On Wednesday, the Flyers traded impending unrestricted free agent defenseman Luke Schenn and seldom-used veteran forward Vincent Lecavalier to the Los Angeles Kings for a 2016 third-round draft pick and 23-year-old center Jordan Weal. The Flyers agreed to retain 50 percent of both Lecavalier's ($4.5 million cap hit) and Schenn's ($3.6 million) contracts.
The arrangement of this trade is of potential short-term help for the Cup-contending Kings and a longer-term masterpiece for the Flyers. It took several weeks of three-way conversations between Flyers general manager Ron Hextall, LA Kings general manager Dean Lombardi and the Lecavalier camp of agent Kent Hughes and the player himself to make the deal happen.
The Lecavalier Retirement Component
Here's the real key to the trade: Lecavalier steadfastly refused to retire or mutually agree to a contract termination so long as he remained in Philadelphia. However, he was willing to retire at the end of this season if he could go somewhere where he'd get a chance to play and could take one last run at his second Stanley Cup ring. It was a quid pro quo arrangement.
For the Flyers, the ability to get half of his contract off the books right now and the rest off the books after the season made the short-term salary retention palatable. If the Flyers had bought out Lecavalier after the season in lieu of a retirement or a mutual termination agreement, they would have had to accept a $1.46 million cap hit in 2016-17, a $1.21 million cap hit in 2017-18 plus cap hits of $458,333 for two additional seasons (2018-19 and 2019-20) behind the original expiration of the contract he signed with the Flyers in the summer of 2013.
For LA, the retirement agreement was also crucial. No team in the NHL, including the Kings, wanted to take on even half of his salary beyond this season. It's all about a Cup run this spring.
It is easy to forget now that the Flyers had plenty of competition for Lecavalier's services that summer and, in fact, were in something of a bidding war with up to a half-dozen teams after the former Tampa Bay Lightning franchise icon was an amnesty buyout by the Bolts. Lecavalier actually had higher salary offers from at least two teams, and the term had to be extended out through 2017-18 to get the original deal done.
Lecavalier always handled the rapid deterioration of his status with the Flyers in a dignified and professional manner. He didn't rock the boat. He didn't take on a surly attitude. He just put in his work in practice and answered questions honestly but diplomatically.
In terms of his actual play on the ice, though, the Flyers really had little choice but to remove him from the lineup. He was initially used as a second-line center but could no longer handle the defensive responsibilities (and he was hardly a Selke Trophy candidate even in his prime) required of even offensive-minded players in today's game. Lecavalier's skating and pacing were simply not up to par.
Over the course of his first year in Philadelphia, Lecavalier was tried in a variety of lineup spots and at all three forward positions. No matter what was tried, he did not fit in with what then-coach Craig Berube tried to implement after the early season dismissal of Peter Laviolette (who had pushed hard to bring Lecavalier to the team). Lecavalier scored 20 goals his first year in Philadelphia but it was just a number because his overall game, particularly after a back injury in the first half of season, was not up to par.
In year two, Berube eventually started to make Lecavalier a healthy scratch or a fourth-line winger mostly because the player remained ineffective — despite an honest effort to make things work — as he was again tried several different places in the lineup. Nothing changed when Dave Hakstol became Philadelphia's coach, because pacing remained a problem with Lecavalier on the ice during the preseason. Again, it was never for lack of effort or about the team's system, but because he simply could not get up and down the ice at the pacing of today's game.
The one thing Lecavalier still does well: station himself in the right circle or along the right half boards on the power play. He still has very good ice vision and a powerful one-timer. In LA, the lineup is deep enough to take him for the short term as a power play specialist who plays a bottom-six role with talented players around him who can compensate for many of the deficiencies.
The Luke Schenn Component
Apart from being hyped by The Hockey News as "the next Adam Foote" in the publication's 2008 Draft Preview Issue before he was selected fifth overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs, the worst things that ever could have happened to Luke Schenn's career were being rushed directly to the NHL in arguably the league's highest-pressure market and then being traded straight up in 2012 to Philadelphia — another high-pressure market — for left winger James van Riemsdyk.
Plain and simple, this series of events built expectations to an unrealistic level and set Schenn up to be viewed as a disappointment unless he became one of the league's premier shutdown defensemen. In reality, Schenn wasn't a liability for most of his time in Toronto or Philadelphia so long as he was able to work within some deficiencies (skating, overall quickness and recoveries, certain decision-making scenarios where he'd overcommit or telegraph what he was going to do). He was more a role-playing type who needed the right partner with him, but he brought a physical element and was actually rather underrated in his first-pass ability.
Schenn proved to be a player whom one would not want to be exposed too frequently to opponents' fastest and most skilled players but he was a serviceable third-pairing type. Actually, in his first year in Philly, Schenn was one of the few bright spots in the dismal lockout-shortened half-season. With a still-effective Kimmo Timonen functioning as a "senior partner" on the pair and Schenn keeping his game very simple and providing the muscle on the pair, the duo was reasonably solid.
Unfortunately for Schenn, things went downhill over the last two-plus seasons. There were some injuries, some slumps and healthy scratchings and a seeming lack of chemistry with some of the partners with whom he played. He was still serviceable as a third-pairing defenseman more often than not, but his $3.6 million cap hit was excessive for the role he played and his lack of foot speed could still be exploited when he'd end up on the wrong side of the puck. Less is more with Schenn.
In Los Angeles, at half the salary cap hit, Schenn is a nice supporting piece for the club. The team has good size up front and has its share of grind-it-out types as well as players who bring elements of skill and finesse. It's a good balance and Schenn can finally play to the niche he's carved out without being held to a standard that was unrealistic in the first place. He'll never become the next Adam Foote and cause opposing coaches to try to get their best players away from him. He'll never be someone who adds more than periodic offensive contributions — a slap shot goal here, a good keep at the bluline there. He's a defensive role player who brings some physicality, and not even a bad puck-possession player for someone of his style and role.
As an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, Schenn is playing for his next contract. The Flyers were unlikely to retain him beyond the current season, anyway, unless he was open to taking a large-scale pay cut and a one-year or two-year deal. Even then, it was not a guarantee because both Hakstol and Hextall appear to view Radko Gudas as a more effective and more aggressive version of the same sort of player; and both are righthanded shooters. With towering prospect Samuel Morin in the developmental pipeline in terms of long-term planning — and a much better straight-ahead skater than either Schenn or Gudas — it was hard to envision Schenn fitting in the picture for a long-haul even though Morin is not yet NHL-ready.
Even in the short-term, the Flyers had a situation where there eight defensemen on the NHL roster. That is one more than ideal because it is hard to keep the lower portion of the lineup in rhythm and not looking over their shoulder when there are two guys sitting out as healthy scratches and players are easily in and out of the doghouse. That's a hard way to play the game.
The Brayden Schenn Factor
Ask former Flyers captain Ron Sutter about what a mixed blessing it can be to be teammates with your brother; in his case, the way Mike Keenan used to turn his caring for twin brother Rich Sutter as a psychological tactic to threaten to punish the other brother if one messed up. Ask Mark Howe about his experiences with the Hartford Whalers as pertained to his brother, Marty Howe. Mark resented the team's handling of his brother, especially after father Gordie retired. That was one of the factors in the deterioration of the player's relationship with the Whalers organization.
While Brayden and Luke Schenn were thrilled to play together on the same NHL team, and are one another's best friend, it also created some unexpected burdens when one brother or both were slumping or the subject of trade rumors. Now that Luke has been dealt to LA, each player can simply focus on their own game again without a personal stake in also worrying about the ice time and job security of his brother.
The Schenn brothers both understood why the Flyers made the move. Both have handed it professionally — both Brayden and Luke are likable and down-to-earth people off the ice — and recognized all along that there was never a guarantee from day one that they'd remain teammates for the rest of their careers. Once the initial pangs of separation subside, some of inevitable distractions will disappear even if the mixed feelings remain of missing the time they spent together on the same NHL club, off the ice as well as on.
The 'Weal Deal'
Weal, whom the Kings drafted in the third round of the 2010 NHL Draft, is an undersized but highly skilled forward who has been a very productive American Hockey League player but has had a hard time cracking the NHL as a regular. This season, Weal has dressed in 10 games for the Kings receiving very sparing ice time from Darryl Sutter.
Weal, who is subject to waivers before he could be assigned to the AHL, will be staying with the Flyers' NHL club and given a chance to prove he belongs in the NHL. The Kings had him on their NHL roster all season, despite how infrequently he has played, out of concern for losing the skilled forward for nothing via waivers if they attempted to send him back to the AHL.
"I’m an energy guy. I play good in all three zones. I think my work ethic is one thing that I can offer to the group. They’ve got a good squad. They’ve got young guys up front, skilled guys, and I think I can mix right in well with that and make some really good things happen," Weal said.
The center admitted that, while happy to be in the NHL, it has been mentally tough to go from playing heavy ice time in all situations in the AHL to being a frequent healthy scratch and seeing little ice time even when he dressed for the Kings.
"It was tough. It was hard to keep my confidence. Even when you got into the games, it was hard because you’d play one shift early, and if there’s a couple penalties, you weren’t getting a shift for 15 minutes of the game," Weal said.
"It’s tough to go from playing 22 minutes a night to playing six or seven. It’s really a shock to the system. But I tried to do my best and get used to it as much as I could. Hopefully I can come to Philly and work my way into getting some more minutes a lot quicker."
Apart from adding a young player who may or may not be able to establish himself as an NHL regular, the Flyers were able to pick up a draft pick asset for the third round of the 2016 NHL Draft.
Longer-Term Cap Savings
In the short term, the Flyers' trade with Los Angeles creates $4.05 million of cap space for the Flyers. This gives the club the flexibility to call up anyone they want from Lehigh Valley or to make a "hockey trade" to fill a need. Hextall has repeatedly indicated that he will not give up picks or prospects for older rental players in the effort to make the playoffs but if there is a trade to be made that would help the team and bring back a reasonably young player who will presumably be with the Flyers for awhile, he'd consider it based on what goes back the other way.
The more likely scenario is that the Flyers remain relatively quiet the rest of this season. Perhaps if they drop hopelessly out of the wildcard playoff chase between now and the trade deadline, they might consider dealing another veteran or two for draft picks or prospects. However, the wildcard chase is pretty tightly packed and as long as the Flyers are without conceivable striking distance as the stretch drive approaches, they probably will not be outright sellers.
More intriguing is what lies ahead after this season. The other $1.8 million of Schenn's contract will come off the books after this season when the veteran defenseman hits unrestricted free agency. With Lecavalier's agreement to retire at the end of this year and L. Schenn a UFA, the Flyers will open up $8.1M of cap space on July 1.
Note: As a technicality, this number could change slightly depending on the date Lecavalier files his retirement paperwork. Despite some false speculation that Lecavalier's contract could be subject to a cap recapture penalty — the contract is compliant with the current NHL-NHLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), and the cap recapture penalty only applies to back-diving contracts under the previous CBA that do not meet the terms of the one that replaced it — the reason actually has to do with the signing-bonus installment payment structure of Lecavalier' contract.
Each year on July 1, Lecavalier receives a portion of his signing bonus. The final installment of $500,000 will come due on that date this year. As a result, if he retires on July 2, the Flyers and Kings would each have to take on $250,000 of his cap hit onto their cap next season. If Lecavalier retires before that date and forfeits the final installment, neither team will have a penny of residual cap hit next season. In either event, the Flyers will get major cap relief once Lecavalier retires; still in the $8 million ballpark.
If the Flyers also do not re-sign impending unrestricted free agent forward Sam Gagner (which seems like a fairly likely scenario), the club's available cap space heading into the summer climbs to around $10 million. Electing not to re-sign defenseman Evgeny Medvedev brings the available cap space to about $13 million. If the Flyers also buy out the final year of veteran forward R.J. Umberger's contract, they will save $3 million on the salary cap next season (but take on a $1.1 million cap hit for 2017-18) to bring the available space to about $16 million.
After this season, the Flyers are also free and clear of the $500,000 they retained on Nicklas Grossmann's contract in order to make the real-dollar salary owed to Chris Pronger this season budget neutral for the Arizona Coyotes. (Already inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and working for the NHL, Pronger can finally file for retirement after this season). With no further pruning of salary, this would give the Flyers about $16.5 million in starting cap space.
That figure would decrease by $4 million when Jakub Voracek's new multi-year contract kicks in starting in the 2016-17 season (compared his current cap hit of $4.25 million) and by another $2.58 million for Sean Couturier's contract extension, leaving about $10 million of cap savings left from the aforementioned sources.
Beyond that, the Flyers would have to budget for the re-signing of restricted free agents Brayden Schenn (currently a $2.5 million cap hit) and Radko Gudas (likely in line for a raise from his current $991,667) as well as Brandon Manning ($625,000). They will also have to make a decision about whether to extend impending unrestricted free agent Michael Raffl ($1.1 million).
If the Flyers want to go all out to pursue a major impact unrestricted free agent such as Steven Stamkos, they will need to find additional cap savings beyond the scenarios spelled out above. Players such as Matt Read ($3.625 million cap hit for two more seasons) and Mark Streit ($5.25 million for one additional season before becoming an unrestricted free agent) could become off-season trade candidates. Also in the long-term planning realm, both Steve Mason ($4.1 million cap hit) and Michal Neuvirth ($1.625 million) are eligible for unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2017.
Lastly, the Flyers still have to figure out what to do with defenseman Andrew MacDonald. This season, the Flyers squeezed out $950,000 of cap savings on his $5 million contract but that is an unsustainable arrangement on a deal that runs through the 2019-20 season. A buyout is also a non-option because it would force the Flyers to take a cap hit — albeit a reduced one through 2019-20 — for double the remaining length of the deal.
Come next year, the Flyers might have to bite the bullet and retain as much as 50% of MacDonald's cap hit for the duration of the deal in order to find a trading partner. At half the cap hit, MacDonald would be a viable trade candidate in a league where clubs still horde defensemen but which has undergone a market correction over the last year on a salary structure for non-star veteran blueliners that had gone completely of whack on a league-wide basis.
People often ask why the Flyers overpaid MacDonald so heavily — he went from making the NHL minimum to making $5 million – and for so long. The answer is that the club paid him what would have been his signing market value on the 2012 unrestricted free agent offseason market.
One of the changes implemented by Hextall since he has become GM is that the Flyers no longer feel compelled to be the team that winds up paying that price, but also keep in mind that Hextall was just a few weeks away from being officially promoted to GM at the time the MacDonald extension was signed. The decision to make Hextall the new GM had already been made, and Hextall was at least consulted on roster moves he'd inherit to start his tenure. Hextall may not have been wild about the length of term for MacDonald or the final cap figure, but he was sufficiently on board for the Flyers to go ahead with the move.
If Hextall had adamently opposed it, Paul Holmgren probably would not have closed the deal and instead let his successor decide what to do ahead of the start of the free agenc season. Thus, it is not entirely fair or correct to pin the entire blame for the albatross contract on Holmgren. His successor at minimum felt it was something he could live with at the time, given where the market was that summer.
Bill Meltzer is a columnist for Flyerdelphia. Follow him on Twitter @billmeltzer.