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Flyers offseason free agent targets: A top-six center

Is a Kevin Hayes-Alain Vigneault reunion on the horizon?

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New York Rangers v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

Remember when the problem was “too many” centers? What a time. Now, ever since the Brayden Schenn trade in the Summer of 2017, the Flyers’ second line center has either been Valtteri Filppula, Nolan Patrick, or Claude Giroux; a past-his-prime Corsi drag, an underwhelming (so far, stop booing me) high draft pick, and a star player who both prefers to play - and is more effective at - wing nowadays. A trio that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, and, unless you’re content with betting on Patrick again, the 2C spot looks to be the biggest hole in the lineup for Flyers General Manager Chuck Fletcher to address this offseason.

And by the sounds of it, they’ll be looking to do just that.

While Fletcher wasn’t as direct, both he and then Flyers’ interim head coach Scott Gordon seemed to be in agreement that the Flyers need another center to play above Patrick on the depth chart. And while he’d like such a player to have a strong two-way game, he’s not going to look for the type of defensive “specialist” that leads the league in you never have the puck statistics like hits and blocked shots. But take his word for it, not mine.

“The best teams in the league defensively, often don’t defend. They’re playing in the offensive zone, they have the puck,” he said. “And we can do a better job for me in puck support, holding onto the puck, being above the puck in the offensive zone, and not giving easy transitions to the other team.” (The Athletic)

It sure sounds like one of Fletcher’s main focuses will be adding a forward, or forwards, that specifically excel in the neutral zone, and that also have a good read on when to be aggressive versus when not to be aggressive in the offensive zone. One of these forwards will hopefully be a center that produces at a second line level or better. But top-six centers don’t grow on trees, so who fits the bill?

Data used courtesy of Corsica and is adjusted by their method unless specified otherwise.

Pending unrestricted free agent centers

At this stage this is nothing more than a preliminary look, as any or all of these players could re-up with their current teams ahead of July 1st. With that being said, let’s take a look at the top of the list.

1. Matt Duchene (28 years old; 31 goals, 39 assists, 70 points in 73 games)

When you think of the term “two-way forward” Duchene isn’t one of the first few names that come to mind. While he has received a Selke vote in the past, the book on him has never been that he’s strong defensively. However, that doesn’t mean that he’s not the type of player that Fletcher is looking to add. Again, he’s not looking for a player who has, for example, plus-reads in defensive zone coverage but comes up short in contributions to move the puck up the ice. If anything, the opposite fits the language used better. Not that being good in the defensive zone is a bad thing of course.

Over the last three seasons Duchene has scored at a .73 points per game pace and has been one of the best skaters in the league at entering the offensive zone with possession of the puck. Per Corey Sznajder’s manually tracked data, Duchene has a 67.97 carry-in percent at 5-on-5 during that time frame, putting him in the 94th percentile of all NHL skaters.

It goes without saying that Duchene is the biggest name out there among forwards, and with that comes a high price tag. Evolving-Wild’s 2019 contract projections give Duchene signing a 6-year contract with an average annual value (AAV) of $6,962,634 a 38% chance, making it their most likely outcome. If that amount seems low to you, you’ll be interested in knowing that a 7-year contract makes the predicted salary jump to a $7,817,050 AAV. Although I don’t think it’d be a surprise to see his eventual cap hit surpass that figure either.

There’s really no obvious holes in his statistical profile, and he would be much more of a 1B to Couturier’s 1A rather than a true second line center.

2. Joe Pavelski (34 years old; 38 goals, 26 assists, 64 points in 75 games)

The captain of the Sharks has spent his entire 13-year NHL career in San Jose, and will likely remain there moving forward. However, if he, or the Sharks’ management decide it’s time to part ways for some unforeseen reason, Pavelski would be an incredibly strong candidate for the Flyers to consider.

With 38 goals to his name in ‘18-19 and an average of 29.6 in his three seasons prior, Pavelski is the most prolific goal scoring center of this UFA class. The one thing to keep in mind is that he shot at over 20% this season, a career high and much higher than his 12.5% average. Had he shot at 12.5% he would have scored 23-24 goals, so make sure you’re not paying for an inflated shooting percentage.

Pavelski did have positive shot impacts on a very good Sharks team and would is well worth his projected $7,544,950 cap hit. The only problem is that it’s unlikely that he’ll become a free agent.

It’s worth mentioning that Joe Thornton is also set to become a UFA, but like Pavelski it seems unlikely that he’d leave the Sharks at this point.

3. Kevin Hayes (26 years old; 19 goals, 36 assists, 55 points in 71 games)

One has to assume that the Flyers will be linked to Hayes until he signs somewhere because of his ties to Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault. In four full seasons under Vigneault’s watch, Hayes scored at a .56 points per game pace. Furthermore, among NHL regulars Hayes’ 1.61 primary points per 60 at 5-on-5 is good enough to crack the top-50 in that category across those four seasons.

More recently Hayes was acquired by the Winnipeg Jets at the 2019 NHL trade deadline, appearing in 20 regular season games, recording 12 points, and six playoff games, recording three points. Thought of as a rental from the beginning, Hayes and the Jets are likely to go separate ways after getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs.

While he’s always had good offensive numbers, last season was the first time he crossed the 50-point threshold and he did so while playing in just 71 games — the fewest season total of his NHL career. Similarly, the 6’5” center has had little effect on his team’s performance via shot metrics over the last three seasons in aggregate, but last season alone he drove play at a high level. His +5.72 CF% RelT ranks 17th among skaters that played at least 250 minutes, and his +8.72 xGF% RelT is good enough for 8th. If he can repeat that, and have another 50-point season, he’d be more than a welcome addition.

And that’s the big question at hand; is this season indicative of his true talent level? If ‘18-19 Kevin Hayes is the true Kevin Hayes, then absolutely be the team to sign him to the long-term deal he’ll undoubtedly be receiving this offseason. But there’s a risk at play that he isn’t what his ‘18-19 campaign suggests and that contract could look ugly.

4. Brock Nelson (27 years old; 25 goals, 28 assists, 53 points in 82 games)

In 2017-18 Nelson was finally able to hit and surpass the 50-point mark this past season. Unlike some players who wind up reaching the mark once out of puck luck, Nelson’s can be attributed to an increased role under Barry Trotz and the post-Tavares Islanders era. He went from averaging just under 15 minutes per game to averaging 18 minutes a night.

Over the last three seasons Nelson has a negative relative CF% and negative xGF% on some already poor Islanders squads. It’s possible that Jakub Voracek could serve as the driver of a line centered by Nelson and they’d find success, but Voracek’s shot impacts last season were down from where we’re used to seeing them. It could work, but a few more caution flags begin to wave with Nelson than with the others.

Nelson’s main positive is that he’s just about a lock to score 20 goals each season, many of which coming at even strength. But outside of that, which isn’t nothing, there’s not much else. Of the five potential second line centers we’re briefly discussing today, Nelson is the one that I think the Flyers should be the least interested in.

5. Marcus Johansson (28 years old; 13 goals, 17 assists, 30 points in 58 games)

This ex-Capital turned ex-Devil is currently enjoying his first Conference Final appearance as a member of the Boston Bruins. Acquired by the Bruins on the day of trade deadline, Johansson has been a key contributor to the Bruins’ postseason run with seven points in twelve games. And a key contributor is just what he’s been throughout the course of his career.

In every season outside of his rookie campaign Johansson has produced at a second line level, and his three-year 5-on-5 primary point rate falls just shy of Voracek’s. Where he stands out from the pack is his ability to both exit the defensive zone, and enter the offensive zone with control of the puck. In fact, that area of the game is where he’s more similar to Duchene than the others.

CJ Turtoro’s Tableau

Johansson might not be a big-name addition, but with a projected four year contract that carries a $4,661,000 cap hit he could provide the Flyers with what they need at lower cost.

Others options include Ryan Dzingel, a natural center who’s played most of his NHL career on the wing, Derick Brassard, who’s declining numbers are concerning but may be a product of him bouncing around from team to team, Jason Spezza, who’s been hit hard by the aging curve, and Filppula, who I can’t imagine will be returning for a second stint in Philadelphia. Nor should he be.

Pending restricted free agent centers

It almost feels useless to speculate about offer sheets, because even with increased chatter from league insiders we’re still talking about something that hasn’t happened in six years. On top of that, a player has signed an offer sheet just three times in the last decade, with each offer being matched by the player’s original team. The last time that a team was able to successfully sign a player via an offer sheet was back when the Edmonton Oilers gave up a first, second, and third round pick to sign then-Anaheim Duck Dustin Penner to a five year, $21.5 million dollar contract in 2007. The Oilers would go on to fail at making the playoffs all five seasons that Penner was a member of the team. That went well.

But we’re not talking about the possibility of just signing anyone to an offer sheet. We’re talking about the possibility of signing one of the premiere centers in the entire league to an offer sheet. Yes, the Tampa Bay Lightning will rightfully be willing to do just about anything to keep Brayden Point, and would surely find a way to match any contract sent his way. But what about the off chance that they couldn’t? One has to imagine that Lightning General Manager Julien BriseBois and co. have been planning ways to create cap space for a long time now, but what if they can’t get out of Ryan Callahan’s contract, among other things? The door isn’t slammed completely shut is all I’m getting at here. In all likelihood both Point and Mitch Marner, who did play center in juniors, wind up staying with their respective teams, but on the other hand nothing is ever 100% until it happens. Don’t get your hopes up, but if one of them is out there on July 1st, shoot your shot.

Who should it be?

Free agents are just one piece to the puzzle and the Flyers’ next second line center might already be under contract with another team. But if he’s not, who should they attempt to sign first?

While Duchene possesses the highest upside, it’s fair to question whether it’d be a good idea for the Flyers to add another long term contract with a cap hit of $7,000,000 or higher. Should they sign him to such a deal, they’d have four players with an AAV equal to or north of $7M, all of which being forwards. With a projected cap ceiling of $83M, the Flyers could potentially be tying up around 37% of the salary cap in four forwards. You have to be careful not to handcuff yourself two or three years down the road when you have to sign Carter Hart, and possibly Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim or Travis Konecny to their first big contracts should any of them sign bridge deals this offseason. The Flyers would probably be OK, but things could get tight quickly.

If they get priced-out of Duchene, or if he quite simply chooses to play elsewhere, their attention should be turned to Hayes and Johansson. That is, assuming Pavelski re-ups in San Jose. Neither come without risks, but both have proven that they can produce offense at a second line level and don’t drag their linemates down. Plus they’ve both shown the ability to play on the wing in the past which could come into play should Patrick or Morgan Frost progress into a top-six center prior to their hypothetical contracts coming to an end.