During a succession of meetings in May and June of last year – in those halcyon, pre-COVID-19 days when a meeting was more than just a two-hour stare at a Hollywood Squared computer screen – Paul Holmgren sat in a room at the Flyers’ headquarters in Voorhees with general manager Chuck Fletcher, assistant GM Brent Flahr, and the team’s pro scouting staff, all of them considering the questions that would chart the course of the franchise’s future. Written on a white markerboard were the names of three players already on the Flyers’ roster who would or could play center: Sean Couturier, Nolan Patrick, Claude Giroux. That third name was the source of some discussion.
There was already universal agreement in the room that the first concern of the offseason was to improve the Flyers’ defense, preferably by adding at least one experienced, righthanded-shooting defenseman to balance the roster’s alignment at that position. That prioritizing eventually led Fletcher to trade for two such players: Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun. But the Flyers also wanted to increase their depth at center. “We really needed to solidify up the middle,” Fletcher said in a phone interview Thursday, “almost like in baseball.”
Giroux’s point total had dropped for three consecutive seasons before a move to left wing in 2017 had revitalized him. So, as Fletcher and the other members of the brain trust saw it, they had a choice. They could move Giroux back to center and pursue the most prized player on that summer’s free-agent market: left wing Artemi Panarin. “That was a name that was talked about” in the room, said Holmgren, who stepped down as the Flyers’ president a year ago. Or, they could keep Giroux at left wing and instead acquire another center. Because, just two months earlier, Fletcher had hired Alain Vigneault as head coach, the logical target was Kevin Hayes, who had played for Vigneault for four years with the Rangers.
“The idea was that Claude was a better option moving forward for the Flyers on the wing,” Holmgren said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Everybody thought there was a little more comfort with G on the wing than at center, even though I think he’s a pretty good center, too. They made the decision, and obviously a lot of things had to fall into place.”
Those things did. Fletcher traded for Hayes’ rights and signed him to a seven-year, $50 million contract – a contract that Hayes has done his best to validate with his leadership and excellent all-around play. If there is one example that demonstrates how deftly Fletcher has handled his difficult mission as the Flyers’ GM, the Hayes acquisition does.
Maybe, had Panarin considered the Flyers a viable destination and had they managed to sign him, they would have ended up in the same place they are now: entering the playoffs as one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference. Panarin has been spectacular for the Rangers – 32 goals and 95 points in 69 games, a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP. Hell, maybe the Flyers would have been better this season with him. Maybe. But signing Panarin carried its own risks, and to his credit, Fletcher was astute enough to see that those unintended consequences could have threatened to undermine the good work that his predecessor, Ron Hextall, had already done.
Consider: The Rangers signed Panarin for the same length of time that the Flyers signed Hayes: seven years. Panarin’s contract, however, is much more expensive; it’s worth $81.5 million. That’s a difference of $4.5 million in annual salary-cap space between his contract and Hayes'. One could argue that Panarin’s skill and dynamism would have been worth it, and in another era of Flyers decision-making, they might have paid that premium cost and dealt with the consequences later.
Fletcher, though, was careful not to compromise the Flyers’ future for the sake of their present. Yes, he traded three draft picks in the Braun and Hayes acquisitions, but he recovered three picks at the NHL draft and during the regular season.
“Our goal is certainly not to sacrifice the future at all,” he said. “We want to keep building.”
To that end, Fletcher and the Flyers derived some important benefits from signing Hayes that Panarin’s presence and price wouldn’t have afforded them. In Hayes, they got a player who filled several important roles: a second-line center, 6-foot-5 with a rugged and edgy style of play, a terrific penalty-killer who was capable of scoring 20-30 goals in a season. Giroux remained at left wing, the position where he has been his most productive since turning 30. And they retained enough cap space to address other needs.
This season, the $4.5 million that they didn’t spend on Panarin allowed them to trade for Braun, whose cap hit was $3.8 million. In the years ahead, that $4.5 million worth of wiggle room might come in handy when it is time to sign one of the young, home-grown players already on the roster – Carter Hart? Travis Sanheim? Phil Myers? – to a multi-year contract. You never know. It might be the difference between keeping such a player and having to let him go.
“Hexy did a great job in stockpiling things,” Holmgren said. “He obviously did a great job with the draft. There are a lot of pieces here right now who came through Hexy’s hard work at the draft. Chuck’s track record has been that he can walk both sides. That’s what he’s done with us. He looked at the picture of what was there, and then he filled in the blanks of his vision. How do we get from Point A to Point B without disrupting that picture?
“Just from talking to him, I guarantee he looked at things and said, ‘If I can do this, this, this, and this, we can really speed up the process here.’ In my opinion, it’s really worked out well.”