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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