While many other Eastern Conference rivals have been active in free agency or trades, Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher has been asking fans for patience.
Considering the quality team he put together last season, he deserves it.
When Fletcher did make a relatively big move Monday, it appeared he settled by signing free agent Erik Gustafsson, a puck-moving defenseman who will help the power play but is regarded as only a so-so defensive player. He seems similar to Shayne Gostisbehere, the team’s No. 7 defenseman for most of the postseason, so it appears Fletcher is planning to trade the player they call “Ghost.”
A short time after Gustafsson was signed, Vegas traded a much better all-around defenseman, Nate Schmidt, because it needed to free cap space after it signed star defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. Dealing Schmidt was expected.
Schmidt, a top-pairing defender in Vegas, was traded to Vancouver for the bargain-basement price of a third-round draft pick in 2022. He had a 10-team no-trade clause, and it would be surprising if the Flyers were on that list.
Would the Flyers, weakened defensively because of Matt Niskanen’s surprising retirement, be better off this season with Schmidt instead of Gustafsson? Absolutely. But next year’s expansion draft, no doubt, figured into the equation — and that makes things a little cloudy. That and Schmidt’s contract, which has five years left and has an annual $5.95 million cap hit.
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Defensive plans disrupted
When Niskanen retired, he disrupted the Flyers' 2020-21 plans. He was solid during the regular season and stabilized his partner, Ivan Provorov, on the team’s No. 1 defensive pairing.
He was the only player on the team who had won a Stanley Cup, and he brought a quiet sense of confidence that permeated through the team. The Flyers defense improved from 29th in 2018-19 (3.41 goals per game allowed) to seventh this season (2.77).
Some of that was because of Carter Hart. (The previous year, injuries and ineffectiveness caused them to use an NHL-record eight goalies.) And some of it was because of Niskanen’s toughness, smart play, and veteran leadership.
Schmidt would have fit nicely in Niskanen’s role. Ditto Pietrangelo (he was too expensive) or T.J. Brodie, who signed a four-year free-agent deal with Toronto for $20 million.
Kevin Shattenkirk and Justin Schultz were also attractive options. But Shattenkirk signed a three-year contract with Anaheim that carries a $3.9 million annual cap hit, and Schultz signed with Washington for two years ($4 million cap hit).
Fletcher apparently was looking for someone who wanted only a one-year deal, and Gustafsson (one year, $3 million) fit the bill. Hence, it is likely that Gustafsson will be exposed in the expansion draft next year, and that the Flyers will use the option that allows them to protect three defensemen (likely Provorov, Phil Myers and Travis Sanheim), seven forwards and a goalie.
If Fletcher had acquired Schmidt (or signed another quality defenseman), he probably would have wanted to protect him next summer in the expansion draft. He could have done that by using Option No. 2, which permits a team to protect nine players: eight skaters (any combination of forwards and defensemen), plus a goalie.
But the second option figured to leave Oskar Lindblom and Nolan Patrick exposed, and the Flyers probably would have lost one of them to Seattle.
Then again, Fletcher could have tried making a deal with Seattle and given the Kraken, say, a draft pick not to take Lindblom or Patrick.
Bottom line: Did Fletcher worry too much about the expansion draft at the expense of weakening the defense next season?
Maybe. Or maybe he has a deal or two up his sleeve. Or perhaps Gustafsson (six goals, 29 points, minus-9 last season) reverts back to his 17-goal, 60-point form of two years ago and makes defensive strides.
Fletcher wasn’t available Monday, so it’s unknown if the team plans to put Gustafsson on the top pairing. My guess is that Myers is given the first crack to be on the No. 1 pairing with Provorov, and Gustafsson replaces Myers on the second pairing with Travis Sanheim.
As things now stand, here is how the Flyers lineup might be constructed:
Line 1: Sean Couturier centering Oskar Lindblom and Travis Konecny.
Line 2: Kevin Hayes centering Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek.
Line 3: Nolan Patrick centering James van Riemsdyk and Joel Farabee.
Line 4: Scott Laughton centering Michael Raffl and Nic-Aube Kubel.
Extra: Linus Sandin/Connor Bunnaman.
Defense: Ivan Provorov and Phil Myers; Travis Sanheim and Erik Gustafsson; Robert Hagg and Justin Braun.
Extra: Shayne Gostisbehere/Mark Friedman.
The above lines assume Lindblom and Patrick are 100% healthy. If Patrick isn’t ready, Laughton would probably move to 3C and Morgan Frost would be a candidate at 4C. If Lindblom isn’t 100%, Giroux could go back to the top line — he might be there anyway — and the other lines would be scrambled. Farabee could go from right wing to left wing, and it might open a spot for a player such as Sandin to make the team.
Sandin, a 6-foot-1, 209-pound right winger, is off to a good start in the Swedish Hockey League this season, collecting five points, including two goals, in the first seven games. Sandin, 24, finished tied for third in the league last season with 19 goals.
Things to know
GM Chuck Fletcher had a busy day Monday. Before landing Gustafsson, he signed fourth-round draft selection Zayde Wisdom, a promising power forward, to an entry-level deal.
The Flyers took a small but quick defenseman in the second round of the draft.
The Flyers went heavy on forwards in the NHL draft. Here are capsules on their selections.
Tyson Foerster, a “shoot-first” right winger with a wicked shot, was the Flyers' top pick.
From the mailbag
Are the Flyers going to pick up a top-six forward in free agency? Players like (Mike) Hoffman and (Anthony) Duclair are out there. — Brian Regan
Answer: Thanks for the question, Brian. They could use either one, but the cap space is down to about $5.7 million after they signed Gustafsson — and they still need to sign Patrick and Myers. I’d like to see them grab Duclair, and I was extremely surprised Ottawa didn’t give him a qualifying offer. Duclair, who can play either wing, is young (25) and coming off an All-Star season in which he scored a career-high 23 goals, and the Flyers could use his speed, especially after losing Tyler Pitlick to free agency.
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