No swing for Gaudreau? Flyers' 'aggressive retool' quiet in free agency

No swing for Gaudreau? Flyers’ ‘aggressive retool’ quiet in free agency

Here’s Johnny.

For the Blue Jackets.

Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher decided to not pull the trigger on making an attempt at landing Johnny Gaudreau, the premier free agent on the market Wednesday.

It appears like a major missed opportunity for Fletcher and the Flyers.

Time, of course, will tell. Down the line, money and the flexibility with it might talk, too.

But the Flyers don’t look like they’re full-on rebuilding and this was a shot to push things forward exponentially.

Gaudreau ended up signing a seven-year, $68.25 million deal with Columbus. That’s a $9.75 million average annual value.

Acquiring a player the caliber of Gaudreau does not happen easily. It would have required the Flyers to free up significant cap space by moving a player with a bigger contract — or possibly two — along with other assets included. To clear room for some spending, the club had already made a difficult decision the day prior by buying out the final year of Oskar Lindblom’s contract.

More: After being bought out by Flyers, Lindblom finds new home

Gaudreau’s term and money — not cheap.

But the dynamic, 40-goal, 115-point winger parted ways with Calgary to play closer to home. He’s from South Jersey, played at Gloucester Catholic High School and grew up a Flyers fan.

ESPN’s Emily Kaplan reported Wednesday morning that the Flyers were “Gaudreau’s top choice.” That in and of itself felt like a gift considering the Flyers went 25-46-11 last season. It felt like a gift wrapped with a shiny bow considering the club is hoping to “aggressively retool,” contend again sooner rather than later and put butts back in seats at the Wells Fargo Center.

 

For those purposes, did the Flyers contemplate taking a swing for Gaudreau?

“We’re not involved in the Johnny Gaudreau sweepstakes,” Fletcher said.

“We don’t have the cap space to pursue those high-end type of free agents.

“You’d have to move multiple contracts to be able to do that and you have to have a team, as well. In some cases, contracts are extremely hard to move. In other cases, there are players that we don’t want to move, we feel they’re a big part of our future.”

On Wednesday, after the free agency period commenced at noon ET, the Flyers brought back third-pair defenseman Justin Braun and signed depth forward Nicolas Deslauriers.

They signed one of their former forward prospects Cooper Marody (two-year, two-way deal, $762,500 AAV) and re-signed defenseman Kevin Connauton (two-year, two-way deal, $762,500 AAV). They also added goalie Troy Grosenick (one-year, one-way deal, $750,000 AAV), defenseman Louis Belpedio (one-year, two-way deal, $750,000 AAV) and forward Adam Brooks (two-year, two-way deal, $762,500 AAV).

Their biggest offseason addition came via a trade on Day 2 of the NHL draft last Friday when they acquired righty-shot defenseman Tony DeAngelo.

“We’re out on all the remaining free agents with the reality of our cap situation right now,” Fletcher said. “It probably precluded us from looking at some of the more expensive options in the market today. But today, to us, was more about depth signings, getting guys to make us a little bit harder to play against and making sure we have some players on two-way contracts that can move between Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia.

“I talked to a lot of teams over the last little while about maybe ways to get cap flexibility. I don’t know that it’s fair to comment on specific players. We looked at some different options. The price of moving contracts is really expensive. … At this point in time, for us, we like our depth up front. There’s no question, as I’ve mentioned repeatedly, ideally we’d like to get some more high-end skill.”

Fletcher mentioned future first-round picks being important to that initiative, something the Flyers very possibly would have had to throw in for a deal to clear significant cap. According to multiple national reports, the Flyers had looked into potential trades for James van Riemsdyk, who is entering the final year of his five-year, $35 million contract. Such a deal would have been one way to free cap, but sweeteners were likely needed.

 

The Flyers currently have $5 million or more committed to six forwards apiece. They have $10-plus million committed to defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen and DeAngelo.

Are the Flyers rebuilding or retooling? Are they judiciously going for it?

Fletcher has emphasized the Flyers’ defensive issues last season, their second straight of missing the playoffs. He highlighted the club’s problems exiting the defensive zone and, as a result, being forced to play too much defense.

With John Tortorella, a head coach known for stingy goal prevention and making life easier on his goaltender, Fletcher’s focus was clearly shoring up his back end. Perhaps with a balanced and multifaceted defense, the Flyers’ offense, in theory, will come more naturally.

“There’s no question to me we’ll be a much more competitive team this season,” Fletcher said.

More: Why Atkinson vouched for Tortorella in exit meeting with Fletcher

DeAngelo was important insurance for Ryan Ellis, who is recovering from a multilayered injury in his pelvic region that cost him all but four games last season.

Fletcher said Ellis has progressed but “there’s no guarantee when he’ll be back.”

“That’s certainly a massive hole in our lineup,” Fletcher said, “which we filled with Tony DeAngelo.”

If and when Ellis returns, the Flyers conceivably could have a deep group on the blue line to help take pressure off of 23-year-old goalie Carter Hart.

“We felt our biggest weaknesses right now were on defense,” Fletcher said. “So adding DeAngelo and Braun we feel helps our group, gives us a much better top six in the event that Ellis takes longer to heal to get back. If Ellis can come back quicker, we have depth and we can figure out what to do if we have too many good players. It’s not a problem if you have too many good defensemen.

“But right now, my bigger concern was not having enough good defensemen and relying too much on young players like we did last year. Fixing the defense was extremely important to us. Up front, we have a lot of young players that we have to see if they can play.

“Right now, as an organization, the most important thing that we have to do is stabilize. I think we’ll be a much improved team, we’ll be a competitive team. A lot of things that we really struggled with last year, I feel we have a chance to be considerably better at, whether it’s our goals against, our structure, our penalty kill and our power play. Those are areas we’re all going to attack.”

The plan of attack won’t feature Gaudreau, who was reportedly interested in joining the attack.

Fans had to stomach that decision Wednesday. Nobody can blame them if they don’t get over it.

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