While the all-star break is still in the offing and there’s more than 30 games left on the slate, the reality is that the Philadelphia Flyers’ campaign is all but over and it has been for some time.
In what has been a season gone sideways, complete with the firing of GM Ron Hextall and coach Dave Hakstol, the Flyers find themselves woefully short of the wild-card race in the Eastern Conference, more than a dozen points back of the rival Pittsburgh Penguins, who are holding down the conference’s final playoff berth, and seven points back of the in-the-mix Carolina Hurricanes. Losing streaks of three games, four games and a season-worst eight games have led Philadelphia to this place, a standing so low in the league that there’s an honest-to-goodness possibility they’ll have a top-two pick for the second time in three years and see a more-than 20-point decline from last campaign.
Yes, there have been glimmers of hope, including the recent three-game winning streak heading into the league-mandated bye week that included wins over the Minnesota Wild, Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens, all playoff or wild-card contenders. But Philadelphia is simply too short on time. Making a run into the post-season from this far out in the time post-American Thanksgiving is often seen as a near-impossibility. Making such a run from February onward? Forget it. The Flyers’ playoff hopes are minimal at best, non-existent at worst. And while that doesn’t quite mean Philadelphia is due for a fire sale — not everything must go — the Flyers should seriously consider being the first team to enter the trade market as clear-cut sellers.
The starting point for Philadelphia’s foray into the trade market is staring them in the face, too. Playing out the final year of his contract and set to become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end is Wayne Simmonds, the soon-to-be seven-time 20-goal scoring winger who has seen his playing time slip in Philadelphia. Fletcher has addressed Simmonds situation, as well, noting that he won’t let the veteran simply be lost as a free agent. That means this goes one of two ways: Simmonds either re-signs or he gets moved along. And one look at the Flyers’ cap situation would suggest that Simmonds, who is no doubt due a raise, is going to be heading elsewhere sooner or later.
Starting negotiations to move Simmonds makes sense right now, too, because right now is when the Flyers will likely have the widest array of options. The 30-year-old is versatile, able to play both sides of the ice, and comes in at a reasonable $3.975-million cap hit. With his level of production and the potential level of interest, Simmonds could be a prime target for teams seeking to add on a budget. However, possessing a 12-team no-trade list, Simmonds can limit Philadelphia’s trade options unless he decides to waive the clause altogether. That list could be further limited as the deadline approaches, too.
Look at it this way: over the next few weeks, as the trade freeze draws closer, teams on Simmonds’ list could start adding pieces that hinders their ability to also add the Flyers winger, be it for salary reasons or a lack of additional assets they’re willing to move. If that’s the case, that potentially gives Philadelphia fewer options with which to work in their pursuit of getting the best possible return for Simmonds. And we’ve seen in the past few seasons that waiting until deadline day doesn’t always result in a top-tier return, particularly if a buying GM can convince a selling GM that something is better than nothing for an asset on an expiring deal.
Once the Flyers start the process of selling off pieces with Simmonds, though, they can address the bevy of potential moves to be made.
Among those on expiring deals that Fletcher could seek to move are UFAs-to-be Jori Lehtera, Michael Raffl and Christian Folin, all of whom might be able to draw some interest as bargain depth additions (though the two forwards may be most enticing in deals with salary retention). And while his contract isn’t expiring, it’s become clear that Philadelphia is ready to move on from Dale Weise, who cleared waivers after being made available to any suitors willing to snatch up the final season and a half of his current contract. At $2.35-million per season, he carries a heftier cap hit than his production — five goals and 11 points — might suggest. Getting rid of that deal might be yet another instance where Philadelphia needs to eat some money or take back a bad contract. Either might prove worthwhile depending on the return, though.
In addition, what Philadelphia might be able to provide that few sellers can is a list of netminders from which contending teams can choose to shore up their crease. True as it may be that the Flyers’ goaltending has been atrocious for much of the season, Philadelphia could very well offer up Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth as backup options for teams with shaky second-stringers. For the right price, one wonders if Anthony Stolarz couldn’t be snapped up, as well. Will any be moved for anything worthwhile? Maybe. Maybe not. But when it comes to the pending free agent goaltenders, especially, better to land a late-round pick and a shot in the dark than nothing.
What allows Philadelphia the option of casting off almost all of their masked men is the emergence of Carter Hart, who is a piece that the Flyers can and will build around given the goaltender of the future has suddenly — and somewhat unexpectedly — become the goaltender of the present. Vaulted into the role by circumstance, not by plan, Hart has had a few slips and stumbles, but his .918 save percentage makes him the best option in the Flyers crease. There’s no need to hang hope on any other keeper at this point, and Philadelphia might be best to seek a solid backup option next summer and see what Hart can do over a full season. That’s likely a much more sound option than paying a big price to land yet another inconsistent free agent netminder, which is a road the Flyers have travelled far too often.
But maybe the best reason for Philadelphia to sell sooner rather than later is the potential for Fletcher to really take stock of what this Flyers group has to offer. If Philadelphia is going to take the long-awaited step to becoming consistent, year-in and year-out contenders, it will require building around the existing foundation, and the more time Fletcher and Co. have to take stock of what they have at their disposal, the better. With this season set to become a wash in the weeks leading up to and following the deadline, the Flyers need to begin looking towards the future. They can’t do that until they get rid of those who will be part of their past.