At first glance it may appear to casual observers as if Flyers rookie General Manager Ron Hextall has done little to alter the club during his inaugural summer at the helm. After all, this is a franchise famous for their affinity towards splashy, headline-grabbing moves. But even though things were uncharacteristically quiet on Broad Street this off-season that doesn’t necessarily mean the Flyers won’t be different in 2014-2015. Of course, change doesn’t always guarantee success.
The most noteworthy modification for the orange and black happened in the front office where longtime GM Paul Holmgren was “promoted” to team President, while Ron Hextall assumed control of all hockey related decisions. This reshuffling of the company deck was probably done for two reasons: the first of which was so that owner Ed Snider could save face by not having to fire a true company man in Holmgren- 9 years as a Flyer forward, 5 seasons as Flyers coach, and 14 more as a team executive. And the second, and most important factor, was so that another organization would not poach Hextall away. After all, the Flyers new GM is one of the brightest young executives in the game.
In a short time since the change the organizational philosophy has shifted dramatically. Whereas Holmgren focused primarily on quick fixes with big-name acquisitions, Hextall has made it abundantly clear that the Philadelphia Flyers will now approach the future with a renewed focus on prospect development. Unlike his predecessors, the former Philadelphia goaltender has refused to deal away blue chip prospects or high draft picks for established veterans. This cautious, more deliberate direction is the reason behind the least-eventful summer in recent memory. Though a lack of cap space has also handcuffed the Flyers, to a degree.
Unfortunately, the organization begins this new era with the unenviable task of supplanting two longtime stalwarts. Acquired in the same trade with Nashville prior to the 07-08 season, both winger Scott Hartnell (trade) and defender Kimmo Timonen (blood clots) find themselves unceremoniously on the outs. The longtime fan favorites and close friends will not be easily replaced. The Flyers also said goodbye to the likes of Erik Gustafsson (D), Hal Gill (D), and Adam Hall (F).
In their stead the team made several low-profile acquisitions. First, in the Hartnell trade, the Flyers recouped a player who originally began his career with this organization: R.J. Umberger. Though slightly less productive than Hartnell, the 32-year old forward is more mobile and far more versatile. Umberger can play all three forward positions, kill penalties, and contribute on the power-play. As a last minute replacement for Timonen, following his surprise health scare, Hextall tapped 24-year old former Ranger standout, Michael Del Zotto. Del Zotto, though coming off two sub-par campaigns, has potential upside as a puck-moving, offensive defenseman. Brought in beyond those two was veteran rearguard Nick Schultz (Columbus), rough-and-tumble center Ryan White (Montreal), and, intriguingly, french import Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.
And since Ron Hextall has made it clear that the future of the franchise starts with the farm system, it should come as no surprise that several prospects have a shot at the opening night roster. Even if those shots are quite long. At the top of the list is 2012 first-rounder, center Scott Laughton. At 20 years of age, and following his third straight highly productive season with the Oshawa Generals, Laughton will either win a spot with the Flyers or report to the Phantoms for seasoning in the AHL.
So where do these changes leave the Flyers roster for the upcoming season? Let’s first take a look into the potential forward arrangements:
1st line: (LW) Michael Raffl, (C) Claude Giroux. (RW) Jakub Voracek– The combination of Giroux and Voracek has been the clubs most dangerous for two seasons now. And before his departure, Hartnell was often found on the lines left side. With Hartnell now serving the division rival Blue Jackets, one of the main candidates to fill the vacancy is Raffl. The 25-year old Austrian didn’t show a ton of offensive pop in his rookie campaign (9 goals) but he was also adjusting to the North American game and has exceptional defensive instincts. Playing alongside two elite setup-men, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Raffl could step up and produce 18-20 goals while still maintaining his important defensive role.
2nd line: (LW) Brayden Schenn, (C) Vincent Lecavalier, (RW) Wayne Simmonds– This is where things start to get tricky for head coach Craig Berube. Last season Lecavalier’s poor play outside of the center spot proved that he must be in the middle to come anywhere close to living up to his paycheck. Unfortunately, Berube demands defensive accountability, which isn’t Vinny’s strong suit. It’s probable this line gets switched around a lot throughout the season but for now this is an okay bet. Schenn finally reached the 20-goal plateau a season ago, but he left plenty of room for improvement. Simmonds was an absolute warrior (29 goals, 6o pts) a season ago and should produce similar numbers, no matter the line. Dealing Lecavalier would be ideal but as long as he’s in orange and black he should be given a look in the top-6.
3rd line: (LW) R.J. Umberger, (C) Sean Couturier, (RW) Matt Read– Read and Couturier have proven to be one of the top two-way duos in the entire NHL. Add in Umberger, who has a similar skill set, and the Flyers could have one of the best shutdown lines around. Couturier, just 21, is already a Selke Trophy (best defensive forward) candidate. If his offensive game catches up he could be the next Patrice Bergeron. Read can be penciled in for 20+ goals and plenty of PK/PP time. Umberger may be used on the 1st or 2nd line, because of his versatility, but he projects as an excellent option for this trio.
4th line: (LW) P.E. Bellemare, (C) Ryan White, (RW) Zac Rinaldo– Berube and Hextall have a lot of choices for the 4th line. It will be tempting to give Laughton the center job but he’d be better served playing more than 8-10 minutes a night. That leaves White as the leading candidate. He’s an irritating presence, a good hitter, and a solid face-off man. At right wing, Rinaldo should be the guy. Two seasons ago he was a disruptive ball of energy who managed to draw more penalties than he took. This past season he fell into his old, undisciplined ways and it made him far less effective. If he wants to continue being the Flyers main pest he must return to his 12-13 form. Like I said above, Bellemare is a real wildcard. He’s 29-years old, has never played in North America, and doesn’t do anything exceptionally well. However, he’s a solid two-way winger with good speed and above-average offensive upside. If he doesn’t win the job it could go to someone like Jay Rosehill, an old-school, goon-type. But that’s hardly ideal.
As complicated as the forward picture may look, it might be just as difficult to figure out the defensive pairings. Losing a presence like Timonen, along with having only one right-handed shot (L. Schenn), leaves some questions for Berube to answer. In order for the Flyers to be successful their weak D-corps must be assisted by the forwards and probably bailed out by goaltender Steve Mason. Anyway, here’s a potential look at the Flyers top-six defenders:
1st Pairing: Andrew MacDonald- Brayden Coburn– Without Timonen, Coburn is arguably the Flyers top shutdown defenseman. And that’s hardly a comforting thought. Coburn has an exceptional size-speed combination but he’s never been able to be a complete package. He’s extremely streaky and sometimes makes mind-numbing decisions under pressure. Still, he’s the best they have. Despite the advanced stats community berating MacDonald as one of the league’s worst, he is an above-average blueliner. He turns the puck over too much but he brings necessary mobility to the blueline. He can play both PP and PK minutes, however the more he’s on the ice the more he can be exposed. This clearly isn’t an ideal shutdown pairing but Berube has been quoted as liking these two together.
2nd Pairing: Mark Streit- Nick Grossmann– Streit was probably the only Flyers blueliner who lived up to his paycheck a season ago. He can be a defensive liability but he is their best offensive defender and will take over for Timonen as the #1 PP quarterback. The Swiss-born Streit should post similar numbers (10 goals, 44pts) to a year ago and help to fill the leadership void. Opposite Streit will most likely be Grossmann, who is literally his opposite. Grossmann is a hulking (6’4” 230) defensive presence with poor mobility and little offensive game. Still the big Swede is the clubs best crease-clearer, a heavy hitter, and a quality shot blocker. Since Berube likes to go with one puck mover and one stay-at-home player on each pairing, Streit and Grossmann are a solid tandem.
3rd Pairing: Michael Del Zotto- Luke Schenn– During the lockout shortened 2012-13 season it appeared as if Luke Schenn had finally started living up to his billing as a top-five draft selection. However, last season he regressed and went back to making the same tentative mistakes that cost him during his Toronto days. With limited mobility he must be far more consistent with his positioning. When he’s in the right spot he usually makes the right play. Schenn is a hitting machine and he must use that skill to help clear the front of the net far more than he has in the past. Opposite Schenn is Michael Del Zotto, a former Rangers first round pick who has either been very good or very bad during his five NHL seasons. MDZ isn’t a great skater but he is easily an upgrade on Timonen’s mobility (or lack-thereof) and brings impressive offensive instincts. New York and Nashville stopped using Del Zotto on the PP, which severely reduced his productivity. The Flyers will (hopefully) not make the same mistake, as he is easily the team’s 2nd most dangerous offensive blueliner. He should get every opportunity to run the point on the 2nd PP unit. Most NHL defenders don’t usually develop consistency until they’re 26-28 and both of these players are still just 24. There’s a good amount of upside on this bottom pairing. Veteran pickup Nick Schultz can step in if needed.
Unlike the rest of the club the goaltending picture is completely clear. Steve Mason proved that he has what it takes to start 60+ games for this team, which is a luxury not seen consistently in this town for many years. Behind Mason is Ray Emery. Here is an in-depth evaluation of the Flyers net presence:
Starter: Steve Mason (33-18-7, 2.50GAA, .917sv%)– When Mason was first acquired at the end of the 12-13 season there were snickers from fans around the league. After all, this was a player who had followed up his Calder Trophy winning season with 3+ miserable years in Columbus. But since his arrival in Philadelphia it’s been a renaissance for the 26-year old. For someone who stands 6’4″, Mason has remarkable athleticism. He carried his teammates for long stretches last season and almost stole the Rangers series by himself. In order for this team to be legitimate contenders they need an even better season from ‘Mase’.
Backup: Ray Emery (9-12-2, 2.96GAA, .903sv%)– ‘Razor’ is a mid-level NHL backup with deteriorating physical skills. For spot starts he is a respectable option but if Emery is needed for an extended stretch the Flyers are cooked. At 32, and with a history of serious hip issues, Emery has lost almost all of his lateral quickness. If teams get him moving post-to-post he’s very beatable. If Emery is injured or can’t live up to the job requirements, Hextall will look to longtime European vet Rob Zepp or 20-year old, top prospect Anthony Stolarz for relief.