As soon as the Flyers traded away veteran defenseman Ivan Provorov last month, it was clear the Flyers needed someone with experience to help fill that role.
The signing of free agent Mark Staal to a one-year, $1.1-million contract on Monday could very well be the answer.
Staal, 36, helped the Florida Panthers make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last season. The Panthers eventually lost to the Vegas Golden Knights in the championship series.
The 6-4, 208-pound Staal played in all 82 regular season games for the Flyers last season. During the playoffs, he was one of four defensemen to play in more than 20 minutes per game.
In 1,101 career games, Staal has registered 52 goals/229 points. He’s one of 363 players to have competed in at least 1,000 NHL games.
The Thunder Bay, Ontario native has played for the New York Rangers (2007-20), Detroit Red Wings and the Panthers. From 2008-13 he played under current Flyers head coach John Tortorella. For 10 seasons, he served as an alternate captain.
“We talked about adding a little bit of a veteran presence to help our young guys,” general manager Daniel Briere said during a press briefing at the Flyers Training Center in Voorhees, New Jersey. “I mean we never thought a player like Mark Staal would have any interest in coming here.
“So we were pretty excited when we found out there was mutual interest. I think it almost makes too much sense to add a guy like that who has played for ‘Torts’ (Tortorella), understands what Torts is all about (and) is willing to pass that message.”
Staal may have a lot of mileage on him but the Flyers still believe he can play in all situations, especially on special teams which have struggled the past couple seasons.
Some may see this move as flying somewhat against the Flyers’ ongoing youth movement but this signing certainly can be a legitimate exception.
“We were very clear about what we’re doing here,” Briere said. “Where the process is going. And he wants to help out. He’s also a competitor, he’s going to play hard, try to push our guys and play more and more, kind of what he did in Florida.
“I think it’s great to have guys like that, who love to compete. Adding someone like that who has so much experience, it makes sense.”
The Flyers really haven’t had a top-end guy, a veteran with strong hockey smarts since Matt Niskanen, who retired unexpectedly after the 2019-20 season.
Staal can help mentor up-and-coming stars such as former first-round draft pick Cam York.
“We looked around to add a player like that,” Briere said. “It was tough, we had lots of names. When his name came up, everybody was unanimous on our staff. He was the best option. . .what he’s been through, how many games he’s played in his career.”
Staal is the fourth free agent the Flyers have signed since free agency opened on Saturday. Previously they inked center Ryan Poehling, along with Rhett Gardner and forward Garnet Hathaway.
Briere was asked if having players who have competed for Tortorella in the past – such as Staal and forward Cam Atkinson – will help promote the coach’s “message” regarding style and systems to the younger players.
“We have Cam coming back (from neck surgery) and Staal adding to the mix,” Briere said. “We have Sean Couturier (back surgery) coming back. Those are three key guys who will help translate the message between the staff and the players.
“We don’t believe in ‘tanking.’ We want our players to improve. They need some guidance, some guys who have been there and gone through it.”
On Saturday, Briere talked about not wanting to sign too many veterans who might block the development of the team’s young players. The GM believes he’s struck the right balance of kids and vets for the 2023-24 season.
“It’s a fine line,” Briere agreed. “We were very clear with Mark about where we’re going with the young guys. He’s on board with that. At the same time, we want to make sure the kids are ready. (Egor) Zamula, he has to go through waivers, we want him to be here. The other guys are going to have to earn it.”
One of the reasons the deal went through is sort of an unofficial “escape agreement,” which would allow Staal to ask for (and receive) permission to be moved if he so wished to a contending team at the trade deadline next season.
“There is no no-trade (clause),” Briere confirmed. “I told Mark he’s earned the right to decide what he wants to do. I have too much respect for him, if he feels that he has enough in the tank and we’re not making the playoffs and would like to go someplace else and make a Cup run, we will try to accommodate him. I think he’s earned that right.”
Late Saturday night, the Flyers signed 31-year-old Hathaway to a two-year deal worth $4.75 million. Briere said the same principle about having some competent vets applies here as well.
“He’s a physical presence, a guy who can skate, kill penalties,” Briere said. “There are a lot of assets. The way he’s liked on all the teams he’s played, I think it just helps with the development of our young guys up front.”