If you’ve ever played the popular board game Settlers of Catan, you understand the importance of not only finding a good trading partner, but also the value in having something that somebody else wants. In that game, the resources that players trade are stone, wheat, livestock, wood and clay. In the NHL, the resources that teams and their general managers move around are players and draft picks.
The Detroit Red Wings have officially begun their offseason after what was a somewhat eventful 2020-21 season. They began with an offseason that saw them bring in a handful of fresh “resources” to a team that was in the basement during the 2019-20 campaign, and then over the course of this season, they moved around more of their resources, with the biggest example being the trade that sent winger Anthony Mantha to the Washington Capitals. Entering this year’s offseason, the Red Wings have just nine players from this year’s roster under contract for next season, leaving them and GM Steve Yzerman with an enormous $48.9 million in cap space to play with. In short, this is probably as close to a clean slate to work with as there will ever be in Yzerman’s tenure.
Fans should absolutely expect that Yzerman is going to shake up the Red Wings even more before we begin the 2021-22 season. While the team improved this season, they still have a lot of work to do before they can make an honest push for the playoffs, let alone a Stanley Cup run. Luckily for Yzerman and company, there happens to be a team to the east that presents an interesting opportunity for the Red Wings to make a deal that addresses both team’s needs. That team is the Philadelphia Flyers.
Philadelphia Flyers (Brief) Year in Review
After finishing second in the Metropolitan Division last season and making their way to the second round of the NHL Playoffs, the Flyers fell off in a big way this season. They finished with a record of 25-23-8, falling to sixth in the MassMutual East Division, and overall never found the kind of consistency needed to lock down a playoff spot. They were buried by poor defense, regression from goaltender of the future Carter Hart, as well as defenseman Matt Niskanen’s surprise retirement. Philadelphia’s GM Chuck Fletcher never did find a suitable replacement for the top-four defender.
The Flyers now hold pick 14 in the 2021 draft, though it could of course move up into the top two with a little bit of lottery luck. The problem is that this is a team built to make a run now; captain Claude Giroux isn’t getting any younger, and they don’t really have the cap room to go out and make a huge splash in free agency. They have the resources they have – it’s up to them to make it all work.
Perhaps nobody has better embodied the Flyers’ inability to reach their potential than forward Nolan Patrick, and there’s good reason to believe Fletcher will be looking to move on from the young forward.
Nolan Patrick’s Struggles
After winning the second overall selection in the 2017 draft, the Flyers happily added Patrick to their organization. At the time, there was a legitimate debate about whether he or Nico Hischier (whom the New Jersey Devils took with the top pick) were the best player available in the 2017 draft. Patrick captained the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL in his draft season, and he showed an ability to be a top center with some legitimate power forward qualities to his game. His rookie season (2017-18) with Philadelphia was far from a disappointment, though it did leave fans wanting a little more as he recorded 30 points in 73 games.
Fast forward to today, and the narrative surrounding the second overall pick has shifted in a big way. THW’s own Colin Newby recently published an article about how Patrick was drifting towards “draft bust” territory with his recent play. TSN’s Frank Seravalli recently speculated that the 22-year-old forward would like a fresh start after injury issues, including a migraine issue that held him out of the 2019-20 season completely, as well as an inability to get regular top six playing time with the Flyers might have soured his Philadephia experience.
But is this a case of a player that has potential and just needs a new opportunity? After all, with former Calgary Flame Sam Bennett‘s move to the Florida Panthers, we’ve seen what can happen when a good young player gets the fresh start they’re looking for.
“The odds that Nolan Patrick ever becomes a top six contributor in Philadelphia continue to dwindle. If Patrick does move on this offseason, he will be considered a colossal draft bust from the Flyers’ point of view regardless of the career he has elsewhere,” Newby said. “Improvement following a change of scenery is not out of the question if Patrick can stay healthy, but it is highly unlikely that he will ever reach the level of any of the three players drafted immediately behind him (Miro Heiskanen, Cale Makar, Elias Pettersson).”
The Red Wings’ Role
One look at the Red Wings’ roster and depth chart reveals that the team is lacking down the middle after captain Dylan Larkin. Prospect Joe Veleno looked promising in five games with Detroit this season, and Michael Rasmussen – another 2017 draftee – made big strides this season as well, but neither of them carry the kind of upside you look for in a potential top six center (feel free to make your best arguments for either of them in the comments section.) Heading into the 2021 draft, it appears that the Red Wings’ top two needs are:
- Another top-six center, preferably with top line/best player potential
- Another top-pairing defender to pair alongside top prospect Moritz Seider, preferably left-handed
The Red Wings would hit an out-of-the-park home run if they were able to address both of these needs in a single draft, but the chances of that happening with this draft class are slim. Detroit does hold pick six in the draft – the same spot where they drafted Seider in 2019 and Filip Zadina in 2018 – but the pick could move in either direction depending on the lottery. Luckily, this year’s draft class has a somewhat even spread of talent throughout the top 10; I myself am convinced that the best player in this draft will be taken outside the top three, potentially even outside the top five. What all of this means is that the Red Wings should have a pretty good chance to address one of their top needs this summer, but it’s far from guaranteed.
Alright, so we’ve identified which resources the Red Wings need. Now we need to identify what resources they have to play with – and specifically which ones the Flyers may be interested in. As I previously mentioned, when Niskanen retired in the fall of 2020, the Flyers never truly addressed the hole that he left in their lineup. He was a two-way defender who won a championship with the Capitals in 2018. He could play in every situation, and averaged just shy of 22 minutes a night in his one season with Philadelphia. At 6-foot-1, he relied on skill rather than size to outmaneuver his man, and he played an important role alongside the Flyers’ top defenseman, Ivan Provorov.
The Red Wings have themselves an interesting situation on the right side of their blue line. They ended the season with Filip Hronek, Troy Stecher and Gustav Lindstrom – all right-handed shots – holding down the right side. Heading into next season, it is assumed that Seider, another right-handed, right-side defenseman, will join the team on a full-time basis. This gives them a bit of an overflow on the right side, and that’s not to mention the possibility that Detroit adds another right-side guy with their top pick in the 2021 draft. Realistically, Detroit’s right side will look like this next season:
Lindstrom could find himself in various situations as the odd-man out, including Seattle depending on if he is protected in the upcoming expansion draft.
What we have now is a team that could use a young center with upside in Detroit, as well as a team that needs help on the right side of their blue line in Philadelphia. Alright, but is this as simple as trading wheat for stones?
Flyers’ Trade Target
Without feeding him a name, Newby pointed to Hronek as a guy that Philadelphia would have interest in.
“The one defenseman the Flyers might take a look at is Hronek,” he said. “The Flyers will probably be looking for a defenseman with a stronger track record than him, but those guys are few and far between on the open market. The Flyers also would prefer a right-handed shot defenseman as a partner for lefty Ivan Provorov, and Hronek checks that box.”
Hronek has become a household name in Detroit over the last two seasons as he has become the team’s de facto number one defenseman due to the team’s overall lack of impact defenders. Through 167 NHL games, the 23-year-old has 80 points and averages 22:38 in terms of ice-time. While he has filled in admirably as Detroit’s top guy, he routinely seems overmatched as a number one defenseman. Personally, I think he would thrive in a situation where he could play on the second pair, but his experience over the last two seasons should put him in a spot to be a competent complement to a true number one guy like, say, Provorov.
But let’s be honest here: Hronek has proven himself to be a true top-four NHL defender. Those are not a dime a dozen, and any move for one comes at a high cost. While Patrick’s potential makes him appealing, he hasn’t proved himself in the NHL the same way that the young Czech defender has. The Flyers do have something that could entice Yzerman and the Red Wings into making a deal like this though: their first round pick.
Granted Philadelphia doesn’t win the lottery, they would be better served to use their pick as means to acquire a resource that helps them right now. In Catan, It’s the difference between using a resource to buy a settlement, which gives you a point in the game, or a development card, which is essentially a “chance” card you get to use your next turn: one pays off right away, the other pays off later, and to a various extent. The Red Wings would absolutely be interested in adding a top-15 pick to a collection that already includes their own first rounder and the Capitals first round pick, acquired in the Mantha trade. So then you have a trade that looks something like this:
- To Detroit: Nolan Patrick, Philadelphia 2021 first round pick
- To Philadelphia: Filip Hronek
While I don’t claim to know how Yzerman’s brain works, I think that this kind of move would at least intrigue the Red Wings’ GM. But what about the Flyers and GM Fletcher?
“Patrick is one trade chip that the Flyers might use in their pursuit of a top pair defenseman this offseason. He would have to be packaged with draft picks (likely in the first or second round) and possibly even another player,” Newby said. “Acquiring a high caliber defenseman from outside the organization who helps the Flyers win right away will be Fletcher’s top priority this offseason, and the acquisition will likely require the willingness to trade top draft picks.” However, he did hesitate a little bit. “If the Flyers are losing Patrick, they might also ask for a serviceable bottom six forward or another minimal asset along with Hronek.”
Both Hronek and Patrick are pending restricted free agents coming off of their entry-level deals. While neither of them should be particularly hard to get signed, this does offer both teams some flexibility in terms of getting their players signed to team-friendly deals. The Flyers don’t have the kind of cap space that the Red Wings have coming up, so acquiring a top-four defenseman that can be cost-controlled has to be appealing to them.
However, there is a major downside to trading Hronek from the Detroit side of things: removing him creates a hole at the top of their defense. While Seider seems destined to fill that spot in the future, it would be a lot to ask of him in his rookie season. Should a deal like this come to fruition, I would expect Yzerman to find a way to fill Hronek’s spot in the lineup; personally, I would take the open spot and Detroit’s cap space as an opportunity to do everything possible to persuade pending free agent Dougie Hamilton to come to Detroit. We’re starting to go down a rabbit hole though, so let’s refocus.
There is also the fact that keeping Hronek isn’t a bad move either. I say that he would be better fit on the second pairing, and he could find himself in that position once Seider settles into life in the NHL. By no means do the Red Wings have to trade Hronek, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he would yield a nice return should they explore that option.
Another Yzerman Reclamation Project?
Yzerman has already shown his willingness to gamble on whether or not a player can take their game to another level if given a bigger opportunity. Robby Fabbri became a true top six forward in Detroit after falling out of favor with the St. Louis Blues. Jakub Vrana was highly productive in 11 games with Detroit while averaging almost three minutes more of ice time than he received in Washington this season. Patrick would undoubtedly receive ample opportunity to realize his potential in Detroit. And guess what, if it doesn’t work out, they still got an additional first round pick out of the deal.
While this article is nothing more than me thinking out loud, I do expect that Yzerman will be looking to make a big splash this offseason. After making legitimate progress this season, regression is not an option. For the first time in his two years as Detroit’s GM, he has the resources he needs to restructure this team exactly the way he wants heading into the 2021-22 season.
As players of Catan will tell you, having the resources you need is an exciting feeling, and it makes you a dangerous player once it’s your turn to make a move.
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