Normally, the first week of the NHL’s regular season would be ending at this time and teams' rosters would be set.
But there is nothing normal about these times in a coronavirus world, and the NHL is not exempt from the changes.
So instead of early-season matchups, we won’t see hockey again until at least Jan. 1. And instead of having fairly set rosters, teams will be scrambling to make additions and major changes in the days ahead, starting Friday at noon with the opening of the free-agent market.
With a flat salary cap ($81.5 million) and the uncertainty of when fans can return to arenas and give teams much-needed revenue, general managers figure to tread carefully in the free-agent waters.
In other words, it’s not the optimal time for players to be free agents, and they aren’t expected to land as much crazy money as their predecessors.
Still, teams have needs to fill, and the Flyers are no exception.
If you watched the playoffs, you know they need another scorer. Maybe they fill the need by dealing Shayne Gostisbehere, although Travis Sanheim (for starters) would be more desired by Winnipeg in a deal for Patrik Laine, 22, a right-wing scoring machine.
Or maybe they fill their need for a scorer — and a veteran defenseman to replace the retired Matt Niskanen — through free agency.
“I’m not sure,” general manager Chuck Fletcher said when asked if he planned to be active Friday in free agency. “It’ll depend on the opportunities that are there and the prices. As I’ve mentioned before, we like our group. I think our forward group is stronger than what it was at the end of last year.”
Fletcher, of course, is assuming left winger Oskar Lindblom and center Nolan Patrick come back healthy.
As for the defense, it is considerably weaker, no matter how you spin it.
“We’ve lost Niskanen, but we still like our defensive corps,” Fletcher said, although his No. 2 pairing of Sanheim and Phil Myers struggled in the conference semifinals. “… If we can improve our team, we will, but we’re not going to spend money just to spend it. If there’s some ability to add a player on the right deal at the right cap price and the right term, we’ll do it. If not, we’ll certainly wait.”
Cream of the crop
There are many interesting defensemen who will be unrestricted free agents Friday, topped by St. Louis' Alex Pietrangelo, 30, a righthanded shooter who would give the Flyers one of the NHL’s best No. 1 pairings if he joined Ivan Provorov.
But Pietrangelo, who had a $6.5 million cap hit last season, may be too costly for the Flyers. With commitments to 18 players expected to be on the team, they have about $8.7 million in cap space and still must sign restricted free agents Patrick and Myers, who were given qualifying offers.
The list of free-agent defensemen who will be less costly than Pietrangelo includes Tyson Barrie, Torey Krug, T.J. Brodie, Justin Schultz, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Radko Gudas.
Shattenkirk, 31, who was teammates with Kevin Hayes with the Rangers, would be a nice fit. He is still productive, righthanded, and he would bring a winning pedigree, like Niskanen did. Shattenkirk had two game-winning goals against Dallas to help Tampa Bay win the Stanley Cup last month.
As for forwards, here’s an intriguing name: Andreas Athanasiou, one of the NHL’s fastest players.
And another: Anthony Duclair.
Athanasiou just became an unrestricted free agent because Edmonton did not give him a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent. He had a $3 million cap hit during a disappointing 2019-20 season: 11 goals, 26 points in 55 combined games with Detroit and Edmonton.
But he’s only 26 and is just two seasons removed from a 30-goal season, and he can play all three forward positions. The Flyers, who must decide whether they want to sign one of their three key UFAs (Tyler Pitlick, Derek Grant, Nate Thompson), should take a long, hard look at Athanasiou.
They should do the same with Duclair, 25, another speedy player who can play either wing. Stunningly, Ottawa did not give the restricted free agent a qualifying offer. Duclair had 23 goals and was an All-Star last season, when he had a $1.65 million cap hit. He plans to represent himself in negotiations.
Other free-agent wingers of note: Mike Hoffman (29 goals), Tyler Toffoli (24 goals), Evgenii Dadonov (25 goals), Craig Smith (18 goals), Derick Brassard (10 goals), Mikael Granlund (17 goals and a connection to Fletcher from their Minnesota days), Vladislav Namestnikov (17 goals), and Alex Galchenyuk, a onetime 30-goal scorer, among others. Bobby Ryan, a Cherry Hill native, is available and is a long shot for the Flyers, though he has close ties with Fletcher and club executive Bob Clarke.
Fletcher hinted he will be patient in free agency, which isn’t expected to have as many quick signings because of teams' poor economic conditions.
“I think there will be opportunities along the way to address whatever needs we feel we need to address,” Fletcher said.
Shattenkirk and Duclair or Athanasiou would be very good fits for the Flyers. Convincing them to come here and fitting them under the cap will be the challenging part.