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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Best of NHL: Crosby scores league-leading 28th goal in win vs. Bruins

Best of NHL: Crosby scores league-leading 28th goal in win vs. Bruins

PITTSBURGH -- Conor Sheary scored two goals, Sidney Crosby added his league-leading 28th and the Pittsburgh Penguins won their fourth straight game, 5-1 over the Boston Bruins 5-1 on Sunday.

Pittsburgh led 2-1 through two periods before breaking out in the third with three goals in a span of 2 minutes, 57 seconds.

Sheary scored his 17th and has nine goals in nine games. Bryan Rust added his 12th and Patric Hornqvist his 11th for the Penguins, who won a season-high seventh straight at home. Pittsburgh the NHL's best home team, is 13-0-1 in its last 14 home games.

Evgeni Malkin had two assists for a season-best seven-game point streak. Crosby added two assists for a three-point game. Matt Murray made 44 saves to win his fourth straight game.

David Krejci scored his 11th for the Bruins, who have lost four straight and five of their last six (see full recap).

Rangers shut out Red Wings in 1-0 OT win
DETROIT -- J.T. Miller scored at 1:56 of overtime to lift the New York Rangers to a 1-0 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday.

Henrik Lundqvist made 21 saves for his second shutout of the season and 61st of his career. The Rangers managed only 19 shots in a game that featured few memorable chances by either team.

The winner came when Mats Zuccarello and Miller swooped in alone on Detroit goalie Jared Coreau. Zuccarello made a simple pass to Miller, who lifted the puck over Coreau for his 16th goal of the season.

Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall played for the first time since Jan. 4, returning from a lower-body injury. The Red Wings put forward Drew Miller on waivers (see full recap).

Atikinson lifts Jackets over Senators in wild OT win
OTTAWA, Ontario -- Cam Atkinson's second goal of the game at 1:09 of overtime lifted the Columbus Blue Jackets a 7-6 win over the Ottawa Senators on Sunday night.

Atkinson had a breakaway after a shot by Senators captain Erik Karlsson missed the Columbus net and went around the boards out to Atkinson, who was at center-ice.

The Blue Jackets trailed 5-3 after two periods before Lukas Sedlak and Matt Calvert scored 31 seconds apart to tie it less than 2 1/2 minutes into the third. Atklnson then gave Columbus a 6-5 lead with 9:10 remaining, before Kyle Turries tied it for Ottawa on the power play less than 2 minutes later.

Nick Foligno, Scott Harrington and Zach Werenski also scored for the Blue Jackets, and Joonas Korpisalo finished with 28 saves.

Zach Smith and Mike Hoffman each had two goals and Mark Stone also scored for the Senators. Mike Condon had 22 saves (see full recap).

Best of NBA: Lakers suffer worst loss in team history

Best of NBA: Lakers suffer worst loss in team history

DALLAS -- Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks had something to prove on Sunday following two straight tough losses.

Coming off a three-point effort in an overtime loss on Friday, Nowitzki scored all 13 of his points in the first half and Dallas gave the Los Angeles Lakers the worst loss in their history, 122-73.

"We didn't show up to play," Lakers coach Luke Walton said. "It's embarrassing for us as a team and for us as an organization. The effort just wasn't there tonight, which I don't understand."

The 49-point defeat just edged Los Angeles' two previous worst losses at 48 points, most recently 123-75 at Utah on March 28, 2016.

The Mavericks' winning margin was the third-largest in their history.

It was Dallas' 13th straight win over the Lakers, who have lost six of their last seven games overall (see full recap).

Curry, Thompson each hit 7 3s, Warriors pull away from Magic
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson each hit seven 3-pointers and the Golden State Warriors won their seventh straight game, beating the Orlando Magic 118-98 on Sunday.

Tied at the half, the Warriors woke up from West Coast time in the second half to pull away. This was the first Eastern time zone noon tip for them since 1995, when they lost by 34 points in Orlando.

Curry went 7 for 13 on 3s and scored 27 points while Thompson as 7 for 9 from behind the arc and had 21 points. The Warriors shot 19 of 42 overall from 3-point range while the Magic went 7 for 28.

After trailing by 11 in the first half and committing a dozen turnovers, the Warriors went into the break even at 50. Curry hit four 3s and had 14 points in the third quarter as the Warriors outscored the Magic 42-24 (see full recap).

Bledsoe's career day leads Suns over Raptors 115-103
TORONTO -- Eric Bledsoe scored a career-high 40 points and had 13 assists and the Phoenix Suns handed the Toronto Raptors their third straight loss, 115-103 on Sunday night.

Bledsoe was 11 of 17 from the floor, including 4 of 7 from 3-point range, and Devin Booker added 20 points as the Suns won their second straight road game following Saturday's win at New York. The victory also completed a season sweep of the Raptors for the first time since 2013-14 and improved Phoenix to 11-6 against Eastern Conference teams this season.

DeMar DeRozan had 22 points for Toronto and Jonas Valanciunas added 16 points and 12 rebounds for his 17th double-double of the season. It's the first time the Raptors have lost three straight since Nov. 6-10, 2015.

Kyle Lowry was ejected with 1:30 left after a flagrant-two foul following contact with the head of Brandon Knight. It capped a night to forget for Lowry, who had 15 points but shot just 5 of 17, including 1 of 9 from 3-point range (see full recap).