Slated for Leap Day 2016, the NHL trade deadline is just one month away as the game schedule hits its All-Star Break hiatus. While the Philadelphia Flyers are not hopelessly out of the race to earn a playoff spot – five points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins (with one game in hand) for the lower wildcard seed in the Eastern Conference and six behind the New York Islanders for third place in the Metropolitan Division — they still face a steep climb with little margin for error and a tiebreaker disadvantage (i.e., fewer combined regulation and overtime wins) in the event of a points tie against the teams they are chasing.
With the Flyers on the bubble of playoff contention, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall is still in the same spot he was a few weeks ago: trying to evaluate whether to be a seller at the trade deadline.
"We want to see where we're at and how we can get better. At the same time, as you all know, we have a vision for where our organization is headed and we're not going to deviate from that no matter where we're at in the standings at the deadline. At the same time with where we're at in the standings, of course it's going to have some impact on our thinking," Hextall said on Jan. 6.
Three weeks later, little has changed. The cap-relief trade that sent Vincent Lecavalier and Luke Schenn to the L.A. Kings created some much-needed fiscal flexibility and increased the team's ability to make a "hockey trade" based on solidifying the roster and not just as a salary-match or cap-relief move. However, the GM's outlook has not been altered.
From day one of his GM tenure and consistently thereafter, Hextall has constantly reiterated that he has no interest in trading draft picks (especially high end picks), prospects or promising young players in exchange for older veterans, particularly rental players.
"If we can improve our team in any way without mortgaging the future, we'll look at it," Hextall said earlier this month. "I mean, if young players can make us better, of course we'll look at it.
"My job is to look at everything that's out there, look at the whole landscape, and to the best of my ability, make our team better. So you can never say never with everything, but we're not going to deal our young players for middle-aged or older players."
In other words, the team will not be going after the likes of Dustin Byfuglien or Andrew Ladd on the pre-deadline trade market no matter how many times their names pop up in Flyers-related rumors. It may a different story in the unrestricted free agent market this summer (if those players or someone like Milan Lucic or Mikkel Boedker opts for UFA status rather signing an extension).
In the case of a talented young player, such as disgruntled Tampa Bay exile Jonathan Drouin, it might be a different story based on the assessment of his fit with the team and the price tag. It is debateable as to whether the Flyers — who already have a somewhat similar prospect in the system in 2015 first-round pick Travis Konecny (i.e., smallish, speedy skill winger) — would be willing to part with multiple pieces (quite possibly including one of the their defense prospects) that would be Tampa's asking price to acquire a player who has yet to prove his mettle and the pro level and has already burned his bridge with Tampa Bay within three seasons of being selected third overall in the 2013 NHL Draft.
Shortly after the Lecavalier and Schenn trade with LA, Hextall was specifically asked whether the Flyers would have interest in Drouin.
"We're not supposed to talk about another team's players," Hextall said.
Translation: The GM is not denying there is interest, because there probably is some. However, an actual trade would take two willing sides and a reasonable price tag that's agreeable to both sides. A reasonable trade usually involves some risk tolerance — giving up an asset or two the team hates to part with, not a collection of B-grade prospects. Right now, nothing seems imminent. Then again, the Flyers did a great job of keeping the Lecavalier/Schenn trade under wraps until it was announced.
There also could be more minor deals to be made, to add some depth to the lineup in their middle six forwards. The Flyers could really use some upgrades to build more of a bonafide third line. They're in need of another two-way center and some more depth on the wing. However, such deal may have to wait until the off-season and may able to plugged by a moderately priced free agent for a year or two.
As long as the Flyers are still within conceivable striking distance of the playoffs come trade deadline time, they do not seem likely to go into full-fledged seller mode. Sam Gagner and/or Evgeny Medvedev, both impending unrestricted free agents, could be some interest to certain clubs. Ryan White is also an impending UFA. Veteran forward R.J. Umberger, who has one season yet to go on his contract, is more of a summertime buyout candidate at this point than a trading chip.
Alternate captain Mark Streit is more likely a trade candidate next season than the current one. Three reasons: 1) He is part of the Flyers' leadership group and a calming influence on the club, and they'd probably like to hang onto him as they continue their roster transition. 2) He has another season beyond this one to go on his contract and he actually be more tradeable as a 39-year-old rental next year than as a 38-year-old with another season to run on a $5.25 million cap hit contract. 3) Teams may be scared off by his age and the serious injury he had earlier this season. When fully healthy, Streit is still a capable power play performer who, even last season, remained one of the league's best defensemen in that role. The Flyers now have Shayne Gostisbehere but Streit still has things to offer their team offensively.
Last year near the deadline, the Flyers traded Braydon Coburn (with a year left to run on his contract) and the soon-to-retire Kimmo Timonen and received multiple assets in return. The Flyers' trading chips this time around may not carry as much value.
Apart from not wanting to trade picks or prospects for older players, Hextall's other mantra since taking over has been that he will not undercut his team's chances for the playoffs. He's not likely to make large-scale subtractions or additions.
The final result in February very easily could wind up being the team mostly standing pat, hoping to get hot down the stretch with essentially the same squad the club has now and, in any event, keeping an eye on having flexibility come the summertime to take the next phase of retooling the roster.
Bill Meltzer is a columnist for Flyerdelphia. Follow him on Twitter @billmeltzer.