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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.

PHT Morning Skate: King Clancy nominees; Rutherford mad at Flyers fans

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Each team unveiled their nominee for the King Clancy Award, which is given “to the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community.” Ryan Getzlaf, Zdeno Chara, Tyler Seguin, P.K. Subban, the Sedin twins are all on the list. (NHL.com)

• Winning three Stanley Cup titles in a row would be a great accomplishment for the Pittsburgh Penguins, but a successful year would be making it out of the Metropolitan Division bracket. Anything beyond that is gravy. (Pittsburgh Hockey Now)

• Pens GM Jim Rutherford wasn’t happy with Flyers fans after they threw beer can on the ice following their team’s Game 6 loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

• Bolts goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy sat down for a Q&A with Sports Express. He talked about Nikita Kucherov‘s ability to torment goalies, Evgeni Nabokov’s influence on him, and much more. (Raw Charge)

• Paul Maurice’s playing career came to an abrupt ending, but he managed to transition into coaching pretty quickly. Even though he had doubts early on, everything worked out. (Featurd)

• After a great season, the Avalanche decided to give Jared Bednar a one-year contract extension. Also, don’t be surprised if the team becomes even younger than they were this year. (Denver Post)

• There’s been rumblings about Erik Karlsson being on the trade market. Most teams would jump at the opportunity to acquire a player like that, but here’s three reasons why the Rangers should stay away. (Blue Seat Blogs)

• The Minnesota Wild decided to part ways with GM Chuck Fletcher for a few reasons. Cap management, the losses in the expansion draft and the struggles they’ve had in the entry draft are three of the reasons he got let go. (Hockey Wilderness)

• This gay ECHL referee hasn’t had it easy during his time in the hockey, but he keeps pushing forward with his sights set on the NHL. (New York Times)

Jim Howard of Puck Junk recently came across an audio yearbook on the 1979-1980 New York Islanders. The record touched on the Isles’ journey from an expansion team to Stanley Cup Champs. (Puck Junk)

• The Vancouver Canucks need a lot of help on defense heading into next season. They can either hope to win the right to draft Rasmus Dahlin, or they can go after John Carlson in free agency. (TSN)

• Northeastern’s Dylan Sikura was back on campus after spending some time with the Chicago Blackhawks down the stretch. (College Hockey News)

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.

Andrew Hammond to start Game 5 for Avalanche

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When the Colorado Avalanche hit the ice in Nashville on Friday night they will be facing elimination. They will also need to rely on their third-string goalie to help get them a win if they are going to extend their season.

The team announced on Thursday that Andrew Hammond will be getting the start, replacing Jonathan Bernier who had to leave Wednesday’s game after two periods with a lower body injury. Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said Bernier’s injury has been a nagging one and that he could still be available off the bench on Friday if needed.

The Avalanche had been starting Bernier because their regular starter, Semyon Varlamov, is out for the remainder of the season due to a lower body injury of his own.

Obviously, this puts the Avalanche in a pretty tough spot. Not only because they have to go on the road against the Presidents’ Trophy winning Predators, but also because they have to turn to a goalie that, including Wednesday’s brief relief appearance, has appeared in just eight NHL games over the past two years. He has faced only 127 shots in those appearances and managed only an .874 save percentage.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

 Hammond’s career has been a fascinating one to this point.

Late in the 2014-15 season he came out of nowhere as a 25-year-old rookie to lead the Ottawa Senators on an improbable late season run (where Hammond put together a 20-1-2 record) to qualify for the playoffs. Nicknamed “the Hamburglar,” his initial run in Ottawa was highlighted by fans throwing hamburgers on the ice to celebrate his wins.  That run earned him a contract extension with the Senators and a bunch of free hamburgers from McDonalds. It was a crazy year.

After that, though, injuries and a decline in his production have limited him to just a handful of appearances in the NHL.

The Avalanche acquired him from the Senators earlier this season as part of the Matt Duchene trade.

Now he has to jump into the crease in an elimination game.

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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.

Boucher, Chiarelli, and a year of strange NHL decisions

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This has been a tough year for those who want NHL teams to hold people accountable for baffling, terrible decisions.

Jim Benning is still the GM for the Vancouver Canucks. The Detroit Red Wings are bloated with hideous contracts, yet Ken Holland just received a contract extension. Marc Bergevin continues to learn the wrong lessons with the Montreal Canadiens as P.K. Subban aims for another deep playoff run for Nashville. There was some logic to the Carolina Hurricanes essentially firing Ron Francis, but after seeing this string of decisions, it makes that choice seem awfully arbitrary.

Thursday provided the latest slew of head-scratchers.

In maybe the worst call of all, the Edmonton Oilers announced that Peter Chiarelli will remain GM despite a parade of cringe-inducing trades.

Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson addressed the future in a puzzling press conference on Thursday. You can watch the full deal in this clip:

Oilers Nation transcribed it by way of fans feelings and emoticons:

Yep, just about right. The early indications are that the Oilers will stick with Todd McLellan as head coach, that they might not trade Ryan-Nugent Hopkins, and that off-season changes might lean toward the incremental rather than the monumental.

It’s a tough pill to swallow for those who seek a meritocracy, and for Oilers fans who’ve endured jokes about Taylor Hall, Mathew Barzal, Jordan Eberle, and other traded players who’ve flourished outside of Edmonton. There’s always the possibility that Chiarelli & Co. will learn from their mistakes, yet we’ve also seen many examples of NHL GMs “doubling down” on previous errors by handing out faulty extensions, refusing to cut their losses with waning talent, and maintaining a wrong-minded vision of what it takes to succeed.

More than a few people (raises hand) believe that the Oilers largely squandered Connor McDavid‘s entry-level contract. Instead of finding a GM with higher odds of surrounding a generational, spellbinding talent with the supporting cast he needs, the Oilers seem content to cross their fingers that Chiarelli will … suddenly figure things out.

Yikes.

The feeling that teams are acting irrationally only increases when you consider Guy Boucher’s predicament with the Ottawa Senators.

One can quibble with Boucher – there’s a sentiment that, while he can bring out early returns, his style might wear thin quickly – yet he’s not even a full 12 months removed from helping a flawed Senators team come within an overtime goal of landing in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Boucher isn’t the one who handed out bad contracts like the Bobby Ryan deal, yet Senators GM Pierre Dorion admits that he hasn’t decided if he’ll bring the bench boss back for 2018-19.

Even if Dorion brings Boucher back, he seems to hand out an ultimatum:

Wow. That’s really something considering that, while Dorion has the excuse of the Senators working under a budget, there are genuine questions about whether he deserves to be back.

A lot of this seems unfair and irrational, but maybe that’s just life and sports.

(At least we can enjoy the second night of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, a time when we celebrate teams that tend to make more smart decisions than foolish ones. If nothing else, this is all good news for those teams.)

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.

Sabres, Senators own top odds in 2018 NHL Draft Lottery

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Now that the 2017-18 NHL regular season has officially come to an end and we know the 16 teams who will vie for the Stanley Cup, we also know the 15 teams who will be hoping ping pong balls fall in their favor in order to win the No. 1 selection in June’s entry draft.

The Buffalo Sabres locked up the top odds earlier this week, and here’s how the rest of the teams look heading into the April 28 (NBC, CBC, TVAS) lottery.

Buffalo Sabres: 18.5%
Ottawa Senators*: 13.5%
Arizona Coyotes: 11.5%
Montreal Canadiens: 9.5%
Detroit Red Wings: 8.5%
Vancouver Canucks: 7.5%
Chicago Blackhawks: 6.5%
New York Rangers: 6.0%
Edmonton Oilers: 5.0%
New York Islanders: 3.5%
Carolina Hurricanes: 3.0%
New York Islanders (from CGY): 2.5%
Dallas Stars: 2.0%
St. Louis Blues**: 1.5%
Florida Panthers: 1.0%

• The Senators, via the Matt Duchene trade, have the option to keep their pick and send the Colorado Avalanche their 2019 first-rounder.

• As per the terms of the Brayden Schenn trade, if the Blues’ pick ends up being in the top 10, they have the choice to keep it and send the Philadelphia Flyers their 2019 first-rounder. If not, Philadelphia will get St. Louis’ first-round choice this year.

2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Schedule, Bracket, Streams and More

Via the NHL, the 2018 Draft Lottery will consist of three drawings: the first Lottery Draw will determine the team selecting first overall, the second Lottery Draw will determine the team selecting second overall and the third Lottery Draw will determine the team selecting third overall.

The odds for the remaining clubs will increase on a proportionate basis for the second Lottery Draw, based on which club wins the first Lottery Draw, and again for the third Lottery Draw, based on which club wins the second Lottery Draw.

The 12 teams not selected in the 2018 Draft Lottery will be assigned 2018 NHL Draft selections 4 through 15, in inverse order of regular-season points.

Rasmus Dahlin, Andrei Svechnikov, Filip Zadina, Oliver Wahlstrom, Quinn Hughes and Brady Tkachuk are among the top prizes in this year’s entry draft. This is the third time in five years that the Sabres have owned the top odds. Will the third time finally be the charm?

More: NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.