We have 25 days until free agency and I’m sure each and every one of those days will be rumor laden until July 1 arrives.
Paul Holmgren was fairly active last season, adding Andrej Meszaros, Sean O’Donnell, Jody Shelley and Nikolay Zherdev, while retaining Darroll Powe and Daniel Carcillo. However all of that activity caused casualties of the cap. Arron Asham signed with Pittsburgh as a free agent and Simon Gagne, the longest- tenured Flyer at the time, waived his no-trade clause in a much maligned deal with Tampa Bay, while we took on Matt Walker — or more precisely, his two hip surgeries.
This season, the rumors have largely been focused on acquiring a goalie and trading Jeff Carter and yet, as recent as last week, rumors floated on whether Gagne would return to the Flyers for the upcoming 2011-12 season.
It’s hard to disagree with the logic of moving Gagne before his final year of a contract that carried a $5.25 million cap hit. After all, he hasn’t played a full 82- game season since, well ever. I hate labeling players as injury-prone, so instead I’ll just say he most likely will not play a full season at any point in the future.
This season with the Lightning, Gagne played just 63 games, missing much of the November month, much like the ’09-’10 season with the Flyers, which saw him play 58 games and miss most of November. His goal and assist numbers were identical; posting 17 goals and 23 assists in each of the last two seasons. It’s quite a drop-off in production from his 79-game, 34 goal, 40 assist season in 2008-09 with the Flyers. His average time on ice this season with Tampa was just 16:53 minutes per game. In the prior two years, his TOI was 19:01 and 18:37, respectively. The lower TOI with Tampa may be from lack of penalty kill time with Tampa.
Tampa has time to make their decisions and they have money to spend, but they also have to sign a full defensive pairing that may or may not include Eric Brewer, 2 goalies and 4 forwards to include Steven Stamkos. I know one of the reasons Gagne gave in waiving his NTC to go to Tampa, was because they had plenty of cap space in order to re-sign him and give him a contract for a few years.
That was before they made the mid-season acquisition of Brewer, who is himself an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and carried a cap hit of $4.25 million this season.
If Gagne is willing to come back to Philadelphia and if the price is right, it’s a low-risk move. Gagne could provide a significant boost to whatever line he is on. His vision on ice, composure with the puck playmaking ability, and scoring touch can be could prove invaluable to a team that struggles with turnovers much of the latter half of the season. He has a nose for the open areas of ice and I think his presence was sorely missed on the lackluster power play this past season. He is also defensively sound, able to play on the penalty kill, which can be useful in the event that Blair Betts misses any time.
Gagne has a history of concussions that can’t be ignored; probably his most concerning recurrent injury. He is just one concussion away from his career ending, but then, so is every player other player in the NHL. At 31, he’s no spring chicken and probably won’t see any 70-point seasons again, but this is mostly due to the number of games he could potentially miss. He could easily do better than Nikolay Zherdev’s 56 game, 16 goal, 6 assist season. As a perennial scoring threat, he commands respect from opponents, but he can play the part of a set-up man as well.
The key to his success will be to put him on a line with players that are also scoring threats and can deflect some of the defensive pressure. He has played on a line with Mike Richards and Daniel Briere in the past. He has played with Briere and Mike Knuble, and with Richards and Carter.
Fortunately, the Flyers are deep in scoring talent and can feasibly roll 3 scoring lines with a large variety of line combinations. Now that James van Riemsdyk has picked up his play, I wouldn’t mind seeing a line of Gagne-Richards-JVR. The third-year Jerseyite likes to shoot the puck and will certainly draw defense to him and he may really benefit from playing alongside a guy like Gagne.
I could also see him play with Richards and a big physical power forward type of player. Maybe if Tom Sestito really impresses in camp and can prove to be defensively sound, a third line of Gagne-Richards-Sestito might not be a bad idea. Swap Claude Giroux and Richards and it’s still a decent line with one of the best passers in the game in Giroux, who is probably the closest thing to Peter Forsberg that you can find. Gagne is a goal scorer first and had his most productive season on Forsberg’s wing in 2005-06 with power forward Knuble on the opposite wing. Per Holmgren, Sestito is said to be an above-average skater and tough as nails, so he would serve as the protector of the line, but also an effective net presence and could potentially be a very good power forward if paired with the right linemates.
Obviously this hinges on Sestito’s ability to play sound defense, play with composure and not take undisciplined penalties. I wasn’t a fan of the Gagne-Richards-Carcillo line at all in 2009-10, so if Sestito is going to be a larger version of Carcillo, this line won’t work.
He could also play alongside Briere and Scott Hartnell, essentially taking the place of Ville Leino. However, that line saw a lot of the physical action this year and it seemed to eventually take its toll on Leino and I’d be concerned about how much physical play Gagne would potentially absorb on that line and that brings us back to the concern about concussions and I think he is better served on a 3rd line that plays against top lines of other teams in order to avoid the physical punishment of playing on the top line against other teams’ checking lines.
At the very least, if Leino takes his talents elsewhere, Gagne could fill the scoring void that he leaves. Rumored offers to Leino have been 3-4 years for $9-12 million and could be a reasonable amount to offer Gagne in the event that Leino and the Flyers cannot agree on a new contract. Ideally, Gagne’s contract would be a $2-2.5 million with bonuses paid for number of games played.
When healthy and with the right linemates Gagne could put up a few more 50- point seasons. He’s in a similar phase of his career that John LeClair found himself without Eric Lindros. I think the key here is consistency and patience with line combinations. So, if $5.25 million is overpayment for 53 games, 17 goals and 23 assists, would a more reasonable contract be less risky and more importantly, less taxing on the cap?
If the price is right, it makes sense. What do you think?