An Early Picture of the Flyers Lineup

Could French import P.E. Bellemare be the next Raffl?

Could French winger P.E. Bellemare be the next Michael Raffl?

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.

Kimmo Timonen's hockey career appears over following the discovery of multiple blood clots.

Kimmo Timonen’s hockey career appears over following the discovery of multiple blood clots.

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 PairingAndrew 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 PairingMark 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 PairingMichael 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.

Steve Mason was the Flyers rock during this past season.

Steve Mason was the Flyers rock during this past season.

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:

StarterSteve 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’.

BackupRay 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.

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Flyers Lose Preseason Opener to Toronto

Stolarz 2

Anthony Stolarz was stellar in his Preseason debut.

The Flyers opened the 2013 Preseason Sunday night with a split-squad affair in London, Ontario, against the Toronto Maple Leafs.  Unfortunately, it ended a 4-3 loss, but there were certainly a few insights to take away from the game.  Here are some of the news and notes from the tilt:

  • Zac Rinaldo, who was his usual wrecking ball of energy, left the game in the 3rd period with the dreaded “upper body injury”.  Although it is too early for speculation when it is labeled as such it usually turns out to be a concussion.  We can only hope it’s something minor as Rinaldo was primed to be an integral part of the Flyers bounce-back campaign.
  • Steve Mason struggled out of the gate with 3 first period goals.  However, when you look a little closer you’ll see that two were scored on breakaways (one by Nazem Kadri and one by Mason Raymond), and the third was a tough point blank shot that Mason almost got with a kick save.  It’s hard to fault Mason entirely for the 3-0 deficit.  The bright side is that all three goals came early and Mason settled down nicely.
  • 2012 3rd round pick Nick Cousins may have been the most active Flyer throughout the contest.  He even netted a nifty backhand goal off a wrap-around shot by veteran Hal Gill.  Scouts have long criticized his skating as his major drawback, but I thought Cousins showed NHL-level mobility all night.  Cousins could very well be a darkhorse candidate to make the big club this season.
  • Top prospect Scott Laughton had a somewhat inconsistent night but he wasn’t invisible.  Skating alongside Matt Read and Scott Hartnell on the top-line, the 19-year old did not look out of place.
  • Netminder Anthony Stolarz, a 2nd round pick a year ago, allowed a goal on his second shot and then was stellar the rest of the way.  His post to post reflexes are elite and he does a solid job staying square to the shooter. Overall, it’s easy to see why scouts compare this 6’6” kid to Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators.  Goalie of the future right here.
  • Erik Gustafsson continued to show the good, the bad, and the ugly, that has plagued him at the NHL level. Two of Leafs first three goals were a direct result of Gus making a poor decision at the opponents blueline.  But there were also times where he made some pretty nifty offensive plays.  I think we’re just going to have to take the good with the bad when it comes to Gustafsson’s development.
  • The veteran defenders (Grossmann, Meszaros, Schenn, and Gill) all played steady games.
  • Brayden Schenn was active and scored the first of what we hope is many goals this upcoming season.
  • Scott Hartnell appeared to be in much better shape compared to last season, which only bodes well for the Flyers top-line of Hartsy-Giroux-Voracek.
  • Matt Read appeared to be in mid-season form.  He was flying up and down the ice

Overall, it was an entertaining game for a club featuring only a handful of regulars.  There were certainly some positives and certainly some areas that will require work,

The Flyers preseason continues Monday night with two split-squad games, one in Washington and one back against these Toronto Maple Leafs.

 

Flyers Prospect Pool Finally on the Upswing

6'6" defender Samuel Morin leads a revamped Philly prospect base.

6’6″ defender Samuel Morin leads a revamped Philly prospect base.

The Flyers have, for years, pursued a “win now at all costs” organizational philosophy.  In the quest for that elusive third Cup, the front office has frequently mortgaged the future for more immediate results.  Former GM Bob Clarke, especially, was guilty of chasing over-the-hill vets at the cost of youth, and it certainly didn’t endear him to those loyal to the orange and black.  Current GM Paul Holmgren has, to a lesser extent, followed in his predecessor’s footsteps.  And unfortunately, it hasn’t brought an end to the Flyers 38-year Cup-less drought.

But things are finally starting to change.  In recent years, Holmgren has all but refused to ship out potential franchise building blocks, Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn.  Even for the likes of Shea Weber and Keith Yandle.  He’s instead opted to keep his young core of forwards intact through their respective prime years.  The General Manager has also managed to hold on to a majority of the clubs first and second round picks lately.  The “win now” mentality appears to be shifting towards: “win now but not at the cost of future success”.  And, as a result, the organization has slowly rebuilt a once barren prospect base.

These Flyers are no longer completely devoid of organizational depth.  Ranked dead last by the Hockey Prospectus a season ago, this years prospect pool has moved to 29th overall. (organizational rankings) Not a marked improvement, but improvement none the less.  And part of the reason the Flyers are ranked so low is that their young difference-makers are already on the NHL roster.  But Holmgren and his staff have done a commendable job of signing, drafting, and trading for, potential quality NHLers.  Let’s take a look at some of the organizations key prospects:

Forwards:

Scott Laughton– Laughton, drafted 19th overall a season ago, is the Flyers crown jewel.  A solid, two-way presence, Laughton has the best chance of the teams prospects to make the big club this season. A tireless worker and fearsome forechecker, he’s been a stalwart on the OHL’s Oshawa Generals for 3 years. The kid looks to atleast have the upside of a third-line center.  And may even work his way into the top-6 if his offensive game translates to the NHL.

Nick Cousins– A former 3rd round pick in 2011, Cousins boasts both scoring ability and the traits of an agitating pest. Despite being undersized at 5’11”, Cousins still managed to put 103 points in just 64 games in the CHL this year.  If he can add weight and improve his skating there will definitely be a place for Cousins at the NHL-level in the next 2-3 seasons.

Petr Straka– A former 2nd round pick of Columbus in 2010, Straka was a highly sought after free agent this summer. With an exciting combination of soft hands and quick feet, this talented Czech projects as a sniper at the next level. His only issue is defense. If he can round out his game while playing for the Phantoms this season, it’s very likely Straka can challenge for a roster spot in 2014-15.

Michael Raffl– At 24 years of age, Raffl isn’t the stereotypical “prospect”. But the Austrian winger (via Sweden) impressed the Flyers brass enough to receive a one-year, two-way contract.  Raffl is often likened to a poor man’s Matt Read. He could very well take over Simon Gagne’s 3rd line wing spot or spend a year getting seasoned in the AHL.

Defensemen:

Samuel Morin– Morin, the 11th pick in this past draft, is a hulking presence on the blueline.  Standing almost 6’7″ and having just turned 18 (July 12th), Morin’s ceiling appears to be very high.  In fact, he was the fastest riser in his draft class.  A smart player and solid skater, Morin often played against opposing teams top-offensive lines in juniors. He may not suit up for the Flyers for 2-3 years but it appears as if (size-wise anyway) they’ve finally found their replacement for Chris Pronger.

Robert Hagg– Projected as a top-30 selection in this years draft, Hagg landed in the Flyers lap at pick #42.  Hagg doesn’t have elite skills in any area, however, he is a well-rounded puck-mover with an effortless stride.  Think Kimmo Timonen, before he lost a step.  Hagg will certainly be a welcome addition to the Flyers blueline in a few years.  And he could pair nicely with a brute like Morin.

Mark Alt– The 53rd selection in the 2010 draft (two picks before Straka), it’s difficult to understand why Carolina gave up on Alt so quickly.  The son of former KC Chiefs O-Lineman Jon Alt, the kid has a lot of physical ability. At 6’3″, Alt is a big defender who can skate and hit.  He will get every opportunity to prove his worth as a two-way defenseman this season with the Phantoms.

Shayne Gostisbehere– Nicknamed “Ghost” by teammates, this silky-smooth blueliner was selected in the 3rd round of the 2012 draft.  Gostisbehere managed to earn ECAC All-Rookie honors during his freshman season at Union College and projects nicely as a highly-skilled offensive defenseman.  He’s pledged to play all four years of college so it will be three years before he’s competing for an NHL job. But that will allow him to put some weight on his painfully thin, 5’11” frame.

Goaltender(s):

StolarzAnthony Stolarz– It’s hard imagine the kind of pressure that goes along with being traded for a future Vezina Trophy winner, but that’s the situation Stolarz finds himself in. Before the 2012 draft, Holmgren traded Sergei Bobrovsky to Columbus in exchange for a 2nd round pick that soon became Stolarz. Flyers fans know all too well the type of success “Bob” had with the Blue Jackets this season, however, that doesn’t mean the Flyers were necessarily swindled. Stolarz, a little known USHL goalie coming into the draft, dazzled this season with the London Knights of the OHL. The 6’6″ netminder ended up posting a 13-3-2 record with a 2.29GAA and .920sv%. Some scouts have compared him to Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, although young goalies are historically difficult to project. As of now, however, there’s no doubt Stolarz is on track as the Flyers goalie of the future.

In the end, it’s likely that some, or most, of these prospects will not reach their full potential in the NHL.  In fact, a few of these young players will never even become regular’s at the game’s highest level.  However, that doesn’t mean that the Flyers haven’t begun to set themselves up in a solid position for the future.  Within the past three seasons the front office has added important pieces to a once lacking prospect pool; a necessity in the salary cap era.  If a few of these kids can atleast supplement the young core already in place, this team could become a legitimate contender for a long time.  One thing’s for sure, after a down season, the Philadelphia Flyers are back on track and heading in the right direction.