I think it's fair to say that most of us expected a bounce-back season from the Flyers in 2013-2014. I think it's also fair to say that we're all incredibly disappointed with the abysmal 1-7 start to the season, especially on offense. 11 goals in 8 games is completely unacceptable, and the Flyers need to fix it.
But can they fix it with the current roster? Sure, to an extent. The Flyers won't shoot 5% for the entire season, and scoring is bound to increase. But to what extent? And will it matter if Steve Mason can't keep up his uncharacteristically hot start? My guess, based on nothing but opinion and what I've seen out on the ice thus far, is that this season is going to end without a playoff appearance for a variety of reasons. They can't score, they can't break out of the zone, they're slow, and Steve Mason is playing over his head. If this is true, that will mean the Flyers will head into the 2014 offseason looking for upgrades across the roster.
First, let's look at the cap situation up front for the Flyers entering the offseason:
Forwards (10): Claude Giroux (8 years, $8.275M/year); Scott Hartnell (5 years, $4.75M/year); Vincent Lecavalier (4 years, $4.5M/year); Jakub Voracek (2 years, $4.25M/year); Wayne Simmonds (5 years, $3.975M/year); Matt Read (4 years, $3.625M/year); Maxime Talbot (2 years, $1.75M/year); Sean Couturier (2 years, $1.75M/year); Zac Rinaldo (1 year, $0.75M-RFA); Jay Rosehill (1 year, $0.675M). That's a total of $34.3M against the cap for 10 out of the 13 forward spots. The explosion Scott Laughton has had at the start of his season in Oshawa makes it pretty clear to me that we can go ahead and add Laughton's $0.894167M ELC cap hit to that calculation for a total of $35.2M against the cap for 11 forward spots. The Flyers also have 3 RFAs at the forward position: Brayden Schenn, Tye McGinn, and Michael Raffl. I think we can assume that the Flyers would like to retain all 3, and will. Let's look at how much each of them will make on their next contracts.
Schenn has 22 goals and 51 points in 118 games as a Flyer. For a potential contract comparable, I looked at Sean Couturier. Cooters has 17 goals and 44 points in 131 games as a Flyer. We all know that it's not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison since Couturier has been saddled with worse linemates, less favorable zone starts, and better opponents, but there's also a good chance the Flyers don't take things like that into account when they negotiate contracts. So if Couturier got a 2-year, $1.75M bridge deal, a similar contract for Schenn could fall somewhere around 2-3 years and $2-3M per year. I'll say 2 years, $4.2M. McGinn and Raffl are much harder to predict because of their limited NHL bodies of work, but I'll assume that McGinn gets a contract similar to Erik Gustafsson's (1 year, $1M) and Raffl gets a contract similar to the one he has this year (1 year, $800K). That's now 14 forwards under contract at a total cap hit of somewhere in the neighborhood of $39M. That's a full forward corps! Great! Let's move on to the defense.
Not so fast. I find it hard to believe that the Flyers would be comfortable bringing back the same group of forwards next year if they score at anything close to the rate they've scored at thus far this year. And this brings me to my next point: how to construct a forward group that can score consistently.
I am of the opinion that the Flyers forwards are for the most part individually talented (looking at you, Jay Rosehill), but together don't quite fit right. And I think a large part of that is due to redundancy, and redundancy is a problem for them going forward. One of the most glaring examples of overlap to me is Scott Hartnell and Wayne Simmonds. I think that a successful top-6 in the NHL can really only have one of these power forward types of players: tough, willing to drop the gloves and go to the dirty areas of the ice. It's different if you have a Rick Nash-type power forward, but Hartnell and Simmonds are not anywhere near the types of player that Nash is. Neither skates particularly well or is all that good defensively, and I think you can only rely on one of them in the top-6. The other main example of overlap I see is with Max Talbot and Scott Laughton. Although Talbot has been used as a wing recently, I still see a lot of similarities between him and Laughton. And before you say that Laughton is a much better offensive player than Talbot, consider that Talbot put up 104 points in 69 games during his last season in juniors. With Laughton coming up next year and making less money than Talbot as well as being younger and under team control longer than Talbot, one could make the case that Talbot is expendable.
Let's circle back to the 2013 team and look at things from a macro level. What are the biggest problems for the Flyers on offense this year? Aside from shoddy breakouts from their own zone (which I'll discuss later with the defense), they lack speed up front and a true sniper. The forwards in the top-6 are all good players, but none are the type of player who can score with players on him from anywhere in the offensive zone. Preferably this type of player would play on Claude Giroux's wing, which would draw some attention away from him and get him some space to operate. In addition, Voracek is the only player in the top-6 with elite skating speed and that has hurt the Flyers as well this season.
Who could fill these voids for the Flyers? I'm going to rule out an in-season trade for a player like Thomas Vanek, because the Flyers aren't in any position to be buyers right now, especially not for a rental. So let's look at the list of 2014 free agents. With Voracek and Simmonds both playing RW and Lecavalier saying he's open to playing it, I would think the Flyers would look for true LWs if they wanted to upgrade their scoring. Hartnell has failed to match his 37-goal pace from the 2011-2012 season and the other LW is C Brayden Schenn playing out of position.
The top left wings who will be unrestricted free agents in 2014 are as follows: Thomas Vanek, Daniel Sedin, Patrick Marleau, Matt Moulson, Alexander Steen, Mike Cammalleri, Milan Michalek, Ray Whitney, Jussi Jokinen, Dustin Penner, and Mason Raymond. Sedin and Marleau are unlikely to leave the Canucks and Sharks, respectively. Cammalleri and Whitney don't seem to be fits due to size and age, while Jokinen, Penner, and Raymond would seem to be more depth options, which the Flyers have plenty of. This leaves the top options as Vanek, Moulson, Steen, and Michalek.
Vanek is the name everyone's talking about, and for good reason: he's a great player on a bad team in the last year of his contract. He's played at least 80% of the games in every season since 2005, and he's never had fewer than 25 goals or 48 points in a full season. Last year, he put up 20 goals and 41 points in 38 games to go along with a 4.7 Corsi Rel against good competition. In total, Vanek has put up 0.43 GPG and 0.83 PPG since breaking in with Buffalo in 2005. He's a true sniper, good at both shooting the puck and redirecting pucks in front of the net. He'd look dandy on Giroux's left wing. But he's turning 30 in January, not a fast skater, and will likely command a minimum cap hit of $7M on a long-term deal. Do the Flyers need another one of those? In a vacuum, Vanek is the best player available to put alongside Claude Giroux, but his salary demands (north of $7M for what will probably be 7 years) and his widely-reported desire to play in Minnesota mean he might not be the best choice for the Flyers.
Matt Moulson would probably be my choice for Claude Giroux's new LW. He's only missed 1 game since joining the Islanders in 2009, and has averaged 0.38 GPG and 0.73 PPG. Moulson has also had a Corsi Rel of 6.3 or better in every year since 2009, and last year was the first year he didn't face above-average competition. He's been tremendous next to John Tavares, and Tavares and Giroux play somewhat similar games. Both are primarily playmaking centers, though Tavares is a better scorer. The downsides with Moulson are similar to those with vanek in that he's also not that fast on his skates or good defensively, and Moulson also turns 30 in November. He could potentially command a lower cap hit and/or term than Vanek because he's coming off a contract that only paid him a little over $3M.
Steen could come cheaper than both Vanek and Moulson despite some good production of his own. Since joining the Blues in 2008, Steen has recorded 0.27 GPG and 0.65 PPG despite never seeing more than 15 minutes of ice time a game. Steen has also been a Corsi monster in recent years, posting Corsi Rels of 15.1 in 2010-2011 and 21.7 in 2011-2012 before a drop-off to a still-good figure of 6.9 last year. The bad news? Steen has missed 92 games over the last 5 years, and is more of a two-way player in the mold of a better Matt Read than a pure sniper or speedster, though he doesn't possess bad skating speed by any stretch of the imagination.
Michalek is one of the best skaters in the lead, and is still big and strong at 6'2, 227. However, he's had injury problems, missing 62 games over the past 4 seasons. His scoring and ice time are more comparable to Steen's, with 0.31 GPG and 0.65 PPG in under 15:00 of ice time for his career, and he's posted positive Corsi Rels each of the past 2 seasons. Michalek would add an interesting dimension to the Flyers' lineup with his speed if he was to join the orange and black, and a partnership with Jake Voracek could prove to be very difficult to handle for opposing defenses.
Adidng new players to the forward corps presents problems because of the existing forwards and the salary cap. Hartnell, Voracek, Lecavalier, Simmonds, and Read are all under contract for at least 2 more years, and Brayden Schenn is under team control for 4 more years. None of these guys are just going to disappear, and it's not as simple as moving them down the lineup to open up top-6 spots for new guys. Scott Hartnell definitely isn't a top-line player, and might not be a top-6 player. But does he really fit with Sean Couturier and Matt Read on a defensively-oriented checking line? Where does Scott Laughton fit in? What about Brayden Schenn?
If the Flyers want to keep Schenn at C where he seems to be the most comfortable, they could bump Lecavalier up to the 1st-line RW. If they did this, they could go with Giroux-Schenn-Couturier-Laughton as the 4 centers down the middle, and work from there. Unfortunately, this would force either Voracek or Simmonds to play on the off wing or move down to the 3rd line. I think a 3rd line of Read-Couturier-Voracek would definitely thrive defensively and still pack a good deal of offensive punch, but is that how Jake is best used? And if the forward group shakes out something like _____-Giroux-Lecavalier, Hartnell-Schenn-Simmonds/Voracek, Read-Couturier-Simmonds/Voracek, Talbot-Laughton-Rinaldo, where does that leave McGinn and Raffl?
It would seem that trades are in order if the Flyers do not want to stand pat with their current forward group. This segues perfectly towards the next topic of discussion, the defense.
The Flyers' defense is likely to undergo some upheaval this offseason. As things presently stand, they've got $21.8M committed to Mark Streit, Chris Pronger, Braydon Coburn, Luke Schenn, and Nicklas Grossmann in 2014, with Erik Gustafsson as a restricted free agent and Kimmo Timonen, Andrej Meszaros, and Hall Gill UFAs. With Pronger certain to go on LTIR, Timonen likely to retire, and Meszaros/Gill likely to leave in search of greener pastures, the Flyers will likely have a gaping hole on the blueline. The top free agent defensemen are Dion Phaneuf, Kimmo, Dan Boyle (similar position to Kimmo), Joni Pitkanen (coming off an entire season off), Brooks Orpik, Dan Girardi, Jonathan Ericsson, Matt Niskanen, and Nikita Nikitin. Now, all of those guys are good players, and they could all help the Flyers in some capacity. Phaneuf is negotiating with Toronto, but he'd be far and away the best defenseman on the market if he hits free agency. He'll command a LOT of money in free agency and will surely get 7 years, but the Flyers could definitely be one of the teams interested.Dan Girardi takes on incredibly tough competition and does pretty well for himself as a shutdown defenseman while also being good for somewhere around 20-30 points. I think he'd be an excellent fit here. Nikitin is a good puck mover with some offensive upside. Matt Niskanen is the owner of a positive Corsi Rel in every year since 2008, including marks of 7.7 each of the past 2 years. But all of these guys besides Phaneuf would just add to the current problem the Flyers have. They've got plenty of #3-5 guys, and a couple who can function as a #2 in the right situation, but they lack that bona fide #1 defenseman they lost when Chris Pronger's career ended. And while Phaneuf is a #1 in Toronto and would be here, he's not one of the top ones in the league. The Flyers have some guys on the way (Morin, Hagg, Gostisbehere, Alt among others), but they're all at least a year or two away and there's no guarantees any of them turn into a top-pairing guy. Having a legitimate #1 defenseman is a virtual necessity to contend in the NHL.
So the Flyers need some change up front, but adding new players will create a logjam further down in the lineup. The defense has holes, and a #1 defenseman is needed. The best way to alleviate both concerns would seem to be a trade. But who?
The answer: I have no idea. They don't grow on trees, and teams who have them don't usually give them up. With Seth Jones's emergence, perhaps the Nashville Predators could make Shea Weber available. But then we're back where we were in the summer of 2012: the Predators will want some combination of Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier, Matt Read, Jake Voracek, Scott Laughton, and draft picks.
There have been a couple examples of teams that contended without the prototypical #1 guy. The 2009 Penguins made up for that with incredible depth: Sergei Gonchar, Kris Letang, Mark Eaton, Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik, Hal Gill, and Alex Goligoski combined to win a Cup and the 2012 Devils used Bryce Salvador, Marek Zidlicky, Peter Harrold, Mark Fayne, Anton Volchenkov, Andy Greene, and Adam Larsson to get to Game 6 of the SCF. Perhaps the Flyers need to try this model, and go with a new guy (say, Girardi), Coburn, Streit, Gus, Schenn, and Grossmann. Perhaps the Flyers try to hit a home run and sign Phaneuf. Perhaps they do something totally different. Who knows?
In conclusion, if things go as poorly for the rest of 2013-2014 as they have in the first 8 games changes will be made. And as long as Ed "We Don't Need A Culture Change" Snider is alive, the Flyers won't be rebuilding. They'll be looking to add more scoring up front and a #1 defenseman on the back end. How they do that remains to be seen. It might work out gloriously. It probably won't. We might universally love the new acquisitions. We probably won't. But one things is absolutely for certain: it's going to be interesting.