Flyers Face LTIR, Cap Predicament with Couturier, Ellis

Despite a clearly inferior level of talent to the NHL’s top teams, the Philadelphia Flyers still face one of the bleakest salary cap situations in the league. Eight players on their current roster will make $5 million or more in 2022-23. Four of the eight are at least 30 years old. They face major injury concerns with two of their most accomplished and expensive veteran players, Ryan Ellis and Sean Couturier.

Related: Flyers News & Rumors: Training Camp, Couturier, Anisimov & More

When the team plummeted to the bottom of the NHL standings in 2021-22, general manager (GM) Chuck Fletcher insisted the organization had no intention of “bottoming out” by trading their veteran players to improve their draft capital in a long-term rebuild. The number of expensive and likely unmoveable veteran contracts reportedly played a part of their logic for the decision. The lack of flexibility also kept them from pursuing high-end free agents like Johnny Gaudreau and Nazem Kadri. How can they correct the growing cap predicament?

LTIR Option for Ellis, Couturier

The acquisition of Tony DeAngelo in July and the announced plan to play him on the top pair with Ivan Provorov indicated a lack of confidence in Ellis making significant contributions in 2022-23. Fletcher took that doubt one step further last week by legitimizing speculation that Ellis might never play in the NHL again. He is under contract in Philadelphia through the 2026-27 season with an annual cap hit of $6.25 million.

Ryan Ellis, Philadelphia Flyers
Ryan Ellis, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Couturier reportedly suffered a herniated disc during his offseason training. He played just 29 games in 2021-22. In all likelihood, the first time he’ll see NHL action on his eight-year, $62 million contract extension signed last summer will be after his 30th birthday on Dec. 7. Although he is still the best all-around talent on the Flyers roster, the big picture for a player with 11 NHL seasons under his belt coming off two major back injuries is far from ideal.

Long-term injured reserve (LTIR) allows NHL teams to exceed the salary cap if the players placed on reserve will miss at least 10 games and at least 24 days of game action. Placing Ellis on LTIR will allow the Flyers to become cap compliant to begin 2022-23. If Couturier misses an extended period, his $7.75 million cap hit will mean an increased LTIR pool. The temporary fix was likely involved in Fletcher’s strategy to patch holes on the roster during the offseason. However, it is not a remedy for the cap mess the Flyers have created.

Flyers Facing Predicament

Montreal Canadiens GM Kent Hughes wisely dealt the contract of Shea Weber to the Vegas Golden Knights in June. As an organization looking to rebuild, Montreal needed a long-term financial strategy that involved moving on from their long-time captain’s $7.857 million annual cap hit through 2025-26 while it’s unlikely he’ll ever play in the NHL again. Why couldn’t Gorton simply stick Weber on LTIR to hide his hefty cap hit if he doesn’t expect a healthy return?

“It greatly limits your flexibility from a cap management perspective, it does not allow you to accrue cap space during the season and assures that you will be stung with performance bonus overages at the end of the season if you have players on entry-level contracts on the roster,” wrote Arpon Basu (from The Athletic, Canadiens trading Shea Weber gives Kent Hughes inside track to winning NHL offseason, 6/17/22). 

Shea Weber Montreal Canadiens
Former Montreal Canadiens Captain Shea Weber (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Fletcher spoke optimistically about seeing younger players take advantage of opportunities with open spots in the Philadelphia lineup this season. “We could have up to 10 players on our roster 25 years old and younger,” he told the media on Thursday.

The majority of those players would play on entry-level contracts. Expensive contracts for middle-six players like James van Riemsdyk and Kevin Hayes create the need to conserve cap space with younger and cheaper players, and the problematic mix could ultimately just sink the Flyers deeper into the complex hole they’re already in. The inability to accrue cap space also limits the ability of the front office to make moves during the regular season.

Fletcher Needs a Solution

Would moving Ellis help the Flyers solve their cap predicament? Probably. However, an organization that moved their second-round picks in the 2022, 2023, and 2024 drafts won’t have an easy time attaching a sweetener in a deal with any other organization willing to do business. They also already balked at a potential deal to move van Riemsdyk and a premium draft pick in July to clear cap space to sign Gaudreau.

Couturier is still the best player on a team lacking top-end talent, and keeping him in Philadelphia is still the right move. It also might be the only option considering the potential albatross contract through the rest of the 2020s. Their best bet is to wait and hope the former Selke Trophy winner returns to form.

Philadelphia Flyers Sean Couturier
Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The Flyers aren’t strangers to LTIR and aging players. Chris Pronger spent over three and a half years out of the lineup before becoming the first player in NHL history to come off LTIR without getting activated when his contract was traded to the Arizona Coyotes in 2015. Mike Rathje, Derian Hatcher, Blair Betts, and Ian Laperriere all ended their respective NHL careers on LTIR with Philadelphia. 

Fletcher has shown no clear intention of allocating resources differently. He dished out a lucrative $25.5 million deal to Rasmus Ristolainen in March, and he inked DeAngelo to a substantial deal after sending away three draft picks to acquire him. Even with Ellis’ $6.25 million cap hit tucked away on LTIR, the Flyers would still spend the third-highest percentage of their cap resources on defensemen among Eastern Conference teams. The group of blue liners would have to drastically outperform their career norms to make that kind of investment worthwhile.

The lucrative investments are not a new concept. An organization that once expected to compete for the Stanley Cup every year has taken a hard fall during the salary cap era. Poor decisions have led to a cyclical need to dig holes even deeper, and the Flyers still haven’t found a way out. Sticking Ellis and Couturier on LTIR might make the Flyers cap compliant in 2022-23, but it still leaves them in a long-term financial mess that can only be solved with creativity and shrewd cap management by a front office that has very little history of pulling off those types of moves.

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