Should Flyers sign Simmonds long-term? It’s complicated

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An NHL GM can make mistakes in a lot of different ways.

One of the most challenging hurdles an executive must clear is determining whether they should keep quality (but aging) mid-level talent around. It’s easy to pinpoint the nucleus of your roster, and try to lock those players down – ideally for value – and it should be easy to disqualify the filler. But what about nice assets with cloudier stances in the pecking order?

It’s maybe a bit amusing that the Flyers signing James van Riemsdyk – a player the Maple Leafs ultimately decided wasn’t a core player – might open the door for Wayne Simmonds to leave Philadelphia under similar circumstances.

Flyers GM Ron Hextall admits that he’d like to keep Simmonds, but he also doesn’t know if it will work out.

“We’d like to sign Simmer,” Hextall said, via Sam Donnellon of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Whether we can or not, I don’t have the answer to that.”

It’s fair to ask if the Flyers can sign Simmonds. It’s also reasonable to wonder if they should.

Now, if this wasn’t a salary cap league, a big-budget team like the Flyers probably wouldn’t fret about signing Simmonds, who’s an undeniable talent. Things get trickier when the belt tightens, and Hextall’s wise to acknowledge that there are some big decisions – and possibly mammoth raises to brilliant younger talents – coming in the near future.

So let’s explore many of the ins and outs of this situation, and the Flyers’ fascinating outlook with or without one of the league’s best power forwards.

Superb situational scorer

Possessing prolific power-play prowess might sometimes seem like a backhanded compliment (“He can’t score at 5-on-5,” – hypothetical jerks), but it can be highly valuable to unearth players who seem to score in those situations, year-in, and year-out.

Simmonds has been, unquestionably, a fantastic scorer on the power play since being traded to Philly. Since 2011-12 (his first season with the Flyers), Simmonds scored 86 power-play goals, the second-best total in the NHL during that frame. Only superhuman Alex Ovechkin was better, leaping tall buildings with a signal bound at 131 goals; Simmonds leads third-place Steven Stamkos by 10 goals (Stamkos had 76, albeit limited by injuries).

Fixating on the power play is only natural with Simmonds (86 of his 187 goals in 522 Flyers games came on the man advantage), yet he brings other strengths to the table.

While the physical winger’s fantasy value gets bumped up another notch by frequent trips to the penalty box (958 PIM in 762 career NHL regular-season games), Natural Stat Trick’s metrics show that he tends to draw about as many penalties as he takes. So that grit doesn’t necessarily put his team at a massive disadvantage.

Simmonds’ possession stats ebb and flow, but some of that might come down to the quality of his linemates. They were mostly “meh” at even-strength in 2017-18, with Valtteri Filppula and Jordan Weal ranking as his most common forward partners.

Between power plays and normal minutes, the bottom line is that Simmonds has been very productive. Last season’s 24 goals and 46 points were borderline alarming for him for the simple reason that he’s been very, very good at times for the Flyers. Simmonds previously scored at least 28 goals for four straight seasons, and with 24 last year, has five in a row with at least that many. He’s essentially been a 30-ish goal guy for most of his Flyers run, as he managed 15 goals in the 45 contests during the pattern and streak-ruining 2012-13 lockout season.

Long story short, there’s a lot to like about Simmonds. If the Flyers let him walk, plenty of teams will clamor for his services, and there are scenarios where he’d sign with a divisional rival and make his former team miserable.

The questions

Again, there are some stumbling blocks, especially if Simmonds wants serious term.

He’ll turn 30 on Aug. 26. While his rather unusual ability to score in tight might be a skill that actually ages well, there are reasons to also wonder if he’d hit the aging curve especially hard.

Most obviously, a physical player is involved in more demolition derby moments, and even if they “win” those collisions more often than not, they take a toll. (Consider that Scott Stevens retired in large part for health reasons, despite being the guy who was usually the culprit rather than victim of vicious hits.)

[James van Riemsdyk signing could spell end for Simmonds with Flyers]

Simmonds was slowed in 2017-18 by issues that ended up requiring core surgery. Maybe those issues can be considered a one-time thing, but age is a serious question here. With Claude Giroux (30), Jakub Voracek (28), and JVR (29) all signed to serious term and combining for a cap hit of $23.525M, the Flyers already boast some forwards whose contracts could become future problems.

JVR’s skills may also make Simmonds’ PP gifts relatively redundant. During his time with Toronto, 45 of James van Riemsdyk’s 154 goals came on the man advantage.

A clever special teams coach would look at a power play featuring JVR and Simmonds – along with gifted assets such as Giroux and Shayne Gostisbehere – as a buffet of brilliant options. Still, the salary cap sometimes dictates that team give up on luxuries to afford necessities, and JVR might make Simmonds expendable.

The bill’s coming

According to Cap Friendly, the Flyers currently enjoy a robust $13.22M in cap space.

With that in mind, it would be tempting to dismiss the fact that Simmonds is due to make a lot more than his bargain, expiring rate of $3.975M. The issue gets thornier when you consider other looming expenses, particularly if Simmonds – justifiably – seeks both a raise and serious term.

Ivan Provorov is entering a contract year, and Hextall might just want to get that situation wrapped up. The Flyers’ two goalies (Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth) will see their combined $5.25M evaporate after 2018-19. One way or another, netminding decisions are coming; it could be a cheap situation once more if Carter Hart ends up being ready, but it’s fuzzy right now.

Locking up the Provorov’s and eventually the Nolan Patrick‘s stand as serious concerns, yet there are also some positives that push the Simmonds decision closer to “go for it.”

Hextall’s been crafty with erasing the mistakes of the past, sometimes quickly and sometimes gradually. Some dead money will be fading soon, making it more plausible for a Simmonds deal to come into focus. Jori Lehtera‘s ghastly $4.7M goes away after next season. Andrew MacDonald‘s ridiculous $5M mercifully expires after 2019-10. They’ll also get to wave goodbye to Dale Weise, Michael Raffl, and Radko Gudas if they want to fairly soon.

Between some money coming off the books and (in an ideal world) another healthy jump for the salary cap, retaining Simmonds might become quite manageable. As Hextall acknowledges, some of the details need to be sorted out.

Wait-and-see?

Donnellon reports that Hextall said he’d be willing to negotiate with Simmonds into the season, and while that might seem like a throwaway detail, it might just be the ticket.

The bottom line is that it will be easier to understand how the pieces fall together (between JVR, Simmonds, and rising young talents such as Patrick and Travis Konecny) after seeing them all in action. JVR’s presence could just as easily boost Simmonds as it could push him to a secondary unit or clog too much of the same real estate in front of the net.

Taking that extra time could also give Hextall the opportunity to achieve cost certainty if he can figure out how much Provorov will cost, and if it would make sense to keep Elliott or Neuvirth around to support Hart.

The Flyers stand as a truly fascinating team to watch. There’s an appealing mix of established players and rising young stars, and if they can come to productive conclusions with the eternal questions about goaltending, they could rise from a playoff bubble team to a frequent, scary contender.

Figuring out what’s the best step to take with Simmonds – whether it be to sign him, let him walk, or trade him before his deal expires – is a very important decision.

For all we know, it could be one of the make-or-break factors as Hextall hopes to convert all of this potential into playoff glories.

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.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.