Making Space for Sundin

Ben LivingstonCorrespondent IAugust 20, 2008

When Mats Sundin hit the free agent back in July, the Philadelphia Flyers were probably dead last in the sweepstakes to sign him. With only $7 million in cap space to work with during the off-season, the Flyers couldn't even dream of landing any big names. By the time they re-signed D Randy Jones and C Jeff Carter, they had virtually no room left. Then, after the signing of free agents C Glen Metropolit, LW Arron Asham, D Sean Curry, and D Ossi Vaananen, they found themselves over the cap. Meanwhile, they had to part ways with key free agents LW Vaclav Prospal and C R.J. Umberger. Finally, to make matters worse, they failed to meet their goal of acquiring a puck-moving defenseman.

So, for a team with plenty of talent up front, no cap space, and a desperate need for more defensive depth (rumors of a possible trade for Panthers' defenseman Jay Bouwmeester have been rampant), what on earth could the Flyers be doing diving into the wild goose chase that the Mats Sundin sweepstakes has become?

Flyers' General Manager Paul Holmgren seemed confused himself as to the answer to this question, "Personally, I'd like it to all go away," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "what's the sense when we don't even know if he's going to play yet?"

Yet, at the same time, Holmgren admitted to reporters from Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia that he's been actively pursuing Sundin, "He’s a free agent, and we’ve made inquiries as to his status. We don’t know whether he’s going to play or not. I think Mats is still trying to decide that in his own timeframe. But, if he wants to play, we’d certainly have an interest in seeing if we could fit him in."

If you want a more textbook example of a GM acting enigmatic in order to hide his motives, you won't find one.

But exactly how could the Flyers make room for Sundin? Holmgren has worked miracles before, but this is a whole new challenge entirely. The main players that have come up as possible departures for cap reasons are Scottie Upshall ($1.25 million in 2008-09), Mike Knuble ($2.8 million), and Derian Hatcher ($3.5 million), Jeff Carter ($5 million), Scott Hartnell ($4.7 million), and Joffery Lupul ($2.9 million plus $4.25 million the following seasons) are also possibilities. 

Some of those names might seem a bit too valuable to deal simply to lower the cap, and Holmgren is conscious of this; he's made it very clear that he won't sacrafice the Flyers' future for a short-term upgrade. This makes Hartnell and Carter unlikely candidates, although they certainly aren't out of the question.

Hatcher's $3.5 million is certainly more than he is worth, especially considering that it's unlikely he can stay healthy for the entire season. Trading him might prove difficult, but not impossible. Otherwise (unless he retires between now and the start of the season, which is unlikely), a buyout would be the only option, and that would save the Flyers just $1.1 million in cap space.

Now, Sundin will likely be looking for a contract in the $7-10 million range. He turned down a two-year $20 million deal with the Canucks, as he wants to play for a contender. It's unlikely any of his suitors will be able to give an offer like Vancouver's- at least the ones that are legitimate contenders. The Flyers' top competition, the Rangers, only have $2 million in cap space, so they face a similar challenge.

If somehow the Flyers were to pull this off, the most likely candidates for being shipped off are Knuble and Hatcher. Holmgren has received many offers for Carter in the past, and refused them, and Carter's recent re-signing just reaffirms his importance to the team. It's unlikely that the Flyers would part with two of their top four wingers (Hartnell, Lupul, Knuble, Gagne), and trading Upshall wouldn't make enough of a difference. If somehow Hatcher could be traded he and Knuble could both be traded and that might just be enough to make room for Sundin.

Then again, Sundin might just retire after all (maybe having learned from this summer's Brett Favre saga), and this might be irrelevant. As Holmgren so eloquently put it, "Right now, other than kicking tires and putting our toes in the water, that's where we stand."