I think the Flyers have done exceptionally well so far in terms of positioning the team for future success. Paul Holmgren & co are looking like geniuses; but right now the team is entering a most critical stage of this "restructuring", where the next couple of moves will largely determine the fate of this team over the next several years. One of these moves will likely be acquiring a 1st line center, the other is regarding the future status of enigmatic young defenseman, Joni Pitkanen.
In regards to the 1st line Center:
At this point I favor a stop-gap, one, maybe two year solution at 1st/2nd line center (share with Carter/Richards?), maybe a Nylander, Forsberg, Sykora or Zubrus, over signing a MEGA deal with Gomez or Briere. The Flyers may be able to get away with overpaying for 2-3 years, as they'll still have a lot of RFAs and young (cheaper) players on the roster (and if the cap goes up it will help), but after that 2-3 year window, the team is going to have to pay up to keep the core talent...so I don't want to see a deal like Gomez 6 yrs @ $45 million... that could hamstring the Flyers and thus hurt the team's chances to become and remain elite.
So, how much is too much? Realizing its a bidding war and you have to overpay a bit if you want to make the move for a #1 C now, I guess the max I'd go is 4 years at 7 mil per on Gomez...and say, 4 yrs 6.5 mil per for Briere. Any more committed in terms of length and/or money comes with significantly greater risk and Plan B options (as mentioned above) become more attractive.
On the flip side, say the Flyers sign Gomez to a long term deal.... they'll have Hatcher (3.5mil) Knuble (2.8mil) Sanderson (1.5 mil) Gauthier (2.1 mil) Nitty or Biron (1.2 mil - 3.5 mil). coming off the cap in 2 years, which frees up like 12 million...plus the 2-3 mil or so we'd have left (after signing Gomez to say, a 7 mil deal) plus any cap raises = $15+ mil to spread out amongst the young (cheaper) talent (Nodl, Giroux, Downie, Bartulis, Picard, Parent, JVR) coming up to replace the older players and guys not cutting it and provide some raises for the core RFAs. It would be tight, but I suppose it could be done. If the cap doesn't rise, things could get bad.
The downside risk right now isn't so much the money itself as it is the chance that Gomez or Briere won't pan out as the team's #1 center, the guy who will be counted on to lead the team back to respectability and ultimately, Stanley Cup contention. There are question marks. These guys aren't (yet) considered with the truly elite centers in the league like Thornton, Crosby, Lecavalier etc.....so why pay them more than these guys are making? Might it be more prudent to wait it out if they ask too much?
Maybe rather than take the risk with less than elite centers, the Flyers should look to get creative and redeem some of the vast young talent currency they've built up in a package to trade for their bigtime center, or just reserve capital for next years crop of UFAs, which could include some elite players like Thornton, Heatley, Iginla, Hossa (I realize some are not centers but if you have a chance to sign Iginla, you make it work).
In regards to Joni Pitkanen:
Some say that he regressed and that he'll never improve and/or "get it" and they just want to see him gone. While I agree that he looked bad and may have regressed this past season, I feel this is more the fault of the organization than his own. Joni was, at 23, asked to be "the man", and carry the load of a #1 defenseman before his time. This was a mistake. It is the job of the team management and coaches, captains and teammates to provide their young players with an environment that fosters their development, not stifle it by rushing them into roles they aren't ready for. With all the chaos and change this season, this was a very challenging environment for young players...yes, some did better than others, but be careful in making conclusions that a certain player who didn't handle things as well as some of his teammates is "a bust" or is not capable of regaining form once an environment more conducive to progress and development is in place.
I really believe Pitkanen would benefit from the presence of the elder Timonen, moreso than he did from Kukkonen, who was himself, an NHL rookie. With the changes the Flyers are making, I see a stronger support system for Pitkanen and I would expect to see his game progress back to levels we saw when the Flyers had the likes of veterans Kim Jonnsson, Eric Desjardins and a healthy Mike Rathje to help mentor and take pressure off of the young Finn.
That's why I have stayed steadfast in my position that we need to see how Joni responds to all the positive changes the Flyers have made in the past six months or so before making a decision on his future with the team. His upside ceiling is simply too great to not give him that chance.
If the Flyers are really looking to move him (for reasons that I don't yet fully understand), then I'd say at the very least the Flyers should wait until mid July, when his deal will be done (I think? When is the arbitration done?) and the team can assess the UFA market and cap situation from all angles. If the Flyers could say, sign Tom Preissing, I would feel MUCH more comfortable trading Joni. If they trade him now, and don't pick up another D man that can contribute offensively, I fear that they won't have the depth in terms of bona-fide point producers and guys to key the transition from the back end that I think helps to win in this league. They have prospects but nobody we can really count on for consistent production.
That's what is great about Joni...even though we have to endure some growing pains, he'll still put up the 40-50 points while we're waiting for him to mature and develop. Besides, I really don't think we're going to win the Cup this year so let's give him a shot with the better athmosphere and support that he'd have this season rather than cast him off as dead weight in some unnecessary deal.
At this time I think it is very important to remember that some of the best moves are those that you DON'T make. Trading Joni for anything less than say, a legit #1 center or a veteran top 4 d man or 2-3 truly blue chip prospects (preferably at C and goalie) is one of those moves you don't make. Signing Gomez or Briere for unreasonable terms that press the Flyers against the cap for the next 5-6 years is another.