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Flyers await free agency with rare luxury: a ton of cap space

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Philadelphia Flyers GM Ron Hextall is rapidly approaching “be careful what you wish for” territory.

For years, Hextall has been cleaning up whatever Flyers cap messes he could (sorry, Andrew MacDonald), breaking the franchise’s pattern of going after splashy, expensive moves that can sometimes blow up in their faces (sorry, Ilya Bryzgalov). Now, with what could be a ton of cap space looming in the off-season, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sam Carchidi reports that Hextall is expected to receive “free rein” in free agency.

(If the cap ceiling is at $80 million, they’ll have about $22 million in room, while a Jori Lehtera buyout could push that above $25M.)

“Ron has the flexibility to do whatever he wants with his cap space and his roster,” Holmgren said, via Carchidi. “If that’s the decision he wants to make moving forward, he’s got free rein to do that. I think Ron continues to do what’s right for the organization.”

That brings us back to “be careful what you wish for.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Hextall’s shown poise and patience in earning himself a clean slate, and this is his reward. That said, big moves can often be the downfall of a GM. Consider how Chuck Fletcher’s Wild era crumbled under the weight of the Ryan SuterZach Parise contracts, how the Flyers have regretted past moves, and how Ron Francis was undone in part by the ill-fated Scott Darling signing as just a few examples of mistakes that can cost people jobs.

With that in mind, here are some tips for Hextall.

One rule for them all

Let’s begin with an idea that seems far-fetched, but must be considered: any team that can land John Tavares should do whatever it can to make it happen. There’s a strong chance that he’ll just re-sign with the New York Islanders, but if not, the Flyers have plenty of cash to work with.

Goalie considerations

Rather than making Bryzgalov-style huge moves in net, Philly’s instead targeted value in goalies. That worked out very well in their Steve Mason sign-and-trade, while it’s been bumpier with Michal Neuvirth and Brian Elliott.

While the position is once again a headache for Philly, Hextall should be pleased that they’re at least not stuck with problem contracts. Elliott and Neuvirth are both cheap, and their contracts expire after 2018-19.

This gives the Flyers the flexibility to do whatever they want with the goalie free agent market. As of this moment, notable UFA goalies include Jonathan Bernier, Jaroslav Halak, Cam Ward, and Chad Johnson. The RFA list boasts higher ceilings yet would likely require some maneuvering via a trade; the Sabres might decide to part ways with Robin Lehner while the Capitals may decide that it would be better to gain assets for Philipp Grubauer rather than giving him a raise to back up Braden Holtby.

With Carter Hart waiting in the wings as the top goalie prospect in any NHL system (or, at worst, one of the top goalie prospects), the Flyers would likely look for a short-term upgrade if they decided to make a move. Maybe Carter Hutton would be the right fit?

Risk/reward

As usual, there are “buyer beware” situations for 2018 free agency.

On one hand, you have players who’ve inflated their values with career years they’re unlikely to match. The Flyers probably weren’t in the market for John Carlson considering their young defensemen, but even if they were, they’d be better off exploring a cheaper avenue.

With expensive, long-term contracts for Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek in mind, the Flyers need to be careful when it comes to pondering some of the more intriguing UFA forwards. James Neal seems like a prototypical Flyers forward, yet he’s also already 30, as just one example. Scorers like Evander Kane and former Flyer James van Riemsdyk are enticing, but most if not all of them will ask for the kind of term that could really sting.

Hextall might be better off avoiding the splashier moves, instead either a) seeing which players end up inexplicably being PTO fodder, which seems to happen every summer and/or b) going for guys lower on the radar. Could Patrick Maroon, Michael Grabner, Ian Cole, or Michael Hutchinson help out, and do so at cheaper rates? The Flyers might be better off going in that direction, as they’ll want to continue to give their own drafted players opportunities to seize prominent roles.

The Flyers also need to set aside some money for future extensions. Ivan Provorov figures to be expensive when his rookie deal expires after 2018-19. A decision regarding Wayne Simmonds‘ future is looming, as he only has one year left on his deal.

With Sean Couturier and Shayne Gostisbehere locked up on bargain contracts, some of the big conundrums have been settled by Hextall’s deft work, but there are still some key decisions to be made, especially if management wants to hedge their bets in net alongside Carter Hart.

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All things considered, the Flyers might actually be better off trying to improve by making trades.

If I were in Hextall’s shoes, I’d try to pry Max Pacioretty or Mike Hoffman away in swaps. The Flyers would get at least one season to see how such additions fit into their system, maybe opening the door for a team-friendly extension.

Either way, this summer stands as a fascinating fork in the road. This team showed signs of delivering on the potential prospect hounds have been hyping up. On the other hand, you never know how quickly your window of opportunity can close, particularly if Giroux, Voracek, and others slide.

Hextall has a great opportunity ahead of him, but that opportunity brings with it increased expectations. The honeymoon is about to end, and now he must guide the Flyers through those next, painful steps toward true contention.

Be careful what you wish for.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Wild fire GM Chuck Fletcher, who leaves behind a mess

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The Chuck Fletcher era is over for the Minnesota Wild. After employing Fletcher as their GM for about nine years, the Wild dismissed him on Monday.

“I feel it is time for a new approach,” Wild owner Craig Leipold said in the team’s official release.

The team added that they are immediately searching for a replacement.

For better or worse, the Wild have been generous when it comes to giving their general managers time to make their new approaches work.

Fletcher was GM since May 2009, while Doug Risebrough served as the first GM for about a decade (1999 to 2009). While some teams employ their top executives for multiple decades (see: David Poile in Nashville, Ken Holland with the Red Wings), there are also plenty of front offices who receive precious few opportunities to get things right. Fletcher received plenty of opportunities to break through, and ultimately, his run with the Wild ends with a whimper … and some problems for the next GM to sort out.

Let’s ponder the biggest decisions of the Fletcher days.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Decisions

Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

There’s simply no way to get around it: the dual signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were the defining moves of Fletcher’s tenure with the Wild. On July 4, 2012, Fletcher handed Parise and Suter matching 13-year, $98 million contracts.

Just seeing the total cash and term on those deals is staggering, especially as each contract seems to look scarier every time you consider the implications for the Wild as a franchise. Both players are 33 – and showing their age at times, especially in the case of Parise’s unfortunate health – yet their $7.538M cap hits (with no-move clauses) won’t expire until after the 2024-25 season.

At the time, Parise and Suter linking up in Minnesota as free agents felt as close to the NHL would get to its version of LeBron James’ “Decision.” The biggest of many differences is that, while the Miami Heat won two titles and made multiple NBA Finals appearances with James & Co., the Wild have settled for modest gains. Sure, they’re riding six straight playoff appearances, but they’ve never gotten beyond the second round and haven’t won a division title since signing Suter and Parise.

Spending $15M in cap space on the two already seems dicey. It may only look worse going forward, and if a new GM gets the Wild out of one or both of the deals, it will come at a cost.

Mixed bag

The bad tends to outweigh the good when you consider how much Minnesota is spending on its team (a final cap hit above $75M this past season for a team that won one playoff game, according to Cap Friendly).

This is an aging group, which is disconcerting when you consider that this team doesn’t appear to have a ceiling as a true championship contender.

Eric Staal stands as one of the best additions of Fletcher’s tenure – and make no mistake about it, Fletcher’s had some nice hits along the way – and he’s already 33. Staal also will need a new contract after next season.

Staal, Parise, and Suter are all 33. Mikko Koivu is 35. Even Devan Dubnyk (another nice Fletcher find, and a guy on a team-friendly contract) is already 31.

Again, it’s not all bad. The Bruce Boudreau addition helped players old and young flourish. Fletcher fleeced Garth Snow in getting Nino Niederreiter. The franchise has done a nice job in certain drafting and developing situations, particularly with the likes of Mikael Granlund.

The whiffs have been pretty epic, though, with Parise and Suter already entering albatross territory.

Questions ahead

The next Wild GM faces a tough haul.

Do you try to move Parise and/or Suter, even if it means sweetening the deal by giving up picks? Should the Wild keep Boudreau or let him move on if the plan is a more concerted “rebuild” effort? Would the Wild be better off making difficult decisions, such as parting ways with underrated Selke-caliber center Koivu while he still has value (if he’ll waive his no-move clause, of course)? How much will useful RFAs Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker cost?

Those are some difficult riddles to answer. Fletcher faced tough calls of his own, and enough went wrong that he’ll no longer be running the show in Minnesota.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Jets chase Dubnyk, eliminate Wild in Game 5

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Friday’s Game 5 against the Winnipeg Jets was do-or-die for the Minnesota Wild. It turned out someone may have forgotten to tell the Wild.

Despite not having Josh Morrissey, Dmitry Kulikov, Toby Enstrom, Mathieu Perreault and Nikolaj Ehlers in Game 5, the Jets roared out to a 4-0 start through 20 minutes, chasing Devan Dubnyk, en route to a 5-0 win to advance to the second round.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Dubnyk lasted just 11:59, as he allowed four goals on 10 shots and was replaced by Alex Stalock.

Jacob Trouba started the party in Winnipeg scoring just 31 seconds into the game:

Bryan Little, Brandon Tanev and Joel Armia also found the back of the net for the Jets. Mark Scheifele added a power-play tally early in the third frame to extend their lead to 5-0.

The Wild were better in the second period, but they still couldn’t figure out Connor Hellebuyck, who ended up making 30 saves for his second straight shutout.

This is the third year in a row that Minnesota has been bounced in the opening round. In 2016, they were eliminated in six games by the Dallas Stars and last year they watched St. Louis take them down in five.

Even though they finished the year with over a 100 points, it’s another disappointing end for Bruce Boudreau’s squad. It’s tough to envision them making major changes to the roster because Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are under contract for six more years. It’ll be interesting to see what they can do to shake up this roster or their staff. General manager Chuck Fletcher has some work to do this summer.

As for the Jets, they move on to face the winner of the Nashville Predators and Colorado Avalanche series. Winnipeg definitely looked explosive in Game 5, and they’ll need to keep rolling if they want to reach the Western Conference Final.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Boudreau says missed cross-check call cost Wild game

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With their 2-0 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday night the Minnesota Wild are now facing elimination and are without two of their top players — Zach Parise and Ryan Suter — for the remainder of the series. It is not a great position to be in as the series shifts back to Winnipeg later this week where the Jets can end it on home ice.

Adding insult to the loss on Tuesday is the fact the Wild feel they were robbed by the way the on-ice officials allowed Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey to get away with a vicious cross-check to the head of forward Eric Staal late in the first period.

Morrissey was not only allowed to stay in the game, he was not even penalized and then recorded an assist on the eventual game-winning goal in the final minute of the first period.

With the Jets clinging to a 1-0 lead late in the third period, they added an empty net goal to put the game away. An empty-net goal that never would have been scored had the game still been scoreless, as the Wild thought it should have been had the on-ice officials correctly called the cross-check.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

“My take is the same take as everybody in the building that saw it,” said Wild coach Bruce Boudreau after the game (video here). “The refs looked at it and they decided not to call it because we were already on the power play. Cost us the game.”

It wasn’t just the fact that it cost the Wild an extended two-man advantage or that Morrissey helped set up the winner that had Boudreau fuming after the game, but also the fact that Morrissey broke up a breakaway by Wild forward Nino Neiderreiter in the second period.

“We had chances in the second period,” said Boudreau. “Dumba had a great chance and Hellebuyck made great some save on a couple. Nino has a breakaway and it’s Morrissey that breaks it up. He should be out of the game. I can’t believe … still a little heated about it. Got to watch what I say. They were looking right at it and they told us they didn’t see it.”

Morrissey said after the game he never intended to get his stick up that high and it was simply a “complete accident as he was trying to box out on the penalty kill.

Staal was not buying it, or, more accurately, simply did not care about the excuse.

“He cross-check me,” said Staal. “I’m the tallest guy on the ice, he cross-checked me in the neck. There’s not much more you can say. Everyone saw it. I don’t know no one with straws saw it, but that’s beside itself. It is what it is. We go from possibly, should be a 5-on-3 to a goal against eventually and that’s the game-winner.”

The Wild are absolutely correct to to argue that Morrissey should have been thrown out of the game (and he should be suspended) and that the missed call played a huge role in the outcome. Morrissey not only assisted on the game-winning goal, he also played a strong game defensively.

Did that cost them the game, as Boudreau argued? Well, it would also be correct to argue that they had 58 minutes the rest of the game to make something happen or get on the scoreboard and they did not do it.

“It’s pretty obvious that somebody has to step up,” added Boudreau later in his press conference. “This was a 1-0 game that should have been a 0-0 game going to overtime at this stage. Our guys worked their butts off and they didn’t get rewarded for it. Winnipeg played well and they got a goal.”

More: Josh Morrissey cross-checks Eric Staal in the head; should he be suspended?

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Josh Morrissey cross-checks Eric Staal in the head; should he be suspended?

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Late in the first period of Tuesday’s Winnipeg-Minnesota game, Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey decided to cross-check Eric Staal in the side of the head because, well, he was standing in his general vicinity.

Somehow, referees Steve Kozari and Brian Pochmara missed the stick work and did not penalize him.

It turned out to be a big non-call. With the Wild already on the power play (hey, maybe that’s why Morrissey got away with it?) it would have given them an extended 5-on-3 advantage in what was, at the time, a scoreless game. Not only did the Wild miss out on that opportunity, Morrissey ended up staying in the game and assisted on Mark Schiefele’s late first period goal to give the Jets a 1-0 lead.

Already playing without Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the Wild probably could have used the break.

That said, there are obviously a lot of problems with what Morrissey did here.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Not only did he cross-check a player in the side of the head (we can not make this point enough), the player he cross-checked in the head was not anywhere near the puck and there was not anything that preceded the incident that would have warranted such a response. Not that there is ever a good justification for cross-checking a player in the head.

It is almost certain to be reviewed by the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, which has been fairly busy so far in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The question now becomes whether or not Morrissey will sit a game or two for his actions.

What do you say? Will he? should he? Vote.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.