There are several burning questions surrounding the Flyers this offseason, but perhaps none bigger than what the plan is for a third-line center to slot in between Sean Couturier, Nolan Patrick, and Scott Laughton. While Flyers GM Ron Hextall didn’t totally shut the door on bringing back Valtteri Filppula in free agency, there are plenty of red flags to suggest that the team should look anywhere else for help down the middle. Even with Filppula expected to take a large pay cut from the $5 million cap hit as his five-year deal signed with the Lightning back in 2013 expires, his advanced age and declining production shouldn’t warrant much of a look from the Flyers’ brass in free agency at any cost.
After a somewhat decent showing in 20 games for the Flyers after being acquired from Tampa Bay at last years trade deadline in a salary dump, Filppula stuck as a competent third-line center who could man the second power play, kill penalties and play a defensively responsible game for coach Dave Hakstol in 2017-18. It was a good idea in theory, but Filppula’s hot start (5G, 3A in 12 October games) faded quickly as the veteran would score just six more times all season long. He mustered just four power play points as the Flyers’ second man-advantage unit was a non-factor all season long. His possession play continued a sharp decline, too, as he posted a -7.4% Corsi relative to his teammates. To top it all off, he was a key cog in the NHL’s 29th-ranked penalty kill, ranking second among forwards on the team behind only Sean Couturier in shorthanded time on ice. While some of the issues can be attributed to usage, some of it can also lie with the fact that the veteran is just no longer a viable option in a top-nine role. Not only did he see a noticeable decline numbers-wise, but his skating increasingly became an issue as the season progressed. From December on, Filppula flip-flopped with Jori Lehtera as the Flyers’ worst forward (when Dale Weise wasn’t playing) and looked gassed most nights.
With Scott Laughton penciled into the fourth line center role, and prospects like Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Mikhail Vorobyev, and Mike Vecchione among others waiting in the wings, there’s simply no room for Filppula in Philadelphia anymore. It would be moronic for Hextall to bring him back at any number, when there are others in the system capable of stepping in and. at the very least, provide the mediocrity that the Finland native brought to the lineup this past year. Ideally the Flyers would like to bring in a third line center behind Couturier and Patrick while keeping Laughton in his checking line role.
Hextall has plenty of cap space (about $17 million according to CapFriendly) to invest in an upgrade over Filppula, who has been the de facto third center for a year and a half. Scott Cullen of TSN suggested that Riley Nash, among other moves, would be a fit for the Flyers in his off-season game plan piece. Nash is expected to see a raise on the $900,000 cap hit he played at on a two-year deal with Boston, but is 29 and coming off a 41-point season (15G, 26A) for the Bruins in a depth forward role. Nash led Bruins forwards in shorthanded time on ice for the NHL’s third-best penalty kill, though he’s up for a raise, he’d make less than the $5 million Filppula made last year and would be a massive upgrade. In that same piece, Cullen mentions Tyler Bozak, Tomas Plekanec, and Derek Ryan as other third line center possibilities with Paul Stastny as more of a pipe dream.
Bringing back Filppula at any cost would be a mistake for the Flyers when there are plenty of in-house and out-of-house options that would be better than settling for another year of Filppula. With the team trending upwards once again, Ron Hextall needs to make improvements around his roster and one of the easiest ones would be to say thanks but no thanks to a Filppula return.