Sam Donnellon: Flyers' free-agency gambit

Posted: July 03, 2012

IT'S CALLED gamesmanship, and it's an accepted if maddening modus operandi of the NHL. Separate a guy's shoulder with a hit and he will invariably be listed as having suffered a lower-body injury. Shatter his ankle and the injury will be listed as upper-body.

What we learned over the last few days, if we didn't know it already, is that gamesmanship is not limited to on-ice injuries. Over the weekend, Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren made parallel 12-year, $80 million (or more) offers to two superstars who expressed little to no prior interest in coming to Philadelphia, setting a high early bid in an auction that, at least to one of them, has become more complicated than anticipated.

Zach Parise headed home late Monday still without a team, the direct result, it seems, of the Flyers' fat offer and the reverberations it created. For the 27-year-old star, who captained the Devils' trip to the finals this season, it accentuated the mixed emotions of staying with the team that drafted and developed him for potentially less money, or taking full advantage of free agency and signing for the most.

Similarly, Suter, the Nashville defenseman who is said to prefer playing in the Western Conference, might have to put a dollar value on that wish if reports that the Flyers' bid is by far the highest out there right now.

Why do the Flyers need Zach Parise, a lefthanded shot? They don't really, other than he is a good two-way hockey player, a team leader, and a huge clutch performer. He had 15 points in this year's playoff run. Obscured by Sidney Crosby's clutch overtime goal in Canada's gold-medal victory over the United States in 2010 was the effort put forth by Parise for Team USA that day and throughout that 2-week Olympic tournament.

Parise's dirty goal in front of the net with 24 seconds left in regulation was the only reason Canada needed Sid The Kid's overtime winner. It would sure be a lot more fun if they continued as adversaries rather than teammates.

As for Suter, well, he's the best defenseman on the market right now. But he's also a lefthanded shot, with which the Flyers' blue line is already overpopulated.

Parise had 31 goals and 69 points last season. Suter, an offensive-minded defenseman who would fit well in Peter Laviolette's system, accumulated 46 points. Drafted the same year, Suter and Parise have played together on several U.S. international teams beside that silver-medal Olympic squad. They are great friends, and are said to want to end up on the same team.

Holmgren, an administrator on that U.S. Olympic team, knows both players. Sign both and it would generate a considerable buzz here and around the league.

But that's not Holmgren's intent here. He can't do anything about Suter's professed desire to play anywhere but Philadelphia, or Parise's stated desire to return as New Jersey's captain, or a wish list that has Minnesota and Pittsburgh ahead of his team. What he can do is make it as hard as possible on the team honoring those requests, make it harder for those teams to acquire additional talent in-season should injuries occur, as they always do.

But that penalty-box door swings both ways. If at least one of the other NHL teams interested in both or either don't match or exceed Holmgren's offer and one or both players become Flyers, Holmgren will be the one faced with tough choices in both the immediate and not-so-distant future about the surprising and exciting young talent already in place here. Remember, the Flyers registered 103 points and were among the league's highest-scoring teams. They just had trouble keeping the other guys off the scoreboard.

Suter would help in that regard. So would Parise who, despite his offensive output, is a premier defender, a great example for a young team. You could even argue that Parise would be the better acquisition, given Suter's offense-first reputation.

But that's assuming these offers reflect genuine interest, not free-agent strategy.

I think Holmgren is playing a gutsy game of poker here, making sure the cash-strapped Devils pay well to keep their captain, or making sure the Penguins fill as much of their recently opened cap space to sign him. Little or no cap room at the start of the season means little or no wiggle room to repair your roster when those upper-body and lower-body injuries occur midseason. n

Contact Sam Donnellon at donnels@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/SamDonnellon.

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