With last night's game in Jersey in the books, we are officially into the final third of the 2015-16 NHL season. How time flies when you're having fun, am I right?
Anywho, the Flyers are currently on the outside of the Eastern Conference's playoff chase, and while they've certainly still got a chance to sneak into the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year, the odds are probably against them making it and are almost certainly against them making a significant run once they get there.
And that may not be a surprise. It's probably not a stretch to say that, coming into this year, most fans had seen this year as a bit of a transition year, as the team was never likely to be a serious contender. As such, different fans wanted to see different things from the team -- development from certain players, roster moves made, etc. And with the season playing out as most expected and with a playoff spot unlikely, things start shifting back towards the long-run view for a lot of the Flyers faithful.
With that in mind, we posed the following simple question to our writers on Monday, with little guidelines other than to answer it:
What do you most want to see from the Flyers during the season's final two months?
Everyone's answers can be seen below.
First and foremost, make the playoffs while not sacrificing any young talent or draft picks to do so. Life is short, drafts are unpredictable, and winning is always better than losing. We don't want to fall into the dark side of losing on purpose to get picks. Let the other team in the state do that. Shoo, I could even see Giroux, Mason, and Ghost potentially punking a team or two if they get there.
However, if current trends hold and as injuries mount, that might not be realistic. I'm going to think of this as my high school history teacher did -- there would be answers to essays that he'd expect to see, some he'd want to see, and some he'd be surprised/thrilled to see. There's any number of things that I could think of for all three of those categories, but for everyone's sake, I'll limit this to one in each category.
Expect to see: Pieces traded for future considerations, if the Flyers continue their losing ways. It would be easy to sell anything and everything and go full Sixers with the rebuild, but with Giroux and Voracek in their primes I don't think that is wise. While trading pieces who don't fit long-term would be prudent, seasons as early as next year must be considered and priced accordingly. There's an adage that says don't get rid of something you have no replacement for, so I'd be hesitant to get rid of someone like Neuvirth since he's under a great contract for another year (unless you think Stolarz could replicate Neuvy's performance). Whereas Streit could be traded since if nothing else the cap hit that he would no longer take could be used for his replacement, to say nothing of the blue line prospects. Of course, if someone is offering a first and a good prospect for Neuvy, well ...
Want to see: Continued development of Couturier and Gostisbehere. Coots has stepped up his game this year, and is a vital part of the team's success as noted by the team's record without him in the line-up. I'll temper my expectations a bit since he'll be coming back from injury, but if he can continue to show an offensive spark in addition to his already great defensive play, the contract he signed might end up being one of the best contracts in the NHL. As for Ghost, he's already showing he might have world-class offensive ability from the blue line, and his defensive play, while not outstanding, has been better than advanced billing. We could be looking at a Norris trophy candidate for the next 15 years, but only if he continues to show the willingness to improve and adjust that he has so far.
Surprised/thrilled to see: Continued cap mitigation. The Vinny/Luke Schenn trade was a coup by Hextall (good for Vinny for some results in LA, by the way) in that it got rid of one of the ugly contracts on the books, without sacrificing any front-line talent. By my count, there's still MacDonald, Umberger, and to a lesser extent Schultz to contend with on next year's cap. One has to figure Umberger's $4.6M cap hit will be bought out this summer, resulting in cap hits of 1.6M and 1.5M for 2016-17 and 2017-18 respectively, but Hexy's worked some magic before and getting rid of any of those cap hits could really set things up for a fun free agency period this summer.
I would most like to see Shayne Gostisbehere win an award. I don't care what award it is, and I don't care what he's being recognized for. It could be a Tony for all I care. All of the praise that is laid at his feet is well-deserved, and he should get something shiny to go with it. Charlie wrote a very thorough and smart breakdown of Ghost's chances for the Calder, comparing him against current rookie competition and NHL defensemen as a whole. I read it, ignored the "case against him" part, and emerged with confirmation that Shayne is perfect and that he should absolutely get an award.
Arguably the Flyers' biggest weakness this season has been an absence of effective secondary scoring. Beyond Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn, scoring from the forwards on the roster has been inconsistent at best and nonexistent at worst. Philadelphia's blueline may be weak, but help is on the way in the form of a number of highly-touted prospects who are relatively close to being NHL-ready. On the other hand, the Flyers' forward prospect depth basically consists of Travis Konecny and then a bunch of B-level guys. There's a distinct lack of immediate-impact scoring forwards in the pipeline.
As a result, it would be extremely helpful for the future if one of those non-elite young forwards turns the corner over the season's final two months. Scott Laughton would be an ideal candidate - his scoring rate statistics have actually been solid this year, but he still needs to establish himself as a positive puck possession forward to truly be worthy of a spot on one of the top three lines. Nick Cousins and Jordan Weal* are two other forwards who should be given an opportunity to earn a full-time role over the next 60 days. And if not current NHLers, maybe Taylor Leier or Petr Straka gets the call from Lehigh Valley after the trade deadline and impresses. At this point, tangible growth from one or more of the "close-to-NHL-ready" forwards would go a long way towards solving one of the franchise's under-the-radar issues.
[* Ed. note: this and all other answers were submitted before yesterday's news that Jordan Weal would be out of the lineup for 3+ weeks.]
In terms of the on-ice product, I don't really want to see much. This isn't a playoff team -- certainly not with Michael Del Zotto and Sean Couturier out until the trade deadline or beyond -- and while I'm certainly not rooting for a tank, it's also not like I'll be unhappy if they finish in 25th as opposed to 20th place in the league. By that estimation, the only real reasons to watch this team are Jake Voracek, Claude Giroux and Shayne Gostisbehere. I'm OK with that, and I hope the group makes me happy a few times between now and April 9. (And that they beat Pittsburgh three times.)
Other than that, I'd love to see some room made on defense -- because the real hope of the next 8 months is to see Ivan Provorov or Travis Sanheim (or both) in Philadelphia. Andrew MacDonald being traded is probably a pipe dream, but Mark Streit being shipped out would be lovely.
I'd like to see the Scott Laughton and Brandon Manning experiments end. Injuries aside that might be keeping them around the lineup for the foreseeable future, I have not been impressed by them at all during their runs with the Flyers.
Laughton was pitched as almost a Mike Richards lite, but he's been stifled on the fourth line where he hasn't been able to play his game. Much of that isn't his fault, as he's fighting an uphill battle when Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, and Braden Schenn are sitting above him in the lineup. It's fair to say his 14 points in 53 games haven't done much for me, and I'd rather get an extended look at what Jordan Weal can do in that fourth line center spot.
As for Manning, the 25-year-old defenseman is at best a No. 7 blue liner. On a weak Flyers team, he's managed to make the roster despite posting just three points in 34 games this year. Manning is by no means the weakest possession player, with a 48.6 CF% that sits in the middle of the pack, but I've had problems all year trying to justify his position on the team when he hasn't provided much with the ice time he's been given.
The season is essentially a wash at this point with a six point hole [ed. note: now a 4 point hole, this was written prior to last night's win] in the wild card race, so it'd be nice to see Dave Hakstol abandon this venture once and for all.
Dress your best players, every single night with no exceptions. It's time to shut down the healthy scratch carousel, I want to get off Mr. Hakstol's wild ride. Forgive me if I'm starting to sound like a broken record but Hakstol has suffered from the same frustrating decision making as Craig Berube. An inexplicable loyalty to mediocre talent like Nick Schultz, Chris VandeVelde, R.J. Umberger, paired with an iron fist that's clenched around a criminally short leash for more talented players like Read, and Medvedev. That's a recipe for under-achieving line-ups.
I want to single out Evgeny Medvedev particularly, because he's a top-4 ceiling type of defender who can make game breaking plays. Set him loose. Let him make mistakes and play through bad games because he gives you a better chance to win than the Andrew MacDonalds and Brandon Mannings of the world. The recent injury to Michael Del Zotto may have forced Hakstol's hand in this regard, but Meddy would be a welcome sight pulling top-4 ice time for the remainder of the season.
The Flyers currently sit four points out of a wild card berth, with roughly 10 points up for grabs before the trade deadline on Feb. 29th. If what's left of the Flyers' healthy, NHL-level talent cannot make things interesting by then, start cutting ties with non-essential players who still have value.
I think we've had enough time to take a look at the season and see what needs to be done going forward with regards to the roster, Dave Hakstol and some of the prospects in the system. I really don't see the organization being short-sighted enough to think that they have an earnest shot at the playoffs and trying to do something drastic at the deadline, so why not use the rest of the season to figure out what pieces may fit in the future?
Most notably, I'm talking about the bottom-six. The defensive corps is still a logjam, so there's not much that can be done currently. The bottom-six, however, includes a bunch of pieces that just don't seem to provide enough value (RJ Umberger, Chris VandeVelde, and, to a lesser extent, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare), pieces that are still trying to find their game (Scott Laughton) and pieces that are unrestricted free agents (Ryan White).
The bottom-six has been a big reason why the Flyers have fallen to below average in the league in scoring, and it needs to be rebuilt if this team is to be more successful in the 2016-2017 season. What's wrong with giving Taylor Leier another shot? There's been some talk of him potentially making the team out of camp next season, so it might be wise to see if he could fit as a piece in a new-look Flyers forward corps. The same goes for the continued playing of Nick Cousins.
I'd like for the organization to think of the next two months as a development phase.
On the ice, I'd like a little bit of lineup flexibility in certain spots, one in particular. The CVV/PEB/White line has been the one constant among, well, constant lineup turnover over the last two months, and I find it hard to believe that the one really good shift they have every week or two is enough to justify their stone-cold lock status in the lineup night in and night out. Continuity and cohesion is nice, but only when the players are actually achieving good things with it. It's tough to argue that group currently is. At the very least, no one on that line should be exempt from the Healthy Scratch Merry Go Round that Sam Gagner, Matt Read, Scott Laughton (who, IMO, should not be sitting -- either play him or send him to Lehigh Valley, and I'd prefer the former), and Jordan Weal have been stuck on for a while now. Is it the end of the world if they keep playing? No. It's the fourth line. But I'd love to see that the coach would be willing to try something different, if nothing else.
Otherwise, just keep trying to see what players that may be part of the long-term picture can do. Keep throwing Couturier (when he gets back) to the wolves to see if he can play at the extremely high level he was at prior to his injury. Same goes for Del Zotto (if he ever even gets back). Take some of the training wheels off of Gostisbehere and give him more minutes, against top players. See if Laughton and Cousins can ink their way into next year's lineup. Make Brayden Schenn earn that multi-year contract that he'll surely be looking for this offseason. And see if maybe one more forward currently in Lehigh Valley can get a look up here. Heck, I'd even love Evgeny Medvedev to get the chance to establish that he's worth another deal for next year.
Basically, I want the Flyers to get as many questions about their future answered as they can, even if they're only partial answers, in the next two months. Ideally, they also win games, because those answers end up being good ones. But if they aren't, oh well. Closure is good to get where it's needed, and we mostly accepted this season for what it was a while ago anyways.
Oh, and some sell-offs would be nice, too. I don't have expectations that anyone of big-time value will go, so I doubt the Flyers will pick up much of worth. But I wouldn't be surprised to be wrong, and either way it's always nice to get something for players you figure don't fit into your future, of which you have to think there are plenty on this roster.