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.

Friday Night in Philadelphia

Flyers on the clock at the 2014 NHL Draft held in Philadelphia.

Flyers on the clock at the 2014 NHL Draft held in Philadelphia.

Although the Philadelphia Flyers’ most noteworthy moves came at the beginning of the week on June 23rd, it was the 2014 NHL Draft held at the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia on Friday night (and Saturday morning) that was the main attraction.  It was the first time that commissioner Gary Bettman and his contingent allowed the event to be held in Philadelphia, in front of arguably the most passionate fan-base in all of North of America.  And those attendees (myself, included) did not disappoint, and, in turn, were not disappointed.

Every single time Bettman, a native of Queens and orchestrator of three contentious lockouts during his tenure, stepped to the podium he was greeted by merciless “boos” that rained down on him as if he, himself, had single-handedly cost the Flyers a Stanley Cup.  I am in the camp of those who despise the evil tyrant known as Gary Bettman, but I must say that he handled himself very well in the face of around 12-15 thousand or so heckling spectators.

As for the actual draft, it was rather uneventful.  Even with the lack of trade movement that was promised by most “insiders” or “experts”(Pen James Neal to Nashville was the highlight), the actual event went off without a hitch.  Walking around the Wells Fargo concourse and finding yourself face to face with many baby-faced, future NHLer’s was quite a thrill and something that I will never forget.

Flyers rookie General Manager Ron Hextall had already made a splash earlier in the week by dealing fan favorite Scott Hartnell in exchange for the more versatile R.J Umberger and his re-signing of young 20-goal scorer Brayden Schenn; and despite rampant rumors about the orange and black being even more active on the draft floor (including credible whispers of trading for the #1 overall pick) nothing came to fruition.  The Flyers stood pat.

And with the 17th selection in the first round Hextall and his team decided to pick, from the the WHL, Calgary Hitmen defenseman Travis Sanheim.  Despite the shock amongst the Flyers faithful for not selecting the likes of Kasperi Kapanen (son of former Flyer Sami), Alex Tuch (a 6’4” power forward), or Anthony DeAngelo (the south Jersey blueliner), Sanheim still received a deafening roar of approval.

Philly's newest Flyers.

Philly’s newest Flyer- D Travis Sanheim

Though not well known amongst the mainstream (ranked #53 in Central Scouting’s N.A. skaters), Sanheim, much like Morin last season, was the fastest riser in the 2014 draft class.  Former Calgary GM, and current NHL Network/TSN analyst Craig Button, had him ranked as the 8th best player in the entire draft and even compared him to Ryan Mcdonagh at the same age.  Essentially the kid was the wildcard.  And despite a lack of fanfare, Philadelphia may have just gotten themselves a major steal.

Standing at 6’3″, Sanheim is an exceptional skater with profound vision.  He plays a solid two-way game and impressed scouts most during the World’s Under-18 Tournament in which he managed to notch 6 points in 7 games.  He may never reach the offensive potential that Ryan Mcdonagh has displayed in New York but he projects very favorably  as a top-4 blueliner in this league.  I’d compare him most to steady Blackhawks defender Niklas Hjalmarsson; nothing fancy but very few weaknesses.

In the following rounds your Philadelphia Flyers selected: #48th Overall- C/RW Nicholas Aube-Kubel  (Undersized, speedy playmaker; brings versatility); #86th- D Mark Friedman (Mobile, two-way dman with PP potential); #138th- LW Oskar Lindblom  (6’3” Power forward who wreaks havoc in front of net, had early 2nd round grade beginning the season); #168th- LW Radeel Fazleev (A teammate of Sanheim’s, this 6-foot Russian is a hardworking two-way player who could spend a few seasons honing his skills in Russia); #198th D Jesper Pettersson (Undersized at just 5’9” but still weighs 200+lbs; Flyers scouts describe him as “thick and feisty”, sort of the anti-Timonen when it comes to small dmen; more defensive depth in the system).

After being harshly criticized by most pundits for a complete lack of blueline prospects just a few years ago, things are now dramatically different.  The organization now boasts 6’3″ righty Mark Alt (expected to challenge for a spot in training camp), offensive dynamo and Union College hero Shayne Gostisbehere, 6’6″ monster Samuel Morin, two-way blue chipper Robert Hagg, and now a smooth skating, 6’3″ Saneheim.  In just two seasons the Philadelphia organization has rebuilt its defensive pipeline.

Like usual the Flyers followed their internal rankings rather than listening to the pundits who frequent NBC, the NHL Network, and TSN.  Hextall has openly admitted to the public (prior to the draft) that the best way to build a true contender is through internal development rather than just throwing money at the problem in free agency.  And I must admit that that is a breath of fresh air following the regime’s of Bobby Clarke and Paul Holmgren.  Of course the problem with this approach is that Flyers fans will not bear the fruits of their labor for several years.  But if Hextall stays  true to his philosophy we should see a legitimate contender blossom within the next few years as all their blue-chip blueliners start teaming up with a forward corps that is just entering its prime.  Time will tell whether or not Hextall is the next Dean Lombardi or disgraced former Canucks GM Mike Gillis.  Here’s hoping for the former.

 

Up next: a breakdown of the Flyers current roster and what can be done this summer to take the next step.

Hextall’s First Move: Re-up Timonen

Kimmo Timonen will return for his 8th season in Philadelphia.

Kimmo Timonen will return for his 8th season in Philadelphia.

With the 2014 free agent class of defensemen looking less than stellar (severe understatement), newly minted General Manager Ron Hextall decided it was in the best interest of the Flyers to retain a longtime Philadelphia stalwart: diminutive blueliner Kimmo Timonen.

Timonen, 39, arguably coming off his worst professional campaign since all the way back in 2000-01 (while with the Nashville Predators), had been debating over the past several weeks on whether or not he’d return for one last shot at that elusive Stanley Cup.

When the news broke that the 5-time Finnish Olympian and 5-time NHL All-Star had been re-signed the major question was: At what cost?  After all, Timonen is coming off a campaign in which his 35 points and  poor decisions under pressure didn’t quite match-up with his excessively high $6 million cap hit.

Initial reports, both national and local, pegged the agreement at 1-year and $2 million; a coup by Hextall, according to most experts.  However, when the deal was officially announced it was, in fact, substantially higher.  Though Timonen’s base salary came in at $2 million, his new contract includes an extra $2 million in bonus money, bringing the aging defenders’ actual cap hit to an excessive $4 million; Much like Jarome Iginla’s $1.8 million base salary with Boston last summer that actually came out to a $6 million cap hit with all the incentives included.  Now that deal obviously worked out for Iginla as he reached the 30-goal plateau for the Bruins.  But with Timonen clearly on the downswing $4 milllion is far too much for an organization that entered this off-season with just under $7 million in free space to begin with.  This means someone like Lecavalier (good luck), Hartnell, C0burn, or possibly restricted free agent Brayden Schenn will have to be moved if Hextall hopes to make any significant additions.

There’s no question that Kimmo Timonen certainly brings value to a young and developing nucleus, but not $4 million worth.  He is a warrior, however even the greatest iron men begin to show sizable chinks in their proverbial armor as time catches up with them.  Just ask Cal Ripken.

#44 can still effectively run the point on the powerplay, but his decision making must improve because he no longer possesses the necessary recovery speed to prevent shorthanded breakaways.  Kimmo is still an important component in the leadership department, however, his voice may not be as necessary with the development of younger player like Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, and the up-and-coming rookie, Scott Laughton, who captained both the Oshawa Generals and Canada’s World Juniors club.

Kimmo Timonen will go down as one the best Flyers defenders of all-time; up there with the likes of Mark Howe and Eric Desjardins, but it seems that once again this organization went with nostalgia over logic.  With such a weak free agent crop it’s understandable that Hextall did not want to let go of an experienced blueliner, nonetheless, every athlete has a shelf-life and it just might be that this Philly legend has passed his expiration date.

Update: According to the new CBA parts or all of the $2million in bonus money can be counted against the 15-16 cap, instead of next season’s. That means that Timonen’s cap hit for 2014-15 could be anywhere between $2 and $4 million.

Flyers Sign Former Red Wing Dan Cleary

3-year contract or camp tryout?  That's the question with free agent forward Dan Cleary

3-year contract or camp tryout? That’s the question with free agent forward Dan Cleary

Just when it seemed like the Flyers were done making moves, they shock us with a surprise pickup: forward Dan Cleary. According to multiple reports, Cleary, 34, has signed a 3-year $8.25 million deal to come to Philadelphia. His addition means that Simon Gagne has probably seen his last days in orange and black. It also makes it very likely that top prospect Scott Laughton will spend another year of development in juniors. Many folks are questioning giving another multiple year contract to an aging player but Cleary should slide seamlessly onto the Flyers third line beside Sean Couturier and Matt Read.

(Update): According to GM Paul Holmgren, Cleary has not been extended a contract, and will instead be coming to camp on a professional tryout. This announcement is not surprising however, as the Flyers were already a few million over the cap, so adding Cleary’s $2.75 million annual cap hit would be somewhat tricky. But, despite this announcement, it’s very possible a handshake deal between the two sides is in place. The official announcement of the contract may come out as soon as the Flyers front office gets their ducks in a row and moves out some salary. Andrej Meszaros and his $4 million cap hit could be the primary candidate, if they can find a willing partner.

Cleary is coming off a somewhat disappointing year in which he put up only 15 points (9 goals 6 assists) in 48 games. He was, however, very productive in the postseason for the Red Wings as he chipped in 10 points in 14 games. Despite his age, Cleary is a gritty power forward. He’s sound defensively and could even become a key component of a deep Flyers penalty kill. If the rumors of the agreement are true, it’s pretty safe to assume that Cleary could put up 15-20 goals and around 40 points. He would also provide Stanley Cup experience to a rather young forward group.

With Cleary on board the Flyers lines would look something like this:
Hartnell-Giroux-Voracek
Schenn-Lecavalier-Simmonds
Cleary-Couturier-Read
Talbot-Hall-Rinaldo/Rosehill

The next few days could be very interesting for Flyers fans. Are we going to see Holmgren and assistant GM Ron Hextall work the phones in hopes of making a trade? Or will they opt to move some players to the minors until Pronger’s LTIR exception ($4.9 million) is off the books the first day of the season? Either way the potential addition of a veteran like Dan Cleary will only help in the Flyers quest for that elusive 3rd Cup.