Flyers

5 Flyers free agency observations: Ron Hextall's subtle but smart work

For the Flyers, the beauty of this summer's free agency was that the brunt of Ron Hextall's work was done before the bell was even rung.
 
The general manager's vision of building from within — through draft and development — made that the case on Saturday's annual NHL moving day.
 
On Sunday afternoon, Hextall said he doesn't suspect the Flyers will bring in anyone else, basically signaling an end to the Flyers' free agency aside from the unresolved RFAs (which we'll touch on down below).
 
With that all said, let's dive into five observations on what the Flyers did and how everything looks moving further into the offseason.
 
1. Brian Elliott was a smart move by Hextall. Not only does the 32-year-old provide the Flyers insurance in net, but he's pretty darn accomplished, too. If you wanted to see Anthony Stolarz just for the sake of seeing a young goalie, that wasn't going to happen, not with Hextall. The Flyers aren't a finished product or where they ultimately want to be, but Hextall doesn't concede seasons. His goal has always been to compete and improve each year while not losing focus on the long view.
 
Elliott fits the Flyers' blueprint. He's cheaper than most of the Flyers' other options, he doesn't block the future (namely Carter Hart, Felix Sandstrom) and he's had success in a goalie split. Not to mention, just a season ago, he was on a really good run with the Blues, writing this résumé from 2011-2016: A 104-46-16 record with a 2.01 goals-against average, .925 save percentage and two All-Star nods.
 
"He's a real good team guy, which is important," Hextall said on a conference call Sunday. "His work ethic is at a high level, his compete is at a high level, teammates want to play for him. There are a lot of things that when you look at goalies, that you look for and Brian checked a lot of the boxes off."
 
Hextall noted Michal Neuvirth's injury history as a reason why the Flyers didn't feel comfortable anointing the 23-year-old Stolarz. The 2012 draft pick is also coming off a knee injury suffered in April. So bringing in Elliott was rational across the board.
 
And when discussing the goaltending picture, Hextall made it a point to say don't forget about Alex Lyon.
 
2. The Flyers wisely did not go out and commit to any veteran forwards. There really was no reason to — financially and logistically — as the Flyers have paved the way for some youth up front. Why spoil that, even for just one season?
 
An opportunity and NHL development of a prospect could have been stalled for a whole year if the Flyers did, in fact, sign an early-to-mid-30s forward short term. The Flyers don't need that — any job openings in a busy group of forwards should be up for grabs to Nolan Patrick, Oskar Lindblom, Mike Vecchione and Scott Laughton. These are worthy and well-groomed candidates for what may be two — possibly three — vacant spots in the Flyers' opening night lineup.
 
Hextall, a truly prudent general manager, is aware the time is now for the kids.
 
"Part of drafting and developing is, yes, making your players earn it, but also not boxing them out with older veterans," he said. "We feel there is opportunity on our hockey club for young guys to step up and quite frankly, we expect them to do it. We have multiple players who can step up."
 
3. Another reason why the Flyers didn't need to make a dent in the free-agent market?
 
Jordan Weal.
 
Hextall is entrusting Weal with greater responsibility and production as the 25-year-old is primed for his first full season. Weal, who was re-signed Thursday to a two-year contract extension, seized his chance in 23 games last season. He's skilled, shifty and offers positional versatility. He made the Flyers better and the proof is in the numbers.
 
Which brings us to one of the bigger 2017-18 storylines: What does Weal prove to be over the course of 80-82 games?
 
"We felt really strongly about Jordan Weal," Hextall said Friday. "If we didn't sign Jordan Weal, we might've looked for one more forward to try and upgrade our skill level."
 
Again, Hextall was sticking with an internal solution here — and Weal's a good one.
 
4. As cost-effective as the Flyers have been, Hextall still doesn't have much freedom monetarily. Not that Hextall was going to spend this free agency, but the ability to wasn't there much, either.
 
"You certainly have to keep an eye and an ear out there for something that's out there that might make you a better team, but we have other restrictions, you can't just to whatever you want," Hextall said. "There's a salary cap. There's a roster limitation."
 
According to CapFriendly.com, the Flyers currently hold $6,065,833 in cap space. Hextall said the Flyers have $1.0625 million against the cap this season in performance bonuses from 2016-17. Then, take into account the possible additions of defensemen Robert Hagg and Sam Morin, as well as forwards Patrick and Lindblom (or others), and the Flyers have little wiggle room and a need to be precise.
 
Hextall gave a glimpse into the Flyers' cap outlook — and a lot goes into it.
 
"There's no absolute number but you always like to have room because if some of our young players hit their performance bonuses, I don't necessarily want them to go on the following year — and that's what happens if they're over the cap," he said. "When you have young players, there are performance bonuses out there that they can earn, and we don't want to go over [the cap]. So we've got us anywhere from $2 to $3 million depending on who makes the team, depending on if we start with 22 or 23 [players], so we've got enough space now that we're comfortable with where we're at."
 
5. The Flyers obviously think a lot of Vecchione — and they should — given how quickly they handled his contract as a restricted free agent. He was re-signed Saturday to a two-year deal.
 
The buzz from when the Flyers landed the free-agent college forward on March 31 had somewhat fizzled as the offseason picked up. The Flyers suddenly landed the No. 2 pick in the entry draft and the rise of Lindblom, who turns 21 in August, reached a new level when he expectedly signed his entry-level contract in May.
 
Had Vecchione, 24, suddenly become a possible odd man out in 2017-18? No, and an RFA taken care of on July 1 is a good sign of that. He tasted the NHL last season with two games. Training camp competition is next.
 
"Our exit meeting went pretty well," Vecchione said Saturday. "They expect a lot out of me. Just coming into the summer, I'm just trying to improve my game all around. I'm pretty happy I got my feet wet, know what to expect. It helps me train.
 
"For them to give me a contract, they obviously want me to go out there and produce and play for the big team. I don't want to let them down. I take a lot of pride in that."
 
As Hextall always does, he left the door open for things to play out on the ice. He's been impressed with Laughton, too. Older, established players such as Matt Read, Michael Raffl and Dale Weise will be pushed hard.
 
"That's going to have to play out," Hextall said. "Scotty, as you mentioned multiple times, had a terrific year. He improved a lot, his focus and his professionalism. Quite honestly, I think Scotty really grew up last year. So Scott is certainly going to be given an opportunity to make the hockey club along with [Vecchione].
 
"But again, I can't predict what's going to happen here. Like I said at the end of the year, if a couple of the young guys supplant a veteran, so be it. We're not thrilled with the way last year went and if a veteran comes in and he's not ready to go, he's not hungry, he's not in shape, then there's no guarantees."
 
As for the Flyers' other RFAs, Laughton, Stolarz, Lyon, Cole Bardreau and Taylor Leier remain unsigned. Hextall said because of the Flyers' other priorities, they aren't close on decisions but these tend to typically be "the easier ones" to settle.