The Philadelphia Flyers’ hiring of John Tortorella as their new head coach signifies that they will adopt a defense-first, aggressive approach that will be a welcomed attitude given how much of a pushover they have been defensively the last two years. His presence behind their bench will feel like a breath of fresh air for a club coming off of consecutively missing the playoffs since the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons.
The free agency pool consists of several depth forwards, some of who specialize in defense and penalty killing (PK). Based on Tortorella’s coaching style, it would benefit the Flyers to upgrade the position on their roster during the offseason. Let’s take a look at three affordable forwards they should consider signing this summer.
Frank Vatrano is known for providing offense and is coming off of a year in which his average annual value (AAV) was $2.53 million. The New York Rangers acquired him from the Florida Panthers during the trading deadline last season with the idea he provides more experienced depth for a young New York club that was relying on younger players in their farm system when players dealt with injuries or being placed in COVID protocol. He performed adequately during the remainder of the season and the playoffs on the top six with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad as he collected eight goals and five assists in 22 regular season contests and accumulated five goals and eight assists during 20 postseason games.
The Flyers could offer Vatrano a multi-year contract with a maximum of $3-3.5 million AAV. Based on their current roster construction, they could use more experienced depth players to go along with general manager (GM) Chuck Fletcher’s aggressive retool approach and mindset that the organization can be competitive in the Eastern Conference with better health during 2022-23. The 28-year-old forward could be placed anywhere and be effective on the Flyers’ top nine on a line with centers Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes, or Scott Laughton.
If James van Riemsdyk or Travis Konecny do not return for the Flyers, Vatrano could replace one of those forwards on the roster. Shortly after the acquisition by the Rangers, he commented on how he has been used during his career, “My whole career I’ve been up and down the lineup, playing in top six, playing in bottom six. When you’re put in a spot to play in the top six, sometimes you can change your game and not play the way you usually play. But you learn as you go along, you’re put in that spot because of the way you’ve been playing. You don’t have to change the way you play. For me, that’s just bringing a simple game, moving my feet, being physical and trying to make plays whenever they’re there,” (from ‘Frank Vatrano thriving with bigger role since Rangers trade,’ New York Post, 3/28/22).
Nick Paul, who played for the Eastern Conference Champion Tampa Bay Lightning after being acquired at the trade deadline from the Ottawa Senators, is a defensive-first forward who would improve the Flyers’ bottom six along with their PK. He led all Lightning forwards with 67 minutes played on the PK during 23 postseason games and would be a dependable defensive winger for a franchise that has struggled in its own zone the last two years. The former back-to-back Stanley Cup champions do not have any cap space and he has a good chance of signing with a new team during the summer.
Paul’s 2021-22 cap hit was $1.35 million and Fletcher could sign him to a multi-year deal with a $3-4 million AAV. Frank Seravalli of The Daily Faceoff believes the 27-year-old will command at least $3 million annually with his new contract since the Senators and he was unable to agree on a contract extension before the trade in March. He has the ability to be an effective faceoff winner as he demonstrated the ability during his career with the Senators and brief time with the Lightning this season. He improved offensively last season as he finished with 16 goals and 16 assists, which are new career highs for him so he may be improving as a two-way player which makes him more marketable and worthy of more money annually than he was earning previously.
Several teams may think they can sign other defensive forwards for less than $3-$4 million annually and there are a number of more affordable players available who have a similar style of play to Paul’s. If Fletcher is convinced he can improve offensively, then it may be worth paying that much for him annually. However, if the Flyers’ GM is looking to sign forwards who are skilled defensively that will command less of a cap hit, he will pass on signing Paul to a multi-year contract.
Tyler Motte, who was another addition by Rangers’ GM Chris Drury at the trade deadline, had a $1.225 million cap hit last season. He is one defensive-minded forward who presumably comes with less of an AAV than Paul is seeking. He is looking to be paid about $2 million over a few seasons with another franchise. The Rangers would like to bring him back but it is unknown if they will be able to afford him given that they are in the market for a second-line center with Andrew Copp and Ryan Strome both looking for new contracts this offseason that will command much more than the former Vancouver Canuck.
Motte described his game and why he was a natural fit with the Rangers after his trade from the Canucks, “our forecheck is a big part of our game and that’s an area I think I can excel in. We’ve got some good speed in our group as well, I like to think that’s part of my game: playing with speed, playing with pace, playing physical. I think it’s been a good fit all around, for sure,” (from ‘Tyler Motte’s NHL playoffs run has given Rangers something to think about,” New York Post, 6/7/22). Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant praised his work ethic and speed as strengths of the bottom six winger.
Motte brings grit and his speed is essential to a team’s PK, which is one benefit for Tortorella and the Flyers should they sign him in free agency. He is the kind of affordable, experienced bottom-six forward Fletcher needs to look into signing in order to improve their team defense. The new Flyers head coach and the organization would benefit from having the 27-year-old winger as his game is underrated and tends to go unnoticed given that he contributes more defensively.
The Flyers are entering an era of uncertainty with Tortorella who is tasked with changing the culture of a club that has become an afterthought in Philadelphia. They used to be an organization that was in the postseason picture annually but have struggled to maintain that standard over the last decade. With only one playoff series win since 2012, the pressure is on Fletcher and Tortorella to turn them back into a respectable franchise that the opposition knows will be a tough adversary to defeat. They have a long way to earn that reputation but the head coach is determined to usher in a new era of resilient play from an organization that has become stagnant.
Signing gritty players such as Paul or Motte sends a message that they will be an improved defensive team that will aim to make offensive play difficult for their opponents during every game. How the GM addresses their needs during the summer will hopefully be a step in the right direction for the struggling team.