Upgrading defense must be Flyers' top priority

Upgrading defense must be Flyers' top priority
May 14, 2014, 9:00 am
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Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen (center) turns 40 next season. (USA Today Images)

Among the issues facing new general manager Ron Hextall this summer is what to do about upgrading his blue line.

Did the blue line get better with the acquisition of Andrew MacDonald at the trade deadline? Yes.

Was it good enough to slow down the New York Rangers in the playoffs? No.

Is it good enough to leave untouched for next season? No.

The Flyers go into the summer with about $6.58 million in projected salary cap space for next season, according to salary calculation site GapGeek.com, assuming the cap rises to $71.1 million as expected.

Upgrading the defense has to be Hextall’s No. 1 priority -- no ifs, ands or buts.

Hextall has made it clear he wants more out of players within the organization and wants to stop the hemorrhaging of prospects and draft picks, which is the reason why the Flyers remain the only NHL club since the decade began that has yet to produce a defenseman through the draft who plays significant minutes for them.

They’ve got a few playing elsewhere in the NHL, but not on their own roster, which is embarrassing.

“I’ll be looking hard at that,” Hextall said recently. “I think on defense we’ve got a couple guys that are getting older, so we’ve got to take a peek at that as well. We do have three good, young defensemen coming right now that we’re real excited about.

“We also can’t rush the process with these guys. They’re young people and they’re young players, and we can’t just throw them in the lineup and expect them to make us a better team. That’ll all shake out at training camp and throughout the year, but the one thing I’m not in favor of is rushing young players.” 

Although Hextall has said he doesn’t think it is essential to promote one of the Flyers’ prized defensive prospects to the NHL roster next season ahead of schedule, it’s pretty clear that the organization’s philosophy on the blue line hasn’t worked, and therefore, needs adjustment.

If Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith can each be promoted to the Chicago Blackhawks' roster inside of three years after being drafted, and learn on the job -- while winning a couple Stanley Cups -- what’s the Flyers’ rationale for saying they can’t do the same?

Where does it say that the Flyers can’t take a chance on a young defenseman? Why can’t they let a kid play through his mistake and growth period? What do the Flyers have to lose?

What has their present philosophy gained them? The answer is nothing. 

That's why the Flyers have to promote one of three prospects next fall onto their roster. Will it be Robert Hagg, Shayne Gostisbehere or Samuel Morin?

Among the three, Hagg and Gostisbehere are said to be the closest to being NHL ready.

This is where we will find out whether Hextall represents a true change in moving forward or whether the organization just changed faces, but not philosophy.

Now, that said, the Flyers have always been active participants in free agency.

There’s nothing wrong with looking at the defensive market this summer and seeing who can best help them, even though that does zero on the developmental side of the ledger.

If the Flyers move toward signing a free agent defenseman, the one player they should target is Pittsburgh’s Matt Niskanen.

The 6-foot, 209-pound Niskanen won’t turn 28 until next December and has seven NHL seasons under his belt.

He will be seeking his fourth contract as well as a nice raise above the $2.3 million he earned the past two years with the Penguins.

This season represented a career-best for Niskanen in goals (10), assists (36) and points (46).

Signing him would bolster the Flyers' blue line while hurting the Penguins simultaneously.

Taking from the rich and giving to the poor, so to speak.

Niskanen represents a far better investment in salary cap dollars for the Flyers than re-signing Kimmo Timonen, who turns 40 next season.

This is another area where Hextall has to change the culture and think of the Flyers from more of a business standpoint than from the organizational philosophy that the team is a family business.

There are no easy decisions that lie ahead for Hextall, yet it’s fair to say the entire fan base will be watching this summer to see if there truly is an organizational change in how the Flyers go about improving their team.

It begins on defense.

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