Jori Lehtera

Why Flyers should buy out Jori Lehtera ... but probably won't

AP Images

Why Flyers should buy out Jori Lehtera ... but probably won't

Jori Lehtera is light-years removed from his days as a top-line forward centering superstar Vladimir Tarasenko in St. Louis.

Now at the age of 30, Lehtera’s offensive production seems to be regressing on a curve similar to his skating ability. Built like Paul Bunyan, Lehtera moves as if he’s dragging Babe the Ox behind him, which severely limits his playmaking ability and his ability to create open looks to finish scoring chances. His first year in Philadelphia produced just eight points as a mostly fourth-liner.

The past four years have been a continuous downward spiral. Following Lehtera’s first NHL season in 2014-15, the Blues rewarded him with a three-year, $14 million contract following a season of 14 goals and 44 points. Expecting more, Lehtera simply couldn’t deliver on the NHL’s smaller ice surface in which time and space can be broken down into microseconds.

The Blues were so ready to rid themselves of Lehtera after 2016-17, last summer they were willing to surrender two first-round picks just to clear his $4.7 million cap hit off their books for the remaining two seasons.

“The whole season was a struggle,” Lehtera said about his final year in St. Louis. “I just couldn’t get everything out of myself. It wasn’t just a couple of things. It was a lot of big things, and a lot of small things together.”

And who could fault draft architect Ron Hextall for taking on a bad contract when the return was two first-round picks, one that is now the 14th overall selection in this year’s draft? That was the allure of the Brayden Schenn trade, not Lehtera himself. It still seems logical that a buyout would free up the necessary cap space as Lehtera is the third-highest paid forward under contract behind Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek.    

“You can look at every contract, a good one, a bad one. You've got to balance it out,” Hextall said. “You have to be under the cap. There’s ramifications. You start buying players out that have two, three or four years left on theirs — all of sudden, you’re dragging that out.”

Except the Flyers aren’t creating a long-term pension plan like they did with burdensome goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. With Lehtera, it’s a simple business transaction similar to the buyouts of Danny Briere, and most recently R.J. Umberger, who both had a year remaining on their respective contracts with a cap hit spread out over two seasons.

Whereas the Bryzgalov buyout was more of a head-on car collision, this would be something resembling a door ding.

In buying out Lehtera, the Flyers would receive a cap savings of around $3.4 million next season with a buyout cap hit of $1,666,667 in 2019-20. Seems like an obvious win-win — a savings in actual dollars, plus cap space while opening up a roster spot. However, Hextall values Lehtera beyond his numbers.

“There’s a lot of reasons you don’t just buy a guy out because he makes a little bit more than that type of role should make,” Hextall said. “Jori was a good role player for us. He’s a terrific human being. He works hard. He’s really good with our young kids. There’s a lot more to it than just saying, ‘OK, Jori Lehtera was playing center and playing 8-10 minutes.’”

NHL teams will have a two-week buyout window from mid-June (or 48 hours after the Stanley Cup is awarded) to June 30. 

“Right now, and I told him this, the plan is to have him back,” Hextall said last month. “Everything’s up for change. Right now, we’ll have Jori back.”

Which may be disheartening for those expecting the Flyers to take an aggressive approach this summer in free agency.

Flyers' forward grades and outlook for next season — Part 1

USA Today Images

Flyers' forward grades and outlook for next season — Part 1

Over the next several days, we’ll evaluate the Flyers at each position, give a regular season and postseason grade and provide an outlook for their roster status for the 2018-19 season. Next up, Part 1 of the forwards:

After evaluating goaltending and the defense, we turn our attention to the Flyers’ forwards, one of the deepest groups under coach Dave Hakstol and a group that produced nine double-digit scorers in 2017-18.

Claude Giroux

Regular Season:

Playoffs: D                 

As tremendous as Giroux was during the regular season, he was that much of a disappointment in the playoffs. Giroux finished with a career high in points and goals. The manner in which he carried the team on his back over the final month was some of the best hockey he’s ever played. However, Giroux was a minus-11 in Pittsburgh’s four playoff wins and the Flyers desperately needed their superstar against the Crosby-led Penguins. 

2018-19 outlook: Giroux has four more years at $8.275 million remaining on his eight-year contract. If he can replicate 2017-18, then he’ll prove to be more productive at left wing over the second half of his contract than the first four years. He can solidify his place as one of the franchise greats. 

Sean Couturier

Regular Season:
Playoffs: A-

There’s really not much else Couturier could have done this season as one of the best two-way forwards in the NHL. Perhaps the only criticism was his lack of goal scoring in the final two-plus months of the season (five goals over his final 32 games). Couturier racked up nine points in the five playoff games, and outside of a dismal Game 1, he was a plus-5 in the remainder of the series. Arguably, the most important and indispensable forward on the Flyers.          

2018-19 outlook: Couturier has four years remaining on his six-year, $26 million dollar deal he signed in 2015, which may be the biggest bargain in the NHL right now considering Coots has elevated himself as a No. 1 center and is comparable to Boston’s Patrice Bergeron. 

Jori Lehtera

Regular Season: 

Playoffs: D+

Spent the entire season in the Flyers’ bottom six playing mostly on the wing and finished with a career-low eight points in 62 games. Lehtera’s instincts and smart, veteran play just couldn’t compensate for his lack of foot speed. He did develop a chemistry playing alongside Filppula on the penalty kill and together they contributed a pair of shorthanded goals. 

2018-19 outlook: Has one season remaining at $4.7 million. GM Ron Hextall stated he doesn’t expect to buy out the final year of Lehtera’s contract.

Flyers GM Ron Hextall talks coaching staff, free agents, draft and more

Flyers GM Ron Hextall talks coaching staff, free agents, draft and more

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall spoke to the media at his season-ending press conference on Thursday. 

What exactly did he have to say? We decipher the GM’s answers right here.

Question: Will there be any changes within the coaching staff?

Answer: “The coaches will all be back. We’re still doing a little bit of evaluating on the entire organization, but yes (in the same roles). We’re not going to make a change to appease people because we’re suppose to. We’re going to make change to get better. We’re not going to do what makes us popular. I think Hak (Dave Hakstol) has done a really good job.”

Translation: Hextall believes Hakstol has done a solid job in his first three years and has worked well with the development of the young players and the prospects. Hextall also believes the penalty kill saw improvements over the second half of the season and the problems early on were more personnel related than the coverage systems that assistant coach Ian Laperriere implemented.

Question: Where do things stand with the pending free agents (Brandon Manning, Valtteri Filppula, Matt Read)?

Answer: “My conversations with most of those guys were the plan right now is not to bring you back. Things can change because we don’t know what happens over the summer. Filppula is one guy where he have interest and we’re going to see what happens here. The other guys, unless something changes, we don’t plan on bringing them back right now.”

Translation: Manning and Read have played their final games with the Flyers. If Hextall doesn’t find an upgrade through free agency, then they’ll explore a very team-friendly, one-year contract with the 34-year-old Filppula, who certainly lost a step this past season.

Question: Will goalie Carter Hart have a chance to make the Flyers next season?

Answer: “I’m comfortable where we’re at with our goaltending. Neuvy (Michal Neuvirth) had some injury issues. I’m excited about Neuvy’s commitment. We got our kids coming. We got the kids up at Lehigh. We feel very comfortable with where we’re at. In saying that, we need some growth.” 

Translation: Ideally, the organization would like to see Hart start next season with the Phantoms. However, Hextall refuses to put an absolute on any situation. If Hart lights up the AHL and proves to have a maturity and a game beyond his years, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he could play with the Flyers nest season. Goaltending may be the toughest position to master for any 20-year-old. As a rookie, Hextall was 22 years of age and admitted he shed a few tears in 1986.

Question: Will the Flyers be a big player in free agency?

Answer: “If someone thinks that we’re going to add three players or four players this summer to make us the top team in the league, I don’t know where we’re going to get those players from, nor the cap space, nor anything else. You would like to find another centerman. Your goaltending, your D and your centers. If we could upgrade there, that would be great.”

Translation: John Tavares is a long shot. For starters, he may never make it to July 1 as a free agent and the Flyers won’t engage in a bidding war with other teams. Hextall is frugal and fiscally responsible. If they did elect to chase a big fish, then they might be more inclined to look at John Carlson, a right-handed defenseman. Still, even that’s a stretch considering how much he would command on the open market. Think smaller, affordable role players to fill in the gaps. 

Question: Will you buy out Jori Lehtera? If not, how do you justify his $4.7 million?

Answer: “There’s a lot of reasons why you just don’t buy a guy out. He makes a little bit more than maybe that role should make. Jori was a good role player for us. He’s a terrific human being. He works hard. He’s really, really good with our young kids. There’s a lot more to it than saying Jori Lehtera was playing center and playing eight to 10 minutes. The plan is to have him back.” 

Translation: This is a head-scratcher for me. The St. Louis Blues forked over a first-round pick just to rid themselves of Lehtera and his salary. There’s a lot of terrific human beings in the league who work hard. Those aren’t qualities worth paying top dollar for. It’s a production-based business and the bottom line is Lehtera finished wth eight points while averaging 10½ minutes of ice time and lacks the foot speed to keep up in today’s NHL.

Question: In terms of depth of the draft and having two possible first-round picks, what options does that give you?

Answer: “It’s a solid draft. We’ve seen enough players where it’s a good draft and we’re going to get a couple of good players if we make those picks. If you want to move up, I would envision the chance to move up. We’re a little bit more defined in terms of the pieces we have.” 

Translation: Hextall and his scouts have done a solid job in four years of replenishing their prospect pool, so now they’re in a position to get creative. Don’t be surprised if the GM makes major noise at the June draft in Dallas. He attempted to pull off a mega deal with the Florida Panthers in 2014 in an effort to land defenseman Aaron Ekblad. Hextall could get bold and he has the assets to make that type of move.