With the fervour of free agency having already reached its peak, it is now fair to evaluate how teams have done thus far. The 2019 NHL offseason has been an active period, with many organizations shuffling the deck and moving in new directions. One of the most active teams has been the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers endured a disappointing season and seemed primed for an active offseason with a new general manager and abundant salary cap space. Being the most active offseason team is not always a good thing though.
The St. Louis Blues may have won the Cup after a busy summer, but the team was in last place for much of the season. The Dallas Stars have made countless splashy acquisitions in free agency and have yet to make a Cup appearance. This begs the question; will the Flyers’ summer prove to make changes for the sake of change? Or will the pieces fall into place for a playoff run?
Trades Define Aggressive Early Offseason
The Philadelphia Flyers offseason started off with a bang, making multiple trades that overhauled a stagnant roster. Although they were active, the Flyers moves could best be described as a mixed bag.
The first big move made during the Philadelphia Flyers offseason was acquiring Kevin Hayes from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for a fifth-round pick. The arrival of Hayes shores up the Flyers’ depth down the middle, with him likely slotting into the second-line center role. Nolan Patrick still shows a lot of promise, but he has not shown the ability to play in a top-six role in the NHL. The acquisition of Hayes allows the Flyers to further develop Patrick. If Patrick is to bloom into the player Philadelphia had hoped for, Hayes will serve as a high-end third-line center.
Along with shoring up the center position, the Flyers also added some defensive talent with a couple of moves. One of these moves was the acquisition of defender Justin Braun. Braun was acquired for a 2019 second and 2020 third-round pick. Though this may seem like a steep price, the Flyers had multiple second-round picks in the 2019 draft and could afford to use one to make a deal. Braun is a dependable defender that hovers around a 50% Corsi for, despite starting 56.8% of his shifts in the defensive zone. At only a $3,800,000 salary cap hit, Braun is a solid addition to the Flyers defensive corps. This may be especially important for the penalty kill, as Philadelphia ranked 26th in the league last year killing penalties at just 78.5%.
For all the good the Flyers have done, there is also quite a bit of bad moves that have been made thus far. To start, the Kevin Hayes trade may have been a solid move, but the subsequent extension is questionable. The Flyers gave Hayes a 7-year contract with an average annual value of $7,142,857. This makes him the 20th highest-paid center in the league. According to Evolving Hockey’s RAPM (Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus) model, Hayes was the 28th best center in the NHL last year. At 27 years old, Hayes is unlikely to get any better and overpaying a player for 7 years is rarely an advisable move.
Another puzzling move during the Philadelphia Flyers offseason was made when the Flyers swapped Radko Gudas and Matt Niskanen with the Washington Capitals. Gudas has a bad reputation with fans for his, at times, questionable physical play, but is actually a solid contributor on the blue line. The Czech defender chipped in 20 points in 77 games. He is a better than average defender and injects grit into any lineup. At a cap hit of just $2,345,000 Gudas provides value. Niskanen, on the other hand, is no such value. The defender scored more points than Gudas last year, tallying 25 points, but did so on a $5,750,000 salary cap hit. Niskanen used to be good for around 35 points a year, but those days seem to be long over as the defender enters his mid 30’s. There’s no metric that indicates Niskanen is superior to Gudas, let alone twice as good.
Philadelphia Flyers Offseason in Free Agency
In contrast, the Flyers have not made much noise in free agency so far. Most of their moves have come not from acquiring new talent, but retaining their own. One of these moves was re-signing goaltender Brian Elliott. Elliott played most of last season as a backup to the young Carter Hart. Hart is ready to take over the crease full time but needed a backup that can carry their share of the load. Elliott has done that in the past, playing his best hockey when placed in low workload situations. The goaltender market was thin this year, and Elliott may just have been the most cost-effective option.
The most important moves thus far have been retaining a pair of key restricted free agents. First, the Flyers agreed to a contract extension with young defender Travis Sanheim. Sanheim will return to Philadelphia for two more years. The defenceman enjoyed a breakout season in 2018-19, registering 35 points in 82 games. Despite the uptick in scoring, his possession numbers suffered. In his first season, Sanheim enjoyed a Corsi For % of 53.5 but saw that fall to 49.5% last. Still, a two-year deal allows the Flyers to see if Sanheim can continue improving upon his promise.
After taking care of Sanheim, The Flyers then turned their attention to forward Scott Laughton, who also inked a two-year extension with Philadelphia. Laughton is an important part of Philadelphia’s bottom-six forward group. The forward is known as a strong defender, and though he endured his worst expected goals against total of his career (44.9), he also did so starting 63.7% of his shifts in the defensive zone. Laughton also enjoyed his best offensive season in 2018-19, chipping in 32 points in 82 games.
The Philadelphia Flyers offseason has been fairly active, especially early on. That does not necessarily indicate quality. Have these moves improved the team at all? The answer to this may be complicated.
First, Philadelphia still has plenty of work to do. The number one priority should be continuing to retain their restricted free agents. Sanheim and Laughton are important pieces, but the team has yet to sign their two most important RFAs. These come in the form of Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny. Provorov is a workhorse defender that is one of the most promising young blue-liners in the league, while Konecny provides scoring punch and versatility to the Philadelphia lineup. If the Flyers are unable to reach agreements with these players, the offseason will be nothing short of a catastrophe.
Promising Early Returns
Assuming Philadelphia can bring back Provorov and Konecny, The Flyers have improved in the short term. The addition of Kevin Hayes will make their center group much more formidable. Justin Braun can provide help on the penalty kill and should be able to crunch minutes. Though Niskanen may be past his prime, the defender is still an NHL player and has more scoring upside than Radko Gudas.
The retention of Laughton and Sanheim also allows the Flyers to keep two key pieces while they monitor their progress. If Laughton and Sanheim deliver on their promise from last season, both of these deals could be high value for Philadelphia
Long Term Consequences
The Flyers, however, also seem to be walking a thin line mortgaging their future for the present. Braun and Niskanen both have tread on the tires and have seen their best days pass them by. Even more concerning is the contract the Flyers issued to Hayes. Hayes will play as the second-line pivot and, for his production, is overpaid. This could become a real albatross of a contract. Hayes is already exiting his prime at 27 years old. On top of that, the Flyers hope that Nolan Patrick will turn into a second (or first) line center at some point. While this development from Patrick would be positive, it would leave the Philadelphia Flyers paying Hayes $7,000,000 a year as their third-line center.
The Flyers brought in Chuck Fletcher because Ron Hextall was too patient. The team is stuck in an odd place as they attempt to build for the future while competing with ageing stars Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. Despite this, it is still concerning when a team trades assets and spends money on ageing players. Though the moves made this offseason will likely make the team better this year, will it be enough to compete as true contenders? Only time will tell if Fletcher’s gambit proves successful, but for the time being, the Philadelphia Flyers face an uncertain road ahead.
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