The NHL Hot Stove is cooling after the draft in late June followed by a raucous free agent frenzy to kick off the month of July.
During such a hectic time, a wealth of teams made plenty of noise. The New Jersey Devils grabbed Jack Hughes with the first overall pick before trading for P.K. Subban the following day. The New York Rangers happily drafted dynamic Finn Kaapo Kakko at number two before reeling in the largest free agent fish on the market in Artemi Panarin. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Colorado Avalanche completed a big-time deal involving Nazem Kadri and Tyson Barrie several hours after Toronto sent Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Brown to the Ottawa Senators for a package including Cody Ceci.
The Panthers got their man in Sergei Bobrovsky and the Nashville Predators finally ended their pursuit of Matt Duchene by signing the top free agent center to a lucrative seven-year deal.
Needless to say, there was plenty of wheeling and dealing between the draft on June 21st and the free agent frenzy on July 1st.
As we watch the hot stove cool into a mere simmer for the next six weeks or so, we have time to reflect and gauge value when it comes to our picks to win the 2020 Stanley Cup.
In a league full of parity, value can be tough to nail. I believe the Stars (+2000), Panthers (+1600), Avalanche (+1200) and Maple Leafs (+1200) all hold substantial value to win hockey’s ultimate prize next season.
However, at +2800 considering all of their roster-improving offseason moves, I’m looking at the Flyers as a club to surprise to the upside next season.
I had the Flyers on my radar as one of the clubs set to be among the busiest this offseason. In said piece, I identified a 1B goaltender to support Carter Hart as a need, help on the blueline as a need and finally some scoring help up front to boot. Sure, it’s easy enough to identify these needs considering the season the Flyers had last year, but interestingly enough new GM Chuck Fletcher went out and accomplished all three of these needs, albeit not in said order.
Breaking Down the Moves
Let’s break down the moves, in the order that Fletcher pulled off to put his stamp on this organization after his mid-season hire and subsequent half-season to evaluate his club.
Traded for the Rights to UFA C Kevin Hayes From the Winnipeg Jets for a 2019 5th-Round Pick
Hayes, 27, was set to hit unrestricted free agency after spending last season split between the New York Rangers and Winnipeg Jets who acquired him prior to the February 25th trade deadline.
That’s before Fletcher traded for his negotiating rights on the third of the month, giving him 20 days to exclusively negotiate a long-term contract, something rival clubs could not do until the UFA negotiating window opened on June 23rd.
The end result was a seven-year, $50M contract that will keep Hayes in the City of Brotherly Love throughout his prime playing years.
He’s not a top-flight pivot, but Hayes is a very good second-line center coming off career-high 55 points despite logging 71 games. Prior to his deal to the Jets, Hayes has tallied 42 points in 51 games with the Rangers while logging 19:27 of ice time per game – by far a career high.
It appears the Flyers are getting a rock-solid second line center that may very well be hitting his prime on an imminent timeline. He helps your power play, he averaged two minutes of penalty killing time per game with the Rangers last season and he’s vastly improved in the faceoff dot and logged a 51.6% winning percentage with the Jets last season.
In Hayes, the Flyers have a 200-foot center that contributes in every situation about to enter his prime. Not bad for a fifth-round pick on a team with cap space to boot.
Acquired RD Matt Niskanen From the Washington Capitals in Exchange for RD Radko Gudas
The Capitals were up against the cap and needed to clear some space, and Fletcher was there to take advantage.
He used his cap flexibility to take the $5.75M owed to Niskanen in each of the next two seasons in exchange for the inferior, yet cheaper Radko Guas and his $2.345M hit for next season only.
It’s simply a savvy move.
Niskanen, although four years Gudas’ senior, is a much more effective player than rugged Gudas. His best offense days may be behind him, but Niskanen is a rock-solid top-four blueliner who easily logs roughly 22 minutes a night and will chip in somewhere around 30 points a season despite posting just 25 a year ago, his fewest total in a full season since the 2011-12 campaign while with the Penguins.
Niskanen’s possession numbers have taken a huge hit the last two seasons to 48.7% at even strength in 2017-18 and 47% at even strength last season. Over the last four years, however, he’s averaged 54.3% Corsi For at even strength and 51.7% for his career.
However, I’d simply point out that Niskanen was used in almost a strictly defense-only manner by the Capitals over the last two years as evidenced by his 56% defensive zone starts in 2017-18 and a whopping 57.4% defensive zone starts last season. When you are starting most shifts in your own end, your possession numbers aren’t going to look great. The last time Niskanen was close to 50% defensive zone starts (50.6% in 2016-17) he was a big-time advanced metrics darling with a 53.4% Corsi For at even strength.
Niskanen led all Capitals last season with 2:46 of shorthanded ice time per game and he’s also available to contribute on a second power play unit. Like his new teammate Hayes, Niskanen is an all-round contributor and still just 32 years old.
Gudas, on the other hand, has never logged more than 19:51 of ice time per game in his NHL career and registered a 17:53 mark last season. He too has started most of his shifts in the defensive end but has logged a nice 51.4% Corsi in his NHL career. He’s maxed out at a career-high 23 points in his career.
Gudas is a fine bottom-pair blueliner, but there’s little doubt Niskanen is an upgrade and one that is superior at both ends of the ice.
Acquired RD Justin Braun From the San Jose Sharks for a 2019 2nd-Round Pick and 2020 3rd-Round Pick
The San Jose Sharks needed to clear some cap space in order to sign Erik Karlsson to his eight-year, $88M contract as well as negotiate RFA deals with Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc.
Again, Fletcher was there to take advantage of the Sharks’ need to clear space and his own cap flexibility. In doing so, he bolstered his blueline even further.
Like Niskanen, Braun doesn’t come with much fanfare. He doesn’t light up the scoresheet and on most nights you won’t notice him. However, for an NHL defenseman, going unnoticed is a good thing; it means you aren’t making many mistakes.
Braun, 32, does the little things required to win. He’ll log more than 20 minutes per night and he’ll kill penalties with the best of em’. Braun’s 2:18 of average penalty killing time last season ranked second among Sharks players next to Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s 2:37 mark.
The Flyers don’t need offense from their new blueline acquisitions. They need reliable defenders.
It doesn’t get much more reliable than Braun who started 58.9% of his shifts in the defensive zone last year and a whopping 61.8% in the 2017-18 season. He managed a 49.7% Corsi despite that 2018-19 defensive starts figure, an impressive feat in itself. Despite a career 56.8% defensive starts figure, Braun owns a healthy 50.2% Corsi. That’s a tough number to reach when you start six of every 10 shifts in your own end. It means you are getting the puck out of your own end.
The Flyers ranked 29th with 3.41 goals per game last season. They don’t need to add flashy high-risk defenders. They needed to add low-risk, reliable blueliners that keep the pick out of their net. In adding Niskanen and Braun, they did just that.
In Braun’s case, he does it for a mere $3.8M, but for next season only.
Traded RFA RW Ryan Hartman to the Dallas Stars in Exchange for RW Tyler Pitlick
His lowest-key move of the offseason, Fletcher traded an RFA forward in Hartman, who he did not plan to qualify, to the Stars in exchange for veteran, bottom-six winger Pitlick.
With a trio of important RFAs to sign in Travis Konecny, Ivan Provorov and Scott Laughton, Hartman wasn’t a piece Fletcher felt would help the team within its budget after fixing his blueline.
Pitlick, under contract for an even $1M for next season, posted just eight goals and 12 points in 47 games last season while averaging only 13:23 in ice time in Dallas’ bottom-six. However, he’s just one reason removed from a 14-goal year in a similar bottom-six role, something the Flyers would gladly take from the 27-year-old next season.
Re-Signed G Brian Elliott to a One-Year, $2M Contract Extension
After appearing in 69 games for the Flyers over the last two seasons, 34-year-old netminder Brian Elliott was set to hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Instead, the Flyers brought Elliott back on a one-year deal to mentor and support 20-year-old Carter Hart.
Hart, the Flyers’ goaltender of the future, posted an impressive 2.83 GAA and .917 Sv% in 31 appearances last season despite playing behind one of the NHL’s worst defensive teams.
Elliott posted a decent .907 Sv% in 23 starts and 26 appearances in an injury-shortened year last season, however, Fletcher clearly values his experience when it comes to supporting Hart while believing he has more left in the tank after posting a rock-solid 2.48 GAA and .912 Sv% in his 12-year career to this point.
Big-Time Value at +2800
The Flyers’ top offseason priority was to fix the back end. With a couple of low-key yet important trades in acquiring Niskanen and Braun, Fletcher has made big strides in doing so. Add Shayne Gostisbehere to provide the offense from the blueline and young yet promising defenders in Provorov and Travis Sanheim (signed to a two-year RFA extension), Fletcher’s defensive corps all the sudden looks more than respectable.
Re-upping Elliott solidifies the goaltending situation in support of arguably the most promising young goaltender in hockey.
Despite ranking 18th in offense last season, the Flyers have plenty of firepower up front in the likes of Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, Jakub Voracek, James van Riemsdyk, Konecny, Nolan Patrick and now Hayes. Perhaps 2017 first-rounder Morgan Frost, fresh off a 109-point season in the OHL, is ready for NHL action as well.
I expect the Flyers’ improved back end to help their offense. Less time spent in the defensive zone means more time spent in the offensive zone. Combined with the addition of Hayes, the reliable scoring of veterans Giroux and co. as well as the development of young players such as Konecny, Patrick, and Frost, and I have reason to believe the Flyers jump into the top 10 in offense next season.
Their moves weren’t eye-popping nor did they attract much attention. Nonetheless, they were some of the savviest moves of the offseason and when all put together, these early win-now offseason moves give the Flyers a ton of value to win the 2020 Stanley Cup at +2800 odds.