Once the Flyers agreed to terms with defenseman Mark Streit, it created a salary cap jam that necessitated the long-awaited buying out of Daniel Briere. It also ensured that the Flyers would have the most expensive defensive corps in the league, a mark they’ve been hovering around in both the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 seasons.
Counting Chris Pronger’s cap hit of $4,941,429, the Flyers have $33,228,929 committed to defensemen next year.
After this past season’s breakdown featuring a cadre of gesticulating lapses from the front office down to the backup goaltenders, it was a foregone conclusion that the Flyers would need to make some offseason moves, and though much-maligned starting goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov generally bears the brunt of the blame in the eyes of media outlets and fans, it was clear that significant upgrades were necessary outside the blue paint.
Enter Mark Streit, a man who was bound to be one of the prized free-agency acquisitions for a team willing to pay the right price. Streit made his name as an offensive d-man, once putting up 62 points in 81 games for Montreal. He’s also a career -52 and has only once finished a season a plus player. That’s not all on Streit; after all, he did play for some sub-par Islanders teams who didn’t make winning a habit until last season. Rumblings over his contract bemoan the length and his age (he turns 36 in the third month of the upcoming season), but why should that surprise anyone?
Over the past several seasons, the Flyers have displayed some downright filthy habits when it comes to defense. Take last offseason: The Flyers did not attempt to re-sign Matt Carle (or Jaromir Jagr) while waiting out the possibility that Ryan Suter and Zach Parise would sign in Philadelphia. This, of course, was a pipe-dream, and both free agents would go on to greener pastures. After balking at Nashville’s asking price for Shea Weber’s rights, Paul Holmgren signed him to an offer sheet that was matched. The backup plan? Bruno Gervais and Kurtis Foster. In all fairness, Holmgren did draft a bunch of defensemen and trade for Luke Schenn, but it was clear more backend help was needed, and after two swings for the fences, it seems as though he dropped the bat. Prior to this, the Nicklas Grossmann trade paid off and the Pavel Kubina trade didn’t, and between them two second round draft picks, a third round draft pick, and a fourth round draft pick were sacrificed.
Some things seem more depressing in hindsight; there’s no doubt that the acquisition of Chris Pronger provided exactly what the team needed, bringing them the closest they’ve been to a Stanley Cup since 1987, but in retrospect it might have been healthier to retain those two first round draft picks, the third round pick, Luca Sbisa and Joffrey Lupul.
Nothing over the last decade sticks out more than signing Derian Hatcher, Mike Rathje, and Chris Therien, a move that was praised at the time but ultimately led to the end for Bob Clarke and Ken Hitchcock eight games after the smaller, quicker Buffalo Sabres ran roughshod over (or around, in this case) the bigger, slower men in the 2005 playoffs.
So what’s the upshot? Put plainly, the Flyers have no idea what they’re doing when it comes to defense and haven’t for a long time. Consider that the Flyers drafted 38 defensemen in the ’90s, and the only ones who played with distinction were Chris Therien (who, coincidentally, might be the most criminally undervalued defenseman this team has ever drafted), Dmitry Yushkevich, and Janne Niinimaa. Their success was better in the 2000’s when they drafted Jeff Woywitka, Dennis Seidenberg, Joni Pitkanen, and Sbisa, but the Flyers gave up on all of them before they could hit their prime. Following the Broad Street Bullies teams of the mid-70s, I defy anyone to name a popular defenseman from Flyers lore who was not traded for or signed via free agency.
It might be natural to ask, at this point, what this has to do with Streit. Well, he’s a good player, that’s for sure, but as is the custom with this team, the Flyers overpaid to get someone else’s defenseman, which is why they smash the competition in the race to spend to the cap. Compare this to the young crop of Flyers forwards who are signed at reasonable contracts and a goaltending tandem signed for $7.1 million and it becomes clearer where the salary bloat on this team comes from.
It’s clear that Kimmo Timonen is the Flyers’ best defenseman, and since he’s retiring after this season it seems only natural that the Flyers would maintain Streit to replace him as the big man on the backend for a few years, but the financial mess could have been avoided by taking the longterm approach of, say, the Chicago Blackhawks, who studiously develop their top d-men (does it seem right to you that Streit’s cap hit is comparable to that of Duncan Keith?) and only occasionally supplement via trade or free agency.
Considering Holmgren’s track record of player development during his tenure (rearing the likes of Eric Gustafsson, Brandon Manning, Marc-Andre Bourdon, and Oliver Lauridsen internally) the long view is not totally grim, but the team cannot buy its way out of the current rut by buying out players or buying new ones. Clearly the Flyers can scout, draft, sign, and develop forwards (Simon Gagne, Justin Williams, Patrick Sharp, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Claude Giroux, Steve Downie, James van Riemsdyk, Matt Read, Sean Couturier) and they maintain a rotating stable of rock-solid prospects, but if they want to survive a salary cap world and compete for a Stanley Cup, they’re going to have to figure out how to do the same with defensemen.
And they need to start this year. Holmgren says he’ll take the best player available at their drafting position, but the last thing this team needs is prospects who can score. His logic is understandable, but they might be better off taking a chance expending one draft pick on a highly ranked defenseman so they don’t have trade several picks along with roster players for him down the line.