As we watch the rest of the Stanley Cup Playoffs play out with the Flyers eliminated, I can’t help but watch some of the teams remaining and pick at just why exactly they’re still alive and the Flyers are watching at home.
Watching clubs like Tampa Bay, Nashville, Winnipeg, Pittsburgh, Vegas, Washington and Boston I’m left thinking that one of the gaps between them and the Flyers is speed - among other things, of course. Team speed, speed in the transition game, and just flat-out guys who can create scoring and chances because of their wheels.
I thought about how the Kings decided over last summer that they were too slow and needed to re-work their roster in order to keep up in the Western Conference. Los Angeles inserted young legs like Adrian Kempe and Alex Iafallo while dumping old cogs like Jarome Iginla. That combined with with a more up-tempo system employed by John Stevens behind the bench netted the Kings a 12-point increase and a playoff berth. Yeah they got swept by the Golden Knights, but they were much improved as a faster club and will be looking for more ways to push the pace even further next year.
If the Flyers aim to compete for the Stanley Cup in a crowded Eastern Conference, they’ve got to get faster and be able to keep up with the likes of Tampa, Pittsburgh, Boston and Washington. Here’s a look at how the Flyers can add more speed to their game to better compete with the contenders.
Create more speed in transition
Think about how fast teams like Nashville, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay are in transition and in their break outs. The Flyers have guys like Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov who excel there, but also guys like Manning, Radko Gudas, and Andrew MacDonald who have their struggles in that area. Travis Sanheim is plenty good, when he plays, and Robert Hagg has work to do there.
The thing is that building speed via the transition game isn’t all that hard for the Flyers to improve upon. Inserting Sanheim into the lineup full-time is the easiest move, which will almost surely happen next season. That would give the Flyers three above-average to elite transition players on defense in Gostisbehere, Provorov, and Sanheim.
MacDonald and Hagg are passable as other options at the very least. Phil Myers is an option with loads of potential, and could easily win a job out of training camp given his skill set. If he’s ever healthy Sam Morin is also an option on the back end and while his greatest attribute is not moving the puck, we’ll mention him in this space as well.
Look, Radko Gudas was awful in game 6 against the Penguins. That shouldn’t overshadow the fact that he’s largely fine as an NHL defenseman, but Gudas also could be a player that could be on the move this summer.
For one, as mentioned above, the Flyers have loads of players coming on the blue line with Sanheim, Myers, and Morin. They already need room for Sanehim, but could also need room for Myers and Morin before long given how difficult it would be to move the three years and $5 million per year left on MacDonald’s deal even if the Flyers wanted to.
That could leave Gudas as the odd man out, or a piece to bring the Flyers another option on the back end to jump-start the transition game. Calgary has flat-out said they want to get tougher, ditto Carolina. Could the Flyers use Gudas as a piece in a larger deal to pry Dougie Hamilton away? What about Carolina, who already has Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce locked up long-term with Noah Hanifin due for a big deal of his own. Gudas could be a nice cost-controlled piece for them as part of a deal for Justin Faulk.
Targeting another puck moving defenseman —essentially an upgrade over Gudas— would improve the Flyers in transition and help generate speed out of their own zone to put pressure on opposing defenses.
Adding speed via subtraction
Valtteri Filppula, Matt Read, and Brandon Manning are free agents. Neither Read nor Manning will be back if we are to believe Ron Hextall’s end-of-season presser, though the Flyers’ general manager did slightly leave the door open for Filppula’s return, barring finding an upgrade in the free agent market.
Filppula, 34, really saw his game fade as the season wore on and was a liability at the end. He scored just once in 31 games from February through April, and posted a -7.2 Corsi relative to his teammates. An area of improvement regardless of foot speed would be a No. 3 center behind Sean Couturier and Nolan Patrick, and the Flyers would be wise to look elsewhere and wave goodbye to Filppula, who outside of Jori Lehtera (more on him in a bit) was the Flyers’ slowest skater.
Without dipping into the free agent or trade market, in-house options to replace Filppula would be, say, Scott Laughton, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Mikhail Vorobyov or Mike Vecchione. There’s also the pipe dream of Morgan Frost or even German Rubstov as a long-shot to break camp with the big club. No matter who it would end up being, they A) can’t be slower than Filppula and B) can’t really be all that worse production-wise.
Dumping Manning also falls under addition by subtraction because, well, he’s just not very good and isn’t as good a puck mover as Sanheim, Myers, or even Hagg on some nights. He’s also arguably the worst skater of those three, meaning that his roster spot is most certainly going to be upgraded regardless of how the Flyers choose to fill it.
Then there’s Jori “Jorald” Lehtera. Lehtera will be in the final year of his deal that carries a $4.7 million cap hit this coming season. Like Filppula, he spent his season as a plodding veteran with awful production and matching metrics. He’s also super slow, and the image of Lehtera wheezing around on his skates in the final minute as the Flyers tried to protect a one-goal lead will haunt me for quite some time.
Hextall could (and should) get creative to try and rid his budding roster of the black hole of Jori. They could dump him along with a pick on a team looking for a veteran penalty killer, or buy him out and pay $1.66 million over the next two years not to have him play. Hextall acquired an extra first-round pick from St. Louis in the Brayden Schenn trade, but did get saddled with Lehtera in the process. Jettisoning Lehtera would no doubt improve the Flyers next season, and while it’s not probable, there’s a chance that Lehtera returns. But if he doesn’t, the Flyers will almost certainly be able to add more speed and production in his stead with a player like Taylor Leier or even someone like Corban Knight stepping in.
Exploring the trade/free agent market
We’ve already covered a few ways the Flyers could get faster by looking in-house, but another way is to add some juice via the market. Ron Hextall took the long view with the Schenn trade at the draft a year ago, but could perhaps look short- to mid-term with a deal this summer to add some speed and production to his forward group or another puck mover on the blue line. Hextall has plenty of assets to use on the trade market, and for once, some cap space to explore the free agent market as well.
A name that has been bandied about is that of Jeff Skinner in Carolina. A small market club with a few large deals on the horizon in Hanifin, Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho, and Elias Lindholm. Skinner has another year left on his contract that carries a $5.725 million cap charge, and could be a player the Hurricanes look to move. He’s one of the better skaters in the league and has scored 30+ goals three times (including 37 last year) in his career. Skinner did have a disappointing season (24G, 25A, 49P) so his value could be a tad lower, though he would need another contract in a year and wouldn’t come cheap.
If Hextall isn’t interested in pursuing a player to boost his top-six, he could look to the free agent market for a player who can both add speed and value on special teams. Michael Grabner had 27 goals and is an excellent penalty killer. He’d fit nicely on a third line for the Flyers and help improve their ghastly penalty kill. John Saquella took a look at some of the other depth options in free agency earlier this week.
They’ve been tied to Evander Kane in the past as well, and he’s set to hit the market come July 1st after a nice run after being dealt to San Jose. You know he’s got game-breaking speed. Maybe Hextall just goes out and signs John Tavares, who knows?
Hextall could also use this summer to move on from the ultra-popular Wayne Simmonds. That would create a hole in the Flyers’ top-nine, but Simmonds turns 30 in August and will be due for a raise on the $3.975 million he makes on his current deal. Nolan Patrick’s emergence on the Flyers’ top power play unit could further make Simmonds expendable, given his high rate of power play goals. Simmonds could be an attractive part of any Hextall trade package this summer, not matter what the Flyers GM decides on targeting.