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.

NHL Playoffs: Penguins beat Senators in 2OT of Game 7 to reach Stanley Cup Final

NHL Playoffs: Penguins beat Senators in 2OT of Game 7 to reach Stanley Cup Final

BOX SCORE

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins are heading back to the Stanley Cup Final.

Chris Kunitz beat Craig Anderson 5:09 into the second overtime to give the defending champions a 3-2 victory over the Ottawa Senators in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final Thursday night.

Kunitz scored twice, his first two of the playoffs. Justin Schultz added the other in his return from an upper-body injury, and Matt Murray stopped 28 shots on his 23rd birthday.

The Penguins are trying to become the first team since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998 to win back-to-back titles. They will host Western Conference champion Nashville in Game 1 on Monday night.

Mark Stone and Ryan Dzingel scored for Ottawa. The Senators rallied twice to tie it, with Dzingel making it 2-2 with 5:19 left in regulation.

Craig Anderson made 39 saves, but couldn't get a handle on Kunitz's shot from just outside the left circle. The Senators are 0-6 in Game 7s in franchise history.

The Senators forced a return trip to Pittsburgh -- where they lost 7-0 loss in Game 5 on Sunday -- by leaning heavily on Anderson in a 2-1 Game 6 victory, putting both teams at odds with history.

Ottawa came in 0-for-25 years in winner-take-all games, while the Penguins were 0-7 in Game 7s at home in series in which they also dropped Game 6.

Ottawa coach Guy Boucher told his resilient team to not get caught up in the big picture but instead focus on the small ones, a recipe that carried the Senators throughout a bumpy transition under their first-year head coach to the brink of the franchise's second Cup appearance.

The Penguins, trying to become the first defending champion to return to the finals since Detroit in 2009, came in confident they would advance if they could replicate their dominant Game 6, when they were undone only by Anderson's brilliance.

Pittsburgh has been nearly unflappable in the face of adversity under Mike Sullivan, going 12-2 in playoff games following a loss over the last two springs. He encouraged his team to "just play," code for fighting through Ottawa's neutral zone-clogging style and the bumping, grabbing and pulling that comes along with it.

A chance to play for their sport's ultimate prize on the line, the sheets of open ice the Penguins found so easily in Games 4-6 closed up. For most of the first 30 minutes, loose pucks hopped over sticks to spoil some scoring opportunities while Anderson and Murray gobbled up the rest.

Kunitz, relegated to the fourth line since returning from injury in the second round, picked up his first postseason goal in a calendar year when he completed a two-on-one with Conor Sheary -- a healthy scratch in Games 5 and 6 -- by slipping the puck by Anderson 9:55 into the second period.

The momentum lasted all of 20 seconds. Ottawa responded immediately with Stone -- who stretched his left skate to stay onside -- fired a wrist shot that handcuffed Murray.

Pittsburgh kept coming. Schultz, returning after missing four games with an upper-body injury, zipped a shot from the point through Kunitz's screen and into the net with 8:16 left in the third.

Once again, the Penguins could not hold the lead. Dzingel set up at the right post and banged home a rebound off Erik Karlsson's shot that hit the left post and caromed off Murray's back right to Dzingel's stick.

Notes
The home team is 21-20 in overtime Game 7s in NHL playoff history. ... Pittsburgh F Patric Hornqvist skated during warmups, but was held out of the lineup for a sixth straight game with an upper-body injury. ... Karlsson had 16 assists in the playoffs to set a team record. ... The Penguins are 10-7 in Game 7s. ... It was the fifth one-goal game of the series.

Howie Kendrick hit by pitch twice, removed from rehab start at Triple A

Howie Kendrick hit by pitch twice, removed from rehab start at Triple A

Howie Kendrick experienced a painful rehab start on Thursday night.

Rehabbing with Triple A Lehigh Valley, Kendrick was hit by a pitch twice before being removed after the sixth inning of the IronPigs' 8-4 loss to Indianapolis at Coca-Cola Park.

Both times Kendrick was plunked in the upper left arm, according to Tom Housenick of the Morning Call.

There was no update on if Kendrick was injured or taken out for precautionary reasons. Thursday marked Kendrick's second rehab start as he recovers from an oblique strain that has sidelined him since April 15.

The Phillies' leftfielder started at third base Thursday. At the beginning of his rehab assignment, Kendrick was expected to play four games and see time at third and first base, as well as in left field.

Kendrick made a throwing error at third on Thursday and finished 0 for 1 with a run scored. In his two games, he's 0 for 3 with two strikeouts.

Kendrick hit .333 with four doubles, a triple and five RBIs in 10 games with the Phillies prior to landing on the DL.

When he returns, he could see time at third base instead of left field if Maikel Franco continues to struggle (see story).