NHL Free Agency: 5 Bold Predictions for Philadelphia Flyers
The 2011 offseason has just begun, and already it has assumed its place among the most memorable in Flyers' history.
Franchise players Mike Richards and Jeff Carter have been shipped out, Ilya Bryzgalov has been signed to a nine-year contract and rumors are swirling about what GM Paul Holmgren and the Flyers will do next.
With less than 48 hours until the official start of free agency, one thing is for certain: the Flyers aren't done making headlines.
Ville Leino Won't Be Back
While this isn't likely to come as a complete shock to many Flyers fans, recent events have further confirmed initial suspicion that Ville Leino has played his last game for the Orange & Black.
Flyers GM Paul Holmgren said he has not spoken with Leino's agent Rich Winter despite Winter traveling to Minnesota in order to discuss a contract with Holmgren during last weekend's NHL Entry Draft.
Leino is rumored to have previously rejected a 3- or 4-year deal with an average annual value of $3 million per season, and with Capitals centerman Brooks Laich receiving a 6-year, 27-million dollar contract, that decision is looking to be a wise one for the 27 year-old Finnish Winger.
During the 2010-2011 regular season, Leino was generally solid (except for a March slump), notching 53 points (19G, 34A) and helping Danny Briere net a career-high 34 goals. With the 2011 Free Agent market thin on playmakers, look for Leino to receive a generous offer from a team like Toronto.
Leino could be the ideal set-up man for perennial 30-goal scorer Phil Kessel. A Leino-to-Kessel connection could yield 60-plus goals between the two of them for the offensively-challenged Maple Leafs.
Sean Couturier Will Crack the Flyers' Lineup in 2011-2012
When the Flyers drafted the 6'4", 195-pound Couturier, they knew they were getting one of the most NHL-ready prospects available in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. The young center has dominated the QMJHL for the past two years, posting back-to-back 96-point seasons and becoming the first 17-year old to lead the league in scoring since Sidney Crosby.
Scouts have compared Couturier to a young Joe Thornton or Jordan Staal, and if those assessments prove correct, the Flyers may have found the perfect replacement for Ville Leino. Couturier's massive frame, amazingly soft hands and superb on-ice vision make him an ideal facilitator for finisher Danny Briere, who seems to thrive when surrounded by larger playmakers.
Should Couturier make the Philadelphia roster, he could have Flyer fans forgetting the departed Jeff Carter and Mike Richards a lot sooner than previously thought. At any rate, expect Couturier to at least see some NHL action next season, regardless of any other moves made by the club to add another veteran forward.
Erik Cole Will Reunite with Peter Laviolette
With the departure of franchise cornerstones Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, the Flyers have lost a lot more than a couple first-line players. They lost consistent production, veteran leadership (or lack thereof) and playoff experience.
Their young core, while extremely talented, is still young—and will likely be inconsistent and over-reactive.
Enter Erik Cole. The savvy veteran winger is only 32, but has been a consistent performer whenever he's been on the ice. Cole gives 110 percent on every shift, is more than willing to go into the dirty areas of the ice and is a team-first guy with a great attitude. In short, he's everything Paul Holmgren is a little short on right now: affordable, consistent veteran leadership.
Cole's days as a dominant power forward are gone, but he is still an extremely good secondary scoring option, which is exactly what the Flyers need. Youngsters Claude Giroux (25 goals), James van Riemsdyk (21 goals) and Jakub Voracek (14 goals) will all be asked to contribute more offensively, and new acquisitions Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and Sean Couturier all figure to be a part of the Flyers' offensive attack. All told, the Flyers could (potentially) have six of their top nine forwards under the age of 23.
Veteran leadership and consistency will be needed, and Cole is one of the best available players at providing exactly that. He's got a great relationship with head coach Peter Laviolette, he's known around the league as a positive guy in the locker room and he can still score 20-plus goals per season.
Steven Stamkos Will NOT Be a Flyer in 2011-2012
Despite reports of the Flyers' plan to offer Stamkos a massive 12-year, $115 million contract, it still seems unlikely that the Lightning will allow their 21-year old superstar to leave for a measly four first-round draft picks.
The most current information from the Lighting's Front Office is that any offer for RFA Steven Stamkos will be matched by the club, a move which is likely to only exacerbate Tampa Bay's financial problems.
The team reportedly lost upwards of $20 million last season despite a strong playoff run that saw them close to within one win of the Stanley Cup Finals. With five players currently signed to immovable contracts valued at nearly $27M (per season) through 2014-2015, Tampa would likely have to trade at least one of Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier or Ryan Malone in order to afford Stamkos' salary.
If Stamkos were to (somehow) end up with the Flyers, he would be a great fit in the Philly: a combination of Claude Giroux and Steven Stamkos could absolutely give opposing teams nightmares. Add in emerging power forward James van Reimsdyk, and the Flyers could have the Legion of Doom version 2.0.
However, such an acquisition is likely to cost the Flyers heavily in the depth department, with forward Kris Versteeg and defenseman Matt Carle the most likely candidates to be moved.
The Flyers Will Make a Strong Play for Christian Ehrhoff
Flyers GM Paul Holmgren has done a remarkable job addressing many of the issues that plagued the 2010-2011 team: he has added team-first players, youth, size, and speed along the wings and a world-class goaltender in Ilya Bryzgalov.
Going into the free agency period, the Flyers still have quite a bit of salary cap space (by their standards), and the most logical question is what does Paul Holmgren plan on doing with it?
With the status of power play anchor Chris Pronger in question for the beginning of next season and no suitable option on the current Flyers roster, Holmgren may make a move to add some offensive power to the Flyer blueline.
Last season, the Flyers' defense corps combined for 22 goals and had only one player reach the 40-point mark (Matt Carle, 40 points). With a younger forward group, the Flyers are going to be relying more heavily on their veteran defenseman to help shoulder the offensive load, make quality plays through the neutral zone and get pucks to the net consistently.
Christian Ehrhoff is the best player available capable of doing all of those things at a high level. The smooth-skating German oozes offensive ability but tempers it with solid defensive play and sound decision-making in all three zones.
Ehrhoff's 51 power play points over the past two seasons place him among the league leaders and his ability to consistently get his shot on net should allow the bigger, stronger Flyer wingers to crash the net in search of rebounds.
Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle and Andrej Meszaros all showed the effects of playing 24-plus minutes per game down the stretch. Ehrhoff would help lighten the load on all of them, which could pay tremendous dividends for the Flyers down the stretch and in the playoffs. At 28, Ehrhoff is just entering his prime and will be able to make the eventual retirement of Chris Pronger much easier to deal with.