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Flyers Mailbag: New Year’s edition!

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Kate Frese

Happy New Year, Flyers fans! Everyone have a fun night? Stayed warm, hopefully? Enjoyed a little champs? Stayed home alone and felt sad? Well, as you nurse your hangover and enjoy a nice greasy breakfast, here are a few questions posed by our fantastic readers that we wanted to answer for you as we kick off a new calendar year.

This is a super interesting question. It’s easy to watch this team play a fantastic game against the best-in-the-league Tampa Bay Lightning and wonder, “why the heck isn’t this the team that shows up every night??” Personally, my instinct is to blame the coach (this shocks you, I’m sure). The coach is the guy charged with getting the most out of his team night in, night out. Finding ways to optimize the lineup such that he gets the best match-ups, puts together the best line combos, and finds ways to win. At this point, I’m not sure anyone would argue that Dave Hakstol is doing any of those things consistently or doing them well at all, ever. But this weekend, during our monthly BSH Radio Q&A session, Charlie O’Connor convinced me otherwise: it isn’t coaching, or systems, or lines, or strategies. It’s just talent, and this team doesn’t have a ton of it. This team is, at its core, mediocre. Average - or below - in nearly every way. So, sometimes this team gets bounces and everything goes right and you end up beating Tampa Bay. Or sometimes the luck isn’t there and guys make dumb plays and you lose to the Florida Panthers. The inconsistency is a symptom of the in-flux state of this team. No one in the organization is willing to say the word “rebuild”, but we all know what is happening. This is a team in transition. And until we get to the end of the road, wherever that end is for Ron Hextall, this is what we’re going to be dealing with, I think.

It’ll be interesting to see if Ron decides to become a seller at the deadline. I’m not sure he will, because he seems to be very married to the idea of this team trying to remain competitive. I think he’ll be chasing a playoff spot ‘til the very end, logic be damned. But for the sake of the intellectual exercise, let’s say Ron comes to his senses by March and realizes that, despite his team earning enough loser points to keep them right on the bubble, they’re not getting in. There’s one player on this team whom I think we all know is very, very, very tradeable: Wayne Simmonds. Next year he’ll be on the final year of his very cheap contract and headed for a big (and well-deserved) UFA payday. He’s the kind of player that hockey people love - gritty, willing to get beaten up in front of the net, and his numbers are pretty dang good. So if there is a team out there in contention that is in need of secondary scoring ahead of a Cup run, well, Wayne’s your guy. We all love Wayne Simmonds, he’s amazing, but paying him the money he’ll garner in free agency for the term he’s going to want is just not in the Flyers’ best interest. And if we all agree that we should let him walk, then we should all agree that Ron should try and get something for him.

In that same vein is Jori Lehtera. He’ll be a little harder to get rid of because...well... he’s not that good at playing hockey, but never underestimate the desperation of a team looking to make a push for the Cup. Effective centers are hard to come by, and if a team in contention loses a center, you never know! Ron got a 3rd for Zac Rinaldo. Miracles do happen.

And then, in my dreams, Ron shops Michal Neuvirth. I mean, sure, he’s garbage. And sure, he’s hurt all the time. But if you’re a team headed into the playoffs and you backup goalie gets hurt in a major way... well, maybe Neuvy looks a little better than your AHL starter. Who knows! The hockey gods could smile on us, friends.

So at the beginning of this season, it looked as if Hakstol was turning a corner with this sticking-to-the-outside nonsense. We saw guys making plays from behind the net, shots coming from the home-plate area, all kinds of fun times. Let’s take a look at one of the most exciting games of the season, the early-season route of the Washington Capitals:

Look at all that red down low!

As the early season success continued, we began to convince ourselves that last year’s perimeter nonsense was a result of the fact that the team’s offensive weapons couldn’t buy goals and Dave Hakstol couldn’t trust his goalies to make saves. But, as the season has progressed, we’ve seen Dave fall back into his comfort zone.

Against Detroit:

We’ve got some action down low, sure, but tons from the outside, too.

To me, it seems that Dave Hakstol is an extremely risk-averse coach. Mediocre veterans are preferred to dynamic rookies because you know what you’re getting from the vet. And when you keep your players to the outside, you cut down dramatically on the risk of the opposing team getting a break the other way.

But it doesn’t seem to work, right? It surely didn’t work last year. And we saw a lot more excitement and more consistent play from the team at the start of this season, when he was letting the guys get in tighter in the offensive zone. I’d like to believe that with a more talented roster he’d do things differently, but here’s the thing: this is a more talented roster. Compared to last year? This is absolutely a better team. And Dave’s still keeping things to the outside.

Oh buddy, you’re much nicer than me if you’re calling this year “meh.” But anyhoo.

I think the only buyout candidate on this team is Jori Lehtera. The team didn’t want him - we had to take him to make the Brayden Schenn trade work for St. Louis, salary-wise - and he hasn’t been great since he got here. Could very much see Ron just getting him out of here the easy way.

Okay I’m gonna skip around a bit: Wayne Simmonds. Like I said above, Wayne has earned a payday, and I hope he gets it. Just not here. I don’t think the Flyers extend him.

Free agent signings... man, I don’t know. Ron Hextall has been very, very not great when it comes to signing veteran NHL talent (see: Weise, Dale). And while there are some spicy names hitting the free agency market next season, I just don’t know that any of them really help the Flyers. When you sign a guy as a UFA, there are a couple of things you have to accept: this is a guy on the probably downside of his career. This is a guy who is going to be overpaid for at least part, if not all, of the contract you give him. When I think of signing a free agency, I think of getting a guy who is going to put your team over the top and into win-now mode. Next year isn’t the win-now year for us, so I just don’t see a point. That said, BRING ME JOE THORNTON.

And finally, the D prospects. I’ve been happy with what I’ve seen, for the most part. Robert Hagg seems to be a steady, dependable defenseman to the eye, despite his underlying numbers being just so-so. I’ve been very happy with Travis Sanheim, but it would appear that the team is not, given the fact that he continues to be scratched for Brandon Manning. These kids need to play, I wish they’d just let them.

Man, four years. It’s flown by, huh? I’m personally still very much on the fence about Ron Hextall. There are some things he does well: drafting, dumping bad contracts among the big ones that come to mind. But he’s also a pretty suspect judge of NHL talent. No one else on earth was willing to give Dale Weise four years and yet, here we are. It’s easy to forget about Pierre-Édouard Bellemare because Vegas saved us from him, but Ron extended him, despite his being, you know, not great. And then he gave Michal Neuvirth, literally one of the worst goalies in the league, an extension and a raise. All of this is cause for concern, in my opinion.

Additionally, I’m not super happy with his attitude towards rookie talent. There’s a lot of arbitrary limits to the number of rookies he’s comfortable with on a team, how often they play, etc. Shouldn’t we just be playing the best players?

And, on a global scale, I don’t think a team can compete and rebuild effectively. The success of one has to be sacrificed for the other. By going half-in on this rebuild, I’m not sure Hexy has done this team a service. Bill Matz said it recently: he wishes Ron had just told us to trust the process. To let the team be bad because we were going to come out on the other side. Instead, he wants this team to compete for a playoff spot and for us to believe they really can get one. And if last year - and this one, so far - are any indication, that just doesn’t work.

Thanks for everyone for submitting their questions on twitter; I’m sorry I couldn’t get to them all! From all of us at Broad Street Hockey, Happy New Year! Enjoy the Winter Classic, friends.