Flyers' Ron Hextall hopes to keep momentum going in free agency

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall. (Michael Pronzato)

IN A MATTER of days, Ron Hextall turned a bleak salary-cap situation into a manageable one, and arguably made his team better in the process.

Former NHL executive and current TSN analyst Craig Button is one of many who think the Flyers general manager was one of the big winners of the draft weekend.

"You can put me in the cheering fans category," Button said in a radio interview on SportsRadio WIP yesterday afternoon. "Ron Hextall understands what a winning team looks like. He understands that you don't just go out and find players very easily."

Button added that he thinks the Flyers, who finished last year with a 33-31-18 record and 14 points shy of a playoff berth, will "absolutely" contend for the playoffs next season.

Now, how does Hextall keep the rush of positive momentum flowing when free agency opens today at noon?

Hextall has holes to fill on the roster and will need to do some more wizardry to utilize the team's remaining cap space properly. After deciding yesterday to keep forward Sam Gagner, who was acquired Saturday when the team unloaded Chris Pronger's contract and Nicklas Grossmann to Arizona, the Flyers have about $6 million of space under the league's $71.4 million salary cap.

But it isn't the worst year for the Flyers to be slightly strapped for cash. The free-agent class isn't that deep with talent and is loaded with defensemen, a position the Flyers have plenty of - especially if they re-sign restricted free agent Michael Del Zotto.

"It's not a great group," Hextall said. "Your options are minimal. It's getting more and more, I think, that teams are keeping their top core players. You see very few of them hit the market."

The Flyers still need to sign a backup goalie and add a forward. And they are likely to re-sign Del Zotto, to whom they extended a qualifying offer Monday. Hextall made it clear two weeks ago that signing Del Zotto was a priority, even if the sides have to go to arbitration.

Assuming a deal gets done with Del Zotto for somewhere in the neighborhood of a $2 million cap hit - he made $1.3 million last season - the Flyers would have about $4.5 million to spend on a goalie and another forward.

The team also brought back fourth-line center Ryan White, who tore his left pectoral muscle last summer and missed the first three months of the season. He reportedly signed a one-year, $800,000 contract.

Where the Flyers need to improve is in scoring, and those goals don't necessarily have to come on the first line from captain Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. The lack of scoring beyond that top line was a glaring hole for the Flyers in 2014-15. Hextall said he was comfortable with Michael Raffl's role on the top line, but wanted to improve the depth on the other lines, specifically alongside Wayne Simmonds.

"Typically when you have two really good forwards, you need a complement player," Hextall said. "And that's [Raffl]. So if you said, 'OK, we can add a guy there, or somewhere down [on the second or third line],' I'd rather add a guy somewhere down there because we need some more production from down in our lineup rather than from 'G' and Jake."

Gagner could take on that responsibility, but other options are out there. Players such as Matt Beleskey (Anaheim) and Michael Frolik (Winnipeg) are both 27-year-old unrestricted free agents and scored 22 and 19 goals, respectively, last season. But in a shallow pool, their price might be too high for the Flyers.

Money will still need to be available to sign a goaltender. Potential goalies the Flyers could target to back up Steve Mason include Michal Neuvirth, Peter Budaj and Josh Harding. Each would cost around $2 million or less, allowing the team to spend around $2.5 million on a second- or third-line forward.

The Flyers also could try to trade defenseman Luke Schenn and his $3.6 million cap hit to free up space to add another forward at a higher cap hit. Del Zotto would be the eighth defenseman on the roster, if he's re-signed.

Imagine what this process would have been like if Hextall hadn't made the moves he did over the weekend. Before the draft, the Flyers had around $2 million in space. Hextall said spending Ed Snider's money was much easier in the days before the salary cap.

"When the cap came in, you have to adjust and adapt," Hextall said. "That's what we're doing. Trust me, that doesn't mean we don't want to win this year, we don't want to make the playoffs. Damn right, we do. And we expect to.

"We don't want to accept mediocrity. We don't want to accept missing the playoffs. That's not what we're about. So we're going to continue that philosophy of trying to win every year."

Slap shots

A few days after drafting three goalies, the Flyers reportedly fired amateur goalie scout Neil Little . . . The Flyers announced yesterday that Jimmy Watson and Rod Brind'Amour will be inducted into the team's Hall of Fame this year . . . The team will also commemorate the retirement of Kimmo Timonen in a pregame ceremony before an Oct. 14 game with Chicago. The Blackhaws acquired him in a trade this season, then won the Stanley Cup.

On Twitter: @Jeff_Neiburg