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June 30, 2016

Flyers free agency primer: Can Hextall improve the forward depth?

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Following a surprising successful season that saw the Philadelphia Flyers make a late postseason push under rookie head coach Dave Hakstol, there’s still plenty of work to be done by general manager Ron Hextall and the rest of the front office if the organization hopes to be Stanley Cup contenders in the near future.

With a farm system that could potential ease some of Hexy’s Burden by injecting some youth, especially on the blue line, during the upcoming season — see: Shayne Gostisbehere, 2015-16 — the Flyers will likely focus any long-term acquisitions on forwards. But as we’ve seen in the past, Hextall isn’t afraid to add guys that don’t necessarily fill a certain need, assuming he sees value in the deal.

Will the Flyers make a big splash like we became accustomed to during the Paul Holmgren era? Or will they stay relatively quiet, as they did in each of the last two summers under their new leadership? 

We'll examine that and more as we preview the Flyers outlook during free agency.

Committed Salary, Cap Space

Compared to all of the crazy NBA minutiae, hockey’s hard cap is a breeze. For the 2016-17 season, it will be set at $73 million. According to General Fanager, the Flyers currently have 17 players under NHL contracts next season at $61,071,666. They are, in descending order of salary:

Forwards (9): Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Sean Couturier, Wayne Simmonds, Matt Read, Michael Raffl, Scott Laughton, Chris VandeVelde, and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare

Defenseman (6): Mark Streit, Andrew MacDonald (yikes), Michael Del Zotto, Radko Gudas (new extension), Nick Schultz, and Shayne Gostisbehere

Goalies (2): Steve Mason and Michal Neuwirth

That number includes R.J. Umberger’s buyout total. If we do some simple math, that means the Flyers have $11,928,334 in space. Unlike their co-tenants, the Flyers have to worry a little bit about keeping their own free agents. The other day, the team extended qualifying offers to five restricted free agents. 

From here, the three RFAs to keep an eye on are Brayden Schenn (the biggie), Nick Cousins, and Brandon Manning. Of the unrestricted free agents, Ryan White will probably be back, which means “The Untouchables” line should live on. Here’s what Hextall thinks all of this will cost (per Sam Carchidi):

Based on the expected cost to re-sign his own free agents, Hextall figures to have between $3 million and $4 million to spend on another team's free agent. He said that when he's done spending, he hopes to have about $2 million in cap space for emergency purposes.

Potential targets

Troy Brouwer, RW: He’ll be 31 at the start of next season so he’s not exactly the team’s long-term answer at forward. He’s a physical winger, but not quite the prolific scorer Hextall should be looking to add. He carried a $3.66 million cap hit in 2015-16 with St. Louis, one that’s expected to go up when he signs a new deal this summer, wherever that may be.

Andrew Ladd, LW: A late-season acquisition by the Blackhawks last year, Ladd finished the year with 46 points (25 G, 21 A) in 78 games. He would certainly fit what the Flyers are looking for, assuming the price is right ($4.4M cap hit in 2015-16). And the fact that he’s won a pair of Stanley Cups can’t hurt. The down side? His 46 points last year were his fewest in a full season since 2007-08. That being said, he did score 25 goals, the third most in his career and most since 2011-12, when he scored 28.

David Backes, C: He’s spent his entire decade-long career in St. Louis, so it’s difficult to envision him leaving. It’s even more difficult to see him landing with the Flyers if he does. At 32, he’s likely too old for Hextall to feel comfortable giving him the kind of deal (specifically in terms of its length) that Backes would want.

Jamie McGinn, LW: McGinn’s a younger and cheaper option for the Flyers. He’ll be 28 when the season starts and is coming off a season in which he set a career high in goals (22) and points (39), despite splitting time between the Sabres (63 games played) and the Ducks (21 games).

GM’s past history

Since taking over the reins from Holmgren in 2014, Hextall has been up against the cap. He signed a pair of defenseman in Nick Schultz and Michael Del Zotto to one-year contracts that first year, both solid moves. Last offseason, Hextall’s main free agent signing was Michal Neuvirth for two years, a home run. So…

Hextall’s major moves have mostly been about locking up the Flyers core to extensions, and with Schenn this summer, that shouldn’t change. Thanks to the GM's shrewd work, the Flyers have a little cap space. Just don’t expect Hextall to use much of it on free agents.

Complicating factors

When it comes to promoting his prospects, Hextall prefers to be conservative. Even so, he has interesting decisions to make with a couple of his top young players: If Ivan Provorov or Travis Konecny aren’t in the NHL next year, they have to play in juniors, a level they both seem to have mastered.

Of the two, Provorov feels like a safer bet to make the roster out of training camp. Konecny was very impressive at times during last year’s preseason, but a repeat performance still might not be enough. If the Flyers do target a free agent forward and also re-sign Schenn/White/Cousins, the numbers would seem to make it difficult for Konecny.

Recommended strategy

The smartest move for the Flyers this summer is to take care of their own. It’s not the sexiest option, but it may be the most effective. 

They’re not going to be able to sign a younger, more talented free agent than Schenn, who is just 24 and is coming off a career year in Philly. And for the price, they’d be smart to re-sign Cousins and White as well.

If for some reason they opt to let Schenn go (which we don’t realistically see happening anyway), they’ll have much more than $3-4 million to spend on free agents. But assuming everything goes to plan with their own RFA’s, there’s no need for Hextall to make a big splash in free agency. He avoided that pitfall last season, and was able to get great value in Neuvirth. It’s all about being able to land the right guys, not the biggest names. And that’s what the Flyers front office should be focused on this year as well. 

With the prospects they have in their system, they shouldn't hand out any long-term deals to aging players, especially with the current up-and-down system Hakstol utilizes. We saw the complications of that last season with guys like Vinny Lecavalier

The Flyers aren’t far from contending, but doing so will become much more difficult if they fail to spend wisely.

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