Fixing the Flyers, Step Three: Embrace the Youth Movement

Fixing the Flyers, Step Three: Embrace the Youth Movement

It might feel like longer to some, but almost three years have passed since the Flyers came within two wins of hoisting the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1975. It might feel like longer because that was essentially an entirely different team. One season later the organization gave up on the young stars that helped pave the road to the Finals.

Since we amnestied (or traded) Danny Briere (theoretically speaking) last Wednesday (read Step Two), not to mention Chris Pronger is effectively retired and Simon Gagne will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, the only rostered players currently remaining from that run are Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell, Braydon Coburn, and Claude Giroux.

The Flyers received a slew of young talent in return for Jeff Carter and Mike Richards in the pair of deals that went down basically minutes apart. The Blue Jackets sent Jakub Voracek and the eighth-overall pick of the 2011 draft – Sean Couturier – for Carter (also a third rounder used on prospect Nick Cousins). For the ex-captain the Kings surrendered Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn, plus a second which was later shipped to Dallas for Nicklas Grossmann.

With the exception of Grossmann, each of those players is still 25 years old or younger as of 2013. In Couturier’s and Schenn’s case, they’ve only been playing at the NHL level for two seasons. That’s not unique to the Orange & Black these days, either. Everywhere you look, young men are either pushing for ice time or have been pressed into key roles already.

GM Paul Holmgren acquired Steve Mason at the trade deadline with the expectation he’ll compete against Ilya Bryzgalov this year for the starting goaltender job, while 2012 second-round pick Anthony Stolarz lurks in the system. Acquired in exchange for James van Riemsdyk during the offseason, Luke Schenn heads a stable of inexperienced defensemen that were having a huge impact by the end of this season, including no fewer than three Adirondack call-ups.

All of it is built around 25-year-old captain Claude Giroux of course, surrounded by no shortage of green talent at forward in addition to the aforementioned. Zac Rinaldo is already a staple on the checking line. Tye McGinn flashed potential in several different roles. Last year’s top draft choice Scott Laughton will compete for a spot on the big club in training camp.

Oh, and Philadelphia has the 11th-overall pick in the 2013 draft – likely not a person who will contribute immediately, but somebody that could perhaps be NHL-ready within a year or two. What would you have the front office do this offseason that would improve the team without undercutting the pieces that are already in place?

Defense

Unless they decide to trade somebody, the Flyers suddenly have a bit of a numbers crunch at defenseman, which is an amazing thought given how putrid the unit looked for much of the season. Timonen is still considered their best blue liner. Grossmann and Schenn are solid and under contract for awhile, no problem there. Coburn was recently signed through ‘15-16, but is coming off of a lackluster campaign. Barring a trade though, that is what you can expect to go to war with.

Then there’s the rest. Both Andrej Meszaros and Bruno Gervais were basically useless in ’13, but each have one year left on their contracts – at least Mez can use numerous injuries as an excuse. In case you aren’t keeping count we’re at six D-men already, while both Erik Gustafsson and Oliver Lauridsen have more than earned the right to compete for jobs.

In fact Gustafsson and Lauridsen should get more than lip-service opportunities. They played very well down the stretch. Actually, the unit as a whole looked better with the likes of Gus, Lauridsen, and Brandon Manning than it did with Coburn, Meszaros, and Gervais. Maybe Manning and Marc-Andre Bourdon – assuming he ever recovers from a concussion – should be getting looks as well. Timonen will almost certainly retire after next season, and both Mez and Gervais have those expiring deals.

One or two of these kids are going to have to step in sooner or later, or the Flyers are in trouble either way. The team cannot simply spend their way out of this mess.

And who should they purchase in the first place? A true number-one defenseman is high on every fan’s wish list, but where is this great fantasy player coming from? Free agency isn’t exactly going to be stockpiled with them this summer, and Homer already went that route when he had the chance with Pronger. At this point the Flyers should accept the fact that they have three or four decent blueliners, and focus on developing these under-25ers for another year.

Luke Schenn has been a workhorse, and the fact that Pronger is mentoring him should offer hope. Gus has some puck skills and looked far more comfortable in his most recent NHL stint, while Lauridsen is a big boy (6-6, 220) who plays nasty regardless of the level of competition. It’s time to sink or swim for those two for awhile, and maybe Manning and/or Bourdon as well.

Forward

How much different is the situation up front? Not altogether. In the seemingly unlikely event Max Talbot is recovered from a broken leg in time for opening day in October, the Flyers already have 12 forwards under contract that could be on the roster this season, two-thirds of whom are 25 or younger. Take a look (ages as of 1/1/14 in parenthesis):

Hartnell (31) - Giroux (25) - Voracek (24)

McGinn (23) - Schenn (22) - Simmonds (25)
Rinaldo (23) - Couturier (21) - Read (27)
Rosehill (28) - Laughton (19) - Talbot (29)

This is admittedly a rough outline, and a thin group at that. Talbot may not be ready to go, McGinn didn’t quite “demand” ice time through his performance, and Laughton is no lock to make the roster at 19. Rosehill isn’t necessarily somebody Peter Laviolette even wants to suit up on a nightly basis. Yes, this group of forwards is one, probably at least two players short from completion, and unlike their defensive counterparts there are not several others in the minors beating down doors to enter this mix.

For one thing though, you have to anticipate some growth from certain young players. Look at the numbers Giroux and Voracek posted together over two-thirds of a 48-game season – t-14th and 18th in points respectively overall – then project that over 82. Realize that while B. Schenn’s and Cooter’s seasons were relatively disappointing given the hype, this was only their second go in the NHL. There is plenty more in store from a bunch of the Flyers in this proposed lineup.

Looking at that list it’s safe to say the team could use another left winger. Philadelphia finished a surprising ninth in the NHL in scoring this year, but they were a lot more inconsistent than 2.75 goals per game would suggest. They relied too heavily on the power play especially, tied for 25th with a 0.86 5-on-5 differential.

The money freed up by dumping Briere can be used to add another bona fide scorer on the wing, and there is little doubt Holmgren will investigate just that during free agency. Still, they don’t need to go crazy. Any other additions should be role players, not more skaters who are going to push Schenn or Couturier further down the lineup, or contracts that would block Laughton or other prospects a year or two down the road.

This is the gamble the Flyers took when they sent Richards and Carter packing. Now they have to see it through with these kids.

Overview

And if these issues don’t resolve themselves over time? They will… eventually. The end result of these young players never fulfilling their potential is going to be either more high draft picks from finishing outside the playoffs, or the organization will eventually have cap space left over to make much larger splashes in free agency – or both.

This is not an argument in favor of doing nothing. This is accepting the reality of a situation while simultaneously embracing it. The Flyers can’t spend their way out of this jam. Even if they buy out Ilya Bryzgalov this summer and free up an additional $5.67 million, a chunk of that is just going to wind up in another goaltender’s pocket anyway. Best case scenario, they have the money to maybe make a second mid-level move.

The options aren’t even that great. Unless there is a blockbuster trade on the horizon, there is no No. 1 defenseman on the way to Philly, nor is there a point-per-game player to boost Giroux to elite status, because those types won’t be available on the free-agent market.

The Flyers’ actions through the years have repeatedly been those of an impatient franchise, which agree or disagree often suits its fan base. This offseason the organization would be best served by taking cautious steps. What’s the worst that can happen? Miss the playoffs again?

It may not be the most popular sentiment, but that’s a risk the Flyers need to be willing to take. Otherwise we might wind up watching one or two of these players lifting the Cup over their heads elsewhere a year or two down the line.

Previously:

Step Two: Amnesty Briere, Keep Bryzgalov (For Now)
Step One: Don't Panic Over a Shortened Season

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CSN, TCN to air 25 of Union's 34 games in 2017

CSN, TCN to air 25 of Union's 34 games in 2017

Twenty-five of the Union’s 34 games in 2017 will be featured on CSN and TCN, as Jim Curtin’s club vies for a second straight playoff berth.

Twenty matches will air on TCN, while five can be seen on CSN. The nine others will be appear across 6ABC, ESPN and FOX Sports 1.

The Union’s season opener on March 5 at the Vancouver Whitecaps will broadcast on TCN and the team’s home opener on March 11 against Toronto FC will air on CSN. The next three games — March 18 at Orlando City SC, April 1 at D.C. United and April 8 vs. the Portland Timbers — will be shown on TCN.

The Union are coming off an 11-14-9 season and their second-ever trip to the MLS playoffs in which they suffered a first-round exit to Toronto FC.

For the Union’s full 2017 schedule, click here.

Best of NHL: Toews nets hat trick in Blackhawks' win over Wild

Best of NHL: Toews nets hat trick in Blackhawks' win over Wild

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Jonathan Toews had three goals and two assists and the Chicago Blackhawks beat rival Minnesota 5-3 on Tuesday night for their second win over the Western Conference-leading Wild in less than two weeks.

Toews notched his fourth career hat trick on an empty-netter with 1:02 left to stave off a spirited rally by the Wild, who began a franchise-record eight-game homestand on Feb. 8 with a 4-3 overtime loss to the Blackhawks. Toews had a goal and two assists in that one and has 37 points in 35 career games against Minnesota.

Chicago's captain has been chewing up almost everyone else, too, with 20 points in his last 12 games. Toews' wing men Nick Schmaltz and Richard Panik had the other goals, giving the Blackhawks 34 goals in their last eight games. Their first line totaled nine points.

Mikael Granlund's second power-play goal for the Wild brought them within 4-3, before Ryan Suter hit the crossbar with a shot that nearly tied it (see full recap).

Islanders open 9-game road trip with win
DETROIT -- Calvin de Haan was credited with a go-ahead goal that caromed off an opponent late in the second period and the New York Islanders went on to beat the Detroit Red Wings 3-1 Tuesday night.

De Haan's shot from above the left circle was stopped by Petr Mrazek, but the rebound went off Detroit defenseman Xavier Ouellet and the back of the goaltender's left leg and into the net. John Tavares scored early in the third period to give the Islanders a two-goal lead and they coasted to the victory.

Josh Bailey had a goal and an assist, and Thomas Greiss stopped 26 shots for New York.

Henrik Zetterberg scored for Detroit and Mrazek finished with 19 saves.

The Islanders, in contention for a wild-card spot, began a stretch of nine straight road games by winning for the third time in four games and improved to 8-13-4 away from home (see full recap).

Crosby, Penguins take care of Hurricanes
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Sidney Crosby scored the go-ahead goal on a deflection in the second period, and the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Carolina Hurricanes 3-1 on Tuesday night.

Evgeni Malkin and Scott Wilson also scored to help the reigning Stanley Cup champions bounce back from their only loss since the All-Star break. Pittsburgh moved three points behind East-leading Washington and is 7-1-3 since the break.

Jeff Skinner scored for the last-place Hurricanes, who have their second five-game losing streak in the past five weeks. They have been outscored 19-4 during the current slide.

Matt Murray made 29 saves for the Penguins while Cam Ward stopped 19 shots for Carolina (see full recap).