Free agency opens less than three weeks from today and teams are well on their way to evaluating both their own impending free agents and those likely to reach the open market. There are quite a few prominent players expected to be available as unrestricted free agents, while many key restricted free agents will be looking to sign new contracts with their current squads. Here is a breakdown of the Philadelphia Flyers’ free agent situation.
Key Restricted Free Agents: G Petr Mrazek – As soon as the Flyers acquired Mrazek from the Detroit Red Wings at the NHL Trade Deadline, it was anticipated that there could be some confusion this off-season. The 26-year-old goalie needs a new contract, but the team holding his exclusive negotiating rights doesn’t have a place for him right now. Philadelphia still has their 2017-18 tandem of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth under contract for another season and that won’t change unless they find a trade partner for one or the other. They also have to deal with the restricted free agency of Alex Lyon and Anthony Stolarz, both of whom are younger than Mrazek and have gotten more than a taste of the NHL level over the past two seasons. There is also Carter Hart to worry about. The CHL Goaltender of the Year and arguably the best goalie prospect in hockey is already under contract and seems to have proven he is beyond the major junior level already. Hart is likely to turn pro next season and needs starts. That’s five other goalies to consider already, so where does Mrazek fit in to the Flyers’ plans?
Not only does he seemingly not have a place in the organization right now, but Mrazek’s performance over the last two seasons also raises serious questions about his ceiling and long-term role in the NHL. After a hot start to his pro career that included two seasons of AHL domination and strong NHL spot starts, followed by two more seasons of impressive play sharing the net in Detroit with Jimmy Howard, things were looking up for Mrazek. He had essentially won the starting job heading into the 2016-17 despite being just 24 years old and seemed to be the Red Wings’ long-term answer in net. That idea fell apart quickly as Mrazek’s play became sporadic and the more consistent Howard took his job back. Mrazek has now posted two straight seasons of 3.00+ goals against averages and save percentages just narrowly in the .900’s. The 17 appearances that Mrazek made in Philadelphia after the trade were even worse than his games played in Detroit early last season, including one singular, disastrous playoff appearance, negating the thought that he needed a change of scenery.
So what to expect for negotiations with a young goalie, formerly considered a rising star, who has struggled for two years, even more so with his current team, and has no role carved out for him moving forward? In all likelihood, the answer is a trade. The Flyers gave away two conditional mid-round picks to get Mrazek when they were desperate for a goalie down the stretch. They would be lucky to get that back for his RFA rights in an off-season deal. Mrazek may also end up simply not receiving a qualifying offer. If, against the odds, Philadelphia decides they want to extend Mrazek, expect just a cheap, one-year deal- nowhere near his expired $4MM cap hit – and another move or two by the organization to make some space for yet another goalie.
D Robert Hagg – One of a number of young, up-and-coming Flyers defenseman, Hagg skated in 70 games and averaged over 18 minutes a night in his rookie season. While Hagg only registered nine points on the year, he showed good two-way ability and a solid checking game. He was one of only three Philadelphia defensemen with a positive rating and played a clean game despite leading the team in hits by a wide margin with 238. There is a lot to like about the young defender.
However, there is also a lot to take into account when quantifying his next contract. The Flyers already have overpaid bruisers Andrew MacDonald and Radko Gudas signed for two more years as well as Shayne Gostisbehere on a long-term deal. Ivan Provorov will surely land an expensive, long-term deal next summer and Travis Sanheim will need an extension as well. Additionally, the gifted but unproven Samuel Morin is an RFA alongside Hagg this summer. The Flyers need to be careful with how they handle this crowded blue line. As solid as Hagg looked in his rookie year, don’t be surprised to see him sign a shorter bridge deal for only a marginal pay increase while the team waits out some of its veteran contracts.
Key Unrestricted Free Agents: F Valtteri Filppula – The 34-year-old Filppula is seeking a multi-year deal. There are many who doubt that the Flyers will be the team to give it to him. The veteran center has had a long and successful career as a complementary top-nine player, but the price tag for that support-level production on his last contract was $5MM. Since coming over from the Tampa Bay Lightning two years ago, Filppula’s offense has been in decline. He has still played an important role in Philadelphia, including that of a penalty kill specialist, but with 41 points in 101 regular season games in orange and black, Filppula hasn’t earned the right to command that kind of money again. If he is willing to give up salary in exchange for term, he could still play a key bottom-six role for the Flyers. However, the open market could pull him towards a team in greater need who would be willing to better compensate him.
D Brandon Manning – Like Mrazek, Philadelphia needs to first find a place for Manning before committing to re-signing him. A career Flyer, Manning hit career highs on offense in his sixth season with the team. He also bounced back from a down 2016-17 season mentally with a safer game and more well-thought out approach. Yet, Manning’s numbers on both sides of the puck are still very pedestrian. Although there could be concerns that letting Manning walk and replacing him internally would add more inexperience to a young blue line, there is no doubt that Manning’s minutes could be easily replicated. The 28-year-old only made $975K in each of the last two years, but if he looks for a substantial raise he will likely price himself out of Philadephia’s consideration. Manning will return on a short-term, low money deal or – more likely – he will sign a similar deal for only marginally more elsewhere.
Projected Cap Space: The Flyers are not in any cap trouble right now, but things can change quickly. Currently, they have over $17MM in cap space based on this year’s cap limit of $75MM. That is expected to increase to somewhere between $78-82MM, likely giving Philly somewhere closer to $22MM in space. First things first, they need to figure out their free agency situation this year, which includes new deals for many on the long list of pro-ready RFA’s above and perhaps another one or two of their own UFA’s. This is where GM Ron Hextall will need to be careful. He doesn’t want to use up too much of his space on luxuries like unnecessary extra goalies and defenseman or overpaying an aging forward. He also doesn’t need to give a player like Hagg an expensive extension right now, especially when he is the type of player with a limited ceiling who will likely command a similar amount after a few years on a bridge deal. Next, the team needs to keep in mind that next season they will have to hand pricey extensions to Wayne Simmonds and Provorov and could very likely be on the hunt again for a starting-caliber goalie to pair with Hart moving forward. None of those transactions will come cheap and the team can’t expect another major cap jump. Instead, they will have to account for those moves this off-season. At the end of the day, $22MM or so can only get you so far when you have a complete roster and many long-term contracts. Expect the Flyers to hit the free agent market with a pretty limited budget of no more than $7-8MM, likely in search of an upgrade to Filppula and/or Manning.