Sean Shapiro of The Athletic recently published the results of a poll that ranked the Philadelphia Flyers as the third likeliest landing spot for NHL player agents to recommend to their clients entering free agency (from “NHL agent poll: Opinions on teams and owners, Gary Bettman, gambling, the ESPN deal, the Olympics and more,” The Athletic, 2/3/22 ). He posed the question in a hypothetical scenario in which contract value is equal in all cases.
“The Athletic polled 20 agents, who combine to represent 358 NHL player contracts totaling an estimated $3.1 billion in salary, according to Puckpedia. By average annual value, those contracts amount to $734,230,837 — roughly the equivalent of nine NHL teams.”-Sean Shapiro
The favorable rank provides the organization with some positive publicity while they desperately need it. However, further scrutiny of the poll is necessary to interpret the results logically and analyze what they mean for the organization during future free-agent signing periods.
Flyers Get a Notable Compliment
The Flyers will need a miracle comeback in the second half of the 2021-22 season to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time in consecutive seasons since 1992-93 and 1993-94. They fired head coach Alain Vigneault eight games into a 10-game winless streak in December, only to suffer through a franchise-record 13-game winless streak that began just 24 days later. Their fan base is not confident in the organization to “aggressively retool” in hopes for contention in 2022-23.
However, the compliment is a reminder that Philadelphia still has a good reputation around the NHL. General manager (GM) Chuck Fletcher called the Flyers an “iconic brand” and a “historic franchise” during his introductory press conference in December 2018 and likened them to the Original Six franchises. Their success on the ice during his tenure hasn’t justified his statement, but one anonymous agent cited the organization’s history of keeping players happy for decades.
This history was on full display as recently as November when the franchise inducted Rick Tocchet and Paul Holmgren into the Flyers Hall of Fame. The alumni gathered in Philadelphia and glorified the memories of past eras during the lifetime of co-founder and long-time chairman Ed Snider.
“(Being a former Flyer), it’s almost like being in the mob. You’re in, and as long as you are loyal to the family, you’’ll be a Flyer and taken care of forever.”-Scott Mellanby
The turmoil of the past three months in Philadelphia has pushed that reputation out of the spotlight and made it easy to forget how much the alumni respects the organization.
Another agent spoke about the hotels, flights, and overall services provided to players by the organization: “My barometer for that is basically: Is the owner spending money on the players and the other things fans might not think of?,” said the anonymous agent.
The NHL salary cap prevents the wealthiest organizations from buying the most talented players in the league and dominating smaller market teams, but other financial investments in hockey operations and general budgets have no cap. The positive feedback from player agents legitimizes the recent statement made by Comcast Spectacor CEO Dave Scott about his willingness to provide a “blank check” to help fix the Flyers’ issues.
The Flyers also own a good reputation for building relationships with players’ families. Jason Myrtetus of Flyers Daily called the wives’ and children’s lounges at the Wells Fargo Center “second to none” in his interpretation of the poll. He also emphasized the city of Philadelphia as a great cultural center and a major sports market.
Perspective in the Big Picture
The organization deserves credit for building the reputation spoken about by the agents, and the consensus could help the Flyers acquire talent this offseason. Key free-agent signings like Jeremy Roenick in 2001, Danny Briere in 2007, and Kevin Hayes in 2019 have jolted the team in the past immediately following disappointing seasons. Fletcher will need all the help he can get if he hopes to land the “top-end talent” he covets.
The ability to attract free agents reflects positively on an organization, but it is not a definitive advantage over the rest of the NHL like it was before the salary cap era began in 2005. The Flyers did not adjust well to the cap restrictions during the tenure of Holmgren as the club’s GM from 2006 until 2014. The financial constraints created by the former tough guy began the period of malaise that has become characteristic of the franchise for the past decade. Money was not a factor in Shapiro’s poll, but it certainly is a factor in free-agent negotiations.
Briere helped rejuvenate the team in 2007-08 after signing his lucrative contract in the offseason, but the Flyers ultimately had to buy him out before the end of the deal. Hayes was instrumental in a strong season for Philadelphia in 2019-20, but he now faces significant health concerns while the team continues to struggle. Signing former stars like Peter Forsberg and Vincent Lecavalier in the later years of their careers has also plagued the Flyers in the past, and they handed out one of the worst contracts in league history to Ilya Bryzgalov in 2011.
While a player agent is a reliable source to consult for information about player preferences in free agency, agent and player agendas also need to come into consideration. Agents and players often define successful contracts differently than fans do. Fans want their favorite team to get value for players they sign to help maintain flexibility under the salary cap, but agents and players need to look out for their own financial interests along with the success of the team. For example, Kent Hughes might look back positively on his work negotiating Lecavalier’s contract in 2013 for five years and $22.5 million regardless of his client’s success in Philadelphia after the age of 33.
The Flyers were mentioned four times as a top destination in the 46 agent responses. Of the eight teams mentioned more than once, four are currently out of playoff position. Despite the best point percentage in the Eastern Conference, the Carolina Hurricanes were mentioned five times as a free-agent destination that agents wouldn’t recommend to their clients. An anonymous agent appropriately called Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon “a shrewd businessman.” While players and agents might not like his tendencies, they have worked in Carolina.
The Boston Bruins, Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights, and St. Louis Blues all got mentioned once as a destination to avoid. Over the past four NHL seasons, the four respective teams have earned 15 of a possible 16 playoff appearances, 20 playoff series wins, three appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals, and one Stanley Cup win. The Flyers have won one playoff series in two appearances during that time span.
The Flyers have their work cut out for them if they hope to return to contention in 2022-23 as Scott indicated last week. Recognition of the Flyers brand around the league and a reputation as a respectable organization with state-of-the-art facilities can only help them achieve their long-term goals, but free-agent signings will not be a shortcut to solve the turmoil in Philadelphia right now.