The 2019 off-season has come and gone, and one of the biggest talking points over the summer was the multitude of young players who went to restricted free agency, and did not sign contracts for a long period of time; many of those, not the least of which was Toronto’s Mitch Marner, elected to sign deals right before the start of training camp. But in the months leading up to the start of camp, there was endless speculation on the possibility of a team signing one of those players to an offer sheet. While offer sheets are a completely valid move, they come with the risk of giving up valuable draft picks, especially when the target is a highly sought-after superstar in the making such as Marner, Brayden Point, or Mikko Rantanen.
With the season having begun, only one player – Sebastian Aho – would sign an offer sheet, as he put pen to paper on a deal with the Montreal Canadiens on July 1st, the very first day of free agency. Aho’s original team, the Carolina Hurricanes, would match the offer sheet a week later, keeping the young Finnish playmaker in Raleigh for the next five years. Aho’s offer sheet was the first signed in six years, and briefly opened up an avenue previously seen as taboo for NHL General Managers, either due to an aversion to giving up draft picks, or a fear of upsetting other GMs, and thus paving the way for retaliation at some point.
Though the NHL is increasingly becoming a young man’s game, it is still rare to see a star player targeted for an offer sheet. The last top name to go through such a process was Nashville defenceman Shea Weber, who signed an offer sheet with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012. Weber’s contract was massive: 14 years, $110M total, for an Average Annual Value of just over $7.85M. The contract was designed to avoid a match from the Predators, and max out the Flyers’ trade leverage in the event that Nashville decided to keep their star blue-liner. Even the massive amount of money in the first few years, including over $25M of lockout-proof guaranteed money, wasn’t enough to dissuade the Preds from retaining Weber, as they would match the offer sheet a week later.
But what if they had decided that Shea Weber was not worth all the money that the Flyers were willing to give him? How would they have done with the resulting four 1st-Round Draft Picks that they would be compensated with? Would they still be on the path to a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2017? And would the Flyers become contenders with Weber now leading their blue line?
WHAT IF THE NASHVILLE PREDATORS NEVER MATCHED THE SHEA WEBER OFFER SHEET?
WHAT MUST BE CONSIDERED, AND WHAT MUST CHANGE: The Flyer’s offer sheet was designed specifically to avoid a match from Nashville; in the first four years of the deal, Weber would only earn $4 million of actual salary, and $52 million in signing bonuses. This not only gave Philly a massive financial advantage against the Preds (only a few years removed from potential re-location discussions), but also guaranteed that Weber would receive his money, even in the case of an impending lockout, which would eventually take place on September 15th of that year.
As it stands in the OTL, Nashville was caught in a massive bind, and had little choice but to sign Weber, even with the hefty price tag. The Predators had just lost another key blue-liner, Ryan Suter, to the Minnesota Wild, and with Kevin Klein remaining as the only veteran in their defensive corps, losing their captain would be another massive blow. But if there was one area of the ice where the Preds excelled, it was defence, as it seemed like the team always had a new prospect ready to step in when others took their leave. If the Preds found Weber’s offer sheet too much to swallow, they could start to focus on their younger players, such as Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis, giving the rookies added time to show their stuff.
As Wednesday, July 25th comes and goes, there is constant debate over whether the Nashville Predators will match the massive offer sheet given to Shea Weber by the Philadelphia Flyers. Every facet of the deal is scrutinized by front office staff, media outlets, and fans alike, as the clock counts down to 11:59 PM, the deadline for the Preds to match. Among the topics at hand are the Predators’ ability to survive without their two top blue-liners from the past year, as well as their viability as a contender – or even as a club altogether – if they are financially unable to match the Flyers’ contract.
The clock strikes midnight. A few hockey writers stay up, as they wait for news to break regarding the Weber deal. Eventually, confirmation from the NHL arrives that the Predators have declined to match, and will instead receive four 1st-Round Draft Picks over the next few seasons. For Nashville fans, the news represents another lethal blow to a team that looked to have the pieces necessary to put together a long playoff run in the next few years. A few fans burn Weber jerseys, and a few more turn in their season tickets, as the upcoming season looks to be one to forget. While Predators’ fans despair, however, Philly fans rejoice; Weber’s arrival is seen as a massive step in building the next Cup contender, with some comparing his signing to the Eric Lindros deal twenty years prior.
FROM PHILADELPHIA’S PERSEPCTIVE
2012-2013: The signing of Shea Weber had fans in Philadelphia dreaming of a potential Stanley Cup very soon. With a fully-stocked blue line, an emerging group of forwards, and a full commitment to Ilya Bryzgalov as starter, it looked like the Flyers were a team to watch out for in the 2012-13 season. Unofrtunately, fans’ patience would be tested, as well as those of other NHL teams, as a lockout dragged on through the fall. With time running out to get a deal done, the league and the players’ union would finally come to terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, with the season start to begin deep into January.
When play resumed, it quickly became clear that Shea Weber, who had been given the “C” to replace the effectively-retired Chris Pronger, was all he was cracked up to be. He would play all 48 games, registering 28 points to finish second among Flyer defencemen; ahead of him by only one point was Weber’s old Nashville teammate, Kimmo Timonen. Despite the great play of Weber, Timonen, Claude Giroux (48 points) and Jakub Voracek (46 points), the team still struggled with both their depth and their goaltending. Bryzgalov would play 40 games, finishing with a paltry .900 save percentage, 9 points below the league average.
The poor goaltending cost Philly pretty dearly, as they would finish with 54 points in the shortened season, a single point outside of a playoff spot. Bryzgalov would take the blame for the team’s failure to reach the post-season, as he was released by the team on a compliance buy-out. Steve Mason, who impressed in a short stint with Philadelphia that year (7 games .944 SV%), would be given the starting job from her on out, as Flyers’ management hoped he could recreate the magic that made him a Calder Trophy winner in Columbus back in 2009.
This would be the first of four years in which Philadelphia would lose a 1st-Round Draft Pick. Their selection at 13th Overall would be used by Nashville on defenceman Josh Morrissey.
2013-14: The excitement of getting Shea Weber had, in a sense, worn off. Sure, Weber was good acquisition, but the team around him just wasn’t good enough, and the Flyers had no choice but to go for it, considering they had no 1st-Round Picks for the next three years. In fact, Philly had traded away an additional 4th Rounder in the off-season as part of a deal to get Mark Streit from the Islanders. Philly fans were demanding playoff hockey, and Paul Holmgren was doing everything in his power to make it happen, even if it was at the cost of the team’s near future.
The Flyers got off to a slow start, losing their first three games, leading to the firing of Peter Laviolette. Craig Berube was brought in from the team’s AHL affiliate to be the new bench boss, and he would help the team get settled in over the next few months. Philadelphia’s already stacked defensive group got an extra boost at the trade deadline, with Andrew MacDonald coming over from the Islanders as a rental; even more draft picks were sacrificed as the Flyers went all-out for a post-season place. In addition to the blue line, the goaltending improved too, as Steve Mason shone bright in his first full season with Philadelphia with a .917 SV% in 61 games of work.
A new playoff format had come into play, as the top three teams in each of the four divisions would clinch a spot, as well as the two best remaining teams in each conference. Thanks to their improvement, Philly would clinch 2nd in the Metropolitan Division with 104 points, setting up a clash with the New York Rangers. New York had similarly loaded up for the post-season, having acquired Martin St. Louis from the Tampa Bay Lightning at the deadline to set up a battle between their attack and Philly’s defending. The series would go to seven games, but Philly would use their home-ice advantage to take Game Seven by a score of 3-0.
Philly was out of the first round, but now they had an even greater test in the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had won the Metro Division by only a couple of points. Series between the two Pennsylvania rivals always brought out the worst in each other, and this one proved no different. It was in the heated affairs, however, that Philly excelled, as they pummeled the Pens in a 4-1 series victory. That win only added to the Flyers’ confidence, and even with one of the best goalies in the league on their side in Carey Price, the Montreal Canadiens just couldn’t match up. They, too, went down to the Flyers in a 4-1 series, as Philadelphia advanced to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2010.
The Cup Final pitted the Flyers against the Los Angeles Kings, who had won the Cup just two years earlier. Like the Rangers, the Kings had added some scoring at the deadline, acquiring Marian Gaborik from the Columbus Blue Jackets in preparation for the post-season push. Philly was prepared, however, having already shut down teams like New York and Pittsburgh en route to the Final. The Flyers would take the first two games at the Staples Center, followed by a split at the Wells Fargo Center. In Game Five, Los Angeles, playing for their season, would throw everything they could at the Flyers, but Shea Weber and company were not going to allow much of anything to reach Steve Mason in goal. Philadelphia would win 2-1, securing their first Stanley Cup since the days of the Broad Street Bullies.
Philadelphia had done it. They had mortgaged their future by signing Shea Weber, and doubled down after acquiring both Mark Streit and Andrew MacDonald, but the gamble paid off with a Stanley Cup. Weber, as captain of the team, would be the first to receive the trophy from the commissioner, with pictures of that moment making the front page of papers in both Philly and Nashville. Steve Mason’s star turn in the playoffs would earn him the Conn Smythe Trophy, as well as justifying the three-year extension he had signed during the campaign itself. Craig Berube, meanwhile, earned the Jack Adams Award, having taken over early on in the season to not only bring Philly above the 100-point mark, but also to a championship.
Once again, Philly would miss out on the 1st Round of the Entry Draft, with their pick ending up at #29; as Stanley Cup winners, they should have had the 30th pick, but the New Jersey Devils were bumped down to that spot as a penalty for their signing of Ilya Kovalchuk on a contract meant to circumvent the salary cap. Nashville would use the Flyers’ pick on Adrian Kempe, a young forward from MODO in the Swedish Hockey League.
2014-15: Philadelphia was on top of the world. They had just come off of a Stanley Cup – their first in almost 40 years – and the man they had spent so much money on a couple of years earlier had been key in their fortunes. But success in Philly wasn’t meant to be fleeting; if you wanted to be a true-blue hero to Flyer fans, you had to sustain that success. Unfortunately for new General Manager Ron Hextall, his team was pressed up against the salary cap due to the Weber contract, meaning that not only would Andrew MacDonald have to go as a free agent, but the only players Hextall could afford to sign would have to be table scraps on minimum deals.
The cap crunch meant that a Cup hangover was well on the way. The Flyers’ blue line, packed with guys like Nicklas Grossmann, Nick Schultz, and Luke Schenn, found themselves unable to adjust to a game where playmaking and skill were increasingly becoming favoured over sheer strength, and on many an occasion, their one-dimensional play would be the team’s downfall. Steve Mason could only do so much; playing 48 games, Mason would put up a .928 SV%, putting him third in the league. The forward unit couldn’t do much to bail out their defenders, either, as the likes of Sean Couturier and Vincent Lecavalier struggled offensively. Lecavalier, who had been signed by the Flyers following his buyout by Tampa Bay in 2013, was steadily becoming an albatross for another team, and even got a few boos at Wells Fargo Center.
The Flyers would not get a chance to defend their 2014 Cup win. Their degeneration as a team meant that they would finish in 10th in the Eastern Conference with 92 points. It wasn’t quite enough for either of Ron Hextall or Craig Berube to get sacked, but it was nowhere near what the Flyers had been expected to do following the lofty heights of last year. Unlike the previous two years, however, Philadelphia would have a 1st-Rounder in the Draft, thanks to a lengthy string of trades involving a few teams. When the dust settled, the Flyers would end up with the 24th Overall Pick, using it on centreman Travis Konecny of the Ottawa 67’s.
2015-16: After struggling in their first post-Cup year, the Flyers were starting to feel pressure from local media and fans to return to form in 2016. For Philadelphia, however, it was the start of an identity crisis of sorts; Philly teams had always been defined by their toughness, and the league was quickly becoming a place where talent would rule the day. While Craig Berube certainly found a way to make things work in his first year as coach, his team was starting to get exposed by faster, more skilled clubs. If the Flyers couldn’t adapt quickly, they would be left behind for quite a few years.
The biggest concern for Philly was their inability to score goals, as their playmaking was lacklustre. Claude Giroux was dropping off, and Mark Streit was coming ever closer to 40 years of age. Luckily for Philly, an answer to their problems was on the way in the form of Shayne Gostisbehere, who was called up for good this year. Playing 64 games, Gostisbehere would provide a massive spark to a sometimes lifeless Philly offence, finishing his rookie year with 46 points. By the end of the year, he would take Streit’s place alongside Shea Weber on the top pairing, and earned a Calder Trophy nomination in the process.
The arrival of Gostisbehere made the Flyers dangerous again. Their new-found scoring, combined with a fantastic goalie tandem, meant that Philadelphia would be back in the playoffs, finishing 3rd in the Metropolitan Division with 103 points. The news got even better for Craig Berube and company, as their opponents in the first round would be the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team they were able to deal with easily in the post-season. Things had changed, though, as Pittsburgh had brought in Mike Sullivan as coach, as well as having acquired top-tier winger Phil Kessel in the off-season. The Pens could now roll three lines, with each of Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, and Sidney Crosby each piloting their own unit, and the result was an absolutely dominant performance throughout the series. The Penguins would sweep the Flyers, who would be booed out of their own arena after their Game Four loss.
Yes, the Flyers had returned to the playoffs, but their capitulation in the post-season was enough cause for Ron Hextall to pull the trigger on Craig Berube’s firing. Dave Hakstol, formerly the head coach of North Dakota in the NCAA, would be brought in to be the new bench boss, which would be his first coaching job of any kind in the NHL. Hextall’s job was safe for the time being, but if he couldn’t get this team in the playoffs quickly, he too might be in the firing line, and his status as a Philly favourite from his playing days might not be enough to save him.
The 2016 Entry Draft would be the last one in which the Flyers would lose their 1st-Round Pick to Nashville. The Predators would use Philadelphia’s pick on Max Jones, a powerful winger from the London Knights, with the 24th Overall Pick.
2016-17: If there was any place in the hockey world where a simple playoff appearance could be seen as a disappointment, it was Philadelphia. Not even the simple fact that the Flyers got back into the post-season could quell the anger of their fans, who were furious that the team was steamrolled so easily by Pittsburgh in the opening round. Dave Hakstol knew he was under some pressure right off the get-go, and he wouldn’t have much to work with on the roster; much of the core that got eliminated last year was back, as the team was unable to make any major improvements due to their continuing cap crunch.
It was becoming clear that Philadelphia would have to rely on their top blue-line pair of Shea Weber and Shayne Gostisbehere to carry the load, and when they were shut down, so too were the rest of the Flyers. Once a dynamic playmaker, Claude Giroux had fallen below 60 points for the first time since his sophomore year in 2009-10, while Jakub Voracek was only able to manage 61 points at the top of the team table. Gostisbehere went through a minor sophomore slump, only putting up 39 points in 76 games, not quite matching up to his rookie year. In goal, things were looking worse and worse, as Steve Mason would record a SV% of only .908, his lowest since joining the team. Michal Neuvirth was no better, as his SV% of .891 was almost 20 points below the league average.
Philly weren’t quite leaking goals yet, but as long as they couldn’t score, they were not going to be a playoff team. Dave Hakstol’s first season as head coach would end with the Flyers finishing 6th in the Metro Division, and 11th in the Eastern Conference, with 89 points. At the very least, the new head coach wasn’t getting immediate calls for his firing, but his maiden season in NHL hockey won him few fans. If there was any silver lining for the Flyers, it was that they would finally have their own 1st-Round Draft Pick for the first time since 2012, and because of the new draft lottery rules, they would end up with the 2nd Overall Pick. Philadelphia would use their selection on Nolan Patrick, a centreman from the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings.
2017-18: More and more, it was looking like the Stanley Cup season was a fluke, an aberration of a year from an otherwise middle-of-the-road team. Aside from that run, the Flyers had not gotten past the first round ever since acquiring Shea Weber, and as their captain grew older, his contract got even harder to move. Of course, that is assuming Ron Hextall would even want to trade Weber away in the first place; in the 2016 off-season, he was given an offer by Montreal which would see Weber join the Habs in exchange for P.K. Subban, but the Flyers’ GM balked at the offer. (Incidentally, Subban would be traded hours later, joining the New York Rangers in exchange for Ryan McDonagh.)
Despite Weber’s contract, very few could argue that he wasn’t the linchpin of the Flyers, and in no season was that more evident than 17-18. Thanks to a streak of lower body injuries, the captain would only play 26 games for Philly, and without him to carry the load defensively, the Flyers were in trouble. Brian Elliott, signed as a free agent in the off-season, faced shot after shot, and the constant barrages took their toll on the 32-year-old. His .909 SV% wasn’t horrible by any stretch, but his inability to keep up with the load that the defenders were passing on to him was a killer. Michal Neuvirth was slightly better, recording a .915 SV% in 22 games of work, but he, too, was unable to steal enough games to keep the team in the hunt.
The Flyers would miss the playoffs again. While they finished 9th in the East, their 86 points left them 10 behind the second Wild Card team, the Florida Panthers. President Paul Holmgren had seen enough, dismissing both Ron Hextall and Dave Hakstol after two straight non-playoff campaigns. Paul Fenton, formerly the assistant GM of the Nashville Predators, would be hired to take over Hextall’s duties, while University of Denver head coach Jim Montgomery would take over behind the bench. Their hirings were panned by a few local writers, who were hoping that the team would be able to hire someone like former New Jersey and Toronto GM Lou Lamoriello, or Washington head coach Barry Trotz, who would go on to lead his team to a Stanley Cup that year before leaving as a free agent.
Fenton would get to work immediately, representing the Flyers at the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. Philly would have two picks in a row, with the 13th Overall Pick being their natural selection, and the 14th Pick having been acquired after the team traded Brayden Schenn to the Blues in the previous off-season. Philadelphia would use #13 on Flint Firebirds centre Ty Dellandrea, then selected U.S. NTDP winger Joel Farabee with the 14th Pick.
2018-19: If the 2015-16 season was the first sign of trouble, then 2017-18 was confirmation. Without Shea Weber in the line-up for much of the season, the Flyers were now in desperate need of some kind of re-tooling; yes, their offence had recovered (Claude Giroux’s first season with over 100 points, and Sean Couturier’s long-awaited break-out year), but defensively, the team looked utterly lost, and had little in the way of depth behind their captain. GM Paul Fenton didn’t help matters much, using the remaining salary-cap money to sign a forward in James van Riemsdyk. While the former Philly draftee was a certified 30-goal scorer, the Flyers needed help on the blue line, not a scorer.
Strangely enough, for the Flyers, the biggest area of concern wasn’t up front or on the blue line, but in goal. Thanks to the continuing regression of Brian Elliott, and a litany of injuries to Michal Neuvirth, Philadelphia would end up using EIGHT goalies on the year, reaching out across the hockey world for anyone they could get their hands on. When the dust settled, it was Carter Hart that emerged as the new starter, taking the job in the latter part of the season and putting up respectable numbers in the process (.917 SV% in 31 games).
Carter Hart may have cemented himself as the starter, but the Flyers still weren’t good enough for playoff hockey. They would finish 12th in the East with 77 points, a drop of 9 points from the previous year. While Jim Montgomery was spared the sack, Paul Fenton wasn’t; his lasting impact on the team would be his disastrous trade with his old team, the Nashville Predators, with Travis Konecny and Wayne Simmonds joining the Preds in exchange for Sam Bennett and a 4th-Round Pick. His awful trade, combined with stories about Fenton’s ill temper during his time as GM, meant that Paul Holmgren would pull the trigger on his firing after only a single year. Holmgren himself would take over the GM role on an interim basis for the next year, before stepping aside for a permanent replacement in 2020.
Holmgren would get a hell of a present in the Entry Draft. For the second time in three years, the Flyers would get one of the top three spots after being drawn 2nd in the Draft Lottery. With the 2nd Overall Pick, Philadelphia would take Kaapo Kakko, an exciting winger from TPS in the SM-Liiga.
THE FLYERS TODAY: When they extended the offer sheet to Shea Weber in the 2012 off-season, the Philadelphia Flyers were expecting him to be the backbone of a Stanley Cup winner. As it turned out, they were right, winning Lord Stanley’s Prize in 2014. Weber was named captain immediately, and continues to wear the “C” to this day. His impact on the Flyers’ blue line was immense, but as injuries and age take their toll on him, he is becoming less of a boon, and more of a burden. He will be on the Flyers’ payroll until the 2025-26 season, and unless the team can find somebody willing to take his contract off their hands, they are likely stuck with him, which will make the last years of that contract a nightmare.
And as it turns out, a salary nightmare is the last thing that the Flyers can afford to have by the middle part of the next decade. Now stuck on the outside looking in for the next while, Philly will have to deal with the likes of Kaapo Kakko and Nolan Patrick aiming to cash in big, and with a potential albatross like Weber on the books, it might be tough to figure out how they can afford both of those young talents. There is also the matter of Carter Hart to figure out, as should Hart continue to be reliable in goal, then he too will leave the Philadelphia front office with a financial decision to make.
On opening night of the 2019-20 season, the Flyers line up like this:
F1. Claude Giroux – Kevin Hayes – James van Riemsdyk
F2. Oskar Lindblom – Sean Couturier – Kaapo Kakko
F3. Tyler Pitlick – Sam Bennett – Jakub Voracek
F4. Chris Stewart – Scott Laughton – Carsen Twarynski
D1. Justin Braun – Shea Weber
D2. Robert Hagg – Matt Niskanen
D3. Philippe Myers – Shayne Gostisbehere
G1. Carter Hart
G2. Brian Elliott
Offensively, the Flyers have enough to compete with middle-of-the-road teams. Claude Giroux has shown that he can be a reliable point-a-game player, but if he is in form, he can break the 100-point mark. Jakub Voracek might not be as good as Giroux, but he’s cracked the 60-point barrier in five out of the last six years. Also of note on the offence are two reliable top-six centreman in Kevin Hayes and Sean Couturier, and a star in the making in Kakko. If the team needs help from the blue line, Shayne Gostisbehere will be the go-to guy, having topped out at 65 points during the 2017-18 season. (Of note, Nolan Patrick starts the season as an injured scratch, but would likely move into either a third or fourth-line spot.)
The defensive side of the game is where the Flyers may need to hold out some faint hope. Shea Weber is good enough when healthy, but he is getting injured more and more frequently, and at 34 years of age, he won’t be getting much faster or stronger. Gostisbehere is more known for his playmaking prowess, while Philippe Myers is still pretty inexperienced. With hard hitter Radko Gudas now in Washington, Justin Braun and Matt Niskanen have been brought in to fill out the roster sheet, but if they can’t hack it, the goaltenders might be in trouble. Speaking of which, Carter Hart is looking to build on a very good rookie season, while Brian Elliott has been signed for another year as back-up.
Shea Weber, the original centre of this scenario, is still wearing Philly orange, and still occupying a spot on the first pairing. The only other new acquisitions on this team are Bennett, who comes to the Flyers courtesy of the universally-mocked Travis Konecny deal, and 2019 #2 Pick Kaapo Kakko. There are a few players missing from the Philadelphia organization in this timeline, most notably Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim, both of whom were Philly 1st-Rounders in the OTL. With the picks used to select them now in Nashville’s hands, both of those players end up elsewhere.
Next week will be Part II of this article, covering the Predators without Shea Weber, as well as the overall effects on the hockey world.