New Flyers general manager Ron Hextall needs to focus on two positions this summer

New Flyers general manager Ron Hextall needs to focus on two positions this summer

When a big-market team with eternal high expectations like the Philadelphia Flyers fails to win Lord Stanley’s Cup, tinkering with the roster isn’t just a possibility, it’s an expectation.

In just a few short weeks when free agency begins and summer’s trade season starts to heat up, we’re going to find out just how good of a tinkerer new general manager Ron Hextall is because his Flyers could use some improvements.

Specifically, they could use improvements at two positions and for the first time since what feels like the Hoover administration, one of those positions isn’t goaltender! Thanks, Steve Mason! (The exclamation points were totally necessary, FYI.)

The really need help at both the first-line left wing spot and, as has been par for the course since Chris Pronger’s devastating concussion, at defenseman.

And while Hextall has made it known he intends to build internally through the draft, he may have to consider these as more immediate needs, especially in a hockey-crazed, pressure-filled market like Philadelphia.

Let’s start at the first-line left wing, where Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek really need a proven finisher to play alongside.

No disrespect to Scott Hartnell, who has scored 65 goals the past three seasons while playing mostly on the top line, but he’s just not the type of player Giroux and Voracek need to be a truly dominant line.

We saw why in the playoff series with the Rangers when they basically dared Hartnell to beat them while they honed in on Giroux and limited his effectiveness and chances as much as possible.

Giroux still played well in the series but imagine how he could have played if he had a dangerous sniper that the Rangers had to focus on next to him. Same story for Voracek, who was still easily the most lethal Flyer offensively in the series.

A dominant first line – think about the first lines in Chicago, Boston and Anaheim, just to name a few - would also create all types of matchup nightmares and allow the Flyers’ secondary scorers to go to work on a more consistent basis, along with pushing the Flyers closer to that upper echelon.

The free-agent pool at the position isn’t deep but has some top-tier talent.

Montreal’s Tomas Vanek tops the list but will likely command at or more per year than the $7 million he’s making this season. Minnesota’s Matt Moulson can certainly score but he’s going to want a hefty raise from the $3 million he’s making this year. That’s not to say the Flyers wouldn’t put offers out for those players, but just stating the facts.

Other notable free-agent names at the position include Calgary’s Mike Cammalleri, Ottawa’s Milan Michalek, Pittsburgh’s Jussi Jokinen and Toronto’s Mason Raymond.

If we’re talking free agents, it should be noted that the league expects next season’s salary cap to be about $6 million higher than it was this season.

Of course, the trade route is also an option.

And now on to the defense, where the struggle to replace Pronger is entering its third year.

The Flyers’ defense was totally exposed for its lack of speed and true puck-movers during the first-round playoff series with the Rangers.

The Rangers smothered the Flyers defense into bad passes and turnovers, which, in turn, left Mason and goalie partner Ray Emery hung out to dry. When the Rangers carried the puck up ice, they just blew right by the Flyers’ defenders. Outside of the Flyers’ Game 6 blowout, the Rangers owned the neutral zone and territorial advantage. It was no coincidence they had the better and more dangerous chances throughout the series.

It’s been said a million times, but Kimmo Timonen shouldn’t have to be the team’s No. 1 defenseman at this stage of his career. But he is and he was just out of gas in the series. Braydon Coburn had perhaps the worst seven-game stretch of his career. Nick Grossmann was hurt in Game 4 but wasn’t having a great series before that. Andrew MacDonald was ok but was on his heels more often than not in his own zone.

Both Mark Streit and Luke Schenn played really well in the series and should be commended for their efforts. But their efforts against the Rangers don’t change the fact the Flyers still need help, specifically with speed and puck control, on the blue line.

With kids like Shayne Gostisbehere and Sam Morin coming soon in the organizational pipeline, the Flyers should want to make a move for just one defenseman this summer to not continue to crowd an already crowded yet only slightly above-average blue line.

Pittsburgh’s Matt Niskanen, who had a career year with 10 goals and 36 assists in 81 regular season games, is the crown jewel of the free-agent defenseman crop. He’ll want a raise from the $2.3 million he made this year, but he could be worth it. He’d be a nice fit.

Other notable free-agent defensemen include San Jose’s Dan Boyle, Montreal’s Andrei Markov and Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik. It’s a bit of a thin group.

Don’t forget the trade route, which may apply even more so here to clear a crowded group and some cap space.

But, hey, at least the Flyers don’t need to find a goalie this summer. That’s a rather large step in the right direction for an organization that has repeatedly tripped and fallen face-first in mud when it tried to take that step in recent years.

Raudabaugh throws 10 touchdowns, Soul clinch home-field advantage

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Raudabaugh throws 10 touchdowns, Soul clinch home-field advantage

The Soul (13-3) defeated the Orlando Predators (12-4)  67-59 at the Amway Center in Orlando on Saturday night.  

With the win, the Soul will have home field advantage throughout the American Conference Championship game.

Reigning league MVP Dan Raudabaugh completed 21 of 29 passes for 335 yards and 10 touchdowns.  Four of those scores were to receiver Chris Duvalt, who led all receivers with nine receptions and 155 yards.

The Soul will host the Tampa Bay Storm (2-14) next Sunday, August 7 at 6 p.m. With a win, the Soul will return to PPL Center for the conference championship on August 14. 
 

Hellickson wins possible Phillies swan song, but sustains minor hand injury

Hellickson wins possible Phillies swan song, but sustains minor hand injury

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA – Though he wasn’t happy with the way he pitched in what might have been his last start with the Phillies, Jeremy Hellickson still helped the ballclub win on Saturday night.
 
He just did it more with his bat than his arm.
 
Hellickson’s two-run double – the first extra-base hit of his career – gave the Phillies the lead in the fifth inning of what eventually became a 9-5 win over the Atlanta Braves (see Instant Replay).

“The big hit for me was Hellickson’s double,” manager Pete Mackanin said after the game.
 
Mackanin was so happy with Hellickson’s double down the leftfield line that he absolved the pitcher for not being able to get a bunt down earlier in the at-bat.
 
Well, sort of.
 
“We’re going to have to do extra work with all the pitchers because we’re not getting bunts down,” said Mackanin, who was happy to get the win but a little exasperated by the sloppiness of the three-hour, 40-minute dull toothache of a game.
 
“At least we won,” he said. “A win’s a win.”
 
Hellickson's at-bat in the fifth was actually a little more adventurous than anyone would have liked, particularly with the pitcher being on the trading block. Before stroking the double to left, Hellickson got jammed while hitting a foul ball to the right side. The jam shot caused some soreness and bruising on the palm of his right hand and prevented him from getting through the sixth inning. He left after 5 2/3 innings with a 5-3 lead that he helped build.
 
“I’m still not really sure what it is, a bruise or I popped something in there,” Hellickson said after the game. “But I felt fine, though, after I did it. It was just a little tough to grip -- just the curveball.”

Mackanin sent pitching coach Bob McClure to the mound to check on Hellickson in the sixth. The pitcher told McClure his palm was sore so Mackanin got him out of there.
 
“It jarred him,” Mackanin said. “But he’s OK now. In the end, it’s not a big deal. It’s not like his elbow was hurting, you know what I mean?
 
“Anyway, his hit was the big hit of the game. It turned it around for us.”
 
It remains to be seen whether Hellickson’s sore hand will affect his trade status. The issue seemed minor enough that it shouldn’t, but one never knows.
 
The Phillies, according to sources, have received significant interest in Hellickson and he could be on the move by Monday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline. A number of teams including the Orioles, Pirates, Blue Jays and Cardinals have been monitoring him. The Dodgers and Tigers, both in the market for a starter, had scouts at Saturday night’s game. The Tigers scout parachuted in specifically to see Hellickson.
 
Hellickson finished the month of July with a 2.34 ERA in six starts and gave up just four runs in his last three starts. So if someone trades for him, they will be getting a hot hand. He is 8-7 with a 3.70 ERA in 22 starts with the Phillies.
 
“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” Hellickson said. “I'll find out Monday. 
 
“I can't control any of it. So I've just been focused on every start and in between starts. Whatever happens happens. Hopefully I'm still here on Tuesday.”
 
Mackanin echoed that thought.
 
“He’s been an outstanding guy, a real likable person,” Mackanin said. “He’s got a good work ethic. He’s focused and poised on the mound. He’s a true pitcher. He knows how to change speeds. I’d like to keep him.”
 
Atlanta out-hit the Phils, 14-9, but the Braves made two errors and their pitchers walked eight, including four in the eighth innings when the Phillies sent nine men to the plate and scored four times without getting a hit.
 
“When you score four runs without a hit you better win the game,” Mackanin said.
 
The Phillies were able to do that because Cameron Rupp had three hits and scored two runs and reliever Edubray Ramos got four big outs, three via strikeout. Trade candidate Jeanmar Gomez closed out the game in a non-save situation.

“I wanted to win the game,” Mackanin said of his decision to use Gomez. “I didn’t want to take any chances with anyone else. I just wanted one of my best guys knowing that he’s well rested and we have a day off Monday.”
 
Not everyone will be off Monday. The front office will be working the phones as the minutes tick away until the 4 p.m. deadline. Vince Velasquez is in play (see story). Gomez could go. David Hernandez could go. And so could Hellickson. If this was his last start with the Phillies, he finished up with a win.

Best of MLB: Happ gets 14th win, Blue Jays take over 1st place

Best of MLB: Happ gets 14th win, Blue Jays take over 1st place

TORONTO -- With one big inning and another strong start from J.A. Happ, the Blue Jays moved into the AL East lead.

Happ won his eighth straight decision, Devon Travis homered and Toronto used a seven-run fifth to beat the Baltimore Orioles 9-1 Saturday, taking sole possession of first place for the first time since early April.

"There's still a lot of baseball left, but I feel we're starting to play good ball," Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin said.

Toronto, which won for the 16th time in 22 games, had not been alone atop its division since a 2-0 start. The Blue Jays have scored seven or more runs in an inning three times this season.

Kevin Pillar had two hits and drove in four runs to match his career high. Major league RBIs leader Edwin Encarnacion drove in his 89th run (see full recap).

Giants find just enough offense for rare win since break
SAN FRANCISCO -- Hunter Pence is healthy at last. Joe Panik has been back a few days from a concussion and is driving in runs again. The San Francisco Giants sure are starting to look like themselves again.

Oh, with that new face in the infield of Eduardo Nunez.

Panik hit a go-ahead sacrifice fly in the seventh inning, Nunez had a two-run double in his first start with San Francisco and the Giants snapped a three-game losing streak by beating the Washington Nationals 5-3 on Saturday.

Pence was activated from the disabled list after missing 48 games with a strained right hamstring that required surgery.

"It's huge, just his presence in the lineup," manager Bruce Bochy said. "He's one of our guys. In addition to the talent, he brings energy and all those intangibles. He charged up the troops being out there (see full recap)."

De La Rosa, Rockies win 5th straight, Mets lose 4th in row
NEW YORK -- Jorge De La Rosa earned his 100th career victory and the Colorado Rockies eventually caught up with Bartolo Colon, beating the New York Mets 7-2 on a rainy Saturday night for their fifth straight win.

The Rockies improved to 12-4 since the All-Star break and won despite losing NL home run leader Trevor Story to a jammed left thumb. He seemed to get hurt on a scrambling slide in the fourth, exited early and X-rays on the rookie shortstop were negative.

On the day the Mets retired Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza's No. 31, the Mets lost their fourth in row. The 43-year-old Colon (9-6) faltered in his first start on three days' rest since 2005, and slugger Yoenis Cespedes left in midgame because of a nagging quad injury (see full recap).

Rea injured in Miami debut, Marlins win 11-0
MIAMI -- The Miami Marlins' big win might have come with a price.

Newly acquired Colin Rea left early with an elbow injury in his Miami debut in the Marlins' 11-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday night.

"We obviously needed the win, but it's not at that cost," Marlins reliever David Phelps said. "Hopefully, it's nothing, but you never like to see a starter come out of the game when you're strapped for starters to begin with."

Rea, acquired in a trade with San Diego, pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing one hit and striking out four.

"I kind of felt something in my elbow and it gradually got worse throughout the game," Rea said. "I don't know if I could have thrown another pitch, but we'll see. We don't know anything yet."

Rea initially felt a pain in his arm during warm-ups before the game, but tried to pitch through it (see full recap).