The Philadelphia Flyers, already reeling from a losing skid and a coaching change, learned today that they would have to turn their season around without starting goaltender Ray Emery. Emery is out six weeks after deciding to reveal and have surgery for an abdomen injury that many suspected to exist after his sensational season turned south over the past couple weeks.
Given the team's terrible performance of late, the Flyers simply can't afford to fall any more in the standings. Current Flyers' backup goalie Brian Boucher is a good No. 2 netminder, but relying on him for six weeks may be a stretch.
Now, from the start the Flyers' Emery experiment could have ended up being temporary or a long-term arrangement. Emery was a loose cannon that has since cooled, meaning that the specific risk the Flyers took on him has paid off.
However, it remains to be seen whether Emery is the Flyer goalie of the future, or a temporary solution while the Flyers look for that goalie of the future. Now, with a question mark in the crease, the team has to make a decision on which of those is the reality sooner than expected.
If the Flyers choose to stick with Emery as their long-term solution in goal, then they should get a good borderline starter who is readily available—such as Martin Biron or Manny Legace—who may be a pleasant surprise and get a lot of starts down the stretch (once Emery returns).
Both Biron and Legace were signed by their teams at very small salaries to help replace an injured netminder that is slated to return in the next week or two. They would cost the team next to nothing, would be very easy to get, and could be waived and sent to the Phantoms once Emery returns (should the team decide to take that course). Boucher could also be waived once Emery returns.
Alternatively, Flyers' General Manager Paul Holmgren could go for a goalie that would be more likely to give Emery a run for his money as the starter. This would probably need to be a low-salary player. Anterro Niittymaki and Jonas "The Monster" Gustavsson would be examples of possibilities for that.
Unlike Biron or Legace, both of these players look to have continuing roles on their current teams, so they would likely be more difficult to acquire.
Niittymaki has improved this season after leaving the Flyers to join the Lightning. However, given his role on the Lightning right now, it seems unlikely that it would be worth acquiring him over Legace or Biron.
Gustavsson would be a good choice for the Flyers if the circumstances surrounding Gustavsson's health were different. Gustavsson was a low-risk, high-reward signing by the Maple Leafs, and that attribute would make him a good fit to replace Emery over the next six-or-so weeks. The Flyers would probably be able to put together a package sufficient for acquiring "The Monster" from the Leafs if they wanted to.
However, Gustavsson's recent heart problems mean that he himself may be sidelined again at some point in the near future- a risk that the Flyers are unlikely to take given the fact that they already have one goalie sidelined.
While replacing Emery can be done through a short-term arrangement, it's possible that the Flyers may use this situation to kill three birds with one stone. With Emery out, the Flyers may decide take their team in a new direction by bringing in a more proven starting netminder—thus dealing with Emery's absence and their long-term goaltending decisions all at once.
However, dealing with both those problems at once would require confronting another issue, one that has been the Flyers' Achilles heel in recent years—the salary cap.
Unless they plan to deviously hire a goon (Riley Cote or Daniel Carcillo would probably be more than happy to volunteer) to make sure that Simon Gagne stays on Injured Reserve, they're absolutely going to need to shed cap room if they plan to acquire a well-paid player like a top-tier netminder.
Before we even discuss cutting cap, are there even going to be any healthy, top-tier netminders on the market?
At this point in the season, it's hard to get teams that are lucky enough to have a star goalie to part with that vital part of their team. Often times the only things that can induce teams to deal top netminders this early in the season are the presence of a good alternative in the organization—usually a goalie-of-the-future that appears ready to take over—or really, really dire straits.
In the salary cap era, few teams find themselves very far out of the playoff picture at this point in the season, and this season isn't really an exception.
Keeping this reality in mind, there are a few possibilities that the Flyers could attempt to pursue. Tim Thomas is struggling to keep his starting job in Boston with Tuuka Rask catching fire, but the Bruins parting with the 2008-09 Vezina Trophy winner right now seems like a stretch. The Hurricanes are struggling, but dealing Cam Ward would also be a bit extreme. Tomas Vokoun's salary would be too much for the Flyers to make room for.
Niklas Backstrom seems like he would fit in well in Philadelphia. Many thought that the Flyers would make a trade for Backstrom at the trade deadline last year, as they were in need of a No. 1 goalie and the Wild were struggling. However, the Wild decided to give Backstrom a four-year, $24 million contract extension instead of trading him. This would suggest that the Wild aren't quite ready to part with Backstrom.
The one top-tier goalie that seems like a realistic option would be the Coyotes' Ilya Bryzgalov. Bryzgalov makes $4.25 million this year and $4.5 million next year, making him awfully pricey for a team that went bankrupt this year. The Coyotes are good this year, in large part due to Bryzgalov starting off the season very strongly.
The question remains whether or not the Coyotes would part with Bryzgalov. The interesting factor in play here is that the NHL now owns the Coyotes. Dealing Bryzgalov would leave the Coyotes much weaker, and might decrease the Coyotes' fan support. The NHL might decide prevent this possibility by telling Phoenix's General Manager Don Maloney to hang on to Bryzgalov.
However, if they don't, then the door would be open for the Flyers to trade for Bryzgalov- and what a good acquisition that would be. Bryzgalov is having a fantastic season, and would go very well in tandem with Ray Emery once Emery returns. With those two possibilities in net, goaltending would no longer be a potential weak spot for a Flyers team chasing a Stanley Cup.
Shedding the necessary amount of cap room in order to bring in Bryzgalov (or another star netminder) would undoubtedly mean dealing one of the Flyers big-money players.
There's no way the Coyotes would trade Bryzgalov just to take on another high-salary, so a third team would probably need to get involved (similarly to how the Rangers used dealing Scott Gomez to the Canadiens in order to make room to sign Marian Gaborik this offseason).
Now, the Flyers have been walking on hot coals in recent year when it comes to the salary cap, and it's clear that they aren't going to be able to hang on to all of their big-money players forever. They took a step in the right direction by dealing Joffery Lupul, a player who wasn't worth the $4.25 million he was due to make every year for the next four years.
This trend is likely to continue until Paul Holmgren feels more like he's dealing with managing a hockey team and less like he's managing a game of Rush Hour.
So, who could potentially be on the way out of Philadelphia in the next couple weeks?
Currently, the Flyers have eight players making over $1.5 million a year (unless you count Randy Jones, who was sent to the Kings via waivers, and Mike Rathje, who has been on long-term injured reserve since coronation of Charlemagne). They are:
-Daniel Briere ($8 million in 2009-10)
-Kimmo Timonen ($7 million)
-Chris Pronger ($6.25 million)
-Mike Richards ($5.6 million)
-Simon Gagne ($5.25 million)
-Jeff Carter ($5 million)
-Scott Hartnell ($4.2 million)
-Matt Carle ($3.5 million)
It's safe to say that Pronger, Richards, and Carter are untouchable. After all, they didn't remove assistant captain status from Timonen and Gagne and put it on Carter and Pronger because they were bored. Those three are the core that the Flyers will build around in the coming years, so dealing them to deal with a goaltending issue seems a bit extreme. Given Matt Carle's strong season, it seems unlikely that he would be dealt either.
That being the case, we're left with Hartnell, Timonen, Gagne, and Briere.
Given the emergence of Pronger and Carle as the Flyers' first defensive unit, and the recent extension given to Oskars Bartulis, Timonen's value to the Flyers has decreased dramatically—a far cry from the 2007-08 postseason, when the Flyers' loss of Timonen after the Conference Semi-Finals was cited by many as the death of their Stanley Cup hopes.
The Flyers would probably be fine going ahead with a top-six on defense consisting of Pronger, Carle, Braydon Coburn, Bartulis, Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, and Ryan Parent, which means that Timonen is expendable.
Timonen's role as a seasoned veteran who is known for having a calming effect on defense would likely make him worth his $7 million salary to teams looking for help on defense, meaning that he feasibly could be dealt. He's still a key presence on the blue line for the Flyers, but they could live without him.
Hartnell could be on the way out too. He's a tough player that could play on a top line for some teams, and he's certainly worth the money. He's valuable to the Flyers, but expendable nonetheless (especially once Gagne returns) He's also unique in that he's paid well but not at all overpaid, meaning that the market for him would be strong.
That brings us to the two players that have been in trade talks regardless of the Flyers needs—Simon Gagne and Daniel Briere. Gagne's contract will expire after next season, and the Flyers are unlikely to have the space to re-sign him once that happens.
Despite being the longest-tenured Flyer and a nostalgic fan favorite, there has been a sense that it's about time for the Flyers to move on. His experience and scoring ability could make him a good piece on a young team trying to make a cup run, and with the Flyers current debacle, the time may be right to move him.
Daniel Briere's salary might be much harder to move. He's widely considered to be one of the NHL's most overpaid players, so few teams are likely to be interested in him. However, there's one team that still might be interested in Briere's services- the Montreal Canadiens.
The Canadiens were disappointed that Briere decided to sign with the Flyers in 2007 instead of with them, and they may still have a soft spot for the French-Canadian Briere. Meanwhile, he's just what the Canadiens need- their power play isn't all that great, and their No. 1 center, Scott Gomez, is underperforming.
Sending Briere to the Canadiens could happen regardless of how the Flyers deal with their goaltending situation, but the Canadiens don't have too much cap space either. That being the case, dumping Briere's salary on them would likely require the Flyers taking on some salary too. This means that Briere probably won't be dealt to make cap room for a top-tier goalie.
However, there's one intriguing possibility that could bring a dark horse netminder to Philadelphia. A byproduct of a cap-balanced deal between Montreal and Philadelphia could send Briere to Montreal and bring to Philadelphia a package of skaters and Jaroslav Halak.
Halak hasn't been great this season, but he's shown signs of promise in recent years. He probably won't be the answer to the Flyers' goalie debacle, but it's a possibility worth noting.
So, in conclusion, the Flyers probably won't go ahead and make a blockbuster (or semi-blockbuster) deal that would normally have waited until the trade deadline had Emery stayed healthy yet not performed at an elite level. Unless Ilya Bryzgalov or Tim Thomas become available, the Flyers will likely with a short-term replacement in Marin Biron or Manny Legace.
Biron would be a fine fit if he didn't have a history in Philadelphia. With Rick Dipietro slated to return soon for the Islanders, and Dwayne Roloson playing a bit stronger than Biron, Biron is probably headed for waivers or for the trade block.
However, having him return to Philly would be awkward and confusing for him and Ray Emery, as well as a step backwards. Unless the Islanders are confident enough in DiPietro and Biron to deal Roloson, Biron's Philly history will prevent the Islanders from being part of the solution to the Flyers' goalie situation.
On the other hand, Legace has no such history with the Flyers. He was signed by Carolina early in November when the Hurricanes were in the exact same situation the Flyers are in now—facing losing their starting goalie for weeks, in need of somebody to supplement their previous backup goalie.
The Hurricanes would probably be content dealing Legace to the Flyers for very little. He could also end up on waivers once Cam Ward returns, which would make him available to the Flyers anyway.
If the circumstances were right, the Flyers would probably make a move for a top-tier netminder now. However, unless Paul Holmgren can work some more salary cap magic, expect the Flyers to simply survive Emery's absence, and hope that his replacements can keep the Flyers afloat in the next few weeks.