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Johnny Gaudreau's free agency the burning off-season issue for the Calgary Flames

Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau, right, is checked by Edmonton Oilers centre Connor McDavid during first period NHL second-round playoff hockey action in Edmonton, Tuesday, May 24, 2022.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

CALGARY — The off-season for the Calgary Flames is starting earlier than they wanted, and the burning question heading into it is whether the team can retain its top player.

Left-winger Johnny Gaudreau will become an unrestricted free agent on July 13. There will be suitors for the 28-year-old coming off a career year of 40 goals and 75 assists while playing all 82 regular-season games.

"Sit down with my agent this week sometime and figure out what's best for me and my family," Gaudreau said Saturday, two days after Calgary's season ended.

"Calgary has a special place in my heart. I've been part of this organization for 11 years now. Everything about this city I love.

"My next door neighbours, pretty sure they were shovelling my snow all year just to get me back."

The Edmonton Oilers ousted the Flames in the second round of the NHL playoffs, taking their best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal four games to one.

On the open market, Gaudreau is expected to command a raise on the US$40.5-million, six-year contract he signed with Calgary in 2016.

The forward from Salem, N.J., didn't sound like a man with his foot out the door Saturday, but the business of the NHL can be cold in the summer.

Gaudreau says he didn't think after Thursday's 5-4 overtime loss to Edmonton that it would be his last time in a Flames uniform.

"I didn't sit in the locker room, keep my jersey on or stare up in the stands," Gaudreau said. "That's something that I didn't really think of. I never really had that moment where it was like, 'this is it for me.'

"I have a big decision and we'll see what happens in the next few weeks."

Gaudreau compiled three goals and 11 assists in 12 playoff games, including the overtime winner in Calgary's Game 7 win over the Dallas Stars to advance beyond the first round for the first time in seven years.

"I think he's a Calgary Flame," general manager Brad Treliving said Saturday. "We want to make him a Calgary Flame for a long time. We're going to do everything we possibly can to make that happen."

But Gaudreau isn't the only player that has Treliving shaking the piggy bank this summer. 

Among the 11 total free agents on Calgary's roster is 24-year-old Matthew Tkachuk, who is headed for restricted free agency. An offer for Gaudreau could impact an offer for Tkachuk and vice versa.

"Every contract is intertwined," Treliving said. "You, at the end of the day, live in a cap world where you've got 23 mouths to feed. You treat everybody fairly, but not everybody gets treated the same or they'd all make the same."

Tkachuk led the Flames in goals with 42 and, like Gaudreau, produced more than 100 points in a season for the first time in his career. 

He's coming off a $21-million, three-year contract. Calgary's exit from the post-season was too fresh Saturday for Tkachuk to contemplate upcoming contract negotiations. 

"I haven't really had time to think about that. I thought we'd be playing tonight," Tkachuk said.

If the potential to win a Stanley Cup is a factor in either man's decision, this edition of the Flames made progress in the playoffs after several years of either first-round exits or missing the post-season entirely.

Calgary reached the second round of playoffs for just the second time since losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Cup final in 2004.

"The goal was to be a playoff team. We made that goal, so it wasn't a complete failure," Tkachuk said. "We had a little taste of what it takes to win a round.

"We had success in one round and didn't in the next, so got to take that next step and give ourselves a chance again at playoffs next year. That starts with a great summer and a great regular season."

The Flames (50-21-11) topped the Pacific Division and pulled out a first-round victory over the Stars in a grinding series of scarce open ice.

Starting with a 9-6 win over Edmonton in Game 1, Calgary fell into a trap of trading chances with the Oilers, whose captain Connor McDavid took his game to another level complemented by winger Leon Draisaitl's contributions.

"There's an empty feeling today because I think there was more there. I look at that series and the team that played the best won the series," Treliving said. 

"What's empty for me is I don't think we put our game on the ice. We established an identity and a style of play that — for a number of reasons and some we'll have to find out — we never got to it in the second round.

"We didn't get to the game that had made us successful all year."

Calgary's top shutdown defenceman Chris Tanev dislocated his right shoulder in Game 6 of the Dallas series. He'll undergo surgery next week and his recovery time is expected to be four to six months.

Tanev returned to the lineup for Game 4 of the conference semifinal, but the 32-year-old was clearly labouring with the injury.

Defenceman Nikita Zadorov played with cracked ribs after sliding into the Stars' net during that series, forward Milan Lucic was dealing with a sprained AC joint where the shoulder meets the collarbone, and Tkachuk's hand was "banged up," Treliving said Saturday.

Having taken a step in the playoffs, Calgary's challenge is not to regress in 2022-23 regardless of who is back wearing the flaming 'C'.

"It's going to be a big off-season for this group," Flames forward Blake Coleman said. "Fingers crossed that Johnny's in red next year."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2022.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press