Restricted free agency in the NHL has stood as something of a forbidden fruit. It’s there. It’s right in front of you. You want to take a bite, but can you? Should you? The initial bite might tingle your tastebuds, but that momentary joy can turn to the bitterness of a rotten lemon in a millisecond. It’s a rarity to even broach the topic, let alone maintain possession of the fruits of one’s labor. How rare? There have been just 35 offer sheets made to restricted free agents in NHL history. In the past twenty years, only eight, yes EIGHT offer sheets have been extended to another team’s restricted free agent. It just so happens that two of those eight – a staggering 25% – have been offered by your team, your town, your Philadelphia Flyers.
Will Chuck Fletcher become the third Flyers GM in thirty-three years to make an offer to a restricted free agent? There are plenty of reasons to believe that it’s going to happen.
Reason #1: Influencers
I mentioned earlier that only two Flyers general managers have ever made an offer sheet to a restricted free agent and you’ll recognize the names: Bob Clarke and Paul Holmgren. The latter is the man who officially hired Fletcher and currently serves as the Flyers Team President. The former is a man who played a bigger role in the hiring of Chuck Fletcher than he might let on. Clarke first hired Fletcher as an Assistant GM of the Florida Panthers back in 1993. He’s spoken glowingly of Fletcher including this:
Reason #2: Bob Clarke Said As Much
When Anthony and I sat down with Bob Clarke, who now serves as Flyers Senior Vice President, for an exclusive interview for Snow The Goalie, I asked about why more teams don’t make offer sheets to restricted free agents. Then Clarke dropped this bombshell:
— Russ Joy (@JoyOnBroad) March 10, 2019
“You’re gonna see it with restricted free agents, just because of the salary cap. Teams get a restricted free agent coming up… they’ve got three or four million dollars in cap space, someone’s gonna come in and offer five or six, maybe overpay, but it’s gonna happen.” One could take that quote a couple of ways. Could Clarke have been talking league-wide as he referenced “teams”? Sure. But, remember, this wasn’t the question asked. Clarke’s got Fletcher’s ear. This was about as much of a pronouncement of off-season strategy as I think we’ll ever get. As for teams he could be referencing, I’ll get to that later. I wondered if Fletcher – or any GM for that matter – has been/would be hesitant to burn bridges with another member of the sacred front office fraternity:
.@NHLFlyers Hall of Famer Bob Clarke joined @AntSanPhilly & @JoyOnBroad for an exclusive sit-down for #SnowTheGoalie. NHL GMs rarely submit offer sheets to Restricted Free Agents. Does Clarke think they fear burning bridges with their counterparts? Watch: pic.twitter.com/qxoQxqSEit
— Kyle Scott (@CrossingBroad) March 8, 2019
Ultimately, he’s right. Another front office shouldn’t hold it against Fletcher professionally if he were to poach a top RFA away from a contender, but it’s easier said by a guy who by his own admission spends much of his time golfing in Florida than for someone actively working in the NHL.
Reason #3: An Exorbitant Amount of Cap Space
With a projected salary cap of roughly $83 million for the 2019-20 season, the Flyers find themselves with slightly less than $47 million committed to players against the cap. That leaves them with about $36 million in cap space, third most in the entire league behind only Ottawa and Colorado. It looks tantalizing until you take into account the fact that the Flyers have critical restricted free agents of their own to re-sign long-term including Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, Travis Sanheim, and Phil Myers. The team could also choose to bring back Ryan Hartman and they’re also expected to re-sign UFA netminder Cam Talbot.
Assuming the team makes reasonable offers: Provy ($5m), Konecny ($5m), Sanheim ($4.25m), Myers ($3.25m), Hartman ($2.25m), Talbot ($3.25m), that leaves them with $13 million in potential cap space. That’s more than enough to pry away a top RFA or deliver a Shea Weber sized poison pill to a team at the top third of the conference.
Side note: Don’t look past 2020, when the team will also have to offer deals to Nolan Patrick, Oskar Lindblom, and potentially Robert Hägg.
Reason #4: Fletcher Could Irreparably Damage An Eastern Conference Foe
Like Clarke said earlier, if a team has, “three or four million dollars in cap space, someone’s gonna come in and offer five or six, maybe overpay.”
Let’s drill down on what I believe Clarke was really alluding to. There are three prominent headliners leading a stacked RFA class this summer: Colorado RW Mikko Rantanen, Toronto RW Mitch Marner, and Tampa Bay C Brayden Point. The latter two are the most intriguing for a myriad of reasons. Consider this: if Chuck Fletcher were to pursue Marner or Point, it could represent a no-lose situation for his team.
Let’s look at Tampa Bay’s situation first. Brayden Point is in the midst of his third NHL season. At age 22, he’s racked up 82 points (37 goals/45 assists) in 67 games. If his point progression were to continue in the 2019-20 season, he could be poised to eclipse 100 points; heck there’s still time for him to get there this year. The Lightning enter the offseason with roughly $10 million of cap space and only sixteen players under contract. While they’re likely the deepest team in the entire league, they have a long-term deficiency with only four defensemen under contract for the 2019-20 season. Could Fletcher work out a trade of, say, Shayne Gostisbehere – who drew interest from one Western Conference team at the trade deadline – in order to clear out a bit more cap space for the Orange & Black while providing Tampa an affordable asset at a valuation that many in the league would consider to be an underpay for a defenseman with Ghost’s unique skillset? It would likely need to occur as a side deal between Philly and Tampa Bay, one that forces the Lightning to admit they won’t be able to match an offer from the Flyers with an annual cap hit of $10m+.
Toronto’s cap situation is even more tenuous and could provide some juicy options for Fletcher. After signing #1 free agent John Tavares after the 2017-18 season, the Maple Leafs doled out a shiny new 6-yr, $41.4m deal to William Nylander just before the December RFA deadline AND a 5-yr, $58.17m megadeal to Auston Matthews. That leaves them with just under $10 million of cap space to fill out nine roster spots. Would the Flyers throw down an offer sheet in excess of $10m annually to Mitch Marner? The soon-to-be 22 year old has posted 82 points (24 goals/58 assists) through 68 games in his third NHL season. Maybe, just maybe, that’s not even the player the Flyers have their eye on. In a Pierre LeBrun piece for The Athletic, Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher was quoted as saying:
“It’s a tool, but the problem in many cases is that you have to overpay to overwhelm the team to get the player,” said Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher. “To the point where you end up creating cap issues for yourself. So it has to be … there are probably circumstances where you would consider it and probably circumstances where it just doesn’t make sense. It can be a pretty prohibitive price both in terms of money and assets to give up.’’
A general manager, who was provided anonymity due to speculating about another team’s player, asked of signing a secondary piece from Toronto such as Kasperi Kapanen:
“If you sign Kapanen to a contract paying $6 million a year, are the Leafs really capable of matching it?’’
I wonder who that GM could’ve been. Anthony and I have discussed the Wayne Simmonds for Kasperi Kapanen rumor multiple times on The Press Row Show and Snow The Goalie. Though that deal was never consummated, perhaps the Flyers have never taken their eye off that prize. Kapanen got his start playing locally while his dad Sami was a member of the Philadelphia Flyers. Teams typically put a high emphasis on familiarity with a player when deciding on whether or not to pursue him in free agency, and it’s safe to say they have that with Kasperi. Would it be the splashy kind of deal fans are expecting? No. But if it were to take place in conjunction with a UFA signing of Artemi Panarin, it would round out an excellent off-season.
Reason #5: The Flyers Are Trending in the Right Direction
I know, I know. The organization was mired in some terrible play to start the season, found itself firing both its GM Ron Hextall and head coach Dave Hakstol, while also setting the NHL record for the most goalies play to play in a single season (8). However, there’s reason to believe in the building blocks the team has in place. Carter Hart more than lived up to the hype and has solidified his place as the team’s franchise netminder. The defensive corps stands as one of the most promising long-term groups in the entire league. The aforementioned Patrick, Konecny, and Lindblom have all taken steps forward – no pun intended – and should continue to develop with established veterans Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, and James van Riemsdyk on their lines. That’s not even mentioning 2018 Selke Finalist Sean Couturier, who is regarded around the league as one of the top two-way forwards in the game. Not that it will necessarily mean anything for 2019-20, but interim head coach Scott Gordon has overseen one of the most impressive turnarounds in modern hockey history, pulling a last-place squad out of the quagmire they found themselves in and leading them to within five points of the final wildcard spot with fourteen games to play.
Clarke brought up another thing that means quite a bit to free agents and their agents: a respected organization has an easier time pitching the best long-term outlook than the opposite end of the spectrum:
The development on this team’s young nucleus has made the potential move for a big free agent not only plausible, but in some ways necessary.
I’d be hard-pressed to advise against an offer sheet for Point or Marner, even with the full knowledge that the compensation – four first-round picks if the AAV exceeds $10,148,303 – is a king’s ransom. It remains to be seen whether Chuck Fletcher follows in the footsteps of his mentor Bob Clarke and boss Paul Holmgren, but it no longer seems out of the question; in fact, I expect it.
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