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 MLB: Bryant homers twice, Cubs spoil Ruiz's Dodgers debut

Best of MLB: Bryant homers twice, Cubs spoil Ruiz's Dodgers debut

LOS ANGELES -- Kris Bryant hit a tiebreaking two-run homer in the 10th inning to go with an earlier solo shot, lifting the Chicago Cubs over the Los Angeles Dodgers 6-4 on Friday night in the series opener between NL division leaders.

Bryant's 35th homer capped a comeback from an earlier two-run deficit and extended the Cubs' winning streak to four games. Chicago fans chanted "MVP! MVP!" as Bryant scored behind Dexter Fowler, who singled leading off.

Chicago improved to 19-4 in August while earning its major league-leading 82nd victory.

Travis Wood (4-0) got the victory with one inning of relief. Aroldis Chapman struck out two in the 10th to earn his 10th save.

Adam Liberatore (2-1) took the loss, allowing two runs and four hits in one inning (see full recap).

Mariners overcome Sale's 14 K's to beat White Sox
CHICAGO -- Chris Sale struck out 14 but got outpitched by Felix Hernandez and the Seattle bullpen, and the Mariners ended a three-game skid Friday night by beating the Chicago White Sox 3-1.

Hernandez (9-4) improved to 5-0 in eight starts since returning from the disabled list, throwing 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball.

Sale (15-7) gave up five hits and walked none in his fifth complete game of the season. He retired the final 16 batters, striking out 10 of them.

Sale struck out six straight in the sixth and seventh innings, one shy of Joe Cowley's team record.

Franklin Gutierrez hit a solo home run and Adam Lind added an RBI double off Sale.

Todd Frazier's 32nd home run in the seventh was one of eight hits off Hernandez until he left with the bases loaded (see full recap).

Gonzalez earns 100th win as Nationals top Rockies
WASHINGTON -- Jayson Werth and Daniel Murphy hit solo homers and drove in two runs each, and Gio Gonzalez earned his 100th career victory as the Washington Nationals beat the Colorado Rockies 8-5 on Friday night.

Gonzalez (9-9) threw six innings and allowed two runs and four hits with one walk and five strikeouts.

Mark Melancon retired Christhian Adames for the final out. Melancon entered the game shortly after Nick Hundley hit a three-run homer off Shawn Kelley to pull the Rockies within three.

While Gonzalez hit the century mark, Rockies rookie Jeff Hoffman (0-2), remains in search of his first major league win (see full recap).

Best of NFL: Tom Brady on target, leads Patriots to win in preseason debut

Best of NFL: Tom Brady on target, leads Patriots to win in preseason debut

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tom Brady looked sharp in his preseason debut, throwing a 33-yard touchdown pass to Chris Hogan in helping the New England Patriots to a 19-17 preseason win over the Carolina Panthers on Friday night.

Brady relieved Jimmy Garoppolo late in the first quarter and completed a 37-yard pass to Aaron Dobson on his first play from scrimmage, leading to a field goal. On his second drive Brady heaved a perfectly placed over-the-shoulder pass to Hogan down the right sideline for a 9-0 lead. Brady's other two drives failed to produce points.

While Brady was on the mark, league MVP Cam Newton struggled mightily in his most extensive playing time of the preseason. Newton was intercepted twice and the Panthers failed to get any points on his eight first-half possessions. Overall, the Panthers scored just three points in 10 Newton-led drives.

The sixth-year quarterback was high on some passes and didn't get much help from his receivers, who had problems getting separation and dropped four passes, including one by Brenton Bersin on a fourth-and-2 at midfield.

New England's defense shut down the league's highest-scoring offense from a year ago. They also intercepted Derek Anderson and allowed only one passing play of more than 15 yards in the first half.

Garoppolo, expected to start the first four games for the Patriots while Brady serves a suspension for his role in "Deflategate," returned in the second quarter but couldn't get anything going.

In the third quarter he rolled out of the pocket while under pressure and missed an open receiver who'd gotten behind the defense. His six drives resulted in no points, although Stephen Gostkowski missed a 30-yard field goal on the New England's opening possession (see full recap).

Redskins overcome slow start to beat Bills
LANDOVER, Md. -- Kirk Cousins found a groove and undrafted rookie running back Robert Kelley made the most of his chance and the Washington Redskins beat the Buffalo Bills 21-16 Friday night in the third preseason game.

With the Bills (1-2) resting almost their entire starting defense, Cousins overcame a rough start to finish 12 of 23 for 188 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.

Despite coming mostly against Buffalo's second- and third-stringers, it was an important recovery for Cousins, who had thrown only five passes in the preseason and didn't play last week in an effort to test backup Colt McCoy.

Kelley ran for 51 yards on 12 carries in a personal showcase with Matt Jones and Chris Thompson out and after seventh-round pick Keith Marshall sprained his left elbow on his only carry of the game.

Bills starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor played only two series, by coach Rex Ryan's design, going 2 of 5 for 11 yards before being replaced by E.J. Manuel.

Ryan also opted to rest running back LeSean McCoy and several key defenders, including defensive tackle Kyle Williams, linebacker Jerry Hughes and cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore.

Coach Jay Gruden took a more conventional dress-rehearsal approach to the third preseason game for the Redskins (2-1) and got the kind of performances he'd like to see from top players such as tight end Jordan Reed, receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, left tackle Trent Williams and cornerback Josh Norman.

Reed, Garcon and receiver Ryan Grant each caught a touchdown pass from Cousins, and Norman looked sharp on defense along with second-year linebacker Preston Smith and lineman Ziggy Hood (see full recap).

Roethlisberger shreds defense in Steelers' win over Saints
NEW ORLEANS -- Ben Roethlisberger torched New Orleans' defense for 148 yards and two touchdown passes on his first two series of this preseason, then got the rest of the game off while the Steelers rolled to a 27-14 victory over the Saints on Friday night.

Roethlisberger, who sat out of the first two preseason games, opened by leading a 14-play, 76-yard drive on which he converted two third downs and found tight end Jesse James for a 5-yard score. His next series was highlighted by his 57-yard scoring pass down the left sideline to Antonio Brown, also playing for the first time this preseason. The Steelers star finished with 12 completions on 17 attempts.

Pittsburgh running back Le'Veon Bell also made his preseason debut, gaining 21 yards on three carries, but his lost fumble in the second quarter -- forced by cornerback Delvin Breaux and recovered by linebacker Dannell Ellerbe -- led to Drew Brees' only TD pass. Brees' strike went to Willie Snead, who made a difficult juggling catch as he landed on his back following a collision near the back of the end zone.

Brees had a difficult night behind a struggling offensive line. It didn't help that starting left tackle Terron Armstead left the field unexpectedly in the first half for undisclosed reasons. Brees completed 9 of 12 passes, but for only 78 yards. One of his better throws connected with newly acquired tight end Coby Fleener for 26 yards, but it was called back for holding on Armstead.

The Saints have dropped all three preseason games.

Steelers backup Landry Jones went 19 of 22 for 206 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown pass to Sammie Coates. He also completed a 58-yard pass to Coates to set up Chris Boswell's 40-yard field goal (see full recap).

Adam Morgan, Phillies allow 4 homers in latest loss to Mets at Citi Field

Adam Morgan, Phillies allow 4 homers in latest loss to Mets at Citi Field

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK — The New York Mets set the tone for this game early on Friday night. Their first two batters stroked Adam Morgan fastballs over the wall and they were off and slugging to a 9-4 win over the Phillies at Citi Field (see Instant Replay).
 
“There’s not much to say,” manager Pete Mackanin said afterward, “other than we have to pitch better.”
 
The Mets, very much in the thick of the NL wild-card race, played inspired ball in powering their way to their fifth win in the last six games. They hit four home runs on the night, including three against Morgan, and got a typically strong start from Bartolo Colon.
 
“It’s never good when you start a game by giving up two home runs,” Morgan said. “If I make better pitches, it’s a different outcome.”
 
The third home run that Morgan gave up was the killer. It was a grand slam by Wilmer Flores with two outs in the bottom of the fifth. That turned a 2-1 Mets’ lead into a 6-1 Mets’ lead.
 
Flores’ grand slam came on a first-pitch slider. Morgan threw nine pitches before walking Neil Walker, the previous batter, to extend the inning. One of those pitches was foul pop down the right-field line that Ryan Howard could not chase down. Had he been able to make the tough play, Morgan would have gotten out of the inning unscathed.
 
Then again, the pitcher could have gotten out of the inning unscathed if he did not give up the two-out walk to Walker.
 
Or make a mistake with the first-pitch slider to Flores.
 
“It was a bad pitch,” Mackanin said. “He tried to backdoor a slider and it ended up in his wheelhouse.”
 
As for the pop-up down the right-field line …
 
“I was hoping somebody could run that down,” Mackanin said. “Nevertheless, you’ve got to pitch around those things and make good pitches. That mistake to Flores put it away for them. Morgan had command issues. Too many pitches out over the plate.”
 
In all, Morgan allowed eight hits, including five for extra bases, in his five innings of work. He dropped to 1-8 and his ERA rose to 6.50.
 
Reliever Frank Herrmann gave up the Mets’ fourth homer, a two-run shot to Asdrubal Cabrera in the sixth. Cabrera homered from both sides of the plate.
 
Meanwhile, Colon, the Mets’ 43-year-old control artist, did what he often does to the Phillies. He gave up just three hits and a run through seven innings before hitting the wall and giving up three runs without getting an out in the eighth. Colon had to settle for seven-plus innings of four-run ball. He is 12-7 with a 3.44 ERA. He is 9-3 with a 2.98 ERA against the Phillies as a member of the Mets.
 
“He seems to own us,” Mackanin said. “We can’t seem to square up the ball against him. He does a tremendous job with control and command.”
 
Peter Bourjos concurred.
 
“He’s different than any pitcher you see these days,” Bourjos said. “You don’t see many guys throwing mostly fastballs at 88 mph and sinking it. You see some guys throwing a majority of sinkers, but it’s 95. This guy changes speeds on his fastball and locates it so well.”
 
The game marked the Phillies’ first without Carlos Ruiz, who was traded to the Dodgers on Thursday. Jorge Alfaro came up from Double A and served as the backup catcher. He is expected to return to the Reading club on Saturday when A.J. Ellis arrives. The Phillies picked up the veteran backup catcher in the trade.
 
Alfaro did not play, but called the experience of coming to the majors “a dream.”
 
That was the only thing that resembled a dream for the Phillies on Friday night.
 
They have lost 20 of 29 games to the Mets over the last two seasons and 12 of their last 16 in Citi Field, hardly encouraging with two more games to play in the series.