With that said, the offseason is indeed upon us. Things are moving in the right direction, but there are a number of steps Ron Hextall will have to take in order to keep this team in the top half of the Eastern Conference. Some of those steps are near-formalities; others leave a lot more up to the imagination while we're sitting here speculating in April.
So what are the key questions surrounding the Flyers as we head into the offseason? Let's jump right on in and look at 10 of them, in no particular order/ranking.
10. What do the Flyers pay Brayden Schenn?
After multiple years of respectable production that was still not quite where a lot of fans wanted him to be, Brayden Schenn had the best season of his career in 2015-16, with 26 goals and 59 points fueled largely by an extremely impressive second half of the season. While his point production may not quite remain that high indefinitely, Schenn's all-around game was much improved this year from what it was in seasons past, and as a restricted free agent he's due for a nice raise. What money can the Flyers get him for? And for how long? Could they reach or get close to arbitration? This figures to be Ron Hextall's biggest contract of the offseason.
9. How do the Flyers handle their other free agents?
Schenn is the biggest name, but there are a number of other interesting decisions for the Flyers to make among their free agents. Radko Gudas, coming off of a surprisingly very solid first year in Philadelphia, is a restricted free agent and should be back with a slight bump in pay. Meanwhile, decisions will have to be made on the likes of Brandon Manning, Sam Gagner, and Ryan White, all guys who had good and bad stretches this season. Could any of them be back? There may not be room for all of them.
8. Are any changes coming to the forward group?
All of Schenn, Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier, Michael Raffl, Matt Read, Scott Laughton, Nick Cousins, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Chris VandeVelde are either restricted or under contract next season. That's 11 forwards -- already almost an entire lineup, and that doesn't even factor in a potential Gagner or White return. You wonder if Ron Hextall will be looking to make some deals, or if the team may be willing to cycle some of those guys at the bottom of the lineup out for new blood next year. Because it seems unlikely that the Flyers will trot out almost the exact same forward lineup that they had this past year, doesn't it? Not after a season where they were 22nd in the league in goals scored and after a playoff series where they scored six goals, right?
7. Which prospects are earmarked for an NHL spot next season?
The big decisions we'll spend all summer hearing about will be the ones regarding defenseman Ivan Provorov and forward Travis Konecny, both of whom must either spend next season at the NHL level or back with their respective junior teams. But even at the AHL level, there will be plenty of guys knocking on the door. Travis Sanheim and Samuel Morin will be looking to insert themselves into the picture in a very Gostisbeherean fashion on the blue line. And up front, Taylor Leier could be a guy who slots in as a bottom-six player right out of camp, while Nicolas Aube-Kubel is a guy we'll be watching throughout the year. There are more names we could put here. At this point in time, though, the real question is this: which of these guys does the organization think will be in the NHL next year, and how does that affect their actions elsewhere?
6. Will the Flyers be able to clear up more salary and/or roster space?
Much like he did last offseason and in-season last year, Ron Hextall will almost certainly try and shed some dollars off the team's cap at some point this summer. R.J. Umberger getting bought out -- which would save about $3 million on this year's cap -- seems like a very real possibility. (R.J. Umberger agrees with this statement.) Mark Streit and Andrew MacDonald are guys you have to think he'll try to deal, though how successful he'll be there is anyone's guess. There aren't as many deals that will be particularly onerous to work with as there have been in years past, but there's work that can be done here. The looming potential of an expansion draft may factor in to decision-making here as well, though there are details that need to be worked out and made clear.
5. How do the Flyers approach free agency with actual cap room?
The exact number figures to vary based on a few things (i.e. what the cap itself ultimately settles at, a potential Umberger buyout, Vincent Lecavalier officially retiring), but it appears very likely that the Flyers will have more cap space come July 1 than they have at any point in the Ron Hextall era. Hextall has spoken about how he generally doesn't seem to like giving out big contracts in early July, and his actions (he's routinely been very quiet in early July) have held firm to that, but the truth is that due to cap constraints in the past he's rarely ever even had a chance to do so. It'll be interesting to see if that changes now that he has some operating room, and if he's got a medium- or even high-profile target on the market in mind.
4. Are any changes made to the coaching staff?
Dave Hakstol is obviously safe after a successful first season, and Gord Murphy is also likely not going anywhere. But could there be moves elsewhere? After a year in which the Flyers' power play and penalty kill were both very up and down before both putting together a dreadful showing in the playoffs, Joey Mullen and Ian Laperriere are guys who seem to be picking up some heat around the fanbase and in the media. Will that last?
3. What do the Flyers do in the draft?
While the joy of a surprise playoff berth trumps all, it's admittedly much less fun to talk about the draft when the Flyers will be picking 18th* overall instead of 7th like they were last season. Still, the team should be in position to get a good player, and Hextall's drafting over the past two years should make us optimistic. The team has long claimed to espouse a "best player available" mentality when it comes to the draft, but after three straight years of taking a defenseman with their first pick, would they be willing to do that again if they thought the fit (and talent) was right? Or will they lean towards taking a forward no matter what?
* Note: The Flyers will pick 18th unless Nashville makes it to the Western Conference Finals. In that case, the Flyers would pick 17th.
2. Do the Flyers make any big decisions regarding their goaltenders?
You may or may not have heard about this, but Steve Mason had a poor few games in the playoffs and Michal Neuvirth stepped in for him and was outstanding. It's fair to ask if the postseason changed any minds about the long-term goalie picture in the front office, which surely saw Mason as the unquestioned No. 1 as recently as two weeks ago (and, long-term, may still). Mason and Neuvirth will likely both be back next year, which is good news for the Flyers on the ice, but could one of them possibly be dangled as trade bait in the right deal? Or, with both due to be free agents next offseason, could one of them be given a new deal before the year even starts? And how does Anthony Stolarz, fresh off of an AHL All-Star Game appearance, factor into the picture?
1. Do we see the team really attempt to take a step forward?
The Flyers made a surprise run to a playoff spot this season and did so without sacrificing any sort of future capabilities. On the one hand, the semi-rebuild that they're on now appears to be at least a little bit ahead of schedule, and one could point to their spot in the playoffs as further evidence of that. Hextall has talked about patience since the minute he got on the job, and that probably won't change. On the other hand, it's possible that there may now be some pressure on Hextall to take steps that will ensure this team will be a playoff team again next year, or to even try and push them to the next level.
For the first time since Hextall took over, the fanbase is actually heading into an offseason expecting the team to come out a contender on the other side. It's an exciting time for this team, and who knows if Hextall will try to make a big splash to really help kick things into high gear.
So what you're saying is ...
Oh, hell yeah.
Welcome to the offseason, everyone.