Flyers Offseason Primer: Expiring Contracts, Trade Targets and Free Agents to Watch
The NHL offseason is usually hellacious enough. Within two weeks of the Stanley Cup being awarded, teams are gathered to make selections for the entry draft and then go into free agent frenzy a week later.
Of course, teams that don’t make the Stanley Cup Final usually have a bit more of a time advantage.
But this offseason is anything but normal. For one, the Stanley Cup will be awarded likely in the early days of October, right around the usual time for the start of a regular season. At worst, the NHL Draft will likely be held two or three days after a potential Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final. Two days after the completion of the draft, free agency begins. No rest for the weary.
That said, it will be an interesting offseason for two reasons. One is the flat salary cap. Due to the pandemic, the NHL kept the salary cap frozen at $81.5 million. For teams that were expecting that usual bit of an increase to provide some relief, that is gone and teams will have to get very creative to make some changes to their roster, the Flyers being one of them.
Secondly, all this offseason activity will happen quickly after the 2019-20 season finally ends, but when does the 2020-21 season begin? When do new draft picks and free-agent signing actually get the chance to suit up for their new teams and how will that impact the usual speed of the offseason that is commonly in the early summer months?
Right now, there are no answers to when the next hockey games will be once this season comes complete. So for now, teams have to approach the offseason with that uncertainty in mind while working around a tight budget that has no room for flexibility in the immediate.
With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the things on the Flyers offseason agenda, areas they will look to address, the signings they have to make and some potential trade targets, trade options within the current roster, and free agents that could end up on their radar.
Restricted Free Agents: Nicolas Aube-Kubel (arbitration-eligible), Robert Hagg (arbitration-eligible), Phil Myers, Nolan Patrick, Mikhail Vorobyev
Three of these are easy decisions. Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Robert Hagg will be back in some form, though the arbitration process could become a problem in a flat-cap world, and Phil Myers will get a bit of a raise, but likely still be a cost-effective young and growing defensemen.
Mikhail Vorobyev is still under the Flyers control and will likely still get a qualifying offer, but he has already signed to play in Russia and is really no longer in the Flyers plans.
The big wildcard is Nolan Patrick. Sure, the Flyers should be able to sign Patrick to a relatively team-friendly deal because the value is currently low after Patrick missed all of the 2019-20 season with migraine syndrome. That said, this is a former first-round, second-overall pick that has 13 goals in each of his seasons in the NHL.
What this really comes down to is his ability to stay on the ice. After two seasons where he battled injuries and missed at least nine games and then the entire season out of the picture, there is likely not much Patrick can do to increase his worth for this contract. A bridge deal of two-to-three years should be expected at a reasonable cap hit, but don’t rule out the Flyers looking into dealing Patrick if someone is interested and it helps the team grab a player that brings instant improvement.
Unrestricted Free Agents: Nate Thompson, Tyler Pitlick, Derek Grant, Justin Braun, Brian Elliott, Chris Stewart, Kurtis Gabriel, Andy Welinski, Alex Lyon
There isn’t really much to consider on this list. Nate Thompson and Derek Grant were always rentals, and while you could look at Grant and think he may be able to stick in Philadelphia for longer as a depth player, an underwhelming playoffs will likely make his time with the Flyers brief.
Chris Stewart was brought in on a player try-out and signed to play when the Flyers needed a player in a pinch. He spent most of the season just practicing with the team or down in the minors and seemed to become a forgotten member of the organization when they acquired Thompson at the trade deadline and gave Stewart's number to him.
Kurtis Gabriel, Andy Welinski and Alex Lyon are all names to be watched, simply because they all have NHL experience and can be valuable parts of the minor-league system. Those deals are usually much easier to make in the immediate than anything strictly at the NHL level, however the uncertainty of the AHL season makes those deals tricky as well.
That leaves just three names left on the list and two of them are worth pursuing.
Brian Elliott should be a priority for the Flyers this offseason. Elliott was solid in the backup role as a veteran, and following a playoff run where it became even more apparent that Carter Hart is the guy, it always helps to have a guy like Elliott waiting in the wings, a mentor on and off the ice for Hart, and a capable goaltender when called up, especially if the league still plans for a full season next year. That will certainly feature a heavy workload that you can’t expect Hart to tackle on his own. Having a capable backup could be what separates a lot of teams next season.
Tyler Pitlick is also an interesting free agent. You can’t deny his work ethic or energy level, but he sometimes struggles to help drive play in his role. The bottom-six does not need to create on every shift, but they do need to help prevent chances, and Pitlick’s groupings were commonly exposed in the playoffs, even with his edgy and physical nature on the ice.
That said, if you can sign a player like Pitlick, who does still fit in your bottom-six, to a similar one-year, $1 million deal like he was this season, you should probably explore it. If he wants too much of a raise, there will be other players like him on the market.
Lastly, there is Justin Braun, and while Braun offered a solid defensive style and fit well on a pairing with Hagg, there was too much inconsistency in his game and his contract was a huge problem. Braun is an aging veteran that made $3.8 million this season, and the Flyers just can’t afford to tie up that kind of money into players on the blue line that won’t be around for too long, especially with a handful of young defensemen waiting in the wings. It feels safe to say that this playoff run was the last we will see of Braun in a Flyers uniform as well.
Contracts That Expire After 2020-21
Restricted Free Agents: Travis Sanheim (arbitration-eligible), Carter Hart, Sam Morin
These are not contracts that need to be addressed just yet, but they are ones you have to keep in mind for next offseason. The flat salary cap for this offseason and the room for limited movement in future years leaves the Flyers with very little breathing room.
Travis Sanheim is going to probably be due for a contract bigger than his $3.25 million cap hit, and you know that Hart is going to require a lot of money and a long-term contract. You don’t have to make your cap decisions on these players this offseason, but you do have to consider just how much you will be spending on them as you make moves now.
Unrestricted Free Agents: Michael Raffl, Scott Laughton, Matt Niskanen
Down the road, Matt Niskanen is a player you may look into keeping around at the right price - certainly less than the $5.75 million cap hit he currently has - to provide some veteran presence on a blue line that features a number of growing players.
The interesting players on this list are Michael Raffl and Scott Laughton. Raffl’s time with the Flyers may very well be running out. While he is signed through next season, there may be more prospects closing in or already making the leap to the NHL and filling the roster spot Raffl would have held.
Laughton has a more long-term place in Philadelphia, but watch out for his name in trade discussions. The 26-year-old forward could be added to a deal to sweeten the pot in helping the Flyers unload a sizable contract and get something back in return that could be of value. Laughton’s $2.3 million cap hit or Raffl’s $1.6 million cap hit could be attractive to other teams, though Laughton clearly has the advantage in age.
For the Flyers to really make any significant moves, whether via trade or free agency, they are going to have to part ways with someone making sizable money toward the cap next season. There aren’t many candidates on this roster to be moved, but here are three to keep an eye on around the rumor mill.
Shayne Gostisbehere - If there’s anybody to top this list, it’s Gostisbehere. The defenseman who is known for his offensive abilities and has been a defensive liability has a $4.5 million cap hit and three more seasons left on his contract. He’s certainly got the potential to bounce back, but time could be running out for it to happen with the Flyers. At 27 and about to enter his sixth season in the NHL, he has struggled to stay in the lineup. Maybe it just takes a healthy offseason, but with cap space tight, Gostisbehere is a prime trade chip for the Flyers if he can net you any value.
James van Riemsdyk - This is a tough one. On the surface, van Riemsdyk was also in and out of the lineup, certainly felt the wrath of Alain Vigneault a few times and carries a $7 million cap hit. All of those things make his future with the Flyers very unclear entering the offseason. It’s a difficult contract to move with three more seasons left, so this may be one that the Flyers don’t move until the expansion draft for Seattle after next season, but it’s hard to see how JVR fits on this team anymore.
Jake Voracek - If there is any one of the longtime core that could be moved, it’s Voracek. There are still four years left on Voracek’s deal at an $8.25 million cap hit, but $4 million of that will come up front from the Flyers in signing bonus money. With a $2.25 million base salary next season, he could be an attractive trade option for a team that needs to hit the salary cap floor. That said, it’s a huge longshot that someone like Voracek gets traded. The Flyers don’t want to dismantle everything and guys like Voracek may simply be better suited for middle-six roles instead of playing on the top line. You know what to expect from Voracek every year and he still has the playmaking ability to help create offense and boost special teams when it is really clicking.
With not a lot of chips on the table, the Flyers probably won’t be big players in the trade market unless something really flatters them. That said, one of the biggest needs they have is to add another scorer, someone who can bring more offense, more speed and possibly more skill to the table. Here are a few options that have been floating around in trade rumors.
Nikolaj Ehlers - Winnipeg has a number of talented forwards, but needs help desperately on the back end. They could start to dangle a few of their forwards in trade talks and Ehlers may be one of the best options there is. At 24, he’s still very young and has a lot of potential for growth. In each of his five NHL seasons, he has scored at least 15 goals, topped the 20-goal mark in each of the last four and scored 25 or more in three seasons. Before the pause this season, Ehlers was perhaps on pace to top his career-high of 29 goals and 64 points, reaching 25 goals and 58 points in 71 games. He does carry a $6 million cap hit for the next four seasons, but at 24 and still growing, he offers a lot of potential.
Patrik Laine - Laine is a prime candidate to be moved with one year remaining on a bridge deal that carries a cap hit of $6.75 million. That said, the greater concern is that this is more of a one-year rental, especially given what his next contract could look like. Laine scored 30 or more goals in each of his first three seasons and if not for the pause would have reached that mark again, scoring 28 goals in 68 games. He has also posted 50 or more points in all four seasons, reaching the 60-point mark three times. At just 22, Laine is still a potential superstar in the making, but you have to wonder if the price will be worth it for a player who is more of a scoring specialist and can be a defensive liability.
Kyle Palmieri - Since joining the New Jersey Devils five seasons ago, Palmieri has blossomed into a scorer and the Flyers have seen it first-hand. After spending parts of five seasons in Anaheim and never topping 14 goals in a single season, Palmieri has scored at least 24 goals in each of his five seasons with the Devils, reaching the 30-goal mark once. Palmieri does have a modified no-trade clause that blocks movement to eight teams, so this could get complicated, and also is entering the final year of a five-year contract with a $4.65 million cap hit.
Johnny Gaudreau - It’s the name you will hear a lot about. The South Jersey product is certainly a name on the trade market, so could a homecoming be in the works? Gaudreau is in the fifth year of a six-year deal with a cap hit of $6.75 million and saw his production dip this season. Two seasons ago, Gaudreau scored 36 goals and had 99 points, elite numbers. Both were career-high marks, just as he was hitting his prime at 25. But this season, he scored just 18 goals and had 58 points, far from the point-per-game level production he displayed in each of the previous two seasons.
Free Agency Targets
While Chuck Fletcher did say on Thursday that he didn't expect the Flyers to be major players in free agency for this offseason and perhaps the next couple, teams are always exploring possibilities. Here are a few free agents for this offseason to keep an eye on that could help add to the scoring depth of this team.
Tyler Toffoli - Toffoli will be a hard get in a tight market in free agency, especially after finding a home in Vancouver at the trade deadline where he seemed to get some of his offensive prowess back. He’d be the type of player that could be a fit for the Flyers, especially at his age of 28, but he could simply cost too much.
Mikael Granlund - There are some connections here, as Granlund was signed by the Minnesota Wild and Chuck Fletcher back in 2012. Granlund carries a hefty cap hit this season, but perhaps that could go down in an offseason where budgets are much tighter. Granlund is typically good for 15-20 goals per year, but saw his production really suffer in a down year with Nashville. Perhaps that makes his next contract a little more manageable.
Vladislav Namestnikov - This could be another buy-low option. Namestnikov signed with the New York Rangers in the 2018 offseason, but never really produced there. After a season with 11 goals in 2018-19, his 2019-20 season lasted two games with the Rangers before a trade to Ottawa. Namestnikov had success there, scoring 13 goals, then was dealt to the Colorado Avalanche at the deadline, where he scored four goals and had six points in nine games. A $4 million cap hit is likely too rich for most teams, so he could be a value signing if the market value goes down in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Mike Hoffman - Hoffman is the leading goal scorer on the free-agent market, tallying 29 goals this season to follow up a career-high 36 goals and 70 points in the 2018-19 season. While Hoffman has a great shot and is offensively gifted, he’s a huge defensive liability, and essentially a power-play specialist more than anything - in the last four seasons, he has 64 even-strength goals (including seven 3-on-3 overtime goals, three empty-net goals, and six 6-on-5 goals) and 49 power-play goals. Is it worth it for the Flyers to shell out big bucks for a guy with big scoring numbers who falls into the middle-six?
Craig Smith - Smith has spent his entire nine-year career in Nashville, and has five seasons of 20-goals or more. It’s an outside possibility he tests the market, but it’s going to be hard to see him giving a discount to anybody but the Predators. He is finishing up a five-year deal that carried a cap hit of $4.25 million.
Kevin Durso is Flyers insider for 97.3 ESPN and Flyers editor for SportsTalkPhilly.com. Follow him on Twitter @Kevin_Durso.