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.

Best of NHL: Lee scores 2 power-play goals, Islanders beat Kings

Best of NHL: Lee scores 2 power-play goals, Islanders beat Kings

NEW YORK -- The New York Islanders are on quite a nice roll.

Anders Lee scored two power-play goals to lead the Islanders to a 4-2 victory over the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday night, giving New York its third straight win and fourth in the last five games.

"We've been keeping it simple of late," said Lee, who has four goals in two games against the Kings this season. "We've been getting shots on net and being more effective. I'll do my thing down low."

John Tavares had a goal and an assist, Jason Chimera also scored and Jean-Francois Berube stopped 34 shots to earn his first win in his third start of the season (see full recap).

Hartnell snaps tie as Blue Jackets beat Carolina 3-2
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Blue Jackets would just as soon forget the second period of Saturday's game, when the Carolina Hurricanes rallied from a 2-0 deficit to tie it.

Columbus didn't play much better in the third but withstood 15 shots and killed three penalties. Midway through, Scott Hartnell scored his second goal of the game , and the Blue Jackets beat Carolina 3-2.

Columbus got the win despite being outshot 37-20.

Hartnell scored in the first period and then netted the tiebreaker, helping the Blue Jackets overcome a horrendous second period - in which they managed only two shots on goal - to beat Carolina for the second time this week (see full recap).

Beagle scores in overtime, Capitals beat Stars 4-3
DALLAS -- Jay Beagle scored 19 seconds into overtime and the Washington Capitals rallied to beat the Dallas Stars 4-3 on Saturday night.

Evgeny Kuznetsov skated behind the net and put the puck in front to Beagle. His wrist shot beat goalie Kari Lehtonen, who got tangled with a defender and lost his footing.

The Stars led 3-1 and didn't allow Washington a power play until the third period, but then Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie scored with the man advantage in the first 5:26 of the period.

Adam Cracknell and Jamie Benn scored for Dallas on plays that originally were ruled no goal. Patrick Eaves had a goal and an assist for the Stars (see full recap).

Bogosian scores in overtime, Sabres edge Canadiens 3-2
MONTREAL -- The Sabres couldn't score from in close on All-Star goalie Carey Price late in regulation Saturday night.

So Zach Bogosian teed it up from a ways out in overtime to lift Buffalo.

Bogosian scored his first goal of the season in overtime and the Sabres beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-2 in the second game of a back-to-back for both teams.

Buffalo nearly broke through against Price near the end of the third period. Price made a pad save on Matt Moulson on a breakaway at 19:40, and then with six seconds remaining, he robbed Rasmus Ristolainen with a windmill glove save (see full recap).

 

Best of NBA: Kawhi Leonard scores 41, Spurs down Cavaliers in OT

Best of NBA: Kawhi Leonard scores 41, Spurs down Cavaliers in OT

CLEVELAND -- Kawhi Leonard scored a career-high 41 points, LaMarcus Aldridge had 16 points and 12 rebounds, and the San Antonio Spurs beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 118-115 in overtime on Saturday night despite missing starters Tony Parker and Pau Gasol.

Leonard scored six in OT, including a game-sealing dunk with 4.9 seconds left, as the Spurs regrouped after a late collapse in regulation.

David Lee, making a rare start in place of the injured Gasol, added 14 points as San Antonio improved to 18-4 on the road.

LeBron James and Kyrie Irving scored 29 apiece for the Cavs, who had the last shot in regulation and had plenty of opportunities in the extra five minutes. Cleveland still had a chance to tie it in the final second of overtime, but Kevin Love missed a 3-pointer (see full recap).

Lillard, McCollum carry Portland to OT win over Boston
BOSTON -- Damian Lillard had a three-point play with 47 seconds left in overtime and finished with 28 points to lift the Portland Trail Blazers to a 127-123 victory over the Boston Celtics on Saturday night, snapping their four-game losing streak.

CJ McCollum scored 35 points to lead Portland, which lost in the closing seconds in Philadelphia on Friday night. Lillard added seven assists.

Isaiah Thomas led Boston with 41 points, his 14th time this season with 30 or more points. Marcus Smart and Al Horford each scored 17 for the Celtics, who have lost two straight after winning 13 of 16.

Thomas nailed a go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:24 to play in OT, pushing Boston ahead by one, but Al-Farouq Aminu was fouled on the next possession and hit both free throws to move Portland back in front.

Lillard then drove the lane, was fouled and hit the free throw. Mason Plumlee had a short jumper in the lane and a free throw in the closing 24 seconds (see full recap).

Booker scores 26 as Suns edge Knicks 107-105
NEW YORK -- Devin Booker scored 26 points and made a go-ahead 3-pointer with 31 seconds left, and the Phoenix Suns beat the New York Knicks 107-105 on Saturday night.

Carmelo Anthony's attempt at a winning 3-pointer rimmed out as Phoenix snapped a two-game losing streak and handed New York its second loss in a row.

Eric Bledsoe added 23 points for the Suns, while P.J. Tucker and Marquese Chriss each had 15.

Anthony led the Knicks with 31 points, Derrick Rose had 26 and Kristaps Porzingis scored 14 (see full recap).

Dekker scores career-best 30 leading Rockets past Grizzlies
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Sam Dekker scored a career-high 30 points, James Harden added 29 points and 10 assists and the Houston Rockets leaned on their usual 3-point offense to beat the Memphis Grizzlies 119-95 on Saturday night.

Eric Gordon added 21 points as the Rockets built the lead to as many as 20 in the fourth quarter before easily coasting home.

Dekker, making his first career start in place of the ill Ryan Anderson, made 12 of 19 shots, including 6 of 11 from outside the arc. Houston shot 51 percent overall and 38 percent from distance.

Marc Gasol scored 32 points and Mike Conley added 15 for the Grizzlies, who lost for the third time in the last four.

Memphis struggled shooting the entire night, finishing at 37 percent and unsuccessfully tried to follow the Rockets' long-range attack but converted only 9 of 34 from outside the arc (see full recap).