For the past two seasons, Ron Hextall has been forced to play the hand he’s been dealt, which in Texas hold 'em terms, would look something like a hand of 6 of spades along with the queen of diamonds.
Essentially, there’s been very few options for Hextall, and in the game of NHL roster and salary cap management, he can’t exactly bluff his way out and hopefully outwit the competition. So before the Flyers' GM can add to his stack of chips, he’ll have to ante up again until he’ll have the financial freedom next year to finally make a real impact in free agency.
Hextall’s first major offseason decision in regards to the salary cap could come as early as today at 5 p.m. with the start of the NHL’s buyout period, where teams can shed an unwanted contract (or two) in an effort to create some needed space.
The obvious (and expected) buyout would be that of R.J. Umberger, at two-thirds the remainder of his $4.5 million remaining for next season. The cost-cutting move would give the Flyers an additional $3 million of cap space for the 2016-17 season, which is significant and almost necessary, with Brayden Schenn, Radko Gudas, Brandon Manning and Nick Cousins all looking for new contracts and currently only $7.5 million to spend. With that in mind, don’t buy into the constant rumors/stories in which the Flyers will be targeting a big-name free agent. Just not happening, although the topic will be worth revisiting in the 2017 offseason.
But the decision to “buy out” won’t have nearly the impact as to who and at what cost Hextall is looking to “buy in.” While the' Flyers general manager has proven to be more of a saver than a spender, and not necessarily by choice, that financial philosophy will be tested in negotiations with Schenn — a restricted free agent who has increased his scoring total in each of the five seasons he has been in Philadelphia. Schenn, 24, is entering the prime years of his career and barring injury — which he’s avoided, missing just three games over the last four years — it appears as if he could hit the 60-point mark for the first time in his career next season.
Still, Hextall’s not in the business of providing long-term security to his players, and those lessons learned in the Paul Holmgren era have proven to be an area in which any Flyers general manager should proceed with extreme caution. Over the past year, Hextall has signed Sean Couturier (six years, $26 million) and Jakub Voracek (eight years, $66 million) to long-term deals, and Andrew MacDonald’s six-year, $30 million contract currently hangs over Hextall’s head like mistletoe at the company Christmas party. To Hextall’s credit, he’s done a much better job of eliminating these lengthy deals than signing them.
All of which leads Hextall to ask the toughest question a general manager must answer: Will a player be equally as motivated to perform once they’re financially set for life?
It’s a case-by-case evaluation and the next case study is Brayden Schenn. I’m not making the argument one way or the other regarding Schenn, but as we’ve seen in the past, saddle your franchise with too many long-term contracts, and the Flyers will be looking at an unplayable hand for years to come.