“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said the other day about trying to transform the cap-strapped team he inherited four years ago and molding it into a Stanley Cup contender.
He’s right, of course.
Under Hextall’s patient watch, the Flyers have inched closer to being relevant in May. Maybe in a couple years, if hot-shot goaltender Carter Hart is as good as he has looked on the junior level (sorry to put the pressure on you, kid), they may even be relevant in June.
But I’m jumping too far ahead. Way too far. Let’s look at the here and now before getting too excited about what prospects such as Hart, center Morgan Frost, winger Wade Allison, et al. will bring down the road to this Cup-starved franchise.
Despite a first-round playoff exit in which they were embarrassed on their home ice by an opportunistic-but-flawed Penguins team, there are positive vibes surrounding the Flyers right now.
They have a good blend of proven veterans and on-the-rise youngsters, and that helped them produce the league’s fifth-most points from Dec. 4 until the end of the season.
Their farm system is rated as one of the NHL’ best, and several top prospects are close to reaching The Show.
And, so, yes, the Flyers — who haven’t won a Stanley Cup since Gerald Ford was in the White House and gas was 57 cents a gallon — seem on the verge of being able to compete with the big boys. That is especially true if Hextall has a productive summer — and I’m not even talking about the draft, which has been the highlight of his four years as general manager.
Finally, some cap space
Put the draft aside for a moment. This will be the most important summer of Hextall’s tenure because of another reason: Thanks to some shrewd moves, he has cleaned up the cap mess he was handed when given the keys to run the franchise in 2014.
Hextall finally has significant cap space and can sign a big-ticket free agent if he so desires. He has “free rein” to spend as he sees fit, club president Paul Holmgren said.
But will he? Should he?
First, realize this: In the front office, Hextall is a conservative sort. He is the anti-Ed Snider (bless his Stanley Cup-or-bust soul). He is the opposite of the person who displayed a reckless on-ice demeanor when he was Wild Man Goalie back in the day.
Is it time for him to get a little more daring in the front office? Time to pursue a big-ticket free agent such as center John Tavares or defenseman John Carlson?
Well, it’s complicated. It depends on whether he signs Wayne Simmonds to an extension, deals him, or keeps the right winger for just the last year of his contract. When healthy, Simmonds is one of the league’s best power forwards.
It may also depend on whether he signs Ivan Provorov and/or Travis Konecny to extensions this summer — they can become restricted free agents after next season.
All of that will figure in the cap and will affect how much Hextall thinks he can spend for this year and beyond.
“Do they fit in what we’re doing? Do they fit in terms we can afford?” said Hextall, referring to free agents in general and not specifically Tavares or Carlson. “There’s a lot of digging we have to do prior to making those decisions.”
Added Hextall: “We’re improving and we want to do what we can to make our team better. If there’s something there that makes sense, short-term and long-term, we’ll certainly look long and hard at it.”
The cap, which was at $75 million this season, is expected to rise to around $80 million for 2018-19. Before signing restricted free agents Robert Hagg and Taylor Leier, the Flyers will have about $25.5 million in cap space (using the $80 million figure) if they buy out Jori Lehtera. If they don’t buy out Lehtera — Hextall said he was leaning that way, for some reason — they would have about $22 million in cap room.
Let’s assume goalie Brian Elliott, who is serviceable and is a bridge to Hart, is healthy next season. That leaves the Flyers with two major offseason needs: a third-line center and a veteran defenseman.
And, remember, the Penguins’ strength is down the middle, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Derrick Brassard.
And, so, a lineup that has Tavares, Sean Couturier, and Nolan Patrick would match up well with Pittsburgh’s — and would obviously be much more formidable than if Val Filppula was re-signed or Scott Laughton was promoted to the third center spot.
My guess is that Hextall kicks the tires on Tavares, decides he’s too expensive, and signs a mid-level free-agent center — say, Paul Stastny (16 goals, 52 points), who would help the penalty kill, or Riley Nash (15 goals, 41 points) — to buy time for Frost to fill out and develop. That would save money that will eventually be used on signing Konecny and Provorov. And maybe Simmonds. (If Simmonds is dealt, Michael Grabner, a speedy right winger and penalty killer, might enter Hextall’s free-agent wish list.)
Which brings us back to another glaring need: an upgrade on defense.
If you watched the Penguins shred the Flyers for an average of six goals per game in their four playoff wins, you know Hextall can’t go into the season with the same defensive group.
Yes, the young defensemen will improve with age, and Sam Morin figures to be here next season and will provide some much-needed physicality in front of the net.
Still, an upgrade is needed. The third pairing — Radko Gudas and Brandon Manning — struggled mightily, and Shayne Gostisbehere had a terrific regular season but was exposed in the playoffs.
Manning won’t be back, and Gudas, whose physicality was muted after an early-season suspension, might be dealt or have a lesser role (seventh D-man?) next season.
Carlson, Jack Johnson, Toby Enstrom, Ian Cole, and Thomas Hickey are among the free-agent defensemen available. Or maybe Hextall packages Simmonds and a young defenseman and acquires a proven defender in a deal.
Hextall has done a great job drafting and making trades that netted draft picks and cleared cap space, but he has fared poorly in the free-agent market (among his signings: Dale Weise, Boyd Gordon, and Roman Lyubimov). And he has not acquired any NHL players in trades who have made a major impact, though he did obtain a draft pick that turned out to be Konecny.
Whether through trades or free agency or a combination of both, it’s time for Hextall to add some key players this summer who will keep his retooling headed in the right direction.
If not, the “it doesn’t happen overnight” refrain will start to sound old.