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5 realistic options for the Flyers in free agency

The Flyers may not have to spend a ton of money in free agency to improve the roster.

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Vancouver Canucks v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The 2020 NHL Entry Draft is in the rearview, and now the busiest week of the NHL’s unprecedented offseason is about to get a whole lot busier. Free agency is here, and starting at noon, all 31 NHL teams will be able to sign unrestricted free agents.

Free agency should be particularly interesting for the Flyers. They already had holes to fill at center and on defense, but with the unexpected retirement of Matt Niskanen, Chuck Fletcher and company may attack free agency far more aggressively than expected when the Flyers’ season ended at the hands of the Islanders last month.

Luckily, there appear to be some strong players headed for free agency this year — many of whom should be affordable for the Flyers with their newfound abundance of cap space. Many are probably hoping for the Flyers to land a Torey Krug or Alex Pietrangelo type, but there are numerous other players available who could make sense for Philadelphia at a far more manageable cap hit.

Here are five names to keep an eye on.

Alexander Wennberg, 26

2019-20 cap hit: $4,900,000

As soon as the Blue Jackets acquired Max Domi from the Canadiens, it became clear that Wennberg’s services were no longer needed in Columbus. The inevitable finally materialized Thursday when the Jackets opted to buy out the remaining three years of his contract, ending his six-year tenure as a regular in the lineup.

At one time, Wennberg appeared to be one of the brightest young stars in hockey. He put together a 13-goal, 59-point campaign as a 22-year-old for Columbus during the 2016-17 season, and his 46 assists on the year led the Blue Jackets by a fairly wide margin. Unfortunately, he’s struggled to live up to expectations the last few seasons, forcing Columbus to move on without him.

While Wennberg has disappointed as of late, that’s not to say he isn’t a decent player. He’s very good defensively and remains a solid playmaking center capable of seeing time on the power play and penalty kill. And considering he was just let go by Columbus, his asking price probably won’t be all that high when teams come calling.

For a Flyers team in need of depth down the middle, Wennberg could slide right in as a serviceable bottom-six center. And at just 26 years old, perhaps there’s still a chance for him to find his game and make a bigger impact than expected while on a bargain deal.

Mikko Koivu, 37

2019-20 cap hit: $5,500,000

After watching every game of the Wild’s 2019-20 season, it’s clear that Koivu is now a shell of his former self. The longtime Minnesota captain used to be an annual candidate for the Selke (which Sean Couturier won this year, in case you forgot), but his play has since regressed at an alarming rate. He managed just four goals and 21 points in 55 games this past season and was eventually demoted to a fourth-line role later on in Minnesota’s disappointing campaign.

That said, though, signing Koivu to a short-term contract as a fourth-line center could be a smart move for the Flyers. He’s one of the longest-tenured captains in the NHL behind only Zdeno Chara, Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews, and his leadership in the dressing room could help give some of the younger Flyers a boost.

As noted by The Athletic’s Michael Russo, Koivu has a very strong relationship with Chuck Fletcher, who spent nearly a decade as general manager of the Wild. And at 37 years old, Koivu probably won’t be asking for much on his next contract. He wants to win a Stanley Cup, which was not going to happen in Minnesota.

On a cheap deal, the Flyers could do much worse than Koivu at 4C.

Craig Smith, 31

2019-20 cap hit: $4,250,000

The Flyers didn’t get much goal production from their bottom six in the playoffs. How can they change that in time for next season? By signing a third-line winger known for scoring lots of goals!

Smith has put together a pretty nice career so far. Through nine seasons, all with the Predators, he’s collected 162 goals and 330 points in 661 games while playing a big role as a finisher on the power play. The former fourth-round pick is coming off an 18-goal, 31-point campaign, though it should be noted that he’s surpassed the 20-goal threshold five times in his career.

Smith’s agent told The Athletic’s Adam Vingan that the goal is for his next contract to have a term of three years. For a 31-year-old likely to play a bottom-six role, that’s doable. The yearly cap hit may be a bit higher than the Flyers are comfortable paying, though. If his asking price is lower than expected, perhaps Smith could help give the Flyers’ second PP unit a boost. It’s clear they could use it.

Kevin Shattenkirk, 31

2019-20 cap hit: $1,750,000

What a wild ride it’s been for Shattenkirk the last few years. Once regarded as one of the better defensemen in hockey during his tenure with the Blues, his play slowly began to decline after being shipped to the Capitals at the 2017 trade deadline. He then signed with his hometown team — the Rangers — only to watch both of his former teams win the Stanley Cup in back-to-back seasons. Bought out by New York last offseason, Shattenkirk signed a cheap, one-year deal with the Lightning for 2019-20. And as fate would have it, he finally wound up winning a Stanley Cup of his own.

With Shattenkirk playing more like the All-Star he once was in St. Louis, one can imagine he’ll be looking for a significant pay raise on his next contract, though it’s highly unlikely he’ll break the bank this offseason. As a right-shot defenseman, Shattenkirk would fill an obvious hole in the Flyers’ lineup with Niskanen now retired, and he would also be able to fill in on the power play like Niskanen did.

It also helps that Shattenkirk would have some familiar faces waiting for him in Philly if he were to sign with the Flyers. Alain Vigneault was New York’s head coach in Shattenkirk’s first year with the Rangers and he also spent two years sharing a locker room with Kevin Hayes.

All that said, though, it’s fair to wonder which Shattenkirk the Flyers would be getting if he were to agree to a deal. Would he be the version that helped Tampa win the Stanley Cup? Or would he be the version that underwhelmed in The Big Apple?

Tyler Toffoli, 28

2019-20 cap hit: $4,600,000

The Flyers do not have an immediate need for another winger in their top six currently. Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Travis Konecny aren’t going anywhere, and Joel Farabee could see an expanded role next season if he continues to show promise.

But it’s hard to say landing a player like Toffoli wouldn’t be fun. And the Flyers probably could do it if they wanted to. In fact, according to Elliotte Friedman in his 31 Thoughts column ahead of the February trade deadline, the Flyers apparently “considered” making a move for Toffoli.

Toffoli made an immediate impact for the Canucks after being acquired from the Kings at the trade deadline. He registered six goals and 10 points in his 10 regular-season games with Vancouver before the season’s pause, and he followed that up with a couple strong performances in the playoffs against the Golden Knights.

With Toffoli in the fold, the Flyers’ top six could be one of the most dangerous in the NHL. It may not fill an area of need, but it’s certainly an option to ponder.