Addressing Flyers' top offseason questions

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Addressing Flyers' top offseason questions

If I had a dime for every time I was asked whether the Flyers will buy out Ilya Bryzgalov, then I would buy out Ilya Bryzgalov. Another offseason has created a great deal of intrigue for Flyers fans. Here’s a sampling of some of the questions I’ve received through Twitter and e-mail, and how I think the Flyers might react, beginning with the obvious:

Q. Will the Flyers use a buyout on Ilya Bryzgalov?

A. That’s the million dollar question! Check that, $23 million. The decision will be based solely on money. Is the organization willing to eat $23 million (two-thirds of what’s remaining on his contract) and spread it out over 14 years, and in doing so, suffer any embarrassment that comes after signing the enigmatic goaltender to a nine-year, $51-million contract in 2011? Many believe Bryz is a more likely compliance candidate in 2014 when the buyout is $17.4 million. Either way, you’re paying a lot of money to essentially tell a player to go somewhere else. If the Flyers are exploring the option, and can stomach the payout, then do it now. Don’t hesitate. That’s tough to stomach, but the financial commitment is the only aspect keeping Bryzgalov in Philadelphia. The New York Islanders are the current clubhouse leaders in the buyout department after paying out $17.6 million to Alexei Yashin in 2007.

Q. If the Flyers part with Bryzgalov, who would replace him?

A. We know Steve Mason is hungry and is looking to work his way back into a starter’s role, but as of now, he can’t be trusted as a No. 1. If Tim Thomas is eager to return to the NHL, regardless of his age, he’s worth bringing in on the cheap for one season. Vancouver is expected to buy out Roberto Luongo and the Flyers would have interest if the price is right. Plus, if Nicklas Backstrom doesn’t re-sign with Minnesota, he would be an attractive option. The offseason is shaping up to become a buyer’s market when it comes to goaltending.

Q. Those guys are old. What about 24-year-old Jonathan Bernier?

A. He’s young with tremendous potential, but he’s an unproven commodity. If the Kings are contacting perspective buyers for Bernier’s services, then that will ignite a bidding war to which the Flyers may be wise not to engage (see story). However, if there is genuine interest in Bernier, that could be the catalyst that forces the Flyers to exercise their remaining buyout on Bryzgalov. I believe the Flyers should retain their most prized assets for something considerably bigger.

Q. The Flyers' priority should be defense. From where will that come?

A. The Flyers have plenty of defense actually. At last count, the team has eight defensemen signed for next season, but if you measure their blue line from top to bottom, it speaks more to quantity than quality. They could make a play for Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle, but with the Mark Streit signing, I don’t see the Flyers venturing down that desert road. I’m hearing rumblings that the Predators could make Shea Weber available come July 23, the one-year anniversary of when Nashville matched the Flyers' 14-year offer sheet. The Preds, coming off a terrible season, have a ton of money locked up in two players (Pekka Rinne and Weber), and Paul Holmgren would pull off a Chris Pronger-type megadeal in a micro-minute if they had a chance at Weber ... and then we won’t have to have this discussion again for a long time.  

Q. Don't you think the Flyers need a scoring winger after failing to replace Jaromir Jagr?

A. Yes. The Flyers need someone dynamic to play alongside Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek. Bobby Ryan could be a possibility. I think he would be rejuvenated playing in his hometown. However, if Boston decides to cut Nathan Horton loose, he would become an attractive unrestricted free agent. It will also be interesting to see what Jarome Iginla will command on the open market following a subpar playoffs in Pittsburgh. Also, keep an eye on New Jersey’s David Clarkson, who brings a Scott Hartnell-type combination of grit and skill to the ice.

Q. Are there any buyout candidates the Flyers would have an interest in signing?

A. Possibly Roberto Luongo if the Flyers agree to cut ties with Bryzgalov. I’ll have a better indication once the buyouts begin.

Q. What will the Flyers do with the 11th pick?

A. They better not trade it, or at least, trade down. They’re in perfect position to grab a talented defenseman, someone who can have an impact in years to come. I also believe the Flyers need to deviate from their organizational philosophy of grabbing the best player available when there are obvious needs that should be addressed. I’d like to see them make an attempt to grab Seth Jones, who’s a surefire NHL star, but the asking price would be astronomical. Barring the Flyers not staying at No. 11, I’m hitching my draft wagon to either Rasmus Ristolainen or Ryan Pulock.

Q. What will it cost to keep Claude Giroux?

A. Holmgren doesn’t have to pay market value for Giroux, who’s just an RFA after next season. However, why nickel and dime the face of your franchise, especially after signing Mike Richards and Jeff Carter to unnecessarily lengthy deals in years past. There are some “comps” Holmgren can utilize to help make that decision. You can point to Anaheim captain Ryan Getzlaf and the eight-year, $66 million extension he received back in March as a benchmark. Personally, I think Giroux is a better two-way player and I’d rather build a franchise around him than Getzlaf. However, Giroux is not quite worthy of the eight years and $76 million Evgeni Malkin recently agreed to, so let’s put G’s sticker price at $68 million over eight years. Anything less will be a bargain over the long term. I believe a deal will get done before the start of the season.   

Q. Will the Flyers make the playoffs next season?

A. Ask me in September.

This time, Steve Mason bailed out by Flyers' teammates

This time, Steve Mason bailed out by Flyers' teammates

Steve Mason was not his sharpest Thursday night and he's the first to admit it.

"There's nights where you're not feeling as sharp as you'd like to," Mason said. "This is a situation the guys in front never quit. They earned the two points for sure."

Mason yielded five goals for the third time this season, but made enough saves to secure the Flyers' seventh straight win, a 6-5 victory over the Oilers at the Wells Fargo Center.

The win streak is the longest the Flyers have had since Dec. 2-15, 2011, when "Mr. Universe" Ilya Bryzgalov was their goaltender. Mason finished with 28 saves.

"The guys bailed me out," Mason said, "When your goalie is not making the saves that you need, but the guys keep battling in front, from a personal standpoint, it's huge to see."

Making his 16th start in the Flyers' last 17 games, Mason appeared to show signs of fatigue against Edmonton. He's started the last six games, winning all six.

His current six-game win streak is a career-high, and the five goals allowed Thursday is the first time he's allowed more than two goals during this current streak. 

Entering Thursday, Mason was 5-0 with a 1.74 goals-against average and .947 save percentage in his previous five starts, and 8-3-1 with a 2.11 GAA and .930 save percentage since Nov. 12. So Thursday is just a small blemish on Mason's impressive résumé of late.

"I didn't think he looked tired," Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. "This win's a little bit indicative of the type of team we have. A couple nights ago, Mason was the best player. He picked up a lot of guys around him and tonight maybe wasn't his best.

"But it was pretty good. The guys battled hard. They picked up some of the slack. That's what it takes. Every guy's not going to be at their best every night.

"You'd like them to be, and I know the guys want to be at that level, but when one piece isn't working, the other part has to pick it up."

The Flyers' offensive outburst came two days after Mason stole two points against the Florida Panthers, and nine days after the goalie stole another two points against Boston.

Twice on Thursday the Flyers faced two-goal deficits, and both times they found a way to erase them. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it's the first time in Flyers' history they were able to win a game in which they were down two goals twice.

"Once we got it to 5-4," Mason said, "I tried to lock it down as best I could. There's nights where you're not feeling as sharp as you'd like to.  … Coming back in a couple of days, from a personal standpoint, I got to be more sharp."

After going falling behind 2-0, the Flyers tied it, 2-2, with three goals in 72 seconds in the second period, the quickest three-goal burst since Feb. 14, 2009, vs. the Islanders. 

Then, the Flyers fell behind 5-3 before Voracek sparked a three-goal third period with his 10th of the year at 6:31. Claude Giroux tallied his second of the game, and Michael Raffl pushed the Flyers to victory with his sixth of the season at 18:31 of the final stanza.

"It's a great feeling to come back from behind," Flyers rookie defenseman Ivan Provorov said. "You never want to be in that position, but that's the way it sometimes go. We stuck with it and came from behind and won the game. It's a great effort."

Of the five goals allowed Thursday, the first goal Mason allowed was the only one that can be pinned on the netminder. It was not a great goal to give up, on the second shot of the game, too. Afterward, he said the read was the backdoor play, but Leon Draisaitl slipped it through Mason's five-hole for his fifth goal in as many games.

"Some nights you can be better than the other nights," Provorov said. "And that's what the team's all about. We play for each other. If someone has a mistake, we all help him out and play for each other. That's why we win games."

"That's how you become a great team," Voracek, who tied a career-high with four points, said. "Mase playing the last six games the way he did, it wasn't his night.

"We came big for him. It's how you get into the playoffs, and it's how you have success in the playoffs. It's a good thing we won the game and get rolling now."

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare answers challenge of slowing down Connor McDavid

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare answers challenge of slowing down Connor McDavid

It would have been understandable had Flyers center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare left the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday night embarrassed, feeling he had let his teammates down.

Bellemare drew his toughest matchup yet, facing the Oilers' Connor McDavid, a 19-year-old superstar who is already pushing Sidney Crosby as the best player in the world.

Instead, the fourth-liner departed with a smile on his face and a job well done.

"I didn't make a big fool out of myself," Bellemare said.

The Flyers' winning streak reached seven games Thursday with a 6-5 thriller over Edmonton, and while McDavid did damage, Bellemare more than held his own against the star center.

McDavid tallied his first power-play goal of the season — yes, the NHL's leading scorer needed 29 games to score on the PP — and a shorthanded assist against the Flyers Thursday.

But McDavid was held pointless at 5-on-5 play, a huge testament to Bellemare and his linemates, Chris VandeVelde and Roman Lyubimov, and Ivan Provorov and Andrew MacDonald.

In his last 11 games, only twice has McDavid went pointless. He has 19 points in the other nine games and Thursday was the first during that span he was pointless at even strength.

So, yeah, Bellemare "did his job," as head coach Dave Hakstol put it afterward.

"We won the game, so that's why it was fun," Bellemare said. "Win or lose … maybe it would have changed my mind but it was a heck of a game from our team. I got to play against him.

"Everyone knows what kind of player he is, what kind of speed he brings to the table. I just tried to be as close as possible to him and be annoying and cut off his speed."

Of course, McDavid did add to his NHL-leading point total with two more Thursday. He now has 39 points in 29 games, nine more points than Crosby, Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Seguin.

And, yes, McDavid did get the best of Bellemare and MacDonald shorthanded. Sandwiched along the sideboards to the left of Steve Mason, McDavid won the battle, shoveled the puck to Mark Letestu, who then found Andrej Sekera to tie the game, 3-3, in the second period.

The key, however, was even strength. In a game that featured 11 goals, the Flyers handled Edmonton at even strength scoring. The Oilers had two goals 5-on-5, to the Flyers' five.

In years' past, the Flyers haven't been great at 5-on-5. This season, however, they appear to have turned a corner at even strength. Last season, they finished 22nd in the league with 133 goals at 5-on-5, but thus far, they're a top-5 scoring team 5-on-5 this year.

Eliminating McDavid at 5-on-5 was a major factor there and credit goes to Bellemare.

"He did a great job," Hakstol said. "He and his linemates played a good hockey game. They checked well, but they were out there working and doing good things with the puck as well. But I thought, overall, they played a real good 200-foot hockey game, shift after shift."

With Sean Couturier sidelined with a left knee injury, Hakstol has entrusted Bellemare as the Flyers' checking-line center deployed against opposing teams' top lines.

When did Bellemare find out he was going up against McDavid? The 31-year-old said Hakstol came to him Tuesday night after the Florida game and told him he should rest Wednesday.

"Before the game, I knew I was going to be on the ice every time he was on the ice," Bellemare said. "Obviously, it's a big boost of confidence when you know the coach is going to trust you against one of the best players in the world.

"I really try not to think about it that much. I try to take every game at a time, but I'm happy he trusted me on that assignment."

Had Couturier been healthy for Thursday's game, the game plan would have been called for Bellemare to play his usual fourth-line minutes and Couturier assigned to McDavid.

Bellemare has been asked to play in different roles during his time with the Flyers. Coming over from Europe last season, the Le Blanc-Mesnil, France, native has proved to be an effective NHL role player for the orange and black, which he embraces.

"You've got to have all of the little roles," he said, "and some nights, he's going to ask me to play this kind of role and I'm going to take it.

"Some nights, he's going to ask me to maybe play against another line and try to feed my winger. Whatever coach needs me to do. At the end of the day, I'm going to do it."

In a game in which he'll be praised for slowing down one of the game's elite, Bellemare also snapped a 30-game goalless drought with his first of the season in the second period.

During a three-goal outburst in one minute and 12 seconds, Bellemare tied the game, 2-2, at 13:24 — 53 seconds after Mark Streit's goal and 19 seconds before Giroux's go-ahead marker. Bellemare sniped Oilers goalie Jonas Gustavsson with a well-placed wrister over the netminder's right shoulder from the left circle, a highly skilled shot.

"I don't have to score the goal to be happy about the game if we win the game,” Bellemare said. “It's been this way. Maybe in the beginning of the season, I was thinking a little bit about it. I'm getting the shots to the net and sometimes the bounces don't go your way, but coach keeps telling me to play the right way and it's going to come.

"That's pretty much what I've been doing the last 15 games. I'm just trying to focus on playing the right way. When you think about it the least, that's when it comes.

"And tonight, that was the last thing I was thinking about — scoring goals. And it came."