With a new coaching hire in Alain Vigneault, new assistants surrounding the bench boss, a relatively new GM at the helm in Chuck Fletcher and more than $33-million in projected cap space for next season, it almost went without saying that the always-active Flyers, fresh off missing the post-season for the second time in three seasons and third time in five campaigns, were primed to be especially aggressive this off-season.
And on Monday, we got our first glimpse into Philadelphia’s off-season plans.
While much of the focus was on Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final in St. Louis, Fletcher and the Flyers swung a deal that saw Philadelphia acquire the negotiating rights to unrestricted free agent-to-be Kevin Hayes from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for a fifth-round pick. And with that, one of Fletcher’s summer targets – and one of the holes he wishes to fill – became abundantly clear.
Hayes, a sought after middle-six playmaking center, was a much-desired trade chip at the past deadline. Coming off of a career-best 55-point campaign, which he followed with three points in six post-season contests with the Jets, teams seeking size and scoring were fawning over the opportunity to add the pivot ahead of the trade freeze. Eventually, it was Winnipeg who pried the 27-year-old away from the New York Rangers, with whom he had spent the first four-plus seasons of his career. But with the Jets facing a cap crunch and Hayes certain to test the market, the Flyers’ acquisition of his rights is a sneaky-good move that allows Fletcher and Co. to begin talking contract with the center four weeks before signing season officially begins and three weeks ahead of the opening of the pre-free agency negotiation window.
One would think that Hayes will seriously consider inking a deal with the Flyers, too, as there’s reason to believe it presents a fit for both sides.
For Philadelphia, Hayes can provide much of what he brought to the Rangers, and his familiarity with the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference play will offer the center a level of comfortability he may not have found elsewhere. Additionally, Hayes could fill an important role in the middle of the lineup. Behind Sean Couturier, the Flyers’ first-line center, there’s a dearth of high-quality center depth. Yes, Nolan Patrick took a step forward in his sophomore season, but a middle six that has Patrick and Hayes provides Philadelphia with far more stability than one with Patrick and Scott Laughton, and that's not a knock against the latter. Adding another center, and a productive, big-body who’s reliable at both ends of the ice, also allows the Flyers to continue to trot Claude Giroux out as a winger, which has led to increased production for the captain over the past two campaigns.
There’s also an additional familiarity for Hayes in the sense that he’ll be reunited with Vigneault, under whom the center spent the first four seasons of his career playing. During that time, Vigneault helped along Hayes’ growth, which saw him evolve from a productive bottom-six pivot fresh out of the college game into a relied upon top-six center. Included in those seasons, too, was Hayes’ career-best 25-goal campaign in 2017-18, and his steady production under Vigneault bodes well for future production if the two reunite.
The question that must be answered before Hayes and Vigneault join forces once again, and before the pivot officially becomes a Flyer, is money and term. It goes without saying that he’ll be looking for a raise beyond the $5.175 million he earned on a one-year pact last season, but chances are Hayes’ next deal shouldn’t vault well beyond the $6-million mark. Put that over a five- or six-year term and it’s actually a rather tidy deal for Philadelphia, one that won’t be a vast overpayment nor one that will keep Hayes on the books beyond his early-30s.
What such a deal would still provide the Flyers, as well, is cap flexibility as they seek to tweak and tune-up their roster. If Hayes were to sign at $6-million flat, Philadelphia would have a projected $27.4 million with which to work for the remainder of the off-season. In need of re-signing are restricted free agents Laughton, Ryan Hartman, Travis Konecny, Justin Bailey, Travis Sanheim and Ivan Provorov. The projected spending room should be more than enough to get those deals done while also leaving the Flyers cap space to add another piece or two. The potential also exists for Philadelphia to add salary via a trade, as well.
There does remain the possibility, of course, that Hayes declines the Flyers’ offers and hits the open market. But if that’s the case, what has really been lost in the transaction? Only 52 players drafted 134th overall – the pick Philadelphia surrendered – or later since the 2005-06 draft have gone on to become everyday NHLers. Odds are the Flyers’ fifth-round selection isn’t going to amount to much.
In that same breath, though, Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff should be commended for doing what GMs far too often don’t or aren’t able to: getting something instead of nothing for a player who is set to hit the market. Again, while the deal may still end up netting Winnipeg bupkis, the 134th pick at least provides the Jets with an opportunity to get something, anything, in return for Hayes’ rights, whereas letting him simply walk in the open market would have been worth nothing at all. It was unlikely, too, that Hayes was ever going to work long-term with the Jets, who are facing a considerable cap crunch given their list of pending free agents.
So, if all goes according to plan, this is a deal that’s going to work out all right for both sides. Winnipeg will get an extra dart to throw at the board in the late rounds, while Philadelphia will address a need and get one of their off-season targets without having to deal with the stress of competing with other clubs. That's a win-win.
(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)
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