The 2022 edition of NHL free agency is set to kick off until July 13, and multiple teams are likely already monitoring one important player's decision.
If he chooses to enter the open market, Calgary Flames winger Johnny Gaudreau will be one of the top players available. The 28-year-old was recently ranked as the top impending free agent by Daily Faceoff's Frank Seravalli.
A fourth-round pick in 2011, the Boston College product wasn't an immediate star but rose to prominence quickly. He appeared in the 2015 All-Star Game and has made an appearance five times since then. Last season was still a breakthrough campaign for Gaudreau, though, as he finished with career highs in goals (40) and assists (75) while playing all 82 games for the second time.
Given his age, health, recent production and remaining upside, Gaudreau figures to be a hot commodity if he becomes available—and his availability could dictate how teams approach other free-agent forwards like Filip Forsberg, Claude Giroux and Evander Kane.
This is, of course, if Gaudreau becomes available.
According to Seravalli, Calgary made its pitch shortly after being ousted in the second round by the Edmonton Oilers. Gaudreau, though, reportedly remains torn between returning to the only NHL franchise he has known or playing the next stage of his career elsewhere.
"Sources close to Gaudreau indicate he truly does not know what he wants to do," Seravalli wrote. "This is not about money; it’s about where Gaudreau wants to work and live and chase a Stanley Cup for the next seven or eight years."
Money? Gaudreau should get plenty of it. The Los Angeles Kings signed 25-year-old forward Kevin Fiala, coming off a career-best 85-point season, to a seven-year extension worth $7.9 million annually after acquiring his rights from the Minnesota Wild. Gaudreau should top that on the open market.
The Flames can offer an eight-year extension, and The Athletic's Eric Duhatschek recently speculated that such an offer could carry a value of $9.5 million annually—with the potential to go higher.
Duhatschek also believes that Gaudreau is torn between staying in Calgary and playing closer to his childhood home in southern New Jersey.
"It's kind of a big decision here and I'm just going to try to figure out what's best for me first and my family and go from there, but Calgary is a special place for me and I do really, really love it here," Gaudreau said, per Wes Gilbertson of the Calgary Sun.
Gaudreau has no reason to rush his decision now, as the Flames are unlikely to pull their offer before the start of free agency—though the franchise may not wait long after the market opens to pivot to other options. It's worth taking his time and seeing what's available because Gaudreau is unlikely to sign a short-term deal.
Of course, Gaudreau's decision doesn't just affect him and his family. It will impact the approach of forward-needy clubs and potentially the markets for players like Forsberg.
The New Jersey Devils, for example, could make a strong play for Gaudreau based on location and their cap space—they have the seventh-most space in the NHL, according to Spotrac. If Gaudreau is staying put, the Devils will turn to other options.
The Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders could also use Gaudreau and could play the proximity card.
Other teams, like the Seattle Kraken, could be willing to throw the proverbial cash at Gaudreau. TSN's Chris Johnston believes that the second-year franchise will be very aggressive in the forward market this offseason:
"Another notable tidbit from those Fiala trade talks is that the Seattle Kraken, I'm told, were among the teams that were there right until the end and trying to land his services from Minnesota. I think that tells us something about Ron Francis's approach to these coming few weeks, namely the Kraken are one of the teams out there that do have cap space. It's not a problem for them and I think they're going to commit some of it to getting a high-end forward or someone who can add to their scoring depth."
If Gaudreau is off the table, other wings will become the target of Seattle's aggressive approach.
And ultimately, there will come a point when the Flames begin pursuing replacements instead of Gaudreau. He likely already has an idea of which teams are interested and may want to take a few official pitches. However, if Gaudreau's decision-making process extends days into free agency, Calgary can't afford to let the market dry up in the meantime.
Gaudreau has a huge decision to make, and he needs to do what he believes is best for himself and those close to him. Make no mistake, though, Gaudreau's choice will resonate across the entire league.