ESPN Reviews the Flyers

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This was written for The Broad Street Bully, a blog and podcast my friend Drew and I started based off of our mutual interest in the Philadelphia Flyers. See it on http://broadstreetbully.net.]

ESPN posted their upcoming season review of the Flyers.  Since ESPN mostly ignores hockey because they don’t have the television rights for the sport, I decided to look at it and comment on their commentary.  As we all know by now, most things I do aren’t original.

Without further adieu.

Hard to tell exactly where this Philadelphia Flyers team is at. Retooling? Rebuilding entirely?

Certainly under general manager Ron Hextall, now entering his second season at the helm of his old squad, this isn’t your grandpa’s Philadelphia Flyers squad. Sorry, all you aging Broad Street Bullies.

After missing the playoffs last spring because of defensive chaos and a lack of scoring depth, the Flyers went off the grid to bring in longtime University of North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol to help re-energize the Flyer brand. Hextall added another non-Flyer in Scott Gordon to coach the team’s American Hockey League affiliate, bringing another distinct voice to the organization.

How will it translate on the ice? Well, the Flyers look to be in long-view mode which means, in spite of owner Ed Snider’s undying optimism that this might be the season for his beloved Flyers, the team figures to be a lot closer to a lottery pick than a playoff berth.

The Broad Street Bully is a cool blog name (we rule!) but that style of hockey in Philadelphia is long gone.  It was waning in Holmgren’s final years, sans Ed Snider induced signings, and should now be completely gone.  Hextall is changing the team’s culture.  It started with player choices and extended to their AHL coaching selection.  The Phantoms have only had two coaches that weren’t from the organization and the second was hired by Hextall this offseason. Considering the Flyers had trouble developing some younger guys and gave up on them far too early, it seems perplexing that they would’ve kept going with that former system.

Hextall is like Chip Kelly except he’s only trading the people that stink and not all the important people that make the team good.

Best new faces

No single person is as important as Hakstol, who will have to reward Hextall’s faith in him by getting his players to buy in immediately to his vision of how the game should be played. The college game is a world, maybe two, away from what awaits Hakstol, but he’s a smart, intuitive guy and he’s already got a fan in captain Claude Giroux.

“I think it’s going to be interesting,” Giroux said. “We’re pretty excited. [Hakstol] and all the players, too. He’s going to bring another aspect, another mind is always good. I had a chance to meet him for an hour and a half, two hours, during the summer and just the way he sees the game and how he wants his team to be, I think it’s really exciting. We’re a pretty young team with a lot of energy. We’re here to learn and work hard, and we’re going to try and be on the same page as soon as we can.”

In terms of on-ice personnel, Sam Gagner will add experience and depth down the middle after a disappointing season in Arizona. Big defenseman Yevgeni Medvedev tries his hand at the NHL game at age 33, coming over from the Kontinental Hockey League. Michal Neuvirth will back up Steve Mason.

And, well, that’s pretty much it, which tells you the Flyers are all-in on their young players and their ability to adapt and evolve into NHLers sooner than later under Hakstol.

Naturally, ESPN makes the same comment that everyone has all off season about the new coach.  Because it’s the only one to make.  The Flyers have looked good under Hakstol in preseason.  But it’s only preseason.  I once again refer to the Eagles.  If Hakstol can get them their skating legs now, though, it might be easier for them to outlast other teams and rack up some points in the beginning.  Slow starts have killed the Flyers the past couple years.

Gagner can only help an offense that was more or less anemic outside of their big guns.  So that’s a bonus.  He was a former first round pick so the talent is there.  He might just needed a change of scenery.  Medvedev has impressed in the preseason so far.  He’s moving the puck well, helping the breakout, and shooting on the power play.  The guy has a cannon and he’s not afraid to use it.  Neuvirth will be a serviceable backup and may be the best one in the league.   Who else has a former starter as a backup?

ESPN is right, however.  The Flyers are all in on their young players.  If they don’t put up numbers, the Flyers are in trouble.

Biggest unknowns

The Flyers were tied for 24th in five-on-five goals last season, which shows how great the drop-off is in scoring depth after stars Jakub Voracek and Giroux, who combined for 154 points last season.

So, who picks up the slack?

Brayden Schenn‘s development has been an up-and-down affair, while Giroux was impressed with Sean Couturier — with whom he played at the world championships. Couturier earned rave reviews early in his career for his defensive responsibility but needs to marry that with improved offensive production for the Flyers to move forward.

“He’s been playing good hockey for us and defensively he’s been great with us,” Giroux said. “[At] the World Championship, he elevated his game, he was playing very well. Just the way he built confidence out of that. I think he’s going to bring that to camp this year and have a little chip on his shoulder. He wants to win, so he’s going to be good for us.”

On the other side of the puck, the Flyers tied for 21st in goals against last season and that was despite a terrific year from netminder Steve Mason.

Hextall is counting on homegrown defensive talent to carry this team forward but that will mean lots of responsibility for youngsters such as Shayne Gostisbehere and Brandon Manning.

They are right about Schenn.  Hextall has proven that by not giving him a contract.  Couturier is only an unknown in his offensive sense but this year will spell it out.  I would assume they’re going to play him with better wingers so hopefully his offense picks up.

Steve Mason only gave up so many goals last year because the defense was absolutely terrible.  If you look at just stats, it doesn’t tell you how good of a season he actually had.  That will hopefully change this year.  The younger players are back in the AHL so it doesn’t appear Hextall is going to rely on them yet.  It looks Flyers fans will have to wait for injuries or trades.

Gudas is better than Grossmann, too, so there’s that, at least.  And everyone is healthy now.  And Medvedev can move the puck.  And Del Zotto will actually play instead of being the best healthy scratch.  Here’s to hoping.

Sure things

Giroux scored just twice in the team’s first 13 games last season. He knows he and the team need to get off to a better start. While we’re still not sure of the Flyers as a whole, we’re banking on Giroux to get out of the blocks in a much more Giroux-like fashion.

And his linemate Voracek, who signed an eight-year, $66 million contract after coming off a stellar 81-point season, is the real deal too. But does Hakstol use the glamour twins together or spread his wealth around the Flyers lineup?

Because of “Glamour twins,” whoever wrote this should take themselves out behind the wood shed to get beat.

World Cup candidates

Giroux was stung by not making the Canadian roster for the Sochi Olympic Games in 2014 and his presence at the worlds last spring suggests a player who is paying dues with the hopes of keeping his profile up for next fall’s tournament. Canada is so deep up front and especially at center that Giroux must have a strong season to earn a roster spot, and even then he likely makes the team as a winger.

Voracek will be “the man” for the Czech Republic. Michael Raffl will be a member of Team Europe if he can replicate his strong season of a year ago, joining Swiss teammate Mark Streit on the team of European leftovers. Radko Gudas will provide a physical presence for the Czechs, while Medvedev should earn a spot on a thin Russian blue line. Neuvirth could earn a spot as a third netminder for the Czechs.

I’d rather no one plays in the World Cup games.  I don’t want any of them to get Taveres-ed.

But getting picked is a pretty big honor and shows the world how good your team’s players are.  So go Flyers!

Pending free agents

Lots of contract issues for Hextall moving forward as both Schenn brothers will need attending to, with Braden headed for restricted free agency and Luke, a defenseman, eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer.

Gagner, Raffl, Medvedev, Ryan White and Chris Porter are all potential UFAs. Gudas, who came from Tampa in the Braydon Coburn deal at the trade deadline last March, will be an RFA next summer, as will fellow defender Manning, 25.

Perhaps the biggest issue on Hextall’s horizon is netminder Mason, who has two years left before he can become an unrestricted free agent. The trend is for GMs to lock down core players a year out, so is Mason the team’s franchise netminder moving forward? If Hextall thinks so, look for a long-term deal sometime this season.

If I had to guess now, I would say that Michael Raffl returns for sure.  Probably Radko Gudas and Ryan White, too.

Raffl is a winger they seem to think pretty highly of.  And if his offense picks up this year the Flyers will probably look to keep him.  I’m not sure if they can pull back what they would want in a trade.

Gudas is cheap now.  And if he doesn’t wow anybody and remains a serviceable defenseman, he might get one or two more years.  It can never hurt to the have defensive depth.

White will probably pick up one or two more years if he keeps up his up tempo play.

I see Gagner, Medvedev, and Porter being question marks.

If Gagner doesn’t impress the Flyers will probably let him walk.  Why keep him otherwise?

Medvedev will probably be looking for a bigger NHL payday and the Flyers have enough young defenseman that they don’t need to throw money at him.

Porter is another guy who could be extended but I don’t think will based off of who is currently in the system.

Mason is definitely the goalie of the future barring some catastrophic incident.  The Flyers drafted a bunch to restock the system but none of them will be ready before Mason is run out of town on the downside of his career, most likely.  He’ll get his payday from Hextall and I’m sure Hextall has told him as much.

Prediction

I don’t think this team is ready to join the playoff fray again, given the uncertainty along the blue line. Sixth in the Metropolitan Division.

I mean, who knows?  They may be right.

It could be a long year for Flyers fans.  Again.

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