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Offseason Agenda: Flyers Free Agents

Chuck Fletcher discussed how the flat cap will create challenges for NHL teams

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer

For the next three seasons, the National Hockey League's salary cap ceiling and floor are likely to remain flat. In his Exit Day media availability on Thursday, Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher discussed how the flat cap will create challenges for many teams, including Philadelphia, to do much maneuvering to fill needs via unrestricted free agency while also ensuring that notable internal restricted agents coming off their entry-level deals are appropriately compensated in their next contracts.

"There's a lot of teams right now that don't have cap space already. The teams that do have cap space over the next three years, every one of them has some young players that are going to get raises, potentially big raises. Teams that spend money on UFA's this summer and have young players aren't necessarily going to have any more money in year two and year three," Fletcher said.

"Eventually by the time you get to year three, how much liquidity is there really going to be in the system? It's going to be tight for everybody. Does that mean prices come down on free agents? Does that encourage more hockey trades, dollar for dollar trades? Possibly. I think that from a logical standpoint, that could make sense, but we'll see. There's several teams worse off than we are. We're one of a group of teams that has enough room to do our business but not a ton of room. Then there's a handful of teams that do have some room. Some of them may not even spend at the cap, depending on the realm of their internal situations. There's not a lot of liquidity in the system at all, so it's going to be interesting to see how it plays out."

For these reasons, Fletcher said that he does not anticipate the Flyers being aggressive in going after the biggest names in the unrestricted free agent market in the near future. That does not mean the situation could not change or that he would not look for potentially beneficial UFAs who are available at team-friendly terms. 

In terms of the trade market, Fletcher said that he plans to work the phones and see what opportunities exist. Trades, of course, also carry salary cap implications both in the average annual value (AAV) being absorbed or divested and in the remaining term on the deal(s) in question. This can also affect flexibility to pursue unrestricted free agents.

Here's a look at the Flyers' own free agents this offseason, both restricted and unrestricted. We have also noted which RFAs are eligible to file for salary arbitration.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS 

Oskar Lindblom: In July, Lindblom and the Flyers proactively agreed to a three-season extension for the 2020-21, 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons. The new deal will increase his cap hit to $3 million per season. His entry-level contract, including signing and performance bonuses, carried a maximum $1.14 million AAV. Lindblom will be an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent in the summer of 2023.

 

Nolan Patrick: Under Collective Bargaining Agreement rules, Patrick was credited with a year of NHL service time in 2019-20, although he spent the entire final season of his entry-level contract on injured reserve while dealing with chronic migraine syndrome. In Patrick's case, there are two considerations this offseason: his health and availability to play next season and, correspondingly, figuring out the term and AAV of his next contract.

Fletcher provided updates on both fronts on Friday.

In terms of Patrick's current health status, Fletcher said, "Nolan's feeling better. He's skating. He's working out. He's golfing. He's living mostly a normal life. I think he's made a lot of progress since March. Until we get him back and get him into a contact situation, it's probably going to be hard to know exactly when he'll be ready to go. He continues to improve. Yes, I'm counting on him playing at some point in 20-21. We don't even know when we're going to start the 20-21 season. Time is certainly on his side in that regard. He continues to make progress and I continue to be optimistic."

Regarding Patrick's contract negotiations, Fletcher said that he has not yet begun the process with the player's agent, Kevin Epp of Titan Sports Management, Inc. 

"The focus right now is getting Nolan back to full health. As I noted earlier, he continues to feel better and perform more activities off the ice and on the ice, he's sleeping better, so we feel his health is improving and that's obviously been the foremost concern. I don't know if I want to get into answering that question, talking about individual contracts, but every contract has its own challenges when you're doing negotiations and that certainly makes it tougher. At this point, our goal is to get him back on the ice and get his career going. I have a lot of confidence that, if we can do that and Nolan plays to his potential, that down the road he's going to be a man that should be able to sign some nice contracts," Fletcher said.

 

Philippe Myers:  In the third and final season of his entry-level contract, Myers became a regular starter in the team's lineup and typically skated on the second defense pairing in the second half of the season and playoffs. The right-handed blueliner is not eligible for salary arbitration this season. The question is whether he is signed to a bridge deal (i.e., relatively short term, with the opportunity to become an arbitration-eligible RFA when it ends) or if the organization tries to lock him up longer-term this season. Either way, he will get a significant raise on his expiring contract, which carries a $678,889 AAV.

 

Nicolas Aube-Kubel: Aube-Kubel's speed, physical aggressiveness on the forecheck and hints of offensive capabilities enabled the fourth-year pro to dress in 36 regular season games (his first extended NHL recall after a nine-game cup of coffee the previous season) as well as 13 postseason games. Aube-Kubel was a first-time, arbitration-ineligible RFA last summer, and played on a one-year $700,000 contract in 2019-20. This summer, he is an arbitration-eligible RFA. 

 

Robert Hägg: After completing his third full NHL season, and his second NHL contract, Hägg is an arbitration-eligible RFA this offseason. He dressed in 49 regular season games and 12 of the Flyers' 16 postseason games in the Bubble after appearing in all 82 regular season games in 2018-19. His expiring deal carries a $1.15 million AAV.

 

Mikhail Vorobyev: The Russian center has completed his entry-level contract. After several short NHL stints with the Flyers the last two seasons in addition to his time in the AHL with the Phantoms, Vorobyev decided to go back to Russia. He signed a three-year deal with KHL team Salavat Yulaev Ufa, whose 2020-21 season is now underway. The Flyers will nonetheless extend a qualifying offer to Vorobyev for purposes of retaining his NHL rights.

 

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

Brian Eliott: Elliott did a commendable job as the veteran half of the Flyers goaltending tandem in conjunction with young Carter Hart. In particular, he earned some big road wins for the team during the regular season and kept the game in reach despite the Flyers' loss to the New York Islanders in Game 4 of their Second Round Series. During Thursday's Exit Day availability, Fletcher shared some thoughts on Elliott.

"Certainly he's a guy that has the respect of his teammates and the organization. We'll have a chance to sit down and talk to his agent. We've had a couple general conversations about it, and we'll continue to communicate and see what the future brings," Fletcher said.

 

Justin Braun: The veteran defenseman got off to a slow start but was a solidifying presence on the right side of the team's third defense pair as well as a steady penalty killer during the regular season. The playoffs did not nearly as smoothly for Braun as the 26-game stretch that led up to the leaguewide pause, but the same could be said for many of the players on the team.

The 33-year-old Braun's expiring contract carries a $3.8 million AAV. Regarding Braun and some of the subsequent UFAs that will be mentioned below -- including Tyler Pitlick, Derek Grant and Nate Thompson -- Fletcher was willing on Thursday to discuss their playoff performance but not ready to discuss whether they will potentially be re-signed.

"Over a thirteen game playoffs, I think every player on our team had some games better than others. That's probably the same for every team that played in the bubble. I think they did what was asked of them. They provided us depth. We'll sit down here with the coaching staff, our analytics groups and our pro scouts. We'll go through and look at what we think we need to do going forward and whether we'll extend offers to them or not. At this point, we've just told everybody to give us some time here and we'll take a week or two to decompress. We'll be prepared to make those decisions," Fletcher said.

 

Tyler Pitlick: Acquired last summer in exchange for Ryan Hartman, Pitlick brought the combination of a sturdy fame, above-average straight line speed and tenacity on the forecheck to the Flyers' third and fourth lines. He dressed in 63 of the 69 games during the regular season and chipped in 20 points. In the postseason, he appeared in all 16 games (two goals, one assist). 

Whether Pitlick is a realistic option for the Flyers to re-sign depends on what other moves Fletcher makes, organizational assessments of the NHL readiness of potential rookies and onhow the UFA market shapes up this offseason. Pitlick's expiring contract carries a $1 million AAV. The 28-year-old is the type of player who might be of re-signing interest within a narrow scope of AAV/term but might also draw interest elsewhere.

 

Derek Grant:  The 30-year-old Grant enjoyed a career-best regular season this year while playing on a one-year contract at the NHL's minimum salary ($700,000). He produced 15 goals and 25 points in a bottom six role between the Ducks and Flyers. As a Flyer, he had five points in seven games, primarily playing as the third-line center.

Unfortunately, Grant was one of the guys who wasn't able to recover in the Bubble what he had done before the pause. He struggled for much of the postseason for a handful of plays/shifts. He was scratched for Game 7 against the Islanders after dressing in each of the first 15 postseason games. 

Despite the post-pause phase not going as well as hoped, there is likely to be interest in Grant in the UFA market this offseason.

 

Nate Thompson: The veteran fourth-line center, penalty-killing and faceoff specialist dressed in all 16 of the Flyers' postseason games. He appeared in seven regular season games after the trade deadline following the Flyers' acquisition of him from the Montreal Canadiens. Thompson, who will turn 36 on Oct. 5, played the 2019-20 season on a one-year, $1 million contract.

 

Alex Lyon:  The 27-year-old Lyon has proven himself to be an above-average American Hockey League starting goaltender over the course of four seasons with the Phantoms. With the Flyers, he has been No. 3 on the depth chart for a couple years: a callup option in case of injury. He has appeared in 16 NHL games over the last three seasons, including two starts and a relief appearance for the Flyers in the regular season in 2019-20.

Lyon has made so secret of the fact that he craves an opportunity to move up an NHL depth chart, whether it's as a backup or in a tandem. His expiring contract was a one-way deal in 2019-20, paying him at the same $750,000 rate whether he was in the NHL with the Flyers or the AHL with the Phantoms. With neither the 21-year-old Kirill Ustimenko nor the 23-year-old Felix Sandström apparently ready for the No. 3 role on Philadelphia's NHL goalie depth chart, it is possible that Lyon could be re-signed or a comparable veteran with some NHL appearances under his belt could be brought in if Lyon does not go elsewhere.

 

Chris Stewart:   The well-liked and well-respected 32-year-old Stewart attended the Flyers' training camp last year as a tryout player and eventually received a contract. He appeared in 16 games for the Flyers. After clearing waivers, he dressed in six AHL games with the Phantoms. Stewart was not part of the Flyers' Phase 3 training camp or subsequent postseason roster. However, his name was in the news during the playoffs, as Flyers players sought the Hockey Diversity Alliance member's advice on what to do during the leaguewide social justice protests that resulted in the league postponing two nights of scheduled playoff games in solidarity with the recommendations of the HDA and the decisions made by pro athletes in other sports.

 

Kurtis Gabriel: An aggressive physical player on the ice and a very well-liked off-the-ice presence in the dressing room and the community, a preseason injury short-circuited Gabriel's bid to compete for an NHL opening night roster spot with the Flyers. The 27-year-old winger dressed in 53 games for the Phantoms. His one-year deal expires this offseason and he can become an unrestricted free agent.

 

ON THE HORIZON

Fletcher noted that, due to the flat salary cap, it is imperative for NHL teams to think longer-term in their salary cap planning, because year-to-year planning could get the team in trouble when currently signed players come up on RFA or UFA status in future offseasons. From a Flyers standpoint, here are the most notable upcoming free agents after the 2020-21 season.

RFAs: Carter Hart, Travis Sanheim (arbitration eligible)

UFAs: Matt Niskanen, Scott Laughton, Michael Raffl

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