It’s the talk of the town right now. South Jersey native Johnny Gaudreau — the top player available when the NHL’s free agent signing window opened Wednesday afternoon — is now a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Naturally, Philadelphia Flyers fans are shaking their heads. It was reported that Gaudreau wanted to come home and play for the Flyers. The team he grew up rooting for. But that never came into fruition. In fact, according to Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher, the club never even attempted to sign the former Calgary Flames superstar.
“No, we weren’t in (on Gaudreau),” he said during his media availability Wednesday. “We were in on the players we signed.”
The players they signed are 35-year-old defenseman Justin Braun — who the Flyers traded to the New York Rangers at the trade deadline in March — and forward Nic Deslauriers. Deslauriers, 31, has logged 44 goals and 85 total points in 506 NHL games.
The Flyers, a team desperate for high-end talent, were an obvious fit for Gaudreau. He’s a highly skilled winger who puts butts in seats. His presence alone would have helped the Flyers compete during the 2022-23 season, which is very much still the goal for the upcoming campaign. And, of course, Philadelphia is his home. He wanted to be in Philly.
This much was all but confirmed on the latest 32 Thoughts podcast with NHL insiders Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek.
“This is what I think happened — (Gaudreau) wanted to go to Philadelphia,” said Friedman. “Philadelphia was his No. 1 choice. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. Once Calgary was done, he wanted to go to Philly.”
So why didn’t the Flyers even attempt to sign Gaudreau? According to Friedman, the Flyers simply felt they needed to allocate their funds to other parts of the roster.
“I had people telling me that Philly was never going to be in this, and I refused to say that. I was too chicken to say that. Because I just thought, ‘It’s Philly. And at the end of the day they’ll do something and be in this.’ And they just never were.
“I think a couple of things happened. I think there were people in Philly who wanted Gaudreau, and liked the idea of Gaudreau coming in there and energizing the market and selling tickets and everything, and I do think that was discussed. However, there was also a debate in Philly about — we were 40 points out of the playoffs. Does Johnny Gaudreau alone, taking all of our cap room, solve that problem? That’s No. 1.
“No. 2, I think the Ryan Ellis situation really made them think, ‘If we don’t have Ryan Ellis, we have to find defensemen.’ And they made a business decision that there were other things they had to do. I know the Flyers fans out there are really unhappy. They don’t agree with the moves. I’m not debating that one way or the other right now. But what I am thinking is, I think the Flyers felt that other moves on the blue line, up front, were better use of their resources than one big run at Johnny Gaudreau. The future will judge that. I think the Flyers feel that John Tortorella can make a difference. The players will have a fresh start under him, and they think it will be overall better. And I think they just decided they have to plug a couple of different holes as opposed to one big free agent. And 82 games from now, we’re gonna have our answer on that.”
Going into free agency, the Flyers had minimal cap room (thanks largely to the two-year, $10 million contract they gave newly-acquired defenseman Tony DeAngelo last week) and still needed to sign several key restricted free agents, including Morgan Frost — who signed Friday afternoon — Owen Tippett, Zack MacEwen and Wade Allison. They created some cap space by buying out the final year of Oskar Lindblom’s contract, but that still wasn’t nearly enough to afford a player of Gaudreau’s caliber.
In order to clear more cap space, the Flyers could have executed a number of different moves. As many fans have opined, the team could have traded James van Riemsdyk, who has one year remaining on his contract with a cap hit of $7 million. They could have even moved more desirable players like Travis Konecny or Ivan Provorov. But at the end of the day, Fletcher and company weren’t comfortable sacrificing their current assets in order to acquire one big piece in Gaudreau.
“To move van Riemsdyk, they were being asked for a 2023 first. They got a first from Florida in 2024. People, I heard, didn’t want that. They wanted next year’s first,” said Friedman.
Next year’s first-round pick, of course, is a lottery ticket for generational prospect Connor Bedard.
“I think Philly looked at the whole picture. The Ellis injury, or Ellis situation, what the market was to trade some of their guys — and they were undervalued because it was a bad year and they knew Philly might be desperate — and what it would cost to trade van Riemsdyk, and they just said, ‘We don’t like this picture.’”
In the end, the Flyers’ “aggressive retool” hasn’t been much of a retool at all. Instead, the club’s big offseason transactions include the trade for DeAngelo (an offense-first defenseman whose fit in Tortorella’s system is questionable at best), the acquisition of Deslauriers (a fourth-line forward who takes a lot of penalties) and the reacquisitions of Braun (ideally a bottom-pairing defenseman who may be forced to play a larger role in the event of injuries) and Kevin Connauton (a 32-year-old seventh defenseman on an average NHL roster).
The Flyers were in a tough spot this offseason. Clearing cap space is never an easy task, especially when opposing teams can sense the urgency of it. But when it came time to see their offseason roadmap through, the Flyers ultimately bowed out. And with fans growing increasingly despondent, this was not the summer to abandon their very public game plan.
July is now halfway over, and before long training camp will be underway. Hopefully for the Flyers, their new head coach will be able to light a fire under some of their players, as the front office strongly believes he will. But without a player with high-end talent — someone like Johnny Gaudreau, for example — being a competitive squad will likely prove far more difficult than originally expected.