Ron Hextall's work before the 2015 NHL trade deadline has received almost universally positive reviews, both on a local and national scale. Trades of Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen for a total of four draft picks, including three in the first three rounds of this year's draft, were moves that were seen as crucial to both establishing a base of prospects in Philadelphia and clearing up some space on a crowded, expensive blue line.
Let's focus on the second part of that -- the space-clearing part. A sampling of things written about Hextall's work in recent days (emphasis mine in all cases):
The second trade was a necessary one. The Flyers still had a need to unload defensemen and cap space. They did both by trading Braydon Coburn to Tampa Bay. What proved to be shocking was the return Hextall got for the veteran defenseman - two draft picks, including Tampa's first-round pick, and Radko Gudas, a 24-year-old defenseman.
That was until we finally got our first real glimpse of his road map for the Flyers' rebuild over the past 4 days, which included trading Timonen and Braydon Coburn for a slew of draft picks, bringing roster and salary-cap flexibility that hasn't been seen here really since the start of the cap era in 2005.
We all know how important any cap space is to this cap-strung Flyers team. But it's even more important in the coming years as the Flyers have to find ways to open up cap space for their younger talent, especially defenseman - Sam Morin, Shayne Gostisbehere, Robert Hagg, etc. - who are coming up through the system.
Trading Coburn not only opened up that cap space, but it opened up a spot along the blue line for one of those guys next year.
Any analysis of Hextall's work with the cap and roster has to acknowledge the situation. He took over what was quite possibly the least enviable salary cap situation of any team in the NHL. We knew from the start that digging out of that hole would take a while. And some viewed trading Coburn and Timonen as a huge first step in doing just that.
However, if we're looking past this year, it's hard to argue that the cap situation's much better than it was when Hextall took over in May.
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Braydon Coburn was on the books for one more year at $4.5 million in salary. That is now gone. In return, the Flyers added Radko Gudas to their books for next year at $992,000 in salary. So, in that vacuum, the Flyers have saved $3.5 million for next year and next year alone.
But then you remember that there's been salary added since Hextall took over. In particular, Nick Schultz's, as he was given a two-year deal with $2.25 million in salary per year a couple weeks ago. Or Michael Del Zotto's, as the Flyers will almost certainly offer him a new contract when this year is up.
So let's put this in table form, because I like tables. Not including Chris Pronger, here's what the Flyers' defense looked like beyond the 2014-15 season when Hextall took over on May 7. (Values given are cap hits.)
|Total Cap Hit||$21,850,000||$10,250,000||$5,000,000||$5,000,000||$5,000,000|
And here's where it is now, without making any assumptions about Del Zotto:
|Total Cap Hit||$20,592,000||$12,500,000||$5,000,000||$5,000,000||$5,000,000|
No matter what happens with Del Zotto, the Flyers actually have more bodies on the blue line next year and in 2016-17 than they would have had Hextall not traded anyone, not yet re-signed Schultz or not picked up Gudas in the Coburn deal.
And if they sign Del Zotto to what seems like it'd be a fair contract -- say, somewhere around three years and $8 million, for a cap hit of $2.67 million per year -- then they'd have more money committed to their blue line for next year than they would have otherwise.
All of that, too, is before you even remember that Coburn is a better player than all three of the guys that have been/will be added, and the only one who you can pretty safely say would be a top-4 defenseman on most teams. The Flyers have picked up three more third-pair defensemen (maybe Del Zotto is more than that, but probably not a lot more) and have subtracted one of the two guys on their roster who's a real top-4 defenseman. (And the only other one is 37 years old.)
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Having a high volume of third-pair defenseman on unreasonable contracts was the problem that Hextall faced when he took over. Adding even more third-pair defensemen on reasonable third-pair contracts and subtracting a top-4 defenseman on a reasonable top-4 contracts is not the way to fix that problem.
Finding third-pair types isn't hard. Finding defensemen who can log big, important minutes is hard. The Flyers have proven both of these things in recent years.
As it is, the Flyers are no less likely to be in a cap crunch next year due to Hextall's early efforts. Unless they're able to make moves this summer, they're still either not going to have enough room to fit a young defenseman into the everyday lineup or going to have to have multiple high-cost scratches. Trading Braydon Coburn really didn't do anything to fix that. I wouldn't say he's made it worse, but it isn't really any better than it was when Paul Holmgren handed him the reigns.
Now, none of this is to say that Hextall did at all poorly with the Coburn trade (or the Timonen trade, which I won't really touch on since we all knew Timonen wasn't going to be on the cap next year). It seems like the Flyers weren't looking to re-sign Coburn when he was up next summer, and to get a first-round pick and more for that is pretty great.
Combine the picks Hextall just grabbed with the ones he got this past summer in the Scott Hartnell and Tye McGinn trades, and no one can possibly deny that he's done a great job setting the Flyers up with chances to get some good prospects this June. Seven picks in the top 100 of one of the deepest drafts in years is no joke, considering in May the Flyers only had two of them.
And I don't want to make it sound like there were obviously superior cap-clearing alternatives on the table, either. There's a reason the Flyers weren't able to move any of their third-pair types -- because they aren't desirable. No team wants those guys for the same reasons Hextall was probably trying to get rid of them. It was never really likely that any of Nicklas Grossmann or Luke Schenn or (lol) Andrew MacDonald were going to be sent out.
But the point is that the "Hextall has done a great job starting to clear up Paul Holmgren's mess" narrative doesn't really hold up, and that we're not really any farther along on the road to salary cap and roster freedom than we were a month or so ago. Selling off arguably the only two players on the blue line who had real value doesn't go very far to fix this roster's long-term issues.
So that's disappointing. But, for now, it's OK. It probably wasn't realistic to expect Hextall to pull in a great haul of picks AND to create a ton of cap/roster flexibility in less than a year on the job. He has done one of those two things, and he has done it very well. It'll take a while to do both of them, and we know that -- and we know that Hextall does too.
The next few steps in building this team back up are as important as any. Full speed ahead.