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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MLB Notes: Rangers' Rougned Odor's suspension reduced to 7 games

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MLB Notes: Rangers' Rougned Odor's suspension reduced to 7 games

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor started serving his suspension Friday for punching Toronto's Jose Bautista after the penalty was reduced from eight to seven games.

Odor was out of the lineup for the series opener against Pittsburgh. He will be eligible to return June 4 when Texas is home against Seattle.

Bautista was suspended one game, and he was serving that Friday, when the penalty was upheld a day after his appeal was heard.

The Rangers promoted former top prospect Jurickson Profar from Triple-A Round Rock, and he was in the lineup against the Pirates as the leadoff hitter playing second base. Odor had been leading off.

Odor's penalty was cut by Major League Baseball special assistant John McHale Jr. The appeal over Odor's role in a May 15 brawl between the Rangers and Blue Jays was heard Tuesday. The league disciplined 14 players and staff over the melee in Arlington (see full story).

Red Sox: Struggling RHP Clay Buchholz to bullpen
TORONTO -- Struggling Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz is being moved to the bullpen and left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez will take Buchholz's spot in the rotation, starting Tuesday at Baltimore.

Buchholz is 2-5 with a 6.35 ERA in 10 starts and has allowed five earned runs or more six times. He gave up season-highs of six runs and three home runs in Thursday's 8-2 loss to Colorado.

Rodriguez (right knee) is on the 15-day DL has not pitched for the Red Sox this season. He's 0-3 with a 3.54 ERA in five rehab starts at Triple-A Pawtucket. He went 10-6 with a 3.85 ERA as a rookie in 2015.

Buchholz has made two career relief appearances, one in his rookie season in 2007 and another in 2008.

Manager John Farrell said Buchholz will make multi-inning appearances in order to remain stretched out and could return to the rotation later in the season.

NBA Playoffs: Cavs blow out Raptors for second straight Finals appearance

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NBA Playoffs: Cavs blow out Raptors for second straight Finals appearance

BOX SCORE

TORONTO -- LeBron James scored 33 points, Kevin Love had 20 points and 12 rebounds, and the Cleveland Cavaliers advanced to their second straight NBA Finals by beating the Toronto Raptors 113-87 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals Friday night.

It's the third finals appearance in team history for the Cavaliers. Cleveland lost to Golden State in six games last year and got swept by San Antonio in 2007.

For James, it's his sixth straight trip to the finals, including four with Miami. He broke the 30-point barrier for the first time this postseason and finished with 11 rebounds and six assists.

"We needed LeBron to set the tone for us early and I thought he did that," coach Tyronn Lue said.

James will be the eighth player in NBA history to appear in six consecutive finals and the first who didn't play for the Boston Celtics.

"He's just a great player," Lue said. "He's a proven winner. He's always won over the course of his career. To go to six straight finals is unbelievable."

James got there by taking down a Toronto team that set a franchise record with 56 wins and reached the conference finals for the first time in 21 seasons.

After a second-quarter dunk, James shared some verbal barbs with rapper Drake, the Raptors' global ambassador and the man who popularized the nickname `6ix' for Toronto.

Kyrie Irving had 30 points and J.R. Smith added 15 for the Cavaliers, who will face the winner of the Golden State-Oklahoma City series on Thursday.

Cleveland would open at home against the Thunder but would be on the road against the 73-win Warriors, who trail 3-2 against Oklahoma City heading into Saturday's Game 6.

The Cavs will be seeking to end Cleveland's 52-year championship drought, the longest by any city with at least three professional teams. No Cleveland team has won it all since the Browns blanked Baltimore 27-0 to win the NFL championship in 1964.

"This city has been craving a championship," Lue said. "We have the right team and we have the right talent."

Kyle Lowry scored 35 points and DeMar DeRozan had 20 as the deepest playoff run in Raptors team history ended, much to the disappointment of a sellout crowd of 20,605 dressed in red and white T-shirts that formed a maple leaf pattern on either side of the court. Fans stood and cheered "Let's go, Raptors! Let's go, Raptors!" throughout most of the final three minutes.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey said reaching the conference finals was "a tremendous learning experience" for his young team, one that's "a step ahead" in its process of becoming a championship contender.

"We're learning," Casey said. "We're not where (the Cavaliers) are right now. We're going to be."

A dejected Lowry said it was hard to see the positive side of Toronto's best season ever.

"Of course you're going to look back at some point but right now I'm disappointed," he said. "Simple as that, I'm disappointed."

Toronto prolonged the series with back-to-back home wins in Games 3 and 4 but never mounted much of a challenge to the conference champions in Game 6, falling behind by 21 in the third quarter.

The Cavaliers came in 0-4 at Air Canada Centre counting the regular season and playoffs, but looked much more like the team that handed the Raptors a trio of lopsided losses in Cleveland this series.

The Raptors trailed 88-78 on a jumper by DeRozan with 10:23 remaining but James scored six points in a 14-3 run that gave the Cavs a 102-81 lead with about 6 minutes left.

James scored 14 in the first and five of Cleveland's nine field goals were from long range as the Cavaliers led 31-25 after one.

After video review, the officials waved off a basket by Biyombo with 3:18 left in the period and gave him a flagrant foul for knocking down Love.

Tempers flared again early in the second when Richard Jefferson reacted angrily to catching an elbow from Jonas Valanciunas as the two battled for a rebound. Patrick Patterson came over and shoved Jefferson out of the way. Both Patterson and Jefferson were given technical fouls.

Cleveland made five more 3-pointers in the second and outscored Toronto 9-3 over the final 71 seconds to lead 55-41 at halftime. The Cavaliers made 10 of 15 3-point attempts in the first half, while Toronto was 2 of 12.

The Cavs led 78-57 after a 3 by Love at 3:53 of the third but Lowry scored 15 points as Toronto closed the quarter with a 17-8 run, cutting it to 86-74.

Tip-ins
Cavaliers: Shot 17 for 31 from 3-point range. ... Outscored Toronto 17-5 in fast break points.

Raptors: Finished their playoff run by playing every other day from April 29 onward, a 15-game run that started with Game 6 of the first round against Indiana.

NFL Notes: Jets' offer to QB Ryan Fitzpatrick stands at 3 years

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NFL Notes: Jets' offer to QB Ryan Fitzpatrick stands at 3 years

NEW YORK -- A person familiar with the negotiations says the New York Jets made a three-year offer to quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in March that includes $12 million guaranteed in the first year.

That offer has remained on the table for Fitzpatrick, according to the person who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because neither side is commenting publicly on the negotiations.

The New York Post first reported the terms of the offer Friday.

Fitzpatrick and the Jets have been locked in a contract stalemate. The 33-year-old quarterback is a free agent and coming off a season in which he threw a Jets-record 31 touchdown passes and led New York within a victory of the playoffs.

Both the Jets and Fitzpatrick have said they would like a reunion, but have unable to agree on a deal.

Bears: First-round pick Leonard Floyd agrees to deal
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears and first-round draft pick Leonard Floyd have agreed to a four-year contract with an option for a fifth year.

The Bears drafted the outside linebacker from Georgia with the ninth pick after trading up two spots in a deal with Tampa Bay. Chicago hopes he will add some athleticism to a team trying to build on a 6-10 season. The 6-foot-6, 244-pound Floyd led the Bulldogs in sacks for the third straight year with 4 , and tied for the team lead with 10 1/2 tackles for loss last season.

With the announcement Friday, the Bears have agreed to contracts with eight of their nine picks. Defensive end Jonathan Bullard, a third-rounder, is the exception.

NFL: Navy's Reynolds, Carter can defer military service
ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Keenan Reynolds will get his chance to play in the NFL this season.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced Friday that the record-setting Navy quarterback Reynolds and fullback Chris Swain can defer their military service to play in the NFL.

Carter made the announcement during his graduation speech to the academy in Annapolis. As students cheered the news about their graduating classmates, Carter said: "Go get 'em."

Reynolds was drafted in the sixth round by the Baltimore Ravens. He is the NCAA's career leader in touchdowns with 88. He had 31 touchdown passes while leading Navy's triple-option offense. The Ravens plan to use him as a running back, receiver and kick returner.

Swain has signed with the San Diego Chargers (see full story).

Redskins: Activists criticize poll on team name
WASHINGTON -- Native American leaders and activists have criticized a recent US national poll that found nine of 10 Native Americans aren't offended by the Washington Redskins' name.

On a conference call held Friday by the National Congress of American Indians and "Change the Mascot" campaign, panelists voiced opposition to a Washington Post poll that surveyed 504 Native Americans, 90 percent of whom said the name doesn't bother them.

James Fenelon, a California State San Bernardino sociology professor, called the poll "immoral," adding it was not representative of Native American communities. Amanda Blackhorse, lead plaintiff in the trademark case against the Redskins, said the "misguided" poll will not affect attempts to change the name.

National Congress of American Indians Executive Director Jackie Pata said: "This issue is not about polling. This issue is about human rights."

D.C. council member David Grosso said he hadn't been swayed and that the government would not support the team moving back into the District unless the name was changed.

The team currently plays its home games in Maryland, with its headquarters and training facility in Virginia.