This is the time of year when we’re usually analyzing the Flyers’ second-round playoff series. At least that’s what we’ve done for the first three years of Peter Laviolette’s tenure behind the Flyers’ bench.
This season, of course, there isn’t a second-round series to analyze. There wasn’t even a first-round series to analyze. The Flyers missed the playoffs for only the second time in the past 18 years.
We’ve already dissected the season and determined what went wrong. Young players didn’t develop as expected, defensemen didn’t move the puck well enough and the lack of a reliable backup goalie caused Laviolette to run Ilya Bryzgalov into the ground during this truncated season. And, yes, there were numerous injuries to key players.
The question today isn’t what went wrong. The question is how to improve the team to avoid a repeat of anything close to what happened this season.
Two decisions already have been made. General manager Paul Holmgren and Laviolette will return. The question is what to do with the team’s personnel.
Let’s start with the biggest offseason question: will Bryzgalov be back with the Flyers next season?
Bryzgalov’s numbers this season weren’t impressive. His goals-against average (2.79) ranked 36th in the NHL. His save percentage (.900) ranked 43rd. But his numbers must be viewed in context.
Before Steve Mason arrived at the trade deadline, there were only two games in which Bryzgalov didn’t start. Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher each started one game. It also should be noted that Bryzgalov played in front of a relatively poor defensive corps, which was often filled with AHL-quality defensemen. The quality of shots he faced was extremely high. It wasn’t as if Bryzgalov was allowing goals on 60-foot wrist shots.
If it weren’t for Bryzgalov (left), the Flyers may have been dead and buried by midseason. Unfortunately, by riding Bryzgalov so hard during the first half of the season, it appeared that the Russian wore down, perhaps more mentally than physically, and lost a little bit of his edge during the latter stages of the season.
Having said all that, Bryzgalov makes a lot of money. The Flyers signed him to a nine-year, $51 contract. That translates into a cap hit of $5.667 each season. The reduced salary cap under the collective bargaining agreement is $64.3 million, down from $70.2 million this season.
Bryzgalov’s salary takes up nearly 9 percent of next year’s salary cap. Under the new CBA, teams can use the amnesty clause to rid themselves of two contracts before the start of the 2013-14 season. (To buy out Bryzgalov would cost the Flyers $23 million, to be paid out over 14 years, but, hey, it’s not my money.)
Bryzgalov is certainly a prime candidate for the amnesty clause. He makes a lot of money and he’s a bit quirky. His personality doesn’t matter unless it rubs teammates the wrong way. I’m not in the locker room behind closed doors, so I won’t pretend to know if Bryzgalov’s teammates like or respect him.
What I do know is that I haven’t seen enough of Mason to jettison Bryzgalov. Mason looked very good in his seven games with the Flyers, posting a 1.90 goals-against average and .944 save percentage. But that’s a small sample size. Seven games aren’t enough to erase the memory of the sub-par years between Mason’s excellent rookie season (2008-09) with Columbus and his trade to the Flyers.
Recommendation: I was against the signing of Bryzgalov — or any of the goalies available that year — to a lucrative long-term contract. The Flyers’ team philosophy was that the goalie was only as good as the team in front of him. Subsequently, they would not overpay for a goalie.
With chairman Ed Snider publicly beating the drum for a top goalie, however, the Flyers altered that philosophy by throwing big money at Bryzgalov. As I believed then, and still believe now, the Flyers should not have altered their philosophy unless it was for an elite goalie, such as Henrik Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne or possibly Jonathan Quick.
Having said that, I am against using the amnesty clause for Bryzgalov — unless the Flyers can find a better option in goal. Where could they find a better option? The unrestricted free agent class is unremarkable. The Flyers could bring in Mike Smith ($2 million), the man who replaced Bryzgalov in Phoenix. The best of the restricted free agents are Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky ($1.75 million, but due for a big raise after being a Vezina Award finalist), a former Flyer, Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, and Kings goalie Jonathan Bernier. The best bet would appear to be Bernier, a 24-year-old stuck behind Quick, which means the Kings may not want to pay as much for a backup goalie as the Flyers might pay for a potential starter and, therefore, wouldn’t match the Flyers’ offer.
If the Flyers bring back Bryzgalov and Mason, Bryzgalov would only have to play 50-55 games, which should keep him from wearing down. Having two quality goalies is also an insurance policy in case either Mason or Bryzgalov gets hurt.
The ideal situation would be to bring in a younger and, hopefully, cheaper goalie such as Bernier and use the amnesty clause on Bryzgalov. But I wouldn’t do it unless the Flyers find a replacement who is definitely better. Getting out from under Bryzgalov’s contract isn’t worth having a bunch of question marks in goal for the next few years.
If Mason outplays Bryzgalov or if goalie prospect Anthony Stolarz, acquired in the Bobrovsky trade after last season, continues to develop quickly, the Flyers could try to trade Bryzgalov after one of the next two seasons. But I wouldn’t get rid of him now simply to get out from under his salary cap hit.
There were concerns about the defense entering this season. The concerns were justified.
Much of the concern surrounded veteran Kimmo Timonen. That concern turned out to be unjustified. Timonen may have lost a half-step, although that could have been partially due to the compression fracture in his foot that he played with for at least part of the season, but he was once again the deserving winner of the Barry Ashbee Award as the Flyers’ best defenseman.
The rest of the defense is another matter. As a group, the defense didn’t move the puck well enough, which resulted in the Flyers spending too much time in their own zone.
As I wrote in a Flyers Notebook in April, I don’t hold Luke Schenn or Nicklas Grossmann responsible for the Flyers’ difficulties moving the puck. I place primary responsibility on the defensemen who were supposed to move the puck well.
Let’s start with Braydon Coburn, perhaps the biggest disappointment on a team full of players who experienced sub-par seasons. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Coburn scored one goal and registered four assists in 33 games. He had a minus-10 plus/minus rating and at one point during the season led NHL defensemen in minor penalties. Coburn has three years remaining on his contract at $4.5 million per season. If the Flyers determine that Coburn, 28, will never reach his potential, they should use him as trade bait. Teams are always looking for big defensemen with speed.
Andrej Meszaros (left) also had a disappointing season, mostly due to injuries. Meszaros played just 11 games this season, registering two points and a minus-9 plus/minus rating. With two shoulder injuries this season and the 2011-12 season shortened by a back injury – with a torn Achilles tendon in between – it’s tempting to label Meszaros as injury prone. But the truth is he played in 81 or 82 games in five of his first six NHL seasons. Meszaros, 27, has one year remaining on his contract, which pays him $4 million per season.
Kurtis Foster, Andreas Lilja and Matt Walker are unrestricted free agents who likely will be allowed to walk away. Foster has a strong shot from the point, but his mobility makes him a liability in his own end. On the other hand, veteran Kent Huskins was a steadying force once he was acquired from Detroit. If the Flyers could re-sign Huskins for close to the $750,000 he made this season, he would be worth keeping around as a sixth or seventh defenseman. He’s certainly a better option than Bruno Gervais, who was exposed as a defensive liability (minus-17 in 37 games) when forced to play more than 8-10 minutes per game.
The Flyers have several young defensemen who are restricted free agents. Erik Gustafsson, Brandon Manning and Oliver Lauridsen all are restricted free agents, and the Flyers should re-sign all of them.
Gustafsson settled down as he received more playing time. It would be disappointing if he didn’t make the lineup next season. Lauridsen (6-6, 220) played well during his 15 games with the Flyers, scoring two goals, which is one more than Coburn in less than half as many games.
Recommendation: There aren’t any Shea Webers or Ryan Suters on the free agent market this season. Most of the better unrestricted free agents, such as Sergei Gonchar, are nearing the ends of their careers.
The Flyers could make a run at restricted free agents, as they did last year with Weber. The Blues’ Alex Pietrangelo (23 years old), the Jets’ Zach Bogosian (22) and the Kings’ Slava Voynov (23) are potential targets. It would normally be a no-brainer for teams to match offers to keep young defensemen, but many teams will be scrambling to get under the salary cap, so this year could be a little bit different. At the very least, the Flyers may be able to leverage a trade with a team struggling to get under the salary cap.
Timonen, Schenn and Grossmann should definitely be back. Schenn and Grossmann are physical defensemen making $3.6 and $3.5 million, respectively, for each of the next five years.
I would bring back Meszaros, who has one season left on his contract at $4 million. If healthy, he adds a different dimension to the Flyers’ defense. He moves the puck well and has a very good shot from the point, leading to deflections and rebounds. If Meszaros plays well, the Flyers can re-sign him. If he gets hurt again, the Flyers can let him walk after next season.
The Flyers should try to trade Coburn. Big defensemen who can skate as well as Coburn don’t grow on trees. If the Flyers determine he will never reach his potential, they should trade Coburn, which also would remove $4.5 million – money he certainly isn’t earning right now – from their payroll for the next three seasons.
Lauridsen (6-6, 220) doesn’t have the tools to replace what Coburn should be doing, but he looks as if he can at least match or exceed what the Flyers are getting from Coburn at a far lower price. Gustafsson also appears to be ready for a regular role in the NHL.
My projected defense for next season would be: Timonen, Schenn, Grossmann, Meszaros, Gustafsson, Lauridsen and Huskins. That’s better, but it’s still not good enough. Acquiring a mobile defenseman in a trade, possibly involving Coburn, or signing one of the young restricted free agents would provide a necessary upgrade to the defense.
Let’s start with the easy move: the Flyers should use the amnesty clause and buy out the remaining two years on Danny Briere’s contract, which pays him $6.5 million each of the next two seasons.
Briere (left) is a class act and a terrific teammate. But he scored just six goals in 34 games after scoring 16 last season. He was minus-13 in plus/minus rating, worst among the Flyers’ forwards. That production doesn’t justify one-third of Briere’s salary.
The Flyers also have several free agents who will be allowed to walk away. Mike Knuble and Jody Shelley, another pair of class acts, may retire. That’s a combined $1.75 million in salary. Ruslan Fedotenko and Adam Hall, acquired at the trade deadline may also be allowed to walk away as free agents, although Hall ($650,000) is a decent fourth-line center/wing.
The most interesting of the Flyers’ unrestricted free agents is Simon Gagne. The 33-year-old veteran appeared to have something left in the tank after being acquired from the Kings at midseason. Gagne produced five goals and six assists in 27 games after not scoring at all for the Kings. If Gagne would agree to a significantly lower salary than his current $3.5 million, the Flyers may bring him back next season.
The Flyers certainly want Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds back next season. Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier experienced sophomore slumps, but I think the Flyers want both players back next season unless they’re blown away with a trade offer. Maxime Talbot is a good value at $1.75 million, assuming he recovers from a broken leg. Matt Read, Tye McGinn, Zac Rinaldo and Jay Rosehill all make less than $1 million apiece per season, so there’s no reason to trade any of them unless their inclusion is needed to complete a trade.
One name to watch is Scott Hartnell. The engaging winger has six years remaining on his contract, with a cap hit of $4.75 million per year. Hartnell, 31, had eight goals and three assists in 32 games. If the Flyers decide Hartnell will never approach his 2011-12 season (37 goals, 30 assists) again, they may try to trade Hartnell.
The free-agent crop is not stellar. Among players 30-and-under, the best options are Devils right wing David Clarkson, (age 29, $2.67 million salary), Red Wings wing Valtteri Filppula (29, 23, $3 million), Kings wing Dustin Penner (30, $3.25 million), Rangers wing Ryan Clowe (30, $3.625 million), Bruins wing Nathan Horton (27, $4 million) and Canadiens wing Colby Armstrong (30, $1 million).
Potential targets among restricted free agents include Edmonton center Sam Gagner ($3.2 million), Penguins wing Tyler Kennedy (26, $2 million), Wild wing Cal Clutterbuck (25, $1.4 million) and Devils center Adam Henrique (23, $854,166).
The Flyers also have players such as Scott Laughton, who started last season with the Flyers, knocking on the door to make the roster.
Recommendation: This may not be a popular option with fans, but the Flyers’ success at forward depends heavily on the development of young players such as Schenn and Couturier. But that doesn’t mean there should be any changes.
I would use the amnesty clause on Briere and try to trade Hartnell. Those two moves would remove $11.25 million off the salary cap, although the players the Flyers would get in return for Hartnell would use up some of his salary space.
The following forwards/centers should return: Giroux, Voracek, Simmonds, Schenn, Couturier, Read, Talbot, Rinaldo, Rosehill. I’d like to see Gagne return at a reduced salary. The Flyers could sign Clarkson to replace Hartnell. Colby Armstrong wouldn’t be a bad third- or fourth-line addition. McGinn and Laughton should compete for roster spots as well.
The conventional wisdom is the Flyers need an overhaul. I don’t see that happening, and I’m not sure it should happen.
There aren’t many prized players in this summer’s free-agent class. That means the Flyers’ most likely method of improving is through trade. In order to trade, however, you need trading partners.
The first step is to get under the salary cap by using the amnesty clause for Danny Briere, but, unless they can pry Jonathan Bernier away from the Kings, not for Ilya Bryzgalov. The Flyers should also try to clear cap room by trading underachieving high-salaried players such as Braydon Coburn and Scott Hartnell, both of whom have multiple years remaining on their expensive contracts.
Otherwise, the Flyers must hope that their younger players, both on offense and defense, continue to develop.
Using my recommendations, the Flyers will be relatively young next season. Timonen and Huskins would be the only defenseman not in their 20s. Among the centers and wings, only Gagne would be in his 30s, and most of the players, including Giroux, Voracek and Simmonds, would be 25 or younger.
The Flyers must also keep one eye on the next offseason, when Giroux, Brayden Schenn and Couturier become restricted free agents and Matt Read becomes an unrestricted free agent. Timonen will likely retire, freeing up $6 million under the salary cap. The Flyers could also let Andrej Meszaros ($4 million) leave as an unrestricted free agent.
It should be an interesting offseason. We’ll see if the Flyers follow my plan or have something different in mind.
(Salary information courtesy of www.capgeek.com)