The Philadelphia Flyers struggled mightily on defense through the 2020-21 season. The retirement of Matt Niskanen affected the orange and black, and Ivan Provorov’s performance had a tremendous drop this season after a promising start to his career. There are concerns as to whether Philadelphia has a franchise defenseman on the roster if Provorov is not that player. Many franchises will likely offer Dougie Hamilton an expensive long-term contract, and the Flyers may be one of those teams after the top free agent.
If Hamilton re-signs with the Carolina Hurricanes or signs a contract with another franchise that is not Philadelphia, general manager Chuck Fletcher would be prudent to sign a defenseman or two in free agency this summer. There is a significant drop between Hamilton and the rest of the crop of free-agent defensemen, but there are sufficient options for Fletcher to consider in order to bolster the position on the team.
Here are four free agent defensemen Fletcher should consider signing this offseason:
1. Adam Larsson
According to David Staples of the Edmonton Journal: “We hear from reliable Edmonton insiders that the Oilers and Larsson are extremely close to a deal, which is excellent news.” (from “Flyers have interest in Adam Larsson or Tyson Barrie for top-pairing, says Philly insider, Edmonton Journal, 06/24/2021). Adam Larsson has fit in well with Edmonton since being acquired via trade with the New Jersey Devils for Taylor Hall in June 2016. The defenseman is not known for his offensive numbers but is more of a defensive-minded player that Philadelphia could use to help improve in that aspect of their game.
The Oilers have another unrestricted free agent defenseman, Tyson Barrie, who likely will cash in on a long-term offer if Edmonton does not attempt to re-sign him. Barrie is skilled offensively and is suspect playing defense but Sam Carchidi, a writer who covers the Flyers for The Philadelphia Inquirer, includes Larsson and Barrie among the defenseman the club could pursue during the offseason.
Larsson is valuable on the penalty kill, an area Philadelphia was abysmal in during the season, as he averaged 2:18 on the penalty kill compared to only 2 seconds on the power play. If the Flyers sign him, they are bringing him in for his defensive skills as a stay-at-home defenseman.
2. Jamie Oleksiak
Jamie Oleksiak, a left-handed defenseman, has recent experience making a deep playoff run in 2020 with the Dallas Stars, who lost last season to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final. Oleksiak’s playoff experience is valuable for younger players on a franchise to learn from and if Philadelphia signs him, the 6-foot-7 250-pound Oleksiak would be a big addition to the Flyers defense who brings grit on the ice. The orange and black lacked physicality last season, and adding him would be an upgrade in that area of the game for Philadelphia.
Oleksiak is skilled at blocking shots and taking away scoring opportunities for the opposition in addition to his physical game, which provides more value for franchises lacking a stay-at-home defenseman. The former first-round pick has improved his game as he has played more years in the NHL and will be more affordable for the Flyers to sign as his 2020-21 cap hit was $2.137,500. He could see an increase in his average annual value (AAV) between $2.5-$3 million per year, and Philadelphia would have more flexibility to add another defenseman to their roster in free agency if they choose. He is an affordable, physical, defensive-minded player for a team that is in need of such an athlete like the Flyers are.
3. Mike Reilly
If Fletcher were to add Mike Reilly to the Flyers roster this summer, the team would be getting an affordable defenseman that could provide depth to the power-play unit and the second or third defensive pairing. Reilly’s 2020-21 cap hit was only $1.5 million, and Philadelphia could add him to the roster in addition to another affordable defenseman such as Oleksiak. He is a left-handed defenseman and spent this past season with the Ottawa Senators before being sent to the Boston Bruins in April for a 2022 third-round draft pick as Boston had injuries to several of their defensemen at the time.
Reilly prides himself on being a dependable defender in his own zone, and he can contribute to the offense as a puck-moving defenseman. Depending upon how many defensemen currently on the roster do not return for Philadelphia next season, he could be a fit for the club and be an option to be paired with Provorov should an injury arise to another defenseman on the orange and black next season. Reilly is a dependable player who provides flexibility within a lineup, which are good qualities for a team to consider when signing or acquiring a defenseman to its roster.
4. Ian Cole
Ian Cole, at 32 years old, is an experienced defenseman who could form an ideal partnership with Provorov that would be akin to the pairing with the Russian defender and Niskanen, Philadelphia had prior to the 2020-21 season. Cole has won two Stanley Cup championships previously in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and bringing that recent championship experience can be beneficial to another team. He has the ability to be an effective shot blocker and provide grit, which are two traits the Flyers could benefit from.
The Minnesota Wild traded for Cole prior to the start of the 2020-21 season and were seeking a defenseman with experience. He would be the primary enforcer for Philadelphia if he is added to the orange and black this offseason as the club struggled to respond to opposing players who demonstrated intimidating styles of play against them this past season. He is not getting any younger, and his age may be one explanation why Philadelphia does not consider signing him this offseason, and another reason would be his salary. In 2020-21, Cole earned a base salary of $3 million and carried a cap hit of $4.25 million. Given his age, he may need to take a pay cut with the next team he signs a contract with.
The Flyers have options to choose from in terms of new additions to make on defense in free agency or via trade. They need to make changes on the defense due to the disappointing season the team had after giving up an average of 3.52 goals per game (GPG), which ranked last in the NHL. Fletcher has his work cut out for him in trying to correct what went wrong for Philadelphia in only one offseason as the fanbase expects the orange and black to be more competitive in 2021-22.
Matt covers the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers. Matt’s priority is to contribute exceptional content about the Flyers and Penguins for THW and its readers. Matt writes for The Globe newspaper at Salt Lake Community College. To see more of Matt’s writing, visit his portfolio. For interview requests, follow Matt on Twitter that appears at the end of articles for THW.