Executive Decisions: Flyers battle the salary cap

Leah Hextall sat down with her cousin, Philadelphia Flyers GM Ron Hextall, to chat about his team's performance this year and his surprising initial thoughts on joining the organization in his draft year.

During the 1970s, there were times when some believed the rough house Philadelphia Flyers belonged in jail. One night in Toronto, three Flyers – Don Saleski, Mel Bridgman and Joe Watson – actually briefly found themselves in the clink over their on-ice activities.

Well, now it’s 2015, and the Flyers aren’t the Broad St. Bullies anymore.

But they’re in another kind of jail.

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The salary cap jail is an uncomfortable place to be, unless you’re the Chicago Blackhawks and all can be understood and forgiven in light of a third Stanley Cup championship in six years.

For the Flyers, missing the playoffs two of the past three seasons is bad enough. But a series of questionable hockey decisions, with some bad luck thrown in, has left GM Ron Hextall without a lot of room to maneuver as he tries to get this team back to where it was just five years ago when it challenged the Hawks for the Cup, losing in six games.

Yes, the Flyers have two legitimate scoring stars in Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. But their ability to surround that pair with worthy talent is severely limited because of a group of dead weight contracts. Between Vinny Lecavalier (scratched 17 times), Andrew MacDonald (five more years at $5 million per), R.J Umberger (two more years at $4.6 million per) and the retired Chris Pronger, Philly has more than $19 million tied up in contracts that appear unlikely to help the team win games.

That’s 27 percent of the cap, folks. No wonder team chairman Ed Snider has called for a “fresh approach.” The old one was taking this team in the wrong direction.

So far, the off-season has demonstrated that Hextall is willing to look outside the box for solutions. Instead of going for an established NHL coach like Mike Babcock, Pete DeBoer, Todd McLellan or Dan Bylsma, Hextall went for University of North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol, who took the school to seven Frozen Fours in 11 years and has lots of experience working with young hockey players.

The second noteworthy decision has been to bring in 32-year-old Russian defenceman Yevgeny Medvedev on a one-year, $3 million deal, ostensibly to buy some time while Philly’s promising group of defence prospects, including Samuel Morin, Shayne Gostisbehere, Travis Sanheim and Robert Hagg, are being developed.

If hiring Hakstol and signing Medvedev are indications the Flyers are willing to be patient and understand this will take some time, that’s excellent news for Philly fans.

Otherwise, making more short-term choices could really bury this team. 

The problem is Giroux is 27 and in his prime, and Voracek is 25 and just entering his prime. A slow and steady approach might leave those players without adequate support just when they have the ability to actually take this team somewhere.

That’s why you’re going to see the Flyers linked in the rumour mill to players like Mike Green and Phil Kessel. Even if Hextall wants to go in that direction, he’ll have to first figure out a way to jettison some contracts, which could mean he’ll have to pay other teams with draft picks or prospects to take those contracts.

That doesn’t make a lot of sense. 

On the other hand, a really aggressive approach would be to trade Giroux and his contract ($8.275 million per season until 2022), but the potential logic in that kind of move probably would be drowned out by the negative blowback from Flyer fans.

So let’s assume Hextall won’t go down that path.

The good news for the Flyers is they have two first round picks – No. 7 and No. 29 – plus an extra second rounder from Chicago picked up for Kimmo Timonen. They could add to that burgeoning defence group with one of Ivan Provorov, Noah Hanifin or Zach Werenski. Or, with only Val d’Or forward Nicolas Aube-Kubel in the system as a possible elite scorer, the Flyers could add a potential playmate for Giroux and Voracek through a prospect like Mikko Rantanen, Mathew Barzal or Pavel Zacha.

The ugly cap situation, then, is somewhat mitigated by the fact the Flyers do have some young players and prospects, and a high draft pick. But this is a team playing in a city where patience has never really been popular, where there hasn’t been a Cup won since 1975 and where spending to cover up mistakes in the pre-cap days used to provide answers that simply aren’t available in the cap era.

To get out of jail, Hextall’s No. 1 job has to be to clear up the cap problem, and that might take two or three years to do. Fortunately for him, the presence of other teams in the middle of long rebuilds like Toronto, Arizona, Buffalo and Carolina means there’s plenty of evidence out there that this is what the Flyers have to do.

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