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Should the Flyers buy out Sam Gagner?

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Following the Nicklas Grossmann and Chris Pronger trade, speculation is that the Flyers would buy out their newly-acquired forward from Arizona. Should they?

Greatest sweaters of all time and I will hear no arguments to the contrary.
Greatest sweaters of all time and I will hear no arguments to the contrary.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Somewhat lost in the Saturday post-draft pandemonium of the Flyers getting rid of Nicklas Grossmann and Chris Pronger's contract was the acquisition of forward Sam Gagner. Gagner, a former sixth overall pick of the Edmonton Oilers who turns 26 this summer, spent seven years with Edmonton before being dealt twice last summer and ending up in Arizona. He's never quite lived up to what was expected of him as a top-10 pick, but he's always been at worst a productive NHL forward.

Yet the discussion immediately following the trade was whether or not the Flyers would keep him around at all -- and the fact that Ron Hextall wouldn't commit to it suggests that the team may have him pegged as a buyout target.

Regular-course buyouts are generally things you want to avoid if at all possible. For the most part, you have to think very little of a guy to pay money against your cap for multiple years just to get him off of your team.

But in the case of Gagner, who comes to town with a $3.2 million cap hit, the negative ramifications for the Flyers to buy him out would be relatively minimal, for three reasons in particular.

  1. Gagner's contract only has one year remaining, so there would only be two years' worth of buyout money on the Flyers' cap.
  2. Since Gagner is currently 25 years old (he turns 26 in August), the Flyers would only have to pay out one-third of the value remaining on his contract to buy him out. (For players 26 or older, two-thirds of the value would have to be paid out.)
  3. Gagner's cap hit is $3.2 million because the Tampa Bay Lightning -- who traded for him last summer before immediately dealing him back out to Arizona -- retained one-third of his salary in making that deal. Which means that Tampa would take on one-third of the cost of the buyout.

All of which boils down to this:

The total cost to the Flyers of buying out Sam Gagner across two years is less than $1 million -- on a per-year basis, slightly less than the cost of keeping a minimum-salary player on their cap for each of the next two seasons. Essentially, if the Flyers think Gagner is not worth his contract, they should probably do it, since it costs them almost nothing against the cap. (Which is exactly the reason the Coyotes were probably going to buy him out themselves if they couldn't swing a deal for him.) From there, they could use the extra $2.78 million or so that they'd get and spend it elsewhere.

But here's the hang-up: Unless the Flyers have something really specific and really big in mind for that cap space, it's unlikely they get much more value than they'd get from Gagner.

What Gagner brings

Gagner hasn't quite lived up to the billing he got coming out of the draft in 2007, but he's a center who's scored at least a half-point per game in every season he's played in the NHL -- despite never once playing on a team that was good enough to make the playoffs. His play defensively has never been very strong, but he can score, and though he's typically been sheltered with offensively-oriented minutes, he's been a plus possession player relative to his teammates in each of the past five seasons (via war-on-ice).

This past year was one of the lowest-scoring seasons of his career, as his mark of 0.51 points per game was the worst he's put up as an NHLer, but his scoring at even-strength still was fairly respectable. As our own Ryan G. points out, he's already looking pretty good compared to the guys on the Flyers roster:

And he did all of that despite (a) playing for the Arizona Coyotes, who were dead last in the NHL in 5-on-5 scoring this past year, and (b) having an individual shooting percentage of 5.80 percent and an on-ice shooting percentage at 6.93 percent (again, per war-on-ice), both of which are numbers well below his career averages and ones that you could reasonably expect to rebound to some extent next year next year.

Gagner was sheltered pretty heavily last year, as he had by far the highest offensive zone start percentage of any Coyotes forward. But he scored at the rate of a satisfactory second-line center regardless, and that was despite some reasonably poor shooting luck. He's an NHL-caliber center -- at worst, one who'd be a really good third-line center; at best, an above-average second-line center.

Yet there's one of the big hang-ups for most: he is, indeed, a center. The Flyers are generally considered to be pretty set down the middle. But after Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier, are any of the options they have superior to Gagner? The team seems content to keep Brayden Schenn on the wing, and I don't think they're expecting Vincent Lecavalier to have some kind of renaissance this year. As a sheltered third-line center who can add some offense, I think he'd fit in fairly well.

The alternatives

All of which is to say, if I were Ron Hextall, there are exactly two good justifications I could think of that would lead me to buy out Sam Gagner:

  1. The Flyers are 100 percent set on entering the season with Scott Laughton as the No. 3 center, are not willing to shift him out to the left wing, do not believe Gagner himself can shift out to the left wing, and wouldn't want to keep a fourth-line center around for $3.2 million.
  2. The Flyers have something very specific and significant in mind -- i.e. an offer sheet or high-profile trade target -- to use the extra $2.7 million they'd get from buying out Gagner on.

If it's the first option, I'm OK with that. The Flyers brought Laughton up as a center and they seem to like him there. But Laughton slowed down a bit after the concussion he suffered in January this past year, and I'm willing to guess the team wants to see him continue to play well at the AHL level before immediately thrusting him into a top-9 role. So I don't think that's it. (Though, if it is, I trust their ability to evaluate Laughton's NHL-readiness.)

If it's the second option, then that's also cool. I don't know what's out there that would require $7 million in cap space, given that the team's only remaining free agent of note (Michael Del Zotto) is not going to cost even close to that much. But if there's a big splash in mind? One that would make this team a lot better in both the short and long-term? One that Hextall has already got a reason to believe he'll be able to pull off? Man, go for it. That'd be exciting.

But if it's not one of those two, then what's the need?

Ron Hextall has made it clear he wants to improve this team this year while at the same time not sacrificing any long-term stability of the franchise. He just picked up a middle-six center who will be 26 years old and under contract for only one year, at a rate and term that's assuredly below what he'd make on the open market right now. He makes the team better in the short-term, he may have some long-term upside, and if it doesn't work out, the team can let him go at the end of the year and won't have to worry about any money on their cap next summer.

Isn't that exactly what "improving short-term without sacrificing the long-term" looks like? Didn't we see this past year how short-term contracts like the ones given to Del Zotto, Carlo Colaiacovo, and Nick Schultz can work out? At this time last August, Del Zotto was a still-fairly-young player who used to have a ton of promise but had been given up on by two teams, and he ended up working out pretty well for a one-year deal. Couldn't Gagner be the same?

Having cap space for free agency is great. Having cap space in general is awesome, and the more of it the Flyers can get, the better. Heck, I'm not even opposed to the idea of just sitting on cap space and waiting for the right opportunity to use it -- that's how the Islanders picked up Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk a week before the season started this past summer.

But we know the Flyers want to use their cap space. They are trying to improve their team now. And Hextall said it himself last year -- big deals signed in free agency often leave teams with "buyer's remorse". Take a look at this year's free agency class, and answer this question: is there anyone out there who ...

  1. ... has a more established track record of NHL production than Gagner/will probably be a better player than him?
  2. ... will be able to be signed to a lower-risk contract than the one-year, $3.2 million contract that Gagner is on? A contract that's likely to provide good value and won't blow up in the Flyers' face?
  3. ... is likely to want to go to the Flyers over any other teams?

Let me know when you find anyone out there who hits all three of those points. I'm not holding my breath.

***

I don't know how Ron Hextall pulled off that wizardry that he did on Saturday. I may never know. And yes, Arizona clearly wanted Gagner out for some reason ...

... and it's fair to ask why Don Maloney is left saying that kind of thing about the guy who was his team's highest-scoring forward last year. And who knows -- maybe they're right about Gagner and he won't end up having been worth the trouble when all is said and done.

But it sure looks to me like the Flyers were just given an obvious upgrade to their forward corps at a very low-risk rate. They shouldn't give that up.