Nerve-wracking hours ahead for Flames as Johnny’s decision looms

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For the past eight seasons, 13 has been the luckiest number for the Calgary Flames.

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That could change this week — on the 13th of July.

Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary’s leading scorer, fan favourite and face-of-the-franchise, is slated to be an unrestricted free agent Wednesday at 10 a.m. MT.

Whatever happens, this will be a monumental week around the Saddledome. The Flames are either committing to building around Gaudreau for the next seven or eight winters, or they’re stuck trying to figure out how to reshape their roster without their superstar left-winger. After a substantial step forward in 2021-22, losing their go-to guy would be a major setback. How do you get better after your best player bolts?

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What’s especially worrisome is if Johnny skedaddles, it won’t seem nearly as appealing for his first-line sidekick, Matthew Tkachuk, to ink a long-term extension. Tkachuk will undoubtedly be qualified Monday as a restricted free agent, but a one-year deal would walk him right to the open market.

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Flames general manager Brad Treliving insisted after the 2022 NHL Draft that he remains optimistic about getting Gaudreau’s signature on a new contract.

“If I didn’t think that it was possible, then we’d probably have turned our attention somewhere else,” Treliving told reporters Friday afternoon in Montreal. “That’s not to say it’s a slam-dunk, but when you think there’s a deal there to get done, you keep working at it.”

He added: “Our focus is on Plan A. And until such time as Plan A is not a reality, we’ll focus on that.”

Thing is, as the countdown to the annual free-agent frenzy has dwindled from weeks to days and soon to hours, no news is bad news for the Flames. They’re on the brink of losing their big advantages — exclusive negotiating rights and the ability to offer an eight-year pact. (As soon as the clock strikes 10 a.m. on Wednesday, the max term is seven years.)

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Gaudreau apparently attended Sean Monahan’s wedding this past weekend and you can bet his teammates — based on a photo that was floating around social media, Blake Coleman, Noah Hanifin and Andrew Mangiapane were all there — were reiterating that they’d hate to see him go.

But as he gets closer and closer to UFA status, it seems more and more reasonable to assume that Johnny wants to hear the pitches from elsewhere around the NHL, to at least assess his options.

Can the Philadelphia Flyers convince him there’s no place like home? Gaudreau hails from Carneys Point, N.J., just across the Delaware River from the City of Brotherly Love.

Can the New Jersey Devils sway him to be their first raised-in-state star?

Can the Seattle Kraken, with a stash of hot-shot forward prospects, sell him on the idea that their team trajectory looks a lot like the Space Needle?

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Can a surprise bidder clear enough salary-cap space to offer the US$9.5 or $10 million in annual pay that he’ll presumably command?

It’s not only about money — he’s going to get a pile of that, wherever he signs — but about where the 28-year-old wants to chase a Stanley Cup and base his family.

The trouble for the Flames, the reason Treliving would likely be feeling less nervous if he was waiting in line for the Mega Drop on the Calgary Stampede midway, is that guys like Gaudreau don’t come around too often.

The dynamic winger just did something that hadn’t been achieved by any NHLer since the mid-1990s — racked up 90 points in even-strength action. He totalled 115 scoresheet mentions during the 2021-22 campaign, trailing only Connor McDavid in the overall scoring race.

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After helping the Flames to the top seed in the Pacific Division, Gaudreau finished fourth in Hart Trophy voting. He followed up with a series-clinching overtime goal in Game 7 as the locals, finally, advanced past the opening round of the playoffs before being eliminated by the arch-rival Edmonton Oilers.

Gaudreau said all the right things during his end-of-season interview, boosting optimism that he’d be staying put, that perhaps lucky No. 13 would someday hang from the rafters at the Saddledome.

“Calgary has a special place in my heart,” he gushed that day. “Everything about this city, I love. My wife loves it here. You guys can tell on Twitter — my uncle, my dad, my mom, my sisters, my brother … everyone loves Calgary. It has a special place in our heart and we love it here, so we’ll see what happens.

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“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.”

It’s not too late to decide on a return — Nashville Predators supporters were sweating until Sunday, when Filip Forsberg inked for eight more — but that big decision still looms for Gaudreau. While his affection for the city has always seemed genuine, is he ready to say goodbye? Is this perennial all-star and ace playmaker preparing to take his puck-on-a-string show to another team?

During what is supposed to be a celebratory stretch in Cowtown, will Flames fans be left feeling like they’ve been tossed from the back of a bucking horse? Is it possible the mini donuts and deep-fried Oreos suddenly won’t taste as good, that the fireworks won’t shine so bright?

We should know the answer by Wednesday. One way or another, this could be a franchise-altering week.

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