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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.

Senators lose prized rookie Tkachuk for one month due to torn ligament

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It seems the Ottawa Senators are not allowed to have nice things right now.

After entering the season with zero expectations due to the complete teardown of the roster over the past year, the team has actually gotten off to a better-than-expected start with a 3-2-1 record through their first six games, collecting seven out of a possible 12 points.

They have also been, perhaps even more shockingly, kind of fun to watch.

At the center of that start has been prized rookie Brady Tkachuk, the fourth overall pick in the 2018 draft, having already tallied three goals and three assists in his first four games.

Now he will be sidelined for at least the next month.

Senators coach Guy Boucher confirmed on Wednesday morning that Tkachuk will be out of the lineup due to a torn ligament in his leg that he suffered in Monday’s win over the Dallas Stars when he attempted to deliver a check. According to Boucher, the injury will not require surgery.

Tkachuk is an important player for the Senators not only because he was a top-five pick and should be a centerpiece for the ongoing rebuild, but also because of what he represents from an asset management perspective.

As a result of the Matt Duchene trade at the start of the 2017-18 season the Senators had the option of sending either their 2018 first-round pick or their 2019 first-round pick to the Colorado Avalanche to complete the trade. It put them in a difficult position because they knew the 2018 pick was the fourth overall selection, but given the nature of the rebuild and what the roster was expected to look like this season there was always a chance the 2019 pick could be even higher.

There was an argument to be made (one that was made here) that the Senators should probably sent the 2018 pick to Colorado.

They did not, and instead opted to keep it and select Tkachuk. As of Wednesday he is third among NHL rookies in total points with six, trailing only Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson and Tkachuk’s teammate, defenseman Maxime Lajoie. Both players have played in more games than Tkachuk.

Overall it has been a tough week for the NHL’s best rookies.

Along with Tkachuk’s injury, Pettersson is also sidelined for at least the next week under the NHL’s concussion protocol after he was body-slammed to the ice by Florida Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson over the weekend, a play that resulted in a two-game suspension from the league.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Rangers vs. Capitals; Bruins vs. Flames

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Wednesday night’s matchup between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

Rangers head coach David Quinn hasn’t been shy about sending his team messages early on this season. He’s already scratched players like Kevin Shattenkirk and Pavel Buchnevich, so he won’t be shy about going head-to-head with any of his players going forward.

As many expected, the Rangers are off to a tough start. They decided to unload a lot of their veterans, so this wasn’t totally unexpected. They’re 2-4-0 coming into tonight’s clash against the defending Stanley Cup Champions. On a positive note, New York is coming off a 3-2 shootout win over the Avalanche on Tuesday night. Unfortunately, they’ll play their second of a back-to-back situation in Washington.

The biggest issue right now, is that they can’t seem to find much offense. The Rangers have found the back of the net 15 times in six games, but they’ve only scored more than two goals in regulation/overtime twice (they scored five goals in a loss to Carolina).

If there’s one thing you’ll have to do against Washington, it’s scoring. Can the Rangers keep up with the Caps’ high-flying offense?

The Capitals are coming off a 4-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on home ice. They’ve managed to score just twice in the last two games, but that just means that their offense is bound to erupt in the near future. One area the Capitals haven’t struggling in, is their power play. Washington has been clicking at 36.8 percent thanks to Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s four power play goals.

Kuznetsov has come out of the gate strong this season, as he’s already accumulated nine points in five games. Alex Ovechkin isn’t too far behind. He’s up to four goals and seven points in the same amount of contests. Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and John Carlson are also running at over a point-per-game clip.

In the late game, we’ll have the matchup between the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames. You can watch that game online by clicking here

The Bruins will head into tonight’s game with the second best power play in the NHL, which is clicking at 41.7 percent. Incredible. As you’d imagine, their first line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak is a big reason for their success on the man-advantage, as the trio has combined for 11 power play points in just five games.

This will be the first of a four-game road trip that will take them through Western Canada (Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver) before they finish off in Ottawa. None of those four teams made the playoffs last season, but they aren’t exactly easy places to play. This is going to be a tough road trip for them.

The Flames will have to be at their best to matchup against the Bruins are their top line. Thankfully for Calgary, it appears as though Sean Monahan will play. He blocked a shot on Saturday, missed Monday’s practice, but managed to return to the ice on Tuesday morning. Monahan is currently tied for third on the team in points with six in five games. His four goals in five games are tied for the team lead.

Calgary’s done a good job of finding the back of the net overall (they have 18 goals in five games), but keeping the puck out has been a different story. They’ve given up at least four goals in three of their five games. That’s a trend that can’t continue if they want to make it back to the playoffs after missing them last season.

Getting quality goaltending from veteran Mike Smith would go a long way in helping them bring their goals against down. Smith, who will start tonight, has a 2-2 record with a 3.57 goals-against-average and a .881 save percentage this season.

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.

David Quinn bringing ‘different energy’ to Rangers

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If you ask New York Rangers forward Kevin Hayes what’s different from last season now that new head coach David Quinn is in charge, he’d tell you there’s a “different energy” around the team.

“It’s very positive, hard working energy,” Hayes told Pro Hockey Talk recently.

The new energy includes plenty of communication from the coach. Quinn is vocal and open with his players. They may have only been with him for a month, but already players know where they stand with him. That’s an important detail, and one that can help a roster like the Rangers’ develop into what general manager Jeff Gorton imagines.

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The rivalry between Boston College and Boston University is well-documented in the college hockey world. So when asked if he would be able to play for a coach with BU ties, Chris Kreider jokingly responded, “Begrudgingly. They brought in a BC assistant coach (Greg Brown), so it evens out.”

Kreider has been with the Rangers since the 2013 NHL season, John Tortorella’s final year in New York. One season later, and under head coach Alain Vigneault, they reached the Stanley Cup Final. That was followed up by a second consecutive trip to the Eastern Conference Final, where they would fall in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It’s trended downward since then for the Rangers, and the decision last February by Gorton to look toward the future signaled a new era for the team and the end of Vigneault’s time in New York. Over that time Kreider has watched the identity of the team disappear and understands that there’s a first step that can be taken in order for a turnarond to begin.

“We need to fall in love with hard work as a group,” he said. “I think that needs to become our identity. We’re not going to get outworked on pucks; we’re not going to get outworked at any point in a game at any position on the ice. Practice habits have to be improved upon I think our details have to be there. I think we gotta lean on each other and trust each other that everyone’s gonna do the job to the best of their abilities.”

If you’re going to be outworked or not give full effort, then you’re not going to see the ice. It doesn’t matter if you’ve known the coach for over a decade, either through hometown ties (Hayes) or you played for him before arriving in New York and even invited him to your wedding (Kevin Shattenkirk). Effort is non-negotiable to Quinn. Hayes was benched during the game against Buffalo and Shattenkirk’s recovery from knee surgery saw him take a seat in the press box last Thursday against San Jose. Not easy decisions, but ones that align with the coach’s vision for how he needs to help the Rangers succeed.

After going through the experience is playing for Quinn, knowing his coaching style and how he connects with people, his former players have the utmost confidence his jump from the NCAA to the NHL will be a successful one.

“You know, it’s not easy to make a transition, by any means, from college to professional level,” said Buffalo Sabres captain Jack Eichel, who played for Quinn at BU during the 2014-15 season. “But I think more than anything you have to be a good person, and have people skills, and I think probably his biggest asset is how well he’s able to relate to players, relate to people. I think he’ll do a great job building relationships to players away from the ice, and in turn I think that’s how they’ll gain his trust and they’ll believe in him.”

Arizona Coyotes forward Clayton Keller played one season at BU under Quinn and found him to be a player’s coach, one who finds the right buttons to push to maximize talent. He credited the coach with a successful freshman season that saw him lead the Terriers in goals (21) and points (45).

Shattenkirk, who played for Quinn at BU and with the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters, is a product of the impact Quinn can have on a player.

“I was always the skilled player who came in and in his mind will probably say didn’t want to work and didn’t want to defend,” said Shattenirk. “He did so much for me as a player in college and really turned me from a raw talent into a well-rounded player to be able to succeed at the next level… He was so driven in developing players and coaching players that it meant a lot to me.”

Asking around about Quinn and “good communicator” comes up often from those that have been around him. Kreider described his initial talks with his new coach as “kind of disarming” in regards to how approachable he is. This first season is going set a foundation for what the franchise is hoping are many successful years ahead.

Quinn takes over the Rangers in a transition year. Gorton’s eye is on the future, and no one will mistake them for Cup contenders this year. But they still have Henrik Lundqvist playing at an elite level and just under $19 million in cap space (before a potential rise in the cap ceiling) to play with next summer.

As soon as next season, if Quinn’s influence ends up being a positive one, a return to being a perennial playoff team is not out of the question. Reaching that point requires achieving small steps along the way — steps that can be taken this year with a new voice behind the bench. The desire to get back to that point and prove the doubters wrong are what fuel this Rangers team.

“When people don’t expect you to do well it’s obviously a little chip on your shoulder,” said Hayes. “We still have Hank in net. He’s a Hall of Fame goalie… I think if you buy into the system and you work as hard as you can when you’re on the ice, it’s a pretty good way to create wins.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Matthews not on McDavid’s level; Red Wings’ Svechnikov out for season

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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.

• One former NHL player believes that 60 to 70 percent of the current players in the league already smoke marijuana. Now that Canada has legalized marijuana, he expects that the idea of using it will become more accepted. (Sportsnet)

• Carolina’s Sebastian Aho is one of the best forwards in the NHL right now, according to The Hockey News’ Jared Clinton. (The Hockey News)

• Rotoworld’s Michael Finewax has his latest edition of the NHL Power Rankings. Toronto and Boston moved up while Tampa and Winnipeg moved down. (Rotoworld)

• ESPN staff writers had a coach’s draft (all coaches from the four major sports were available). The first hockey coach to be taken was Leafs bench boss Mike Babcock, who went seventh overall. Mike Sullivan, Joel Quenneville and Peter Laviolette all made it in the top 15. (ESPN)

• Allan Markin, who is a co-owner of the Calgary Flames, paid a huge sum of money to free a journalist who was kidnapped in Somalia and kept captive. (Calgary Herald)

• Rangers head coach David Quinn sent a message to his team by scratching Pavel Buchnevich on Tuesday night. (New York Post)

• It’s easy to see why the Capitals decided to hire Todd Reirden as their head coach once Barry Trotz left for the Islanders. (Sports Illustrated)

• Even though Auston Matthews is a great player, Jets forward Mark Scheifele doesn’t believe he’s at Connor McDavid‘s level just yet. (NHL.com)

• Red Wings prospect Evgeny Svechnikov will miss five-to-six months after undergoing ACL surgery. He’s done for the year. (Detroit Free Press)

• Puck Junk has an interesting book review of “”Hockey Card Stories: 2” by Ken Reid. (Puck Junk)

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.