By: Wes Herrmann (@Wes_Herrm)
Heading into the playoffs of the 2013-14 season, a top-four defenseman was clearly lacking on the Philadelphia Flyers’ blueline. Kimmo Timonen, Mark Streit and Braydon Coburn made up the top three, but the next spot went to any of Nicklas Grossmann, Andrej Meszaros or Luke Schenn.
Then-general manager Paul Holmgren saw the missing piece and acted, as he usually did, shipping Matt Mangene, a 2015 second-round pick and a 2014 third-rounder to the New York Islanders for Andrew MacDonald.
Three years later that move lives in infamy among Flyers fans, and really, hockey fans all over the globe. MacDonald impressed enough in his short stint to earn a six-year/$30 million deal five weeks after the trade. Two seasons later, the left-handed blueliner was playing in the AHL, and today is tied for the third-largest cap hit on the Flyers’ roster.
So how would things have played out if Holmgren or Ron Hextall, who took over the Flyers’ GM role that summer, had targeted a different defenseman that moved that trade deadline or offseason?
Of course, one could correctly argue that the Flyers shouldn’t have been in the market for any, given the retooling stage that would start that June, but I went over before for Philly Is Flyer how close the team was to a Stanley Cup run in 2014. Plus, the Flyers desperately needed defensive help at that time.
The following is every top-four capable defenseman that switched teams around the trade deadline or in the summer, whether it was free agency or a trade and how big of a difference it would have been if they were a Flyer instead of MacDonald.
The long-time Shark entered free agency for the first time in 2014 and ended up signing with the New York Rangers on a two-year/$9 million deal.
Boyle displayed his usual offensive style on Broadway, but as usual, was lackluster in his own end. Even so, his points dipped in his last two pro seasons to 20 and 24, respectively.
The deal was favorable in length and fair salary-wise. Maybe having a pure offensive blueliner would have helped Shayne Gostisbehere along in his first rookie season more than MacDonald did.
Stephane Robidas, Christian Ehrhoff
The first pair on this list are somewhat difficult to judge due to injuries.
Stephane Robidas was a top-four defenseman, averaging between 22 and 24 minutes of ice time with the Dallas Stars between 2008-09 and 2013-14. After a trade to the Anaheim Ducks at the 2014 trade deadline, Robidas signed a three-year/$9 million deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the summer.
He played just 52 games of that contract. Rather than have Robidas try to play, the Maple Leafs put him on injured reserve due to a knee injury. The move created the term ‘Robidas Island‘ in Toronto for veterans that don’t play out their contract with the team.
Three seasons after signing a mega 10-year/$40 million contract with the Buffalo Sabres, Christian Ehrhoff was compliance bought out, not because of bad play, but reluctance to play for a disorganized franchise. In 2014 free agency, the German landed with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Ehrhoff played just 49 games, recording 14 points, the lowest of his career at that point. The injuries that held him back in 2014-15 marked the decline of the former Canuck’s career. Ehrhoff played 48 games the next season before returning to Germany for the 2016-17 season.
Clayton Stoner, Brooks Orpik, Deryk Engelland, Mark Fayne
I wanted to group these four together, even if some aren’t top-four defensemen (Stoner, Engelland) then or today, to show how bad some of the other contracts signed in 2014 were.
The Ducks were forced to hand the Vegas Golden Knights Shea Theodore to take Clayton Stoner, who is a seventh defenseman making $3.25 million, in the expansion draft this year. Fayne has spent the last two years in the AHL and has a $3.625 million cap hit with the Edmonton Oilers that ends next summer.
When the Flames signed Deryk Engelland to a deal, TSN’s Bob McKenzie had to specify that his three-year contract was worth $2.9 million annually, not overall. The former Pittsburgh Penguin went on to play 241 regular and playoff games with the club, but there’s no doubt he shouldn’t have been much more than a bottom-pairing or seventh defenseman.
To be clear, Engelland's AAV is $2.9M. That's per year.
— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) July 1, 2014
The only one that’s still with the team that signed him and in the NHL, Brooks Orpik, has slowed down considerably in his time with the Washington Capitals, but like the Flyers, the Caps are willing to play the California native a bunch. He’s averaged just over 20 minutes a game since signing with the team.
Orpik also makes $250,000 more than MacDonald does. Say what you want about the Flyers’ defenseman, but his athletic, and most importantly skating, ability is still intact.
All of these deals end before MacDonald’s, and most are cheaper than it also. But there’s little doubt that MacDonald is better than every one of them.
The Toronto Maple Leafs traded Gunnarsson and a third-round pick to the St. Louis Blues for Roman Polak that summer in a deal that heavily favors the Blues now. At the time, Gunnarsson was just 28 and maybe not a veteran presence that Philly needed, though they had a similar trade chip and player to Polak in Grossmann.
Gunnarsson’s ice time has slid every season since 2013-14 from 21 minutes to as low as 13 last season. He’s a better player than MacDonald, but still not a great replacement in the top-four.
Josh Gorges, Brad Stuart
These two defensemen were acquired in trades at hefty prices and failed to live up to them. Josh Gorges was a solid defensive defenseman for years with the Montreal Canadiens when he was traded to the Buffalo Sabres for a second-round pick.
He’s since become a bottom-pairing defenseman, but he’s on the last year of a deal that pays him $3.9 million.
Despite Brad Stuart being 35 years old in 2014, the Colorado Avalanche gave up a second-round pick and a sixth, to the Detroit Red Wings for his services. He played 65 games in 2014-15, and then just six the next year before the Avs bought him out. He’s still costing the team $1.2 million this season.
It would have probably played more in the Flyers’ favor to acquire one of these two, instead of MacDonald. MacDonald’s better than Stuart, at least, but the easier cap hits and term tips the scale in Gorges and Stuart’s favor. It’s also critical to remember Philly paid more for MacDonald than the Sabres or Avalanche paid in their trades.
Johnny Boychuk, Jason Garrison, Matt Niskanen
Now we’re getting into the territory of where the Flyers missed out on better players.
Faced with cap troubles, the Boston Bruins were forced to trade Johnny Boychuk. At first, it seemed the New York Islanders paid heavily for him, sending two second-round picks to Boston for a player who never had over 16 points in a season.
But it turned out just fine for the Islanders. Boychuk has played over 20 minutes a night and has scored at least 23 points and six goals every season since.
The Tampa Bay Lightning acquired Jason Garrison from the Vancouver Canucks that summer for a second-round pick. He’s now a Golden Knight and has since slowed down, but was still an 18-minute skater last season.
Matt Niskanen would be a tier above Garrison and Boychuk if it weren’t for his contract. Last season was Niskanen’s worst from a production standpoint, and he still contributed 32 points and 22 minutes of ice time.
However, he’ll turn 31 this upcoming season and still has three years after that at a $5.75 million cap hit.
Anton Stralman, Nick Leddy
Anton Stralman and Nick Leddy are the cream of the crop from the 2014 summer that every team should be disappointed in missing out on.
Stralman signed with the Lightning for just $4.5 million a year and has played on the team’s top pairing with Victor Hedman. He consistently plays over 21 minutes a game and is one of the premier defensive defensemen in the game.
Leddy doesn’t have as favorable a cap hit now as when he was acquired, but it’s the price the Islanders paid for him that makes his acquisition such a great one. New York sent Ville Pokka, T.J. Brennan and the rights to Anders Nillson for the then-23 year old.
Nillson never played a game in the Blackhawk’s organization before the team dealt him to the Oilers. He’s now a respectable backup with the Canucks. Ironically, Brennan is now a Lehigh Valley Phantom, while Pokka is still toiling around with the Rockford Ice Hogs in the AHL.
The Flyers certainly didn’t win anything by acquiring MacDonald and signing him to a six-year deal. Half of this list makes it seem even worse. The other half, maybe surprisingly, doesn’t make it look as bad as it once seemed.
Image Credit: Sarah A./Flickr