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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.

Paying for intangibles usually backfires

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In an ideal world the thought of a “bad contract” in sports wouldn’t really exist (in my world, anyway). Professional sports are a multi-billion dollar a year industry and a player’s value should be what the market (in this case, a bunch of billionaire owners — or even one billionaire owner) feels that player should be worth.

The players are the ones putting in the work, making the effort, and drawing fans to the stadium or arena. They absolutely deserve a significant cut of the pie, and if they aren’t getting it, an even richer person ends up keeping it for themselves. So, pay the players.

That said, the world is not always perfect. Especially in sports.

When you are dealing with a sport that has a salary cap (and in the case of the NHL, a hard salary cap) you have to look at contracts a little more critically than just saying, “well, that is what they are worth that and that is the end of it.” A hard salary cap makes the business side of sports even more cutthroat and emotionless than it already is. Teams only have a set amount of money to spend, and paying the wrong player the wrong salary for the wrong reason can make it difficult to keep better players or build a winning team.

That brings us to one of the more eye-opening contracts signed this offseason when the Washington Capitals signed restricted free agent Tom Wilson to a six-year, $31 million contract extension over the weekend.

[Related: Tom Wilson cashes in with $31 million extension]

Reactions to that signing have been … mixed.

On one hand, that is a ton of money to invest in a player that has scored more than seven goals and 23 points in a single season once in five years, a fact that has made it a highly scrutinized deal from an analytical perspective.

On the other hand, there is this the intangible side of the argument that has come out of Washington, where the things Wilson does well don’t always show up on a stat sheet and that he was a part of a Stanley Cup winning team this past season.

Or that he might inflict a lot of pain on you…

Honestly, I would not want to go into the corner against any player in the NHL, but that fact alone does not mean it is smart to pay every player more than $5 million per season over the next six years in a hard-capped league, especially when my team already has several big-money players on the roster.

This is part of the “intangible” argument that gets thrown around in contracts like this. We have seen it and heard it a hundred times.

There used to be literal shouting matches over players like Dave Bolland when he played in Toronto, and then collective confusion (and even more yelling) when he signed for $27 million over five years in Florida. Eventually, his contract became one of the many to buried in Arizona when it did not work out.

When Edmonton spent big money on players like Milan Lucic and Kris Russell in recent years the defense of those contracts wasn’t about the offense they could provide or the tangible production they would give the Oilers, but more about intangible things like protecting Connor McDavid or being gritty and tough to play against. Just a couple of years into those contracts they already look like bad investments for an Oilers team that is pressed against the cap ceiling without any consistent success on the ice to show for it.

The thing about players like Bolland and Lucic is that at one point in their careers they were players that did provide tangible results. Their contracts backfiring had more to do with paying too much for players at the wrong point in their careers and for the wrong reasons.

All of this brings us back to Wilson’s contract. I get the argument that he is still reasonably young, and that maybe the Capitals are finally figuring out how to use him by giving him a real role with good players instead of burying him on the fourth line and sending him out to rattle cages for 10 minutes a night. As I wrote on Friday when Wilson signed his contract, maybe his game continues to evolve and he produces more. Fact is, though, there really isn’t a player in the NHL right now that has signed a contract like this with the sort of production he has put on paper.

That makes it a contract worth evaluating a little more critically, especially when much of the argument for it is based on things we can not easily see.

Taking a deeper dive into this, I went back over the past 10 years and looked at forwards that signed larger, big-money contracts that did not necessarily match their level of production. Specifically, I looked at players that had played at least 300 games in the NHL and averaged less than 0.45 points per game (less than a 35-point pace over 82 games) at the time of their contract signing.

It is a group that includes Wilson’s new deal.

Here are the biggest contracts in that group (at least four years in length, worth at least $3.5 million per season), ranked by largest salary cap hit.

Look at that list, and then ask yourself this question: How many of them would you say have worked out favorably for the team that signed them?

  • Clarkson, Bickell, and Beleskey have already traded or dumped by the teams that originally signed them.
  • Sutter and Abdelkader have no-trade clauses as part of their deals. Given Detroit’s salary cap situation Abdelkader’s deal looks especially problematic. He is 31 years old, still has five years remaining, and over the past two years has scored a grand total of 20 goals in 140 games.
  • Shaw and Clutterbuck have no such clauses in their deals, and would it really be a surprise to see one (or both) be traded before their deals expire? Especially Clutterbuck as the Islanders have assembled a collection of fourth-line players just like him (on equally bizarre long-term contracts).
  • Upshall is the only player on that list that, as of now, played out the entire contract with the team that signed him.

Aside from the group shown above, there were another 22 players with similar stat lines that signed contracts of at least four years in length (Paul Gaustad shows up twice on this list because he actually signed two such contracts, one in Buffalo and one in Nashville).

How did that group turn out?

  • Two of those contracts (the Jay Beagle/Antoine Roussel duo in Vancouver) are starting this season.
  • Four players (Zack Smith, Casey Cizikas, Derek Dorsett, and Dale Weise) are still with the team that signed them … for now.
  • Five players played out the entire contract with the team that signed them.
  • Ten players either had their contracts bought out or traded before the end of them. In many cases within the first two years of signing the contract.

The point here isn’t to downplay defensive play, or penalty killing, or any number of intangible things that go into a player or a team, because there is value to them. But the thing that stands out about a lot of these players that were given contracts based largely on those things we can’t see is that in many cases those teams quickly realized they maybe weren’t worth the big dollar numbers and either traded them or moved them out, either to dump salary or give that salary to players that, quite simply, produced more.

Perhaps the simplest way to put all of this: Pay big money for what you can see. Not what you can not.

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.

Sean Couturier returned and helped save the Flyers’ season

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PITTSBURGH — After four straight blowouts to open their first-round series, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers finally played a close game on Friday night. Thanks to a goalie switch that saw Michal Neuvirth replace Brian Elliott, and a couple of smaller lineup changes, as well as the return of one of their best players — Sean Couturier — the Flyers were able to keep their season alive with a 4-2 win to force a Game 6 in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon. (3 p.m. ET, NBC).

Couturier missed Game 4 due to a lower-body injury, but was able to return to the lineup on Friday to play the role of hero, scoring the game-winning goal with 1:18 to play in the third period.

The goal came after the Penguins were sloppy with the puck in their own zone and failed to clear on two different occasions, allowing the puck to come to a wide open Couturier at the blue line. From there, he fired a long-distance shot that deflected off of Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin and into the back of the net.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Given that he was limited to just 16:55 of ice-time and did not play on the power play at all, it was pretty clear that he was not anywhere close to 100 percent. Just consider that during the regular season he averaged more than 21 minutes per game and was playing more than 24 minutes in the first three games of the series. He refused to say after the game how he was feeling (he was twice asked to put a percentage on it and refused both times) but it was obviously enough to make an impact in what was to this point the biggest game of the Flyers’ season.

“I was just trying to take it one shift at a time, win your one-on-one battles, keep it simple,” Couturier said when asked what his mindset was. “Don’t want to overdo things or overthink the game. That was kind of the mentality I had, just keep it simple, keep my shifts short, make sure I was ready to go and fresh for the next shift.”

While his game-winning goal will be the moment that everybody remembers until puck drop on Sunday, it was his play on the penalty kill — and the Flyers’ penalty kill as a whole — that was probably the difference in the game.

Heading into this series the special teams matchup was going to be an important one to watch because the Penguins had the NHL’s best power play during the regular season. The Flyers, conversley, had one of the league’s worst penalty kills. Throughout the first four games when the Penguins power play clicked — and when the Flyers gave them ample opportunity to allow it to click — the Penguins won decisively.

On Friday, it most definitely did not click. And just as was the case in Game 2, the Flyers were able to win based on the strength of that penalty kill.

More than 40 percent of Couturier’s ice-time on Friday night came with the Flyers shorthanded. During that time he helped the Flyers not only go a perfect 5-for-5, but also score a shorthanded goal and completely shut down the Penguins’ power play, limiting the unit to just four shots on goal. At one point in the second period the Penguins had a 4-on-3 power play for more than a minute-and-a-half and not only failed to score, they failed to get a shot on goal and only attempted one (it was blocked, naturally, by Couturier). Couturier was the lone Flyer forward on the ice for almost the entire situation.

“We did a good job, but they had a lot of chances,” said Couturier of the Flyers’ PK. “[Neuvirth] bailed us out a few times, and we have to be more disciplined. That is too many penalties. We put ourselves in trouble because they can take over the game when they go on the power play. It’s tough to gain momentum. Tonight we fought hard, found a way to win.”

From almost the minute he arrived in the NHL at the start of the 2011-12 season Couturier has been one of the league’s top defensive forwards, even if he wasn’t always recognized for it in awards voting. Even though it is a defensive award, it still almost always goes to a player that also has huge offensive numbers. After getting elevated to the team’s top-line this season and playing alongside Claude Giroux, he went on to have a breakout year offensively that saw him shatter all of his previous career highs, scoring 31 goals and recording 76 total points. On Wednesday, it was announced that he is, for the first time, a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s top defensive forward.

“Him being in the lineup gives a boost to everybody just because of what he means to our hockey team,” said Flyers coach Dave Hakstol. “At the end of the day it comes down to going out and doing the job. He did that. Obviously he played a few less minutes tonight than he normally does, but I thought he did a heck of a job, especially on the PK, where was a huge factor for us. His play down the stretch was great, not just on the game-winning goal.”

It was not just Couturier’s return to the lineup that made an impact for the Flyers on Friday.

Hakstol also made a number of lineup changes (Dale Weise and Robert Hagg in; Travis Sanheim and Oskar Lindblom out) including the decision to go with Neuvirth in net after he had played just 59 minutes of hockey over the past three months.

It turned out to be a huge call.

After getting horrendous goaltending in three of the first four games, Neuvirth stopped 30 of the 32 shots he faced on Friday. The two goals he did allow were not great (a bad wraparound goal to Bryan Rust; a shot through the five-hole by Jake Guentzel off the rush) but he did end up making the save of the night in the final minute of regulation, just moments after Couturier’s goal to give the Flyers the lead, when he robbed Sidney Crosby on the doorstep.

With that, a series that has been defined by blowouts and lopsided scores is now a little more interesting as the Flyers return home and look to push it to a seventh game.

If they get goaltending and penalty kill work like they did on Friday, they will.

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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.

Michal Neuvirth gets Game 5 start for Flyers; Couturier returns to lineup

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With their season on the line on Friday night the Philadelphia Flyers are making a change in goal.

Michal Neuvirth, who has played just 59 minutes of NHL hockey since Feb. 18, will get the Game 5 start in goal when they take on the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Neuvirth replaced Brian Elliott in Philadelphia’s Game 4 loss on Wednesday night after Elliott gave up three goals on 17 shots, the second time he was benched in the first four games. The Flyers have already used three goalies in this series with Elliott, Neuvirth, and Petr Mrazek all getting playing time. None of them have played well.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

When healthy Neuvirth had the best numbers out of the group during the regular season, but health has been a constant battle for him the past few years.

The other big lineup news for the Flyers on Friday will be the fact that center Sean Couturier will be returning after sitting out Game 4 with a lower body injury. He may not be 100 percent, however, given that he took pregame line rushes on the team’s third line between Scott Laughton and Wayne Simmonds. Valtteri Filppula was skating on the first line alongside Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek.

Among the other changes for the Flyers: Robert Hagg will replace Travis Sanheim on defense, while Dale Weise will play on the fourth-line instead of Oskar Lindblom.

Related: Penguins will not have Patric Hornqvist in Game 5

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Philadelphia Flyers vs. Montreal Canadiens

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Monday night, as the Montreal Canadiens host the Philadelphia Flyers at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here

PROJECTED LINES

Philadelphia Flyers
Claude GirouxSean CouturierTravis Konecny
Jordan WealNolan PatrickJakub Voracek
Oskar LindblomScott LaughtonMichael Raffl
Jori LehteraValtteri FilppulaDale Weise

Ivan ProvorovShayne Gostisbehere
Robert HaggAndrew MacDonald
Brandon ManningRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Petr Mrazek

WATCH LIVE – 7:30 p.m. ET

Montreal Canadiens
Max PaciorettyJonathan Drouin – Artturi Lehkonen
Alex GalchenyukPhillip DanaultCharles Hudon
Paul ByronJacob De La RoseBrendan Gallagher
Nicolas DeslauriersLogan ShawDaniel Carr

Victor MeteJeff Petry
Karl AlznerNoah Juulsen
TBD – Jordie Benn

Staring goalie: Charlie Lindgren