With 41 games down in the 2015-16 Philadelphia Flyers season, it's a good time to sit down and assess the performance of the team as whole. To that end, the writers at Broad Street Hockey bring you a roundtable discussion, as we provide our opinions on the key topics from the season's first half.
Over Thursday and Friday of this week, we will break down and answer four specific questions. Participating in the roundtable are myself, Travis Hughes, Kurt R., Al K., Brent G., Mary Clarke, Kelly Hinkle, Collin Mehalick, Ryan Gilbert, Allison J., Kevin Christmann, and Andrew D.
On Thursday, we graded Dave Hakstol's work to date and named our most pleasant surprises and biggest disappointments. Next up, we look at the events of the past three months, and determine whether the timeline for Stanley Cup contention has been accelerated as a result.
Have the events of the 2015-16 season’s first half (trades, player performance, coaching performance, prospect performance) changed your opinion regarding how long it will take before the Flyers are back in championship contention?
Not really. I still think it's going to be at least two more seasons before the Flyers really get back into that conversation, and that's if a lot goes right. It's true that things like the Vinny trade and the MacDonald demotion are good for the cap and I think Hextall has done a good job cleaning up the salary mess that he was left with. Overall, I think Hakstol has done a solid job with the group he has, too.
But there's still a lack of championship talent on the NHL roster, and since we know Hexy plans on growing this team from within, there's the obstacle of time still sitting in the way. Hakstol and the coaches can only do so much with so little, and it's a waiting game until more skill makes it onto the roster. Maybe Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov are here next year, which helps. But they're still going to be rookies and there will be growing pains.
Elsewhere, there are questions. Steve Mason is having his worst season as a Flyer -- although it's nice that Michal Neuvirth has been solid and Anthony Stolarz seems to be coming along nicely with the Phantoms -- and that could lead to questions with the goaltending longer-term. The bottom-six is a mess. And the defense still just isn't very good; certainly not Cup good.
The path is heading in the right direction, but it's still long and winds through a big dense forest and there are gonna be at least like three close encounters with rabid animals before we get to the end.
A bit? Obviously, Vinny Lecavalier getting traded (and likely retiring next year) does quite a bit in not only opening up a spot, but also cash. Pair that with the departure of Luke Schenn and the emergence of both Shayne Gostisbehere and Travis Konecny (who, by all counts, looks like he’ll be on the Flyers next season), and this team is likely going to have a very different set of talent next season, all with an undoubtedly higher ceiling. Does that mean that they’ve accelerated their chances of contending? I’m not so sure, but they certainly haven’t taken steps back in that regard.
If anything, it’s sped the clock up a bit - we know now that Ghost is an NHL talent, there were questions before this year whether or not that was the case along with the uncertainty of anyone who starts his NHL career. Vinny is gone and so is his cap hit, which should lead to an upgrade elsewhere. Radko Gudas has turned out to be an asset, and there’s a lot of Flyers playing lights out in juniors. Poor performers, like Umberger, Gagner, and Schultz, are not critical parts of the team moving forward and their contracts are up before we expected to make major noise.
I think most people circled 2017-18 as the first year when they’ll be a legit Cup threat, and if anything, these moves cemented that notion, as A) there is a lot of young talent coming up through the ranks, B) the cap situation is nowhere near as dire as it had been, which means upgrades to plug any holes that exist will be possible, C) we have a general manager who understands the value of the draft and building through it rather than pricey free agents, so those plugs won’t sink the team long term, and D) the present might not be so bad, so we’re starting the rebuild from a higher floor than we thought and have options of retaining some pieces for the hopefully upcoming glory years ahead.
The one thing I’m somewhat confused on is how Scott Laughton is being played - he’s getting fourth-line minutes in Philadelphia. I’m not sure he wouldn't be better used at Lehigh Valley getting 20 minutes a game and more schooling that way. I can’t really say what’s best for him at this point for certain, but I’m leaning toward the Phantoms solution. Speaking of which, their season hasn’t been great so far - I’ll chalk that up to a lack of depth at forward instead of a reason to get too concerned about the direction the team is heading.
One thing that fans often forget when their team is in a rebuilding process is the uncertainty of it all. It's easy to plug a team's top prospects into a make-believe lineup and convince one's self that this roster will be so good. But that implies that all of the prospects will pan out, that established players will not regress, that developing NHL pieces will progress, to say nothing of the continued competency of a team's coaching staff and front office.
Basically, rebuilds are hard. There's a reason why Edmonton has been perpetually in one despite picking in the top-five of the NHL Draft every single year. But as more aspects of the rebuild become certainties rather than blind hopes, the timeline for contention becomes more concrete. And for the Flyers, these three months have been all about key pieces becoming more certain.
The hope was that Dave Hakstol would prove a coaching upgrade over Craig Berube. That's looking good so far. That Sean Couturier would take the leap into legitimate second-line center status. Check. That one of the five blueline prospects would establish himself as a viable NHL defenseman. Thank you, Shayne Gostisbehere. That GM Ron Hextall would continue his streak of clearing cap space and stockpiling assets. The Luke Schenn/Vincent Lecavalier trade hints that he still has the magic touch. And while the prospects in juniors, Europe and the AHL are still uncertainties, it's hard to think of a key piece that took an obvious step back.
The timeline hasn't been accelerated necessarily - but the certainty of achieving that timeline has. Before, I hoped the Flyers would be a playoff team by 2016-17 and a contender by 2017-18. Now, I'm fairly confident that they will be.
Slightly. Prospects have been great as expected, Hakstol's been fine so far, Hextall's provided further evidence he knows what he's doing in trades, and a few young to young-ish guys like Del Zotto, Gudas, and especially Sean Couturier have taken steps forward. There is a lot to like, and the optimism that's seeped into the fanbase lately is warranted.
However, one big question mark (and we'll talk more about this in the offseason) lingers for me. For all of the things that Ron Hextall is rightly being praised for, we're still yet to see him bring a lot of actual NHL-level talent onto the team and have it make a significant impact, or make trades that make the team better right now by any means other than "addition by subtraction". Now, that's barely his fault -- you can't do much without cap room, which he obviously has not had much of. Still, his biggest NHL-level skater adds as a GM have been Del Zotto (who, you'll recall, he added as a last resort), Schultz, Gudas, Evgeny Medvedev, R.J. Umberger, and Sam Gagner. A few interesting support pieces, particularly among the guys on defense, but as a whole not a group anyone's writing home about. This summer, the Flyers -- for the first time in a while -- are probably going to have the room to operate like an NHL team, and to evaluate and add real players like an NHL team. Hextall's ability to do that will be as important as anything he's done so far other than maybe his drafting.
So I like what's happened. It's all good. But there's still a lot more that we need to see happen. Becoming a contender is hard, and for all the optimism in the air, there's still plenty of work to be done. (Make no mistake, though -- I feel much, much, much better than I did at this time a year ago.)
I still believe the Flyers can be championship ready by the end of this decade. If anything, this half-season has reaffirmed my belief with the way Hextall has continued to make moves that set the franchise up for future success. The clearing of cap space and the moving of some dead weight off the roster has helped alleviate stress off of this team for the future. For once in a very long time, the Flyers aren't near the bottom of the league in cap space available. And they don't look like they're clearing it to bring in big blockbuster names like the Flyers of three years ago would have. They might jettison more at the trade deadline too in dealing Mark Streit to a contender.
I think next year is when we start to see Hextall's plan start to manifest itself properly. Overall, the Flyers have shed themselves of enough of the baggage they've carried that I'm confident in the players this team has alongside the prospects we know are coming up the pipeline. With the recent trade of Lecavalier, there are very few deeply problematic spots on this team compared to a season ago. Most of the hard work is done now for Hextall and crew, and honestly, I'm more confident than ever about the future of this franchise.
This year, guys. Sneak in. Cup run. 2010-style.
Coming into this season, most observers pegged the 2016-17 season as a starting point for outright improvement/for the team to become competitive, and I think that still checks out. While Hextall has found ways to jettison some of the worst possession players this team has had to offer over the past half a decade, the team is still left with some holes, most notably in the bottom-six and on the defense.
Could prospects step up and fill those roles in the upcoming seasons? There's a very likely chance of that, sure, but there's a lot of guesswork involved in their future contributions at the NHL level. Hextall's done all that he can to set up this team to best use the organization's newfound prospect depth and potential cap space.
The 2016-2017 offseason will have Hextall's mark on it, however. The Flyers should have significant cap space going into that offseason. Generally speaking, all Hextall has done so far is remove some of the team's worst contributors and re-sign a bunch of players to no-brainer extensions. It will be interesting to see how Hextall can address some of the team's needs as a spender on the market when the organization isn't cap-strapped.
Prior to this season I expected the Flyers to miss the playoffs this season, and be a fringe team next season. But they have completely changed my expectations. I am still remaining patient with this team but my trust in Hakstol and Hextall make me feel like next year could be the year this team is a playoff team and maybe wins a round or two. The performances of Travis Konecny, Ivan Provorov and of course Shayne Gostisbehere have also helped out just a bit.
Not significantly. Because Ron Hextall has been outspoken when preaching patience with prospects, I find it hard to believe he’d go against that all of a sudden and start dragging up kids before they’re ready. And no matter what Hextall-brand magic he’s able to perform trade-wise, we’ve still got a couple years left of mediocre-to-bad based on the contracts we’re still carrying. It’ll probably be a couple years before we’re back to talking about deep playoff runs, but when we’re back to that point, I firmly believe it’s gonna be a long time before we’re out of it again.
No they haven’t. They are exceeding expectations a bit right now, but it’s nothing astronomical. At the end of the day they’ll probably be on the playoff bubble, which is what I expected (especially given the conference).
Absolutely not. This rebuild/retooling process is still going to take years.