more humiliating and demotivating than a healthy scratch at this juncture. And while his performance may be relatively disappointing given his cap hit currently, Huberdeau has not quite fallen to the 13th-forward level quite yet.

A healthy scratch should be the option of last resort, turned to in desperation because the team simply can’t have the player on the ice or the bench anymore. To scratch Huberdeau now would torpedo an uneasy relationship and further complicate what is already a complicated situation.

Advertisement 4

Article content

A buyout seems to be the best (if most expensive) option until you inspect the finer details of the player’s contract. Only $22.5 million of Huberdeau’s $84 million deal is designated as base salary. The rest, some $61.5 million, comes in the form of signing bonuses.

According to the NHL’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement, this renders Hubeardeau’s contract essentially buyout proof. Even if Calgary were to buy him out at the end of this season, the cap-hit savings only extend to a portion of his base salary each year and not to the 73% of the deal that is made up by bonus money.

Starting in 2024-25, a bought-out Hubderdeau would still account for $7.84 million against the Flames’ cap, a number that would escalate to $10.4 million between 2026-28.

Eventually, the cap penalty would fall to just $904,762 by 2031-32, but it’s a number that would remain on the books until 2037-38 (since the penalty lasts twice the length of the deal).

All told a buyout would cost the CSEC ownership group more than $67 million to execute and save the club a paltry $6.33 million in cap space cumulatively. The construction of the contract is so dastardly, one envisions Brad Treliving mischievously rigging it to self-destruct given he knew we wouldn’t remain in Calgary should the trade go sideways.

Advertisement 5

Article content

Huberdeau being nigh impervious to a buyout also makes it much more difficult to trade him. With a poor value-to-cost ratio plus an attendant no-movement clause, dealing Huberdeau is already a thankless task. That the player’s cap hit is written in indelible ink for the next 14 years even if you pay him a GDP amount of money to stay home elevates it to mission impossible.

The only possible opportunity would be salary retention, with Calgary offering to eat 50% of the unappetizing contract as a sweetener.

Even at $5.25 million per year, the current version of Huberdeau probably doesn’t attract many suitors on the trade market.

Retention likely only works in concert with rehabilitation. Any prospective trade partner needs to be able to credibly fantasize that Huberdeau, still only 30 years old, may still have some star years left in him.

For now, Calgary and Huberdeau are stuck with each other. The marriage, for now, is an intractable one. It is in each party’s best interest to find a way to work together.

For nearly two decades, Kent Wilson has written about NHL team building, advanced stats, and player evaluation. His work has appeared on The Score, Yahoo Sports, FlamesNation, Hockey Prospectus, Matchsticks & Gasoline, and The Athletic.

Related Stories

Article content