Love him or hate him (and there are plenty of fans on both sides of the aisle), Matthew Tkachuk is a budding NHL superstar. The 6th overall draft pick in 2016, Tkachuk has amassed 278 points in his first 349 games. But clearly, his impact on the game goes well beyond the scoresheet. Tkachuk is a physical player and an antagonist, the kind of athlete teammates love to play alongside and opponents love to play against. He’s the kind of forward that you can build a team around.
So it may seem very surprising that Tkachuk’s name has recently entered the trade rumor mill. The Calgary Flames, a team that has not advanced past the first round of the playoffs once since the 2004-05 lockout-canceled season, are looking for answers, and, reportedly, absolutely no one is off-limits.
At just 23, Tkachuk is already the team’s highest-paid player and probably their top talent, but if the team is truly committed to rebuilding, even he should be on the table. And if he is, the St. Louis Blues should do whatever it takes to acquire him.
Is Tkachuk Really Available?
Technically, no one can answer this question but Flames general manager Brad Treliving. But for many, it might be difficult to understand why a 23-year-old heart-and-soul player capable of near-point-per-game output with years of team control ahead of him would ever be traded. But there are three major factors that could lead the Flames to make a move.
The first and probably the biggest reason, as we’ve already alluded to, is Calgary’s performance as a team. They have struggled in recent seasons, winning only three playoff games since the 2014-15 season (excluding last season’s qualifying round). The team is searching for answers and in need of major changes. Last summer’s large investment in goaltender Jacob Markström didn’t do enough to help the team make the postseason in a weak North Division this season, and the trade deadline trade of Sam Bennett to the Florida Panthers indicates Treliving’s willingness to move on from some long-tenured Flames players.
The second reason is Tkachuk’s individual performance. Though he was still a valuable player in the 2020-21 season, with 43 points in 56 games, that rate for points in a full season (63) represents a significant step back from his 82-game rates in the past two seasons (72 in 2019-20, 79 in 2018-19). Whether it is the consequences of the concussion symptoms Tkachuk dealt with in the playoff bubble the season before, the unpredictability of a COVID season, or simply the struggles of playing for a losing team, the 23-year-old didn’t look his best this season.
The third reason, which may ultimately be the biggest, is Tkachuk’s contract situation. Essentially, he and his agent have put the Flames in an extremely vulnerable situation. This season, he will earn a $7 million average annual value on the final season of a three-year contract he signed in 2019. But the structure of the deal is such that Tkachuk will make $9 million in base salary this season.
The NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) mandates that a team offers any restricted free agent a qualifying offer equal to 100% of his base salary from the season prior in order to prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent (UFA). So, at bare minimum, the Flames will have to offer Tkachuk $9 million on a one-year contract after the 2022-23 season in order to keep him around. But there’s one final hurdle for the Flames: Tkachuk will have finished seven years of NHL service time after the 2022-23 season, which will allow him to become a UFA. So he could in theory sign the qualifying offer, play one final season in Alberta, and then go wherever he wants as a UFA. Essentially, he has all the power in negotiation. And if he doesn’t see his long-term home being in Calgary, then Treliving may want to trade him sooner than later.
Why the Blues Would Make the Move
The reasons for the Blues to make a move for Tkachuk are obvious and go well beyond his performance on the ice. Sure, he would immediately become the face of the next generation of the franchise, and probably the team’s most dynamic winger (barring a return to full health for Vladimir Tarasenko). But he would be more than that. Tkachuk is a St. Louis native, and he would be a second-generation Blue, as his father, USA Hockey Hall of Famer Keith Tkachuk, played almost half his career in St. Louis, where he still lives. Few St. Louisans will have forgotten the 2020 NHL All-Star Game, where all three Tkachuks (including Matthew’s younger brother, Brady, of the Ottawa Senators) represented their teams and their city.
Moreover, there is a close friendship between Tkachuk and star Blues youngster Robert Thomas, a 21-year-old center. If the Blues could acquire Tkachuk without trading Thomas to do it, they would have the foundation for a young core that could carry the team into the future.
There is little question that the Blues would have interest in Tkachuk should the Flames make him available, perhaps even more than the 30 other NHL teams that would also likely kick the tires. But does a team with limited young assets really have the pieces to get a deal done?
What Could the Blues Offer Calgary?
The Blues simply cannot offer the Flames a premier prospect or a top draft pick, as they have neither. But there are plenty of pieces that might appeal to Calgary. One question we cannot answer is whether trading Tkachuk would be the first major step in a full rebuild, or whether Treliving would look to remain competitive despite losing his top young star. Given that he has served as general manager for seven seasons with limited success, Treliving isn’t likely to survive a full rebuild, so pieces that can help Calgary win immediately might be more appealing to him.
if that’s the case, one piece makes obvious sense for Calgary: Blues right-handed defenseman Colton Parayko. With one season left on his contract, Parayko would need to indicate a willingness to sign an extension, but as a native of St. Albert, Alberta, three hours north of Calgary, he might do that. He would certainly fill a void on a decimated right side that lost T.J. Brodie to free agency last season, and he could be the centerpiece of their new defense as Mark Giordano’s career winds down. If Parayko signs an extension before being traded, he would be the major piece in the return, though the Blues might still need to offer a high draft pick (their 2021 first-round pick will be 16th overall) and perhaps even a depth young forward or two (perhaps Zach Sanford or Sammy Blais).
If Parayko is unwilling to sign in Calgary or the Flames are interested in rebuilding with youth, a similar trade might be possible with Jordan Kyrou as the centerpiece. Ironically, the Blues selected the 2016 second-round pick with a pick the Flames traded them for goaltender Brian Elliott. He broke out this season with 35 points in 55 games, at times looking like the Blues’ most dynamic forward. Some teams might value Thomas slightly higher, even after a disappointing season. The Blues would likely much rather hold him to pair him with his close friend; however, if trading Thomas instead of Kyrou was the only obstacle to bringing Tkachuk home, general manager Doug Armstrong would likely make the move.
Can Armstrong Make Magic Happen Again?
Armstrong has developed a reputation for making big splashes via trade in his career, most notably the deal that brought in Ryan O’Reilly. In some ways, grabbing Tkachuk at this point in his career could be his biggest move ever. It wouldn’t be easy, and it likely would be extremely expensive, but the reasons for making the move are obvious. Both franchises are probably looking for significant changes after disappointing seasons. If Tkachuk is really on the market, St. Louis is a fairly obvious destination. Now we just have to wait and see if Treliving and Armstrong actually find a deal that works for both teams.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.