Brought in by Flyers GM Ron Hextall as a stop-gap measure to fill up a roster full of uncertainty, Sam Gagner’s first season in Philadelphia could be termed interesting at the very least. Productive, injured, demoted, returned and ultimately finding a regular spot in the lineup, Gagner’s future here is on the rocks.
Gagner was essentially a make-good from the Phoenix Coyotes, who agreed to take on the contracts of Chris Pronger and Nick Grossmann in order to get to the salary-cap floor in exchange for a player with one year remaining on his current contract.
Viewed in that respect, Gagner’s year here went entirely as expected: a spare part not given much responsibility but a simple function on the wing whenever he was inserted into the lineup by new head coach Dave Hakstol. Viewed under the guise of an eight-year NHL veteran at age 26, who totaled eight goals and 16 points with a cap hit of $3.2 million and actual salary $200K higher, Gagner’s performance was far below value.
Even though the salary cap is expected to rise approximately $3 million to an estimated $74 million this coming July — when Gagner is slated to become an unrestricted free agent — Hextall and the Flyers have to explore options to upgrade Gagner’s slot, which vacillated between the second and third lines. If anything, after the screaming morass that marked the first half of last year with roster shuffling, Hakstol is owed a steady player who can play one spot on one line and execute one role.
Gagner’s “most productive” period in Orange and Black occurred between team games 58 and 71, a one-month period from Feb. 20 through March 21. In that stretch, he posted three-quarters of his red lights (six goals) and by adding two assists, this period accounted for exactly half of his season point total.
Taking his complete NHL-level stats into consideration (8G, 8A) and broken down for actual retail value, that’s $425,000 for every goal scored and $212,500 for every point collected. The Flyers can, and should, do better. Here’s how.
Thinking Outside the Box
The most obvious and natural course of action for Hextall is to examine the free agent crop to find a suitable replacement.
According to GeneralFanager.com, excluding Gagner, there are 80 centers and 94 wingers who will be unrestricted free agents come July 1. Of that number, 11 centers and 15 wingers carry a cap hit of at least $3 million. All of them except for Tuomo Ruutu and David Legwand posted more than Gagner’s 16 points.
With R.J. Umberger projected to be bought out and his $4.6 mil cap hit mostly off the books, that means the club would have 45 roster spots out of 50, speaking strictly in a vacuum without considering any further additions or deletions. When you factor increases of roughly $1M for RFA Brayden Schenn and perhaps $200K for Ryan White, that conceivably leaves roughly $3 mil on the table for a big-name addition.
If Hextall wants to go position for position, hand for hand, the pickings are slim and expensive. Only Steven Stamkos, David Backes and Boyd Gordon are right-handed centers $3M and higher. Next down on the list is Trevor Lewis, a bargain at $1.525M but lacking the requisite offensive skill to replace Gagner on a middle-forward grouping bereft of goal-scoring prowess.
For wingers, the pickings aren’t much better in the upper cap echelon as Shane Doan, Radim Vrbata, Teddy Purcell, Kris Versteeg, Mikkel Boedker, Troy Brouwer and the Davids (Perron and Jones) pace the pack. However, further down the list, Kyle Okposo clocks in at $2.8M and Chris Stewart carried a $1.7M cap hit.
Two choices stand out in the pack on the high end of the spectrum: Milan Lucic and Backes.
Lucic is only 27, has nine years of NHL experience, three 20-goal seasons in the last five, one Stanley Cup to his credit and all the qualities of a North American behemoth in a European body. Caveats: $6 million payday last season and more than enough reasons for the Kings to try and retain his services.
Backes, the Blues captain, certainly has more hockey left this year after a 21-goal season. His warning signs; 31 years old, and decreasing goal totals (27, 26, 21) in each of the last three campaigns. There’s also the idea that his current team can’t afford to lose its nominal leader in the wake of a long playoff run.
Back to Okposo and Stewart.
The former carries seven years NHL experience and finished with 22 goals and 64 points at age 28. He’s due for a bump in salary ($4.5 million) but his cap hit of $2.8M is friendly and doesn’t figure to interfere too much if Hextall has him under consideration. The latter holds a reduced salary which is equal to his cap hit ($1.7M) but for a guy who hasn’t scored more than 30 points in any full season, Hextall would have to concede that toughness would be a greater need than scoring touch.
Promotion from Within
If price and age of the free agent crop turns Hextall off, he doesn’t have to look very far for two viable and valuable options — Nick Cousins and Scott Laughton.
Cousins, who began the season with the Phantoms and exited to Philly as their leading scorer, was allowed to make a deeper impression when asked to skate on the second line and given more offensive responsibilities. Laughton, on the other hand, had a tougher go as his scoring prowess was subverted as a third-line center who struggled at times defensively with positioning and had his adventures as well on the penalty kill.
Both are listed as natural centers, though both had played on the wing at times based on necessity. Laughton has two years remaining on his ELC at $863,333 while Cousins is on the verge of a new contract as an RFA and priced out at $842,500 last season. Given Hextall’s plan for patience and development, locking down two guys at 21 and 22 years old, respectively, is the conservative but rational response.
It’s again up to Hakstol to decide how to utilize these talents. As I had written during last preseason and spoke about many times, it benefits both players to have defined roles no matter where they end up, and that their locations are consistent for a whole season. If Cousins AND Laughton both snag roster spots from camp, then Hak should cement them in place from Game 1; if that means Cousins takes Gagner’s second line responsibilities or Laughton is instead given a chance to unleash his offensive capabilities, let it be consistent.
Defined roles were the one thing Hakstol lacked throughout the first half of last season, and it showed. The fact Matt Read publicly decried that lack of consistency for himself, even as the Flyers took off late in the year, raises questions that Hakstol can successfully find niches for each player. And if we argue that Umberger will also hit the bricks, there’s room for both on the club next year in a continuation of their roles from last.
Of course, the dark horse here is Jordan Weal. Weal, acquired from the Kings in January in the deal which sent LSchenn and Vinny Lecavalier to LA, played sparingly and appeared to be a contract dump in kind that Hextall took on as a favor to Dean Lombardi.
The 24-year-old Calder Cup champ who proved he could score in the AHL, is also an RFA at $632,500. It’s likely, since he would have to clear waivers to be sent to the minors, if he is signed, someone else would have to go. The most likely scenario is that Weal will be that sacrifice rather than Cousins or Laughton who both were homegrown and known commodities at the NHL level.