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MELTZER: Depth Chart Redux

Flyers contributor on what the Flyers changes from Free Agency really mean

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer /

On Monday, the Flyers signed three unrestricted free agent (UFA) forwards, four UFA defensemen, and a UFA goaltender with the dual purpose of bolstering the AHL's Lehigh Valley Phantoms with veteran support for a young core and for adding depth at the NHL level. 

All eight players signed on Monday have varying degrees of NHL experience in addition to their American Hockey League resumes. The signings were as follows:

- LW Andy Andreoff: 28 (2yr, 1-way, $750K AAV)
A veteran of 159 NHL regular season games and one playoff game (2016) with the LA Kings, Andreoff spent last season in the AHL with Tampa Bay's farm team in Syracuse (26 goals, 55 points, 150 PIM in 75 games).

- RW Kurtis Gabriel: 26 (1yr, 2-way, $700K AAV)
The player split last season between with New Jersey (NHL) and Binghamton (AHL). Fletcher and AGM Brent Flahr know Gabriel well, having drafted him with Minnesota 81st overall of the 2013 NHL Draft as an Ontario Hockey League over-ager.

- C Kyle Criscuolo: 27 (1-yr, 2-way, $700K AAV)
The Harvard University graduate is a native of Southampton Township in Burlington County, NJ. A small and skilled player with an outstanding work ethic, Criscuolo has posted 95 points (38 goals, 57 assists) in 174 career American Hockey League games. 

- G J-F Berube: 27 (1yr, 2-way $700K AAV)
Berube has played 34 career games in the NHL along with 168 in the AHL.

- D Nate Prosser: 33 (2yr, 2-way, $700K AAV)
The Minnesota native spent 353 of his 354-game NHL career with the Wild. Most came during Fletcher's GM tenure in Minnesota. Prosser served as the Wild's seventh defenseman for much of his career, periodically slotting into the starting six.

- D Andy Welinski: 26 (1yr, 1-way, $750K AAV)
Previously, he had spent his entire pro career in the Anaheim Ducks organization after they selected him in 83rd overall of the 2011 NHL Draft. He split the last two seasons between the Ducks (NHL) and Gulls (AHL). In his 26 NHL games with Anaheim, Welinski played third-pairing minutes (average 16:02 TOI) and chipped in one goal and three assists. 

- D Chris Bigras: 24 (2yr, 2-way, $750K AAV)
Drafted as an offensive-minded OHL defenseman by Colorado early in the second round (32nd overall) in 2013, Bigras has appeared in 46 NHL games with the Avalanche over parts of two seasons (2015-16 and 2017-18), during which time he averaged 13:31 of ice time per game with a goal and three assists. Injuries were an issue but he managed 22 points in 52 games with Hartford of the AHL.

- D Tyler Wotherspoon: 26 (2yr, 2-way, $700K AAV)
Originally a Calgary Flames second-round pick (57th overall) in 2011, the large-framed (6-foot-2, 225 pound) blueliner has spent more time in the AHL than the NHL but does have 30 NHL games with the Flames to his credit over portions of four seasons.

On Monday afternoon, Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher discussed his reasoning behind the signings, both collectively and individually. 

"Several of these players will probably move back and forth between Philadelphia and Lehigh Valley. One of the important things we were hoping to do was to provide a solid veteran cast of players to surround our talented young players that are starting their professional journey down in Lehigh Valley this year. We feel we've added a lot of good hockey players, a lot of quality people. Clearly, the depth of our organization is much better right now," Fletcher said.

Up front, the Phantoms may have up to 11 different Flyers-drafted first-year pros (Morgan Frost, Joel Farabee, Isaac Ratcliffe, Matthew Strome, Maksim Sushko), second-year pros (German Rubtsov, Connor Bunnaman, David Kase, Carsen Twarynski, Pascal Laberge) and third-year pros (Mikhail Vorobyev) vying for roster spots in 2019-20. 

Additionally, waiver-eligible fourth-year pro Nicolas Aube-Kubel may return to the Phantoms if he does not claim an NHL roster spot out of training camp and clears waivers. Fletcher specifically mentioned Andreoff as a player who will compete with Aube-Kubel and others for an opening night roster spot on the Flyers. Up front, there was an emphasis on adding some more size/physicality to the NHL/AHL system, because it was an area of perceived need. Both Andreoff and Gabriel fit that profile. 

"We have a lot of options. That's what training camps for. It's an opportunity for players to come in and show that they belong. It should be an exciting camp," Fletcher said.

Both at the NHL level and on the Phantoms, Fletcher wants to surround rising young talent with established veterans. The Phantoms-geared signings -- which also include the arrival of five-time AHL All-Star center Cal O'Reilly via two-year AHL contract and an AHL contract extension for veteran Phantoms winger Greg Carey -- mirror what Fletcher had in mind at the NHL level with the acquisitions of two veteran defensemen (Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun) and two veteran forwards (Kevin Hayes and Justin Braun) to support the likes of young NHLers such as Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, Travis Konecny, Nolan Patrick, and Oskar Lindblom.

"Make no mistake, our future success is going to depend on a large part of how far these young players do, how much they develop and that's the exciting part of the group," Fletcher said.

Many of Monday's signings were geared toward bolstering the Phantoms' blueline corps. The reason: The Flyers farm system is presently in an in-between phase from players graduating to the NHL level (Travis Sanheim, Robert Hägg, Samuel Morin and, most recently, Philippe Myers) and the next wave of defense prospects debuting in the AHL. 

Apart from returning third-year pro Mark Friedman, veteran offensive defenseman T.J. Brennan and defensive defenseman Reece Willcox, the Phantoms defense roster was in need of large-scale replenishment for next season. Prosser in particular will be called upon to take on a leadership role.

In conjunction with incumbent Phantoms starter Alex Lyon and incoming rookie Felix Sandstrom, Berube's signing is designed to give the Flyers depth in the event of injury to Carter Hart or Brian Elliott. It remains to be seen, however, how the playing time rotation will work out if every goaltender is healthy.

Said Fletcher, "With Sandstrom, our goal is to get him a lot of games. We'll find a path for him. I don't think the goal for Sandstrom was to be a backup goalie in Lehigh Valley. He hasn't played a lot of games the past three seasons. We needed to develop him, but we used eight goalies at the NHL level last year. We just thought it would be prudent to bring in J.F. and we now have four guys that are quality professional goaltenders. All four of them have played games in the NHL. I just think we're in a better position to deal with any uncertainties that may come our way next season."

In the broader picture, both at the NHL and AHL level, Fletcher has said that the continued emergence of young talent -- the overriding goal of the previous regime -- remains one of his primary goals as well. In order to give the young players the best possible chance to succeed, Fletcher felt it was vital to situate them properly in the lineup with veteran support. 

"It's how we develop the young players going forward and not just the first-year players down in Lehigh Valley, but also the young players we have on the NHL roster. That will be a major determining factor in whether we can win a Stanley Cup. We have some high-end talent. We not only have to slot them properly but surround them properly and to create the best environment possible, not only to develop them but to win games," Fletcher said.

With the exception of the seven-year contract signed by the 27-year-old Hayes, all of the Flyers recent acquisitions will have their current contracts expire within the next two seasons. Fletcher said on Monday that this aspect factored into this thinking. While the current off-season focus is now on getting the organization's remaining restricted free agents -- Provorov, Konecny, Aube-Kubel and the arbitration-eligible Scott Laughton -- under contract, Fletcher said he also has an eye on future off-seasons.

"We have two RFAs next summer [Patrick and Lindblom] and two more the summer after that [Hart, and Sanheim again]. Those are top young players that our staff has worked hard to draft and develop. They are high priorities for us. You have to be mindful of your future obligations when you go through a day like [July 1]," Fletcher said.

The GM did not totally rule out the possibility of one of Frost, Farabee or Ratcliffe making the NHL team out of camp with a potential spot available in the top nine of the forward rotation. He also mentioned Rubtsov and Vorobyev as players in the mix in camp come September. However, it would take a stellar preseason from one of these players to start out in Philadelphia rather than Allentown.

Fletcher declined to speculate on when Konecny and Provorov will be signed but said there is sufficient cap space to get all of the remaining RFAs signed by the end of the summer. He is willing to consider both long-term arrangements that carry heftier immediate cap hits but could be long-term money savers and shorter-term bridge deals (ala Sanheim's recent two-year deal) that are cheaper now but may set the player up for a more lucrative payday down the road.

Apart from negotiating with the Flyers' own RFAs, Fletcher pledged to continue to scouring the NHL free agent and trade markets. At present, he said, there is nothing close on either front but that could change. 

Added Fletcher: "I don't foresee another move as we get closer to camp, but there are a lot of teams that are going to have significant challenges this summer. I don't think I've ever seen this many teams over the cap or at the cap. That's when you factor in future signings that they have to make here with their RFAs and to fill out their roster. There could be opportunity [to add a player of value who is another team's salary cap casualty]."

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