Ron Hextall opened the off season by saying that the Flyers were on the right course with his plan, but admitted that nobody was satisfied with simply making the playoffs. That didn’t mean that the Flyers were going to revert to the Big-Splash-Paul-Holmgren days, but it gave fans some hope that Hextall would be a lot more active in bringing in quality NHL players this summer than he had in the past.
Hextall has to know there was a growing segment of fans that were not really happy with him sitting on his hands at the trade deadline (outside of the necessary trade to add goalie Petr Mrazek after both Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth went down with injuries). There was a lot of sentiment that even a depth scoring addition like Patrick Maroon, Michael Grabner or Thomas Vanek would be welcomed at the cost of 2nd or 3rd round picks. When it didn’t happen there was angst as other Metropolitan division teams “improved” themselves.
However, neither Columbus (Vanek) or New Jersey (Grabner and Maroon) made it any deeper in the playoffs than the Flyers and finished behind the Flyers in the standings. Hextall managed to hang onto his picks for the 2018 entry draft. As for this offseason , I’m going to look at the good Hextall has done thus far as well as the areas of concerns I still have.
Obviously the signing of James van Riemsdyk as a UFA is huge. With the Flyers hanging on to Wayne Simmonds and only losing the fading Valtteri Filppula from their top 9, they made a major boost to their goal scoring potential and could possibly have one of the best top 9 forward groups in the NHL. JvR is a top notch goal scoring winger that brings a bit of size with his skill and could end up helping the Flyers 2nd PP by displacing some of the top unit’s personnel. Even though his deal carries some risk - it being a 5 year deal at age 29 - there’s a good chance his decline would be more gentle than a more physical player’s, such as Milan Lucic. At the very least, the addition silenced the critics of Hextall on Twitter, where some expected Hextall to sign nothing but washed up stop gaps and not really improve the team.
Avoiding bad contracts to marginal players. Hextall repeatedly mentioned term when talking about other free agents in which he had interest, after only landing van Riemsdyk and defenseman Christian Folin. He gave term to JvR because he was getting one of the best goal scoring wingers on the market. Folin took a one year deal. Other players Hexy may have been in on, such as Jay Beagle, got 4 years - likely more than Hextall was willing to give for a player he likely saw as short term stop gaps until guys like Morgan Frost, Misha Vorobyev and German Rubtsov are ready.
Hextall also left himself cap flexibility to re-sign key young players who will be coming off their ELCs in the next 2-3 years. Guys like Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny have already likely locked up significant raises, and if Nolan Patrick’s 2nd half is indicative of his potential, he’ll be getting a big bump as well. Hextall has done a mostly great job on contracts, with Sean Couturier and Shayne Gostisbehere both looking like bargains.
The Draft! The Flyers did well in the first round, adding Joel Farabee and Jay O’Brien. Farabee was high on my personal list from the start of my draft reviews and O’Brien had crept in after more video review and reading up on him. (Yeah that was me throwing my hands up when Hexy said O’Brien’s name at the BSH draft party.)
While I was less impressed by the 2nd day’s picks, There are some solid players. Adam Ginning could end up being a good 4th-5th defensive-defenseman who can move the puck out of the zone and provide some toughness. Jack St. Ivany is a bit of a late riser and has a solid base skill set that could be developed with hard work and patience from the team. Marcus Westfelt looks like he might be a bit of a steal in the 7th round. Overall, the Flyers went with guys with good work ethic and tools that can be developed. It was still a very solid draft for the Flyers.
No upgrades in goal. Hextall envisions a solid tandem of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth giving the Flyers decent goaltending and both guys are good enough to do just that. However, Neuvirth has serious injury concerns and Elliott at age 33 can’t be a 65 start work horse. When Neuvirth got hurt last November, Elliott started just about every game for a month and a half and ended up with a core injury of his own. Neuvirth came back and promptly re-injured himself, forcing Hextall to deal a 3rd round pick for the wildly inconsistent Petr Mrazek. Mrazek totally lost Hakstol’s faith and when Elliott returned, was relegated to the press box, even though Elliott was clearly nowhere near 100% healthy.
They do have Alex Lyon and Anthony Stolarz as well. Both have shown promise at the NHL level, but neither is a proven goalie that can give you 30 good starts at the NHL level. If (let’s be serious here, When) Neuvirth or Elliott get hurt, both have shown they can be a solid stop gap, but there’s no certainty that one of them could be a good tandem option for full time work if there’s a long term injury. Carter Hart is the plan for the future here, after winning 3 straight CHL goalie of the year awards, but it’s likely the Flyers will want him to get a year of AHL experience before throwing him into the NHL fire.
I would have liked to see the Flyers try to move Neuvirth and look at acquiring or signing goalies like Robin Lehner or Phillip Grubauer. Both are good young goalies who could potentially be the team’s number one and provide a security blanket for a couple years until Hart is fully ready. Also if Hart doesn’t pan out or suffers an injury, those guys could be a long term solution in the Flyers net. The Flyers obviously see their current goalie situation as a bridge to Hart(and given his play with the Silvertips, that’s a logical plan), but I’d like to see more stability.
The penalty kill is still an area of huge concern. The Flyers have some of the worst PK numbers in the NHL over the past 5 years. They have tried different players, different goalies and have not seen much improvement. I think that it’s more systemic than anything else, as the Flyers seem to prioritize shot blocking and collapsing in the slot to being aggressive and preventing opposing player from setting up on the door step.
That said, it’s hard to argue that a PK that utilized guys like Brandon Manning and Andrew MacDonald as much as the Flyers have doesn’t have a bit of a personnel issue. Just by watching, the Flyers didn’t execute very well at times on the PK, with a lot of failed clears, blown coverages, and over pursuit issues that would see all 4 Flyer PK guys within 8 feet of each other and a whole side of the ice wide open. Still, when the coaching staff decides to keep utilizing the same guys they blame for mistakes, at some point it’s more the coaching staff’s fault than the players’.
Failure to land an experienced 3rd line center. This was a stated goal for Hextall as the summer rolled around, but he decided the in-house candidates were better (or just as good for less money) than the trade market or FA options. And he might not be wrong. The Flyers have drafted a lot of centers and have a lot of intriguing options.
Scott Laughton deserved more opportunity to be tried as the 3rd line center, based on his play and how badly Filppula’s game declined as the season went on. Jordan Weal was mentioned by Hextall as a possible option, despite an up and down season with the Flyers where he bounced from line to line and on and off the scratch list. Misha Vorobyev had a good season in the AHL and is an option, as is Mike Vecchione, who the Flyers signed as an undrafted free agent out of Union at the tail end of the 2016-17 season. Also a potential option is Morgan Frost, who the Flyers selected in the 2017 entry draft with one of the picks they received in the Brayden Schenn trade.
As exciting as seeing a kid like Frost, who tore up the OHL last year, or Vorobyev come in to take the role, here is no guarantee that the Flyers have a guy ready to step in as a good 3rd line C. If one of Frost or Vorobyev takes the role, Laughton could be the 4th line center and push the less effective Jori Lehtera to the press box. That may be a pipe dream with a coaching staff that values veteran presence as much as the Flyers do, but they also will allow younger player to stay in the line up if they play effectively.
The coaching staff. Dave Hakstol’s lineup management has raised questions for the past two years, and he was out-coached for much of the Flyers first round playoff loss to the Penguins. Decisions like matching the error-prone pairing of Brandon Manning and Radko Gudas to go against Sidney Crosby’s line is asking for trouble. Hakstol’s handling of his goalies also seems to run contrary to Hextall’s roster choices, as Hakstol tends to ride his number one guy, especially if there’s an injury and inexperienced back up. Last year that may have cost them when Brian Elliott played every game in December and suffered an injury that kept him out down the stretch. He returned for the playoffs but was obviously no where close to being 100%. Hakstol had no faith in deadline addition Mrazek, which is understandable, but with Elliott struggling Mrazek may have been a better option.
Hakstol isn’t a terrible coach. However he is an overly conservative, “Hockey Guy” sort of coach. He seems to overrate things like grit and veteran presence (for instance the heavy usage given to a clearly spent Filppula) and puts more value into goal-based metrics than the underlying numbers that paint a more complete picture (Robert Hagg finding himself benched after being in the top six all season when his PDO dropped is a good example of this). At the end of the day, I’d rather see Hakstol dress a line up based on skill and guys that can drive play, and play an aggressive uptempo style rather than give bigger roles to veterans who bring experience and a sense of reliability and little else.
Hextall’s willingness to trade picks or prospects - if the Flyers are challenging for the division at the deadline. Despite the van Riemdsyk signing, Hextall has still not made a significant trade involving picks or prospects that brought an immediate impact to the NHL roster. If the Flyers are in the same position they are as last year - when they were leading the Metro at the deadline - will Hexy be willing to pull the trigger for a Paul Stastny-type deal? Or would it take an injury which forced him to trade for Mrazek? This isn’t really a massive worry, but it is something to keep in the back of our minds because I fully expect the Flyers to challenge for the division this season.
All in all, there are more positives than negatives. The Flyers young guns should keep improving, and even if Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, and Sean Couturier can’t repeat their career seasons, there’s enough scoring depth to keep the Flyers dangerous. Travis Sanheim or Phil Myers getting a regular top 6 role should improve the defense and the Flyers should benefit from losing players like Filppula and Manning who were either in decline or being over utilized badly.