The Flyers Have Decisions to Make At Goalie, Defense and Forward
The covid-19 break and an extended run into the playoffs has left us with a significantly shortened off season. The Flyers have several key roster decisions to make with regards to players who will be out of contract and unrestricted free agents (UFA), meaning they are able to sign with any team without compensating the Flyers.
While in an ideal world, the team would want to keep all of its assets this is not the reality. The Flyers will look at salary demands, the market for that particular position, and potential in house replacements.
Brian Elliott, Goalie, 35, $2,000,000
Elliott was a solid backup for Carter Hart this season. While “Moose” did not have spectacular numbers, he played well and was able to fill in for an extended stint when Hart was injured early in the season. With the 19 of his 31 appearances coming before New Year’s Day, Elliott also proved he could manage to avoid rust when not finding much ice time. Elliott was everything you would want in a veteran backup last season.
Salary and Cap
Elliott would be in the right to ask for a slight raise based on his work last season. I would guess $2,250,000 as a reasonable number. However, Elliott took a pay cut to re-sign with the Flyers this past season. There will be roughly 8.9 million dollars in cap space available
There are 16 unrestricted goalies who played more than 10 games last season. Four of those are over 36 years old (Elliott is 35). Elliott was the 10th highest paid last year, played in the 9th most games and the 11th best save percentage.
Felix Sandstrom and Kirill Ustimenko are both in North America and under contract. Both spent the majority of the season in the ECHL. While possible, it is not certain either of these players are ready to play in the NHL, and with only limited exposure in the AHL, I would guess they are not. Alex Lyon is also an unrestricted free agent. While younger than Elliott, it does not appear he has the confidence of management.
Alex Lyon seemed to be best replacement for Elliott. The fact that Lyon has not re-signed at this point seems like he may be moving on. Elliott’s good season combined with the inexperience of Sandstrom and Ustimenko indicates to me the Flyers will try to re-sign Elliott.
With Hart becoming a bonafide number one starter Elliott’s work will be diminished. In reality Elliot probably should only have a one year deal, with a slight increase. Given the Flyers cap circumstance, and the fact we are only a season removed from needing eight goalies, the Flyers will give Elliott a two-year deal at 1.5 million a year. This will give Elliott more cash in total $3 million, and an extra year of job security in later days of his career.
Justin Braun, RHD, 33 $3,800,000
Braun was one of the two big acquisitions made on defense by general Chuck Fletcher. It cost a second and third round pick, sent to a desperate and cash strapped San Jose Sharks. It was a massive over pay, especially if Braun turns out to be a rental. Braun did a solid job from the Flyers; he was a much-needed right-handed shot that was physical and responsible in his own end. He spent most of the season on the third pair, having the most success when paired with Robert Hagg.
Salary and Cap
Braun received a stunning $3,800,000 last season. Based on his performance this past season I would expect Braun to warrant half of that. There would be an increase in premium because he is one of the rare right-handed defensemen. There will be roughly 8.9 million dollars in cap space available
Good defensemen are always coveted by team, especially ones that are right-handed. Alex Pietrangelo, Sami Vatanen and Travis Hamonic are at the top of the class. Pietrangelo may be too much for the Blues to afford. Vatanen could stay with Carolina, if they wanted him, but the Hurricanes are so deep at defense they may feel that money is best used elsewhere. Vatanen will fetch top dollar where ever he goes. I expect Hamonic to resign with the Flames.
Given the cap restraints the Flyers will be facing, the lower tier of journeymen players may be their only move if they go the free agent route. Luke Schenn, Kevin Shattenkirk (yuck), and Zack Bogosian are all Lightning free agent right-handed defensemen. My guess is that the Lightning re-sign none of them. Bogosian may be a good bottom pair target for the Flyers.
Of the 24 free agent RHD, Braun placed 12th in points, 12th in TOI, 13th in +/- and 9th in salary.
Of the in house options, Mark Friedman is the most likely to take Braun’s place, Friedman has played over 180 AHL games and is a right-handed shot. He has not looked out of place in his 7 NHL games. Yegor Zamula will also be a strong contender out of camp. Looking better after his back injury, he actually made the playoff roster.
Sam Morin is possibility if he can stay healthy (please God) along with Swedish import Linus Hogberg. A dark horse I like is Wyatte Wylie, a former teammate of Hart’s when he played for the Silvertips. Wyatte is also right-handed.
The Flyers minor league system is filled with players capable of playing at least the bottom pair, eventually. I predict the Flyers will try to cover the bottom pair RD from what they already have in house. Failing that, they may move some pieces for a young, expansion exempt, defensemen to fill the void. Braun’s next contract will likely fetch between two and three million dollars a season for two years from a western conference team.
Tyler Pitlick, RW, 28, $1,000,000
Pitlick was the silver lining on the otherwise awful Wayne Simmonds trade. Ryan Hartman, who was acquired for Simmonds, was sent to Dallas for Pitlick. Dallas declined to sign Hartman who spend last year with the Wild. Pitlick ended up with twenty points, eight of them goals. Pitlick was used regularly as a penalty killer and on the third and fourth lines. In the series against the Islanders Pitlick saw time alongside Kevin Hayes on the second line.
Salary and Cap
Pitlick made $1,000,000 last season. Pitlick was a valuable cog on the team and appears to have the trust of coach Alain Vigneault. Given last season’s performance, a two-year contract worth between $1,500,000 and $2,000,000 a season seems reasonable. The Flyers will have roughly 8.9 million dollars in cap space available.
Pitlick is versatile, plus, fourth line player. He is an effective penalty killer and is not a liability during five on five play. Pitlick did not really establish an identity last season, as the Flyers fourth line, to the team’s detriment, turned into a dumping ground for specialists after the trade deadline. Pitlick was crowded out by Fletcher’s new toys. In a fourth line role, is Pitlick a grinder, or an energy player, or a punishing forechecker? Pitlick did a little of each last season and showed he has plus scoring prowess, for a fourth liner. However in each of those roles he did not distinguish himself, and was pretty average.
There are 40 UFA forwards who played more than 20 games and under 14 minutes average TOI. Pitlick finished 9th in goals, 10th in points and 23rd in salary.
While Pitlick had a good season, it was by no means transcendent. Pitlick has a place in the league as an average fourth liner and penalty killer, but no one pays a premium for this.
Pitlick has been replaced to some degree already by Nicolas Aube-Kubel. He appears to have better scoring touch, even taking some time on the power play. Aube-Kubel also seems a more aggressive, physical and determined forecheck with a little more agitator in him. Connor Bunnaman might be a player who could step in to Pitlick’s penalty killing duties. The Flyers have a plethora of forward prospects who will be competing for roster spots and the team hopes to get a full season from both Oskar Lindblom and Nolan Patrick, meaning Pitlick’s fate with the team may come down strictly numeric decision based on roster spots.
Pitlick is a decent player that good teams could use to round out their lineup, but he is not a name that will garner special attention in the free agent market. What makes Pitlick’s circumstance so hard to judge is the Flyers probably see more value in him than any other team. The Flyers’ cap situation makes it hard to pay market value and impossible to over pay. I could see Flyers offering 1.5 million a year for two years. But I could see a team making a $2,000,000 a year offer as well.
The Flyers cap condition means they could loose a player they like over $500,000. If the Flyers want Pitlick back, and I believe they do, working quickly to sign him in the abbreviated free agent period may be their best bet. As other players get signed, in essence a decrease in supply, interest in Pitlick will intensify. Increased interest will drive up his price.
Derek Grant, C, 30, $700,000
Grant had a career season in 2020, netting 15 goals, one of which came with the Flyers. Grant was a capable penalty killer, faceoff man and defensive center. Grant was acquired for Nashville’s fourth round pick, the one received for Wayne Simmonds. He played well in his seven games in the covid shortened regular season, but seemed to fall out of favor during the playoffs.
Salary and Cap
Grant made $700,000 last season and should be looking for a hefty raise given his goal production. Grant is well respected and, at age thirty, should have a few productive years remaining. The Flyers have only 8.9 million dollars in space, several key restricted free agents to sign that will cause some cap related stress.
Grant is known as a defensive center and penalty killer. He had great timing, setting a personal season high in goals during a short season and a contract year. Grant is among the top defensive forwards in this year’s pool of unrestricted free agents.
There are 40 UFA forwards who played more than 20 games and under 14 minutes average TOI Grant finished 2nd in goals, 4th in points and 31st in salary.
Grant’s goal totals as a fourth line center will garner interest from many clubs. He could be looked at as a bridge player, a place holder until a prospect is ready. He could also be looked at as player to give a team a lift as a penalty killer, faceoff specialist, or a defensive center who can score.
Like Pitlick, there are a variety of players in the Flyers’ crowded forward pool. Grant is a defense first center, but is not a Selke caliber shutdown forward. German Rubtsov would seem to be a possible replacement as that type of player. However, at this point, it is hard to say what kind of bottom six Vigneault wants. Vigneault probably does not know at this point. Whatever bottom six configuration emerges, Grant has several players who could replace him.
Based on his use in the playoffs, and the underlying roster congestion, I do not think the Flyers have much interest at bring Grant back. Further I think the market will value Grant more than the Flyers currently do. I would expect Grant to sign a contract in excess of $2.25 million per season for two or three seasons. I would look to one of the Western Conference teams with cap space like Vancouver, Colorado or Calgary to give Grant a good contract.
Nate Thompson, C, 36, $1,000,000
Thompson came to the Flyers’ for a fifth round pick at the trade deadline. Thompson plays a grinding style and was integrated into the Flyers penalty killing unit. Thompson was quiet during the season, but was more noticeable in the playoffs. I think it was the beard.
Salary and Cap
Thompson made $1,000,00 last season. Thompson is a fringe grinding player in the league. He is a veteran player who could provide depth for a checking line or as the 13th forward. The Flyers have 8.9 million dollars in cap space.
Players like Thompson operate in a really tight market. Spots on the fourth line or as the 13th forward get competition from prospects, minor league free agents and players from over seas as well as NHL players.
There are 40 UFA forwards who played more than 20 games and under 14 minutes average TOI Grant finished 27th in goals, 21st in points and 31st in salary.
Nate Thompson has been above average a faceoff man throughout his career. He can play center or on the wing which is another plus attribute. However Thompson will be 36 when the season starts. His legs looked a bit heavy in the playoffs, the effort was there but the results were not.
Thompson faces the same predicament as Pitlick and Grant. There are many options depending on the direction the Flyers want to pursue. Thompson’s best play would be as a veteran presence that spent most nights in the press box.
Based on the playoffs, Thompson would seem to be the second choice of the Flyers’ UFA forwards, behind Pitlick and ahead of Grant. The Flyers have other more pressing needs and I think that Thompson’s faceoff prowess, experience and work ethic will generate some interest from other teams. Thompson seems to be an excellent candidate for a minimum or two-way deal. Thompson will press young players trying to make the team and will be additional veteran depth. If the Flyers can sign him to the minimum or a two way contract he stays. If he gets a higher offer they Flyers will not match it.
The Flyers are in a difficult cap position that diminishes their ability to pursue any unrestricted free agents, including their own. The team has several key restricted free agents that also will need to be re-signed from the remaining 8.9 million in the salary pool. This circumstance has eliminated the teams ability to over pay a player or out bid a team. My preference would be the team retain Elliott and Pitlick, but in the end I think the Flyers keep Elliott and Thompson, while Pitlick and Grant get better offers elsewhere that the Flyers are unable to match.