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Erik Karlsson, via NHL.com

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Top Unrestricted Free Agents the Flyers Need to Target

The departure of John Tavares from Long Island was the talk of the NHL for the majority of the offseason– franchise players don’t just leave.

This year, there’s three similarly skilled players potentially off to bigger and better things.

Let’s begin with a list of the biggest names hitting unrestricted free agency in just one month’s time:

  1. Erik Karlsson, D, San Jose Sharks
  2. Artemi Panarin, W, Columbus Blue Jackets
  3. Sergei Bobrovsky, G, Columbus Blue Jackets
  4. Matt Duchene, C, Columbus Blue Jackets
  5. Jeff Skinner, W, Buffalo Sabres
  6. Joe Pavelski, C, San Jose Sharks
  7. Kevin Hayes, C, Winnipeg Jets
  8. Anders Lee, W, New York Islanders
  9. Mats Zuccarello, W, Dallas Stars
  10. Jake Gardiner, D, Toronto Maple Leafs

That’s the most star power hitting the market we’ve seen in some time, as it seems like typically the NHL’s biggest stars don’t leave their teams. The Steven Stamkos situation was a teaser of a shift in the paradigm, one that foreshadowed a superstar (Tavares) leaving for what seemed like greener pastures.

Philadelphia’s three biggest needs on paper include a second line center, a top-four defenseman, and a starting caliber goaltender to tandem with Carter Hart.

Defensemen

Obviously, the Flyers need to give Erik Karlsson a call or two.

As Matt Larkin at THN wrote, Karlsson would be the best defenseman to hit the open market in the NHL’s salary cap era. I’d have to agree, and the forward-heavy free agent class drives his price that much higher. He had some injury problems, missing 19 games. However, Karlsson provided 45 points in 53 games, and looks even better in the postseason.

Despite only scoring 12 goals in the last two years between Ottawa and San Jose, Karlsson hangs within reach of point per game numbers with a high volume of assists. With a near 60% offensive zone deployment, he boasts a 59.3% Corsi rating, per Hockey-Reference. His xGA (expected goals against) was the lowest of his career– and it isn’t even close.

Karlsson will be worth every bit of his new deal, and it could be in the range of $10M annual cap hit.

Fletcher will need a backup plan, and shouldn’t put all his eggs in one basket with Karlsson. Chances are, as with any free agent, he signs elsewhere. The defensive talent is considerably harder to come by via free agency this year, and any major improvements, sans Karlsson, will have to come via trade.

Jake Gardiner, while a big name and the second best defenseman in free agency, could be a very risky pickup.

The general consensus from Toronto fans and media (to be taken with pounds of salt) is that, he just isn’t reliable. Nevertheless, they won’t be able to afford his new deal, and a team is going to pay him. The skill is there.

Jacob Trouba (Winnipeg) and Jared Spurgeon (Minnesota) are a couple of defensemen that come up in trade rumors quite often. One of them being on the move wouldn’t be a big surprise, and Chuck could be the one to do it.

Forwards

The centers on the list above– Duchene, Pavelski, Hayes– will undoubtedly be given over $6M per season. I’d like to see Fletcher at least kick tires on all three, but Winnipeg will be hard-pressed to re-sign Kevin Hayes. He should hit the market.

The former Ranger is coming off a career best 55 point season, with 19 goals. Plugging Hayes in front of Nolan Patrick in the 2C position could relieve some pressure from the younger center. At just 26, Hayes is unlikely to be on any kind of decline in the coming years, and is younger than most of the other options on the market.

A player that comes up less often in free agent talks is Buffalo’s Jeff Skinner.

Skinner is a skater extraordinaire, and a 40 goal scorer. He’s gone over 30 goals four times in his career, and he’s only 26. It’s exactly what the Flyers need, but there’s going to be fierce competition on the market for a player with his goal scoring touch. They have the cap space for an impact player, and shouldn’t be outbid for him.

Goaltenders

The biggest improvement to the Flyers’ shaky netminding would be to add free agent Robin Lehner. He’ll be due for a substantial raise as a Vezina finalist making just $1.5M on the season. That being said, it’s rather unlikely he leaves the Islanders.

If Flyers fans can put the past aside: Petr Mrazek may be available, should he choose to leave Carolina. So far, he’s commanded their crease en route to a conference finals appearance. He’s leaving Philadelphia fans wondering where this was while he was a Flyer. Much like Lehner, count on a re-sign.

Semyon Varlamov is a free agent, but that doesn’t instill much confidence. Brian Elliott is truly the most realistic backup option, should he stay healthy.

With the money and assets available, it’s time to capitalize on what could be the best chance to build around Claude Giroux’s elite years. Fletcher needs to make bold moves while the current core is producing.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Avatar

    Jeff

    May 7, 2019 at 9:08 pm

    Good article and agree a lot with you. A scoring winger is a MUST and Skinner fits the bill. Can’t see us getting EK and I would rather package a deal and give up assets via trade to get a stud D Man versus signing Gardiner. Fletcher has some pressure on him this offseason to upgrade the team and no doubt he will be willing to give up some of our young prospects to get better now. Wouldn’t be surprised to see him trade our 1st round this year (sorry Caulfield fans) along with maybe Voracek and a top prospect or two to get that 1st line D man. I actually think the goalie situation isn’t that important this year. Priority should be a veteran top line partner for Provorov and FA scoring winger (Skinner).

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