NO PANACEA SOLUTION ON THE BLUELINE
With the 2014 National Hockey Draft in Philadelphia and the start of the free agency period looming in the next month, the Flyers are sure to be at the center of a slew of rumored trades and free agent signings. Most of the rumors are likely to focus on defensemen.
Here's the thing: If you look at what has gone on League-wide with defensemen, it is very much a seller's market. Salaries have exploded and teams issue long-term contracts to their veteran defensemen like Halloween candy. The unrestricted free agent market is watered down but demand exceeds supply so the prices atop the market are extortionate both in contract dollars and contract length.
Meanwhile, if a team wants to trade for a starting defenseman in the prime of his career, the costs are also greatly inflated.
A large segment of Flyers fans focus only at what their own team is doing without looking at the bigger picture of what goes on around the League. The truth of matter is that unless a team primarily builds its defense corps from within its farm system, they are going to end up in a situation where they have to overpay time and time again.
Development isn't easy. A team has to stockpile draft picks, make some astute selections, patiently nurture player development and be prepared to wait as much as five or six years to reap the rewards. They also need a bit of good luck along the way.
It is very tough to strike a balance between the demands of winning every year with the painstaking process of developing young players. That is true with player personnel at all positions, but especially defensemen.
On the day Ron Hextall was announced as the Flyers' new general manager, I asked him about his plan for balancing those two needs. He gave a long, thoughtful response.
“Even when you’re competing at a high level you’ve got to continue to develop," said Hextall. "Trying to balance a cap out when one player’s getting older and wants a whole bunch of money, you’ve got to try to replace him from within with a little cheaper. It’s a big cycle."
He continued, "Development is not going to go away. I don’t care if we’re a top five contender in the league, we’re going to continue development. It’s going to continue to be a priority. So are draft picks. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to trade draft picks because inevitably we will. But we’re going to try and hold as many as we can and develop as many of our own players as possible. I think the hardest part is wanting to put young players in the lineup."
"Here’s how I view it. A young player’s got to earn his way onto the team. Not be saying ‘OK, player X is on the team and he’s got to play his way off.’ No, he’s going to earn his way onto the team ahead of a veteran. That’s kind of the way I view it. I think if a player doesn’t come into training camp and really show you something, he probably needs more time."
Hextall concluded, "You look at young players, tell me one young player in the history of hockey that’s been hurt by spending some time in the minors. I can tell you, there are hundreds and hundreds that have been hurt by being put in an NHL lineup too soon. We did our pro meetings halfway through this year, and the theme that kept coming up was too much too soon. It’s hard to hold yourself back, but those are the types of decisions you make. As much as a year, or six months, or three months seems like a long time. It’s not. It’s no different than sending your child to kindergarten. The gift of time, sometimes that’s just the best thing.”
In other words, Hextall is committed to not rushing any of Samuel Morin, Shayne Gostisbehere, Robert Hägg into the Flyers NHL lineup until the organization is comfortable that they are NHL ready. That is a wise and prudent strategy.
As for seeking veteran upgrades on the defense corps, it is my belief that sometimes the best deals are the ones a team does NOT make. The big names rumored to be on the market, such as Dustin Byfuglien, would require major assets to acquire and have some holes in their own games. That is why they are on the market in the first place.
Unrestricted free agent Matt Niskanen is going to command north of $6 million per season (and possibly as much as $7 million) on the open market and will get a long-term contract. He is not a franchise defenseman but such is the nature of the market.
Personally, I would rather see the Flyers re-sign Kimmo Timonen for one year (assuming he decides to play next season) at a discounted rate than commit that kind of money and years to Niskanen. That would still enable the Flyers to acquire another role-playing defenseman.
The limited free agent options are the number one reason why the Flyers overpaid Mark Streit last summer fter acquiring his rights from the Islanders was that they still had to pay him according to open market prices to get him to forgo unrestricted free agency. It is also the same reason why the team committed a lengthy big-dollar extension to Andrew MacDonald to pre-empt his UFA status. That's the price to pay for having traded away so many draft picks over the years and for not having NHL-ready defensemen in the farm system who are currently capable of filling top-six roles on an every game basis.
Montreal Canadiens restricted free agent defenseman P.K. Subban is going to command a monstrous contract this summer, and had a contentious negotiation with management the last time around. It is also rumored that he and Habs coach Michel Therrien do not have the best of relationships.
However, an offer sheet is not a viable option in this case (even if the Flyers could carve out sufficient cap space). This situation is NOT comparable to Shea Weber's two summers ago. First of all, the Habs are a wealthy NHL franchise and there is no potential poison pill offer to be made. The Predators found a way to match the Weber offer sheet because members of their ownership group put up money from their personal wealth to do so.
Secondly, Subban doesn't need to sign an offer sheet from another team to get a mega-raise and a long-term deal. Weber was unable to get what he wanted from the Predators. With a lockout looming a season ahead of his potential unrestricted free agency, signing an offer sheet with the Flyers was the one sure route to an immediate windfall. Although the Canadiens drew a line in the sand with Subban's bridge contract during his previous go-round as a restricted free agent, this time the team will have no choice to dole out a maximum-length contract and a cap hit of $7 million plus.
Lastly, Weber was equally comfortable with the possibility of staying with the Predators (if they matched the Flyers offer sheet) or coming to play in Philadelphia. Theoretically, even if it were to prove true that Subban is so disgruntled with Therrien and vengeful over not getting what he wanted in his previous contract negotiation that he would prefer to leave Montreal, he would NOT sign an offer sheet the Habs would match. That would lock him into being a Hab for many years to come. Instead, he would refuse to sign with Montreal and demand a trade before signing his next deal.
Incidentally, I expect Subban to re-sign in Montreal when all is said and done. There will be all sorts of offer sheet rumors, and the Flyers will undoubtedly be one of the teams mentioned, but I don't think there is any way he ends up elsewhere next season.
Oh, and please forget about the idea of the Flyers acquiring Weber this summer. Unless you mean the eminently available Yannick Weber or Mike Weber, it isn't happening. The Predators are NOT trading Shea Weber any time soon. That ship sailed two summers ago when the Flyers gambled and lost with an offer sheet.
There may be trades the Flyers could make for young, still-unproven defensemen who have struggled navigating their learning curve. There may be some high-priced ones who need a change of scenery. There will certainly be some older veterans available via trade or via free agency (such as Dan Boyle).
But will there be that one difference-making defenseman who can come in, fill the void left by Chris Pronger and help offset the retirement of Timonen (next summer if not this one) and anchor the team's top pairing for years to come? Sorry, but the answer is no.
The Flyers' better bet is try to upgrade team speed a bit and think in terms of two-way forwards who can assist a defense corps that could be almost identical to this year's group.
GOULBOURNE HAS AHL OFFER ON TABLE FROM FLYERS
The latest installment of the Flyers prospect series that Randy Miller is doing for NJ.com looks at 2013 third-round prospect Tyrell Goulbourne
. The most noteworthy part of the piece is the fact that the Flyers are currently offering Goulbourne an AHL contract for the 2014-15 season, rather than a two-way NHL entry level contract.
Goulbourne's agent has told the player not to accept an AHL-only deal. Instead, the player hopes to impress at the Flyers development camp in July and especially during training camp in September and convince the organization that he is ready now for an entry-level NHL contract. The player also made clear, however, that his goal for next season is to play for the Phantoms in the AHL. The 20-year-old is keeping open the option of returning to the WHL's Kelowna Rockets for an overage season.
In terms of negotiation strategy, I think the Flyers are taking a smart course. Goulbourne may or may not be ready for the AHL next season but he is almost certainly not a candidate to be in the NHL mix in 2014-15. Putting him on an AHL deal would not require an immediate three-year commitment to the young player (or tie up a spot on the reserve list) but would also give him the opportunity to prove himself ready and worthy of an NHL contract.
Ultimately, I think Goulbourne will go along with what the Flyers want him to do. If they think he's ready for a regular spot in the AHL, he will play for the Phantoms (even if he has to sign an AHL deal and work for an entry-level NHL contract). If they think he'd do better with more ice time as a WHL overager, he will go back to Kelowna. The Flyers would hold his rights until next June, whereupon he could become a free agent if he does not sign an entry-level NHL deal.
By no means is the book closed on Goulbourne potentially playing for the Flyers someday just because the organization does not currently think he's ready for an entry-level contract. It simply means the player has work to do to get there, and it may take some time.
I must also say that the Flyers are also showing some moxie here. They are doing what they feel is best for the organization right now rather than feeling obligated to give Goulbourne an entry-level deal to publically "justify" his somewhat controversial selection a year ago.
The decision to select Goulbourne so early in last year's draft drew a lot of criticism. I was among those unhappy with the pick, for reasons I spelled out the day after the draft
Then and now, I understood the reasoning behind the Flyers' decision to pick Goulbourne in the third round. The reasons were two-fold. First of all, they wanted to draft him at some point and did not believe he'd still be available when their next pick came up in round five. Secondly, there was no consensus about whom else to take with the pick. The team's scouts pegged the then 19-year-old Goulbourne as a player with about a 50-50 shot at being an NHL-caliber fourth line player down the line. They figured it better to go that route than go for a more traditional third-round pick with a higher upside but roughly a 12 to 15 percent chance of making it to the NHL.
I understood the reasoning, but I disagreed with it. I am a believer in aiming for players with the highest possible ceilings in the first three or four rounds of the draft. Thereafter, it might make more sense to target a previously undrafted player whom you feel has a better chance to at least dress in the NHL someday.
Even Zac Rinaldo, the player to whom Goulbourne is most often compared, was originally a sixth-round pick by the Flyers. For a sixth-round pick, that is an easily justifiable pick. For a third rounder, not so much.
With that said, when I Monday morning quarterbacked the Flyers draft last year and criticized the Goulbourne pick in round three, I had the luxury of ticking off about a dozen different names I'd have rather seen the Flyers call instead of Goulbourne's. The Flyers had no such option of covering their tracks via quantity of alternatives. They could only pick one other guy, not all 12. Without a clear-cut consensus on whom to pick, they went with a guy whom several felt could eventually be an NHL player.
Yes, it is easy now to say the Flyers should have taken Oliver Bjorkstrand or Anthony Duclair instead of Goulbourne, but they just as easily could be in long-term waiting mode to see if someone such as Matt Buckles or Peter Cehlarik will emerge as potential candidates for pro contracts.
I could give other past examples of why I know it is easier to second-guess picks than to actually hit a home run at the Draft after the first round. After the 2007 draft, I listed numerous players
I would have preferred to the Flyers' third-round selection Garrett Klotz based on conversations with people in the business.
One of the names was Jamie Benn. That's nice, but before I pat myself on the back, I should also note that Benn's name was the eighth I mentioned in a list of 10 alternative prospects to Klotz. Seven of the 10 have never played in the NHL, so taking any of them would have had the same practical effect on the Flyers organization (i.e., none) as the Klotz miss.
Scouting and drafting is a brutally inexact science. Therefore, even if I disagree with it, I can still see the basis for the argument in favor of taking a lower-ceiling player such as Goulbourne, where it is a little easier to project what the player may become in the future. In the long run, it's better to have an NHL role player -- or even an AHL player who fills in for a few games here and there in the NHL -- than someone who never plays a pro game.
At any rate, there will undoubtedly be people who will skewer the Flyers for offering Goulbourne "only" a minor league contract right now. They will say it is proof that the pick was wasted.
I see it differently. I think Goulbourne deserves times to work his way up the ladder and to be judged on his own merits as a prospect. Playing on an AHL contract or spending an overage season in junior hockey won't hurt his development at all and could help in the long run.
Likewise, I think the organization is doing the right thing in not rushing to hand him an entry-level deal. The player seems determined to prove he deserves one, and he'll get that chance.