Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher made a savvy move Monday night by trading for the rights to pending unrestricted free agent center Kevin Hayes.
The cost of the move was a fifth round pick in the 2019 draft, and the pick was unconditional, meaning the Winnipeg Jets, who had acquired Hayes at the trade deadline, get the pick regardless of whether the Flyers sign Hayes or not.
A fifth round pick is an asset, yes, but hardly one the Flyers couldn’t part with as part of their three-week courting process of Hayes before he can start talking to other NHL teams and eventually become a free agent on July 1.
The Flyers had 10 picks in seven rounds coming into the draft and weren’t going to keep them all anyway. Parting with a lottery ticket pick for the chance to sign a guy you really like before anyone else has a chance to woo him is a worthwhile risk.
But is there a little more to it than that? Is it possible that this ploy by the Flyers is one rooted in a far deeper issue?
There used to be a time when the Flyers would go into free agency and be among the most desired destinations for players to go in the NHL.
People will argue that I’m just remembering the old days when the Flyers would simply outspend the rest of the league and sign whatever player they wanted, but Philly was a destination location after the the 2005 lockout, too. Danny Briere signed here. Jaromir Jagr signed here. These were elite players in the sport who chose Philadelphia over other towns that made a lot of sense at the time.
Briere was from near Montreal and the Canadiens had a big offer on the table – and he chose the Flyers. There were reports that Jagr was headed back to Pittsburgh, too, only to change his mind last minute and come to Philadelphia.
Players still wanted to come here even when they had a choice to go somewhere else that was either home or like home.
But now? Maybe not.
Now, while Philadelphia still has a reputation as a great hockey market, the seven-years-and-counting drought without a playoff series win has brought the city back to the pack quite a bit.
The shine of Philadelphia as a premier hockey market has dulled. The belief of the Flyers being a family lost a little of its genealogy after Ed Snider died and the organization became far more corporate from top to bottom.
The Flyers will never admit publicly that this has happened. They still say things like “this is one of the premiere hockey markets in the NHL,” and all that fluff, but internally they know they are at an absolute precipice on the sports landscape.
The organizational atmosphere has definitely changed, and that shift has led to the removal of a lot of individuals within the organization who had ties to those days when players bragged to their friends around the league about just well they were treated in Philly and how it was a hockey utopia.
This isn’t to say the players are treated poorly now. That’s definitely not the case. The Flyers still take care of their own – just with a lot less fanfare than before.
They are the forgotten child in Philadelphia. The other three major pro sports teams in town are contending for titles right now, and the Flyers are lost in mediocrity with a fan base at its peak level of apathy.
And it’s that hit to the image that has the Flyers trying to be more creative and competitive for players than maybe they did in years past.
Which is why this move for Hayes makes a lot of sense.
Chuck Fletcher and Alain Vigneault can roll out the red carpet for Hayes – who by no means is an All-Star, but definitely fits a needed role with the team.
Vigneault coached Hayes for four years in New York. As we discussed on Snow the Goalie in April once Vigneault was hired, it was likely the Flyers would be interested in players Vigneault previously coached who were free agents and would be upgrades to the team.
Hayes, Mats Zuccarello, Anton Stralman, Alexander Edler and Dan Girardi were all very likely to be discussed and potentially targeted.
Hayes, 27, was first on the list because the Flyers needed size down the middle and a boost to their secondary scoring. Hayes is 6-foot-5, so there’s the size, and he had 19 goals and 55 points last season for the Rangers and Jets combined.
He’s a decent two-way player, and although he doesn’t have top-end speed, he’s not a sloth. He can skate well enough to get to where he needs to go and not be caught behind the play. He’s also developed into a reliable penalty-killing forward, so he checks a lot of boxes.
But, would he have chosen Philadelphia over another potential destination if he was just left to go into free agency on July 1? Maybe. We might still find out to be honest. Just because Hayes is here, it doesn’t mean he stays.
Trades of this kind are always a gamble. The player may not want to pick the city no matter how much they wine and dine him.
The Flyers have had some success with this kind of move in the past. Both Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell passed on free agency to sign with the Flyers after Paul Holmgren acquired their rights in the Spring of 2007.
They also traded with the Islanders for the rights to Mark Streit before the 2013-14 season and signed him and one they wish they had back was Ilya Bryzgalov, whom they signed in the Spring of 2011 after trading with the Arinoza (nee Phoenix) Coyotes for his rights.
The only one where the player said no thanks was Dan Hamhuis, who the Flyers traded with Nashville for in 2010 but then traded his rights away after Hamhuis declined to sign prior to July 1.
One interesting thing to note is that in each of these instances, the Flyers were in a bit of desperation mode.
With Timonen and Hartnell, the Flyers were coming off the worst season in franchise history and were trying to become a competitor right away again. That was the sales pitch to both, and it worked.
Bryzgalov was demanded by Snider after the playoff debacle that was the goalie carousel that resulted with an embarrassing second round loss to New Jersey after a nearly-as-embarrassing first round come from behind seven-game win over an inferior Buffalo team the season after the Flyers reached the Cup Finals.
Streit came after a shortened season in which the Flyers missed the playoffs primarily because their defense was woeful.
Only Hamhuis came at a time that was less desperate, but after losing to the Penguins in the Conference Finals in 2008 and getting bounced by them in the first round in 2009, Holmgren was looking to bolster his defense for the Penguins heading into 2010 and thought Hamhuis would be a solid two-way defensive choice.
Hamhuis wanted to go play for the Vancouver Canucks instead because they were close to his hometown of Smithers, B.C.
Are the Flyers desperate now?
With the amount of holes they need to fill, they sure are.
They’re hoping having Hayes’ former coach show him around and tell him how great the organization is will help land a center they’ve needed for a couple years now.
And if so, while it won’t vault the Flyers back into the upper echelon of NHL destination locations, it certainly will pique the interest of some other free agents.
It’s safe to say, the Flyers really have their fingers crossed on this one. And that’s a far cry from where things used to be.
These days the Flyers are trying to send good vibes into the universe that their new coach and relatively new general manager can convince a guy who’s probably not a true No. 2 center but is better than a No. 3 center to take their money and not wait and see if a better opportunity arises in a few weeks.
If it works, it’s the first small step to reparation of a franchise’s hockey reputation.
If it fails… then there are no words to describe just how far the mighty have fallen.