Four Flyers defensemen who played 20 or more games this season will have their eyes on the July 21 expansion draft.
In a little over two weeks, one of those four could have a new home and team.
The Seattle Kraken are the league's newest club and will take a player from each NHL team, excluding the Golden Knights. The Flyers can either protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie from being picked or eight skaters (with a combination of four or more defensemen) and one goalie.
If the Flyers go with the seven-forward, three-defensemen plan, which is most probable, they'll highly likely protect Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers on the back end. That would leave Shayne Gostisbehere, Justin Braun, Robert Hagg and Samuel Morin unprotected. The Flyers must submit their protection list by July 17, so we'll know then about which players the club has exposed for Seattle's picking.
About two weeks ago, a new wrinkle was added to the Flyers' expansion draft picture. The Kraken hired former Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol as their first-ever bench boss. There's plenty of familiarity with the Flyers' roster as Hakstol coached in Philadelphia from 2015 to 2018 for parts of four seasons.
Among the four blueliners the Flyers might leave unprotected, Gostisbehere very well could be the most appealing to Seattle. He's a skillful, 28-year-old, puck-moving type of blueliner who can quarterback a top-unit power play. He's under contract for two more years and is coming off his best season since 2017-18 (despite many obstacles). And both his Calder Trophy runner-up rookie year in 2015-16 and career-high 65-point season in 2017-18 came under Hakstol.
After the 2018-19 season, when Gostisbehere played for two head coaches and two defensive assistant coaches, he noted how Hakstol gave him the most freedom that year to play his push-the-envelope offensive style.
Gostisbehere, who was drafted by the Flyers and has played six full seasons in Philadelphia, will marry his fiancee Gina Valentine in August.
"Obviously I want to stay here, I don't know anything else except Philadelphia," Gostisbehere said in May at his end-of-the-season press conference. "I've built a nice life here with my fiancee and obviously I want to be here, but it's a business. The expansion draft is going to happen; if you get picked, you know you're wanted and you could definitely take positives from that.
"It weighs on you, it's your life. I've been living here for almost seven years now; just the thought of going somewhere else, it's definitely weird. But I think the positive I'm taking from this season is I feel like I'm back in a sense that I'm making plays again, I've got my confidence and wherever I end up if I do go somewhere, it is what it is. And I've got to do what's in my control and that's playing hockey."
As for the Flyers, if the Kraken take one of their defensemen, it's arguable that, among the four blueliners, Braun would be the team's biggest loss for next season. The Flyers were desperate for stability and experience on the back end this season after Matt Niskanen's retirement. They didn't fill his void and ended up allowing more goals than any other team in hockey at 3.52 per game.
"I think he left a very big hole in the back end," Braun said in May. "We had a pretty good setup with roles and what guys were doing last year and the stability back there. Losing a guy like that, you lose that steadiness night in, night out, who your partner's going to be, we were bouncing around a lot trying to find chemistry. But that's on the remaining guys to step up and fill that hole and we just didn't do it. You end up in that situation where you are switching partners a lot because you're not playing well enough with the guy you have or just not having that chemistry. It's just on the guys left, you've got to step up when guys go down or leave or get traded; it's just the way it works."
Braun is the Flyers' truest defender and was possibly their most consistent blueliner in 2020-21. The club's biggest objective this offseason is adding a bona-fide defenseman with top-pair ability. Losing the 34-year-old Braun would mean having to replace another experienced blueliner for a crucial 2021-22 season.
"Brauner has a certain skill set and he maximizes that skill set," Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault said in May. "Plays the right way, does a lot of little things that might go unnoticed to the usual fan, but in the game and the way players analyze it, and coaching staff and management analyze it, there are so many subtle, right things that he does all the time."
Unlike Braun, the 26-year-old Hagg played for Hakstol, appearing in 102 games under the head coach.
"To be honest, I haven't really thought about it, it's out of my control," Hagg said in May about the expansion draft. "So whatever happens, happens, I guess. We'll take it after the draft and see what happens."
Hagg worked his way into the 2019-20 lineup and became a regular down the stretch with one of his best seasons as a pro. In 2020-21, the Swedish native was in and out of the lineup, playing 34 of the Flyers' 56 games.
"Some good parts, some bad parts — been up and down, definitely not happy with it," Hagg said. "It's been kind of a struggle for myself, as well, with injuries, but you can't really blame it on that. You just have to be better, like I think most of the guys on this team feels — it's a disappointing season and I think everybody has to play better."
Hagg dealt with a shoulder injury in the second half of March and early April and had a couple of pulled muscles in his groin area during the beginning of the season.
"It was kind of hard to skate," he said about the groin injury. "There’s stuff you can't control, you just have to battle through it and do the best of it."
Morin, a 2013 first-round draft pick, played a career-high 20 games this season. Injuries, including a pair of torn ACLs, limited him to nine combined games over the previous four seasons.
The Kraken taking Morin is much less likely. They'd have to negotiate a new deal with the 25-year-old as he just finished a three-year contract.
"Obviously I want to stay, my contract is up," Morin said in May. "The stuff I bring, I don't think a lot of guys bring it in this organization; it's kind of pretty rare now. I think I'm probably one of the toughest guys in the league, to be honest. Next year, we're going to play those big boys in the West and I'm kind of ready to prove it. I think I can bring something that no one here can bring. Obviously it's not up to me. I feel I'm a Flyer. For sure, I want to stay."
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