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.
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.