NHL Off-Season Part II: Winners

The Stars added serious depth down the middle.

The Stars added serious depth down the middle with the additions of Horcoff (left) and Seguin (right).

During the NHL off-season it’s often easier to pick out the teams that didn’t accomplish their goals, as opposed to those who completed their summer shopping lists.  Usually you can’t tell who the “winners” are until the product is visible on the ice.  But, since I already picked a few clubs that I thought fell short, here are those who landed on the opposite end of the spectrum.

The Winners:

The Flyers-  Additions: Vincent Lecavalier, Mark Streit, Ray Emery

Okay, I know, there’s an obvious bias here.  However, I don’t think picking the Flyers as winners falls entirely in the “homer” category.  After all, this franchise made its usual splash this off-season.  But it wasn’t just the stereotypical binge-spending we’ve become accustomed to in Philadelphia; no, these were savvy additions.  GM Paul Holmgren surely wanted to erase the sour taste left by last summers failures and subsequent debacle of a season.  First, the blueline desperately needed some tweaking.  So the club brought in former Islanders Captain, and power play specialist, Mark Streit.  Now, he won’t necessarily improve the Flyers defensive zone coverage, but he will replace that puck-moving element they lost with Matt Carle’s departure.  The 4-year term is questionable for a 35-year old defender, but, atleast in the short-term, it’s a good move.

Next, the Flyers replaced the rapidly declining Danny Briere with longtime Lightning stalwart, Vinny Lecavalier.  Lecavalier will bring much-needed size (6’4”) and scoring ability (383 goals) to the second line.  And a 1-2 punch of Giroux-Lecavalier at the center position could become the envy of the league.  Finally, the most important upgrade was the addition of Flyer retread Ray Emery to alleviate the “loss” of Bryz in net.  Emery was stellar (17-1-0, .922sv%, 1.94GAA) for the Blackhawks last season.  And he and Steve Mason, in my mind, are a significant upgrade over the streaky production that Bryz brought to the crease.

Some may be underestimating the Flyers after last seasons debacle, but this club has clearly improved.

Dallas Stars-  Additions: Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley, Shawn Horcoff, Sergei Gonchar, Valeri Nichuskin (draft), Dan Ellis

If the Stanley Cup was awarded for off-season performance, the Dallas Stars would be the clear favorites.  This is a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since a surprise run to the Conference Finals in 07-08, but they’ve made serious strides during recent months.  The first stellar move was the hiring of former Red Wings director of amateur scouting, Jim Nill, as General Manager.  Nill immediately put his fingerprints on the franchise by acquiring Russian defender Sergei Gonchar and drafting Russian sensation Valeri Nichuskin.  Gonchar is often credited with helping to develop Evgeni Malkin’s North American game while in Pittsburgh and Nichuskin has that type of elite ability.  Nill then pulled off the stunner of the off-season by acquiring enigmatic forward Tyler Seguin (and Rich Peverly) from the Boston Bruins.  Although controversy swirls around Seguin’s partying ways, he has as much talent as anyone.  He, Peverley, and Horcoff (acquired from Edmonton) could form a solid trio at center for the Stars.  Besides the off-season acquisitions, Dallas also has talented holdovers Jamie Benn (age 24) and netminder Kari Lehtonen (29).  You can never tell how certain additions will mesh on the ice, but on paper, the Dallas Stars have the look of a darkhorse contender.

Detroit Red Wings–  Additions:  Daniel Alfredsson, Stephen Weiss

Although the Red Wings lost some key players in Valteri Filppula (Tampa Bay), Damien Brunner (UFA), Danny Clearly (UFA), and Ian White (UFA), they probably gained more skill with the additions of Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss.  Alfredsson, the longtime Senators captain, surprised everyone when he opted to sign in Detroit instead of Ottawa.  Eventhough he’s 40 years of age, he should fit in seamlessly with the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.  And Stephen Weiss, 30, will be the perfect second-line center in a deep forward group.  Although Weiss struggled a season ago (4pts in 17 games), he had scored atleast 42 points in his last six full NHL seasons, including two 60pt seasons.  With an interesting mix of youth and experience, the Red Wings should be dangerous competitors in their first season in the Eastern Conference.

Nashville Predators-  Additions:  Matt Cullen, Viktor Stalberg, Eric Nystrom, Matt Hendricks, Seth Jones (draft)

seth jonesNormally legitimate contenders, the Predators suffered through one of their worst seasons in franchise history in 2012-13.  They lost a top-pairing defenseman in Ryan Suter to Minnesota and their offense was absolutely abysmal.  But, despite steering clear of headline names, Nashville was one of the most active teams this summer.  They brought in veteran center Matt Cullen and former Blackhawk speedster Viktor Stalberg to add a little offense.  Stalberg, one of the fastest skaters in the league, should add a dynamic element that this team sorely lacked a season ago.  But, probably the most important addition to the Preds franchise in years, was 4th overall pick Seth Jones.  Projected by most experts as the top prospect in this years draft, Jones,18, is expected to fill the massive void left by Suter.  He and captain Shea Weber could form a truly stellar top-pairing on the blueline.  GM David Poile also added forwards Eric Nystrom and Matt Hendricks to bring a little grit to the Preds forward group.  As long as All-Star netminder Pekka Rinne has a bounce-back campaign, Nashville should rebound in a big way in 2013.

The 2013-14 will be a huge campaign for these four franchises, amongst others.  The true winners of the off-season won’t become clear until the actual contests begin.  Some teams that look like surefire Cup contenders in August aren’t even in the playoff picture come April.  Some new additions will propel their respective squads to untold heights, others will drag their organizations down to cap hell.  It’s a crap-shoot that will only reveal the results with time.  But, as of right now, the Flyers, Red Wings, Stars, and Predators look like they’ve won the off-season odyssey, if only by a nose.

Up next in the Off-Season Series: Breakout Candidates.

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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.