Flyers mailbag: Cap flexibility, butts, free agent forwards, Hextall using analytics, and more

Bruce Bennett

Answering your Flyers questions from the wide world of Twitter.

Last night, literally minutes before the Flyers made a handful of small moves, I asked the denizens of the fine website of Twitter dot com for some questions about anything Flyers -- moves that happened, moves that are yet to happen, the draft, butt-grabbing, whatever you can think of. Several submissions were unfortunately left on the tweeting-room floor, but we've still got plenty of substantive things to talk about. You can see my answers to eight of these questions below. Hooray!

I like to imagine Paul Holmgren reading this tweet, then angrily yelling about how the Flyers are not in danger -- because they ARE the danger. The Flyers ARE the ones who live on the edge of the salary cap and somehow make it work every year.

But anywho. Yeah of course there's danger in it. I think the difference between now and the past is that there's always been danger, but we're actually seeing it handcuff us now. We basically spent the last four or five years of Paul Holmgren's tenure thinking "eventually living right on the edge of the cap is gonna bite us," and now, this year, with a new GM, a middling roster that needs improvement, and at least some decent deals to be had in free agency, it's biting us. It all finally appears to have bubbled over this summer, with the Flyers more than two million dollars above the cap while still having at least one or two NHL roster spots to fill. Yikes.

It's tough to blame Ron Hextall for it, since most of this mess isn't really his fault, but yeah, it's not good. Because what happens if you can't trade one of Vincent Lecavalier or Nicklas Grossmann or even Luke Schenn? Then what? You don't ever really want to be in this position that the Flyers are in right now. Yeah, there are other ways around it, as Kevin discussed this morning, but if it has to come down to something like that, you're probably doing it wrong.

On a related note, though ...

Travis discussed this a bit yesterday. As for me, I'm putting the chances of a Vinny trade (while not taking back something completely and blatantly undesirable) at somewhere a little above 50/50. I don't wanna go too much higher, because on the one hand, I spent all of last summer saying "well, eventually, the Flyers are going to trade a defenseman and get under the cap, so it's all good," and then they never did. So the fact that this is pretty much something they need to do to get under isn't really helping me much.

But on the other hand, I do think he has some value. I don't see him being much worse than he was last season, wherever he is. And 20 goals in a shortened, bad-by-his-standards season has to appeal to someone out there. So who knows. I bet there's someone (such as Peter Laviolette, as has repeatedly come up in rumors) who thinks he can get something more out of Vinny than we saw this year. Just maybe not $4.5-million-for-each-of-the-next-four-years' worth. So you retain some salary and hope someone bites. We'll find out soon enough.

Yikes. Really? I'm not a big fan of how this offseason is gone, but this seems like a bit much. That Flyers team from '06-'07 was legitimately one of the worst NHL teams of the past decade. This Flyers group as it's assembled now is coming off of a year in which it was a largely average team, and has really only made one significant lineup change as of now -- one that I do believe makes them worse, but certainly not enough of one to take them from average to terrible.

Right now I'm at the state with the Flyers where basically nothing that happens next year would surprise me. If everything that could go wrong goes wrong (i.e. Mason goes back to Columbus-era Mason, the old guys on defense fall way off, forwards are worse without Hartnell, etc.), coupled with the rest of the Metro division getting better, then I could see the Flyers being pretty bad. But this strikes me as an overreaction.

Speaking of overreactions ...

I mean ... I feel like most of the geniuses who run sports radio talk shows in this city probably think that the Flyers' best player getting arrested for grabbing a police officer's butt is hilarious. Sure, you'll get your exceptions like Macnow, but I don't think that this will end up resulting in a ton of serious criticism yet.

Key word, though: yet. As I hypothesized yesterday ...

If the Flyers are worse next year and Giroux gets cold at any point, I don't think any of us would be surprised if this ends up being a point randomly brought up against him as a knock on his decision-making or something like that. I can see the Inquirer headline tweets now. "Flyers clutching for a playoff spot? Guess which bum you can thank for that? MY COLUMN:"

It'll be great. Juuuuuuuust great.

Oh god this is gonna happen isn't it. The Flyers are going to sign Steve Ott and everyone's going to talk about him being a True Flyer because he does things like annoy people and lick them. Save me from this fresh hell.

... In seriousness, I don't really want Ott, but I don't think he's a terrible player. I'm guessing he'll end up getting more than he's worth wherever he signs (which hopefully happens soon, before the Flyers actually get the cap space to bring him in), but as a bottom-six guy, you could do worse. Plus, as I found out by looking on nhl dot com, he was 21st in the league in faceoffs last year, which is pretty good (better than anyone on the Flyers, at least). And that's while playing three-quarters of his season in Buffalo. That's basically like being fifth in the league anywhere else, right?

However, as mentioned, I'd prefer it not happen. But on this note ...

... there definitely ARE some forwards out there who can be had at a decent rate and can still contribute. Mueller's an interesting one -- after a handful of moderately successful years between Phoenix, Colorado, and Florida, he spent last season in the Swiss league (playing for, humorously enough, the Kloten Flyers).

He's a decent NHL forward -- he's scored 1.69 points per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play in his career, perfectly adequate for a second-liner, and he's typically posted solid possession numbers (albeit in relatively easier minutes). He's got some injury concerns, including a concussion that held him out the entire 2010-11 season, but the eighth overall pick from 2006 brings some skill to the table.

He's apparently looking for an NHL job again this summer, and Frank Seravalli of the Daily News mentioned yesterday that his agent's got a "list of teams" and that he thinks the Flyers are on it. Who knows how high his asking price will be, and it probably depends on how long that list actually is, but if you can get a guy like that on a value deal, there's no reason not to try and have him at least compete with some of the younger guys in camp. I hope they go after him, for sure.

While we're on the subject, Devin Setoguchi and David Booth are two other top-9 wingers who are out there and may go for cheap that I'd like to see the Flyers try and at least kick the tires on.

I saw this sentiment thrown around a few times on Twitter last week following the Hartnell/Umberger deal, and then again yesterday following the signing of Schultz, a guy who, to put it kindly, does not have flattering possession numbers. It's a reasonable question to ask. Hextall brought up analytics the day he was hired as something he wants to work with more here; however, nothing he's done has really made you think it was heavily influenced by analytics, and the biggest move he's made -- Hartnell for Umberger -- pretty much flew right in the face of possession metrics at first glance. (Neither of those moves were ones I really liked, if that helps put the following in context.)

With that said, I think it's a jump from that to "Hextall's actions so far shows that his talk of analytics is lip service". Even beyond the obvious point that it takes a while to get comfortable enough with using the numbers and data out there now to get them fully incorporated in your decision-making process (especially if you're just starting at it), there are two other points I want to bring up on that front.

1. "This move doesn't seem good based on Corsi" does not mean "this move doesn't have at least some sort of analytic-based thinking in it". Let's focus on the Hartnell trade as an example. It seems clear that Hextall came in and wasn't a big fan of Hartnell's game, and based on Hartnell's respectable point totals and strong possession numbers, you could say that's not an analytics-friendly viewpoint (though it seemed to be largely based on Hartnell's poor skating ability, which is fair).

But there were some reasonable conclusions you could draw from the move that a shrewd, numbers-oriented thinker could reasonably agree with, and they're mostly based on getting rid of Hartnell's bad contract -- something which, of course, Ron Hextall did not sign. Benjamin Wendorf, of former Behind the Net and current Hockey-Graphs fame, wrote a great piece summing that idea up last week, and though you should read all of it if you haven't, here's part of the money quote:

What Hextall is essentially doing is making the most of a bad situation. He's committed to the "Hartnell is not going to get better, and doesn't fit my vision of a successful Flyers squad," and ideally he'd like to get prospects and cap space. If he had leverage, he could probably get it; instead, he gets a contract that's bad but not as difficult to get out of, and a 4th round pick. He goes from NMC to a modified NTC, which affords him more leverage if he can convince a team that Umberger is a good defensive flex option (he can play either center or wing) within a year.

In essence, a thought process of "Hextall traded good Corsi guy for bad Corsi guy, therefore he doesn't know what he's doing" seems simple enough, but it's never that simple. I didn't like the trade and still don't, but there were clear reasons for it, some of which would fall in line with ideas that any analytics-friendly thinker would sympathize with.

2. No team in the NHL operates such that every move they make is a strongly analytics-friendly one. Let's turn to Nick Schultz as an illustration here. The Flyers signed a guy with a bad Corsi, so this means they don't use analytics, right? Well, imagine if a team actually gave up a draft pick for Nick Schultz and his bad Corsi. I bet that team is probably the dumbest bunch of buffoons you'll ever see, right?

Yeah! Columbus? What do they know about stats anyways? I bet they don't know their analytics from their assho--

... oh.

This isn't an isolated thing. There's no team that's never made a move that would cause an analytically-inclined observer of the game to scratch their head a bit. Even the smartest, most successful teams do this. Los Angeles gave ridiculous contract extensions to Jonathan Quick and Dustin Brown, and traded for and extended Robyn Regehr. Chicago gave a bloated deal to Corey Crawford, a decidedly average goalie. San Jose signed two enforcers -- they traded for Mike Brown and gave him a two-year deal! They signed John freaking Scott! -- within the past week, and seems like it wants to blow up its pretty darn good hockey team for shits and giggles.

Those are all teams that are (correctly) seen as smart, successful, forward-thinking organizations. No one's going to look at those moves and instantly conclude that they're using numbers wrong. Which is all to say that if you're going to look at a move or two, see that it doesn't jive with Corsi, and instantly conclude "well, this team isn't doing analytics right", you're going to reach the point of "well, there are no teams doing analytics right" pretty quickly.

So let me sum up my answer to that question as such: let's not rush to judge a guy's ambitions to use analytics (or lack thereof) based on the trading of a bad contract for another one and the signing of a seventh defenseman, all while his hands are tied up right at the salary cap, just because they aren't necessarily Corsi-friendly moves. All while just two months into his job. Please? Maybe it is lip service. I honestly wouldn't be that surprised. But there's just no reasonable way that we can discern that yet.

We'll end on a lighter note ...

I'm going to assume that by "members" he means "writers", because it's funnier to me that way. In which case it's definitely Albert. Not even close. I polled our staff on this upon seeing this question and everyone who responded said Albert. Including Albert. So that's pretty much that.

Though while we're talking about BSH writers and butts, now seems like as good of a time as any to mention the infamous story of Travis Hughes* shooting a bottle rocket out of his ass.

The complaint said Travis Hughes was "highly intoxicated" when he "decided in his drunken stupor that it would be a good idea to shoot bottle rockets out of his anus on the ATO deck, located on the back of the ATO house." After Hughes inserted the bottle rocket and lit it, "the bottle rocket blew up in the defendant's rectum" instead of propelling out.

Psh. You still feel important with your butt story, Claude?

* Note: the Travis Hughes in question is not, in fact, the Travis Hughes who runs Broad Street Hockey dot com. But it's fun to pretend.

Thanks for your questions. Good talk. Let's do this again some time.

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