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.

In 1st game post-Ersan Ilyasova, Dario Saric shines as Sixers' starting PF

In 1st game post-Ersan Ilyasova, Dario Saric shines as Sixers' starting PF

When Ersan Ilyasova was traded to the Hawks on Wednesday, it became Dario Saric's time to shine.

And shine he did in the Sixers' 120-112 win over the Wizards Friday night at the Wells Fargo Center. In the first game coming off the All-Star break, Saric got the starting nod at power forward. He certainly looked the part, posting 20 points (10 of 19 from the field), 11 rebounds and four assists.

Saric, now the only true four on the roster, was proud of his team's performance against one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

"We have a lot of veterans who can share the ball and that's how you're supposed to play," Saric said. "For me I'm not surprised if we [beat the third-best team] in the East, but I believe these guys can play very good basketball."

Saric was excellent in the starting role, but his exceptional play dates back before the All-Star break. Including Friday, he's averaged 20.5 points, eight rebounds and 2.5 assists over his last six games. The Sixers are 4-2 in that span.

Head coach Brett Brown is seeing what he expected to see from the Croatian rookie.

"He's a professional basketball player," Brown said. "He has been that for a while. His love of the game, his passion for the game is contagious. It's a thing that we loved maybe more than anything about him when we did the deal with Orlando, knowing however many years ago with the trade with Elfrid Payton and Saric. That was a calculated move."

Saric played almost 33 minutes Friday night. So what did Brown do to give Saric a breather? He sent out Robert Covington.

Covington has played the position most of his life but has spent his entire Sixers career on the wing. In a time of need, he stepped up for a team still adjusting to roster changes.

The 6-foot-8 Covington held his own against the likes of Philly native Markieff Morris. It didn't seem to faze his offensive game, either. Covington scored 25 points on 9 of 14 from the field (5 of 9 from three). He also added 11 rebounds and three assists.

Covington has also been a catalyst for the Sixers during their recent success. He's averaging 17.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.2 steals in his last six. He's also shot a ridiculous 46 percent from three (19 of 41) in that span.

"We can only control what we're able to control on the court," Covington said. "Everything outside of what they do in management doesn't include us. We can only focus on what we can control on the court, and that's what our main focus was on these last few days."

Saric continues to show that he was worth wait while Covington continues to prove that he's a keeper.

They've certainly had different paths. Saric was a lottery pick and regarded as one the top young players in Europe. Covington went undrafted out of Tennessee State and spent the 2013-14 primarily with the Rockets' D-League affiliate.

Bryan Colangelo has identified Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as the team's "transformational players." That's likely true, but every NBA team needs guys like Saric and Covington to complement their stars.

Covington is impressed with the progress of Saric in his rookie season.

"Dario's a very special player," Covington said. "He's able to do so much on the court. Tonight, you saw every aspect of his game. He'll guard, defending, rebounding and making plays on the offensive game. That's what Dario does. Now that he's going to play more in the starting lineup, it's really going to help him."

Saric may be the frontrunner to take home the Rookie of the Month for February. He's second only to Joel Embiid in double-doubles (seven) and 20-point games (six) among rookies. Whether it's Saric or Embiid, it appears the Rookie of the Year will be a Sixer.

His promotion to the starting lineup and wins against teams like the Wizards should only help Saric's cause.

"Maybe you see [me start consistently], maybe not," Saric said. "The game first time here I try to find myself. I got a couple rebounds, but still I try to find myself with the new role. I've tried to move around, catch the rhythm of the game, that's the most important thing in basketball."

He appeared to find himself just fine Friday night.

For Shayne Gostisbehere, Dave Hakstol, Stadium Series brings back cherished memories

For Shayne Gostisbehere, Dave Hakstol, Stadium Series brings back cherished memories

PITTSBURGH -- For Flyers coach Dave Hakstol and defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, tonight’s Stadium Series game between the Flyers and Penguins brings back memories.
 
Hakstol coached North Dakota in an outdoor hockey in college, while Gostisbehere participated in one as a freshman at Union College.
 
For Hakstol, however, this whole idea of outdoor hockey began when he was growing up in central Alberta in the small town of Drayton Valley.
 
“I think everybody’s got great memories of growing up outdoors,” Hakstol said. “We had a back creek that we could shovel off. I’m sure everybody could sit back and tell you stories of playing on the outdoor rinks.
 
“For me, most recently, I’ve got two kids growing up playing on outdoor rinks, backyard rinks. It’s pretty cool. It takes you right back to the heart of the game.”
 
Hakstol’s outdoor coaching experience came during a game between Nebraska-Omaha and his North Dakota squad in 2013 at the “Mutual of Omaha Battles on Ice.”
 
“I don’t know how to describe it,” Hakstol said of the event. “It’s just a different feel. It’s an ideal scenario.”
 
He said while tonight's game is special, it’s still about the points, first and foremost.
 
“You are cognizant of everything that surrounds the event and the game,” Hakstol said. “Yet for us, it’s two points. We’re fighting for every point here. That is going to paramount.”

Gostisbehere played at Fenway Park in 2012 for Union in a game against Harvard. That night, Union won, 2-0, to become the first ECAC club to ever win outdoors.
 
“I played at Fenway Park against Harvard and it was fun,” Gostisbehere said. “That was my freshman year and the only one I ever played in.
 
“Good crowd. It wasn’t packed obviously, but it was a night game. The ice was really good. It was really cold, too. It was pretty cool.”
 
As warm as it was Friday here -- a historic 78 degrees -- temperatures will begin in the 40s tonight at Heinz Field and then drop. It rained this morning but has since ceased.
 
“The biggest thing for me was to take a second, look around,” Gostisbehere said, admitting he failed to do that in college and won’t make that mistake again.
 
“Just cherish it a little bit. You are so focused on the game, it’s tough. That was biggest thing for me. It was such a blur. Just being in college and having the opportunity to play at Fenway Park was pretty awesome.”

This will the Flyers first-ever outdoor affair in Pittsburgh.
 
“It’s pretty exciting and I’m glad to be part of it,” Gostisbehere said.