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.

Difficult to see now, but remember: Flyers’ window just starting to open

Difficult to see now, but remember: Flyers’ window just starting to open

They can’t win away from the Wells Fargo Center. They’ve seen a nine-point cushion in the wild-card standings vanish and when they resume play, they’ll be out of the playoff picture.

The Flyers are who we thought they were. A fringe playoff team lacking in too many areas to be considered a serious contender, despite the overachievement of last season.

When the Flyers entered their bye week, they sat one point ahead of Carolina for the final wild-card spot and two points ahead of Florida and Ottawa. They are 3-8-3 in 14 games since their 10-game winning streak was snapped, and were blown out in back-to-back games in Boston and Washington by a combined score of 11-3.

Yet, they’re still on the brink of the postseason — for now. Perhaps it’s time for a trade from the front office to send a shockwave through the locker room? Not so fast.

“If we can make our team better, we will,” Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said last week at Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees, New Jersey. “But we’re staying on course.

“I don’t care if we win every game the rest of the year or lose every game, we’re staying on course. We set out on a course two and a half years ago — we’re not deviating from what we planned. I’m not going to make a trade to send a message.”

It’s easy to get carried away in win streaks and unexpected playoff appearances, especially in Philadelphia, where the four major sports teams are rebuilding. It’s even easier to scream for a team to go for it when it shows a glimpse into its full potential.

That is what makes sports fun. It’s what makes for good sports debate programs and entertaining talking heads. But it’s not how organizations should run their operations.

It’s certainly not how Hextall runs his regime with the Flyers. Hextall has a clear vision, and time and time again has shown no signs of expediting his plan for immediate help. He has made it a purpose to build through the draft. We have to remember that, and realize that the Flyers’ front office is playing the long game here, not the short game.

“Right now, we’re gonna stick with what we’ve got here and move forward,” Hextall said Sunday in Washington. “But on a day-to-day basis, I always look at how we can make our club better, and if there’s something that we think makes our club better, we’ll do it.

“The worst thing you can do is overreact when things aren’t going right and that’s not gonna happen. But if we can find a way to make ourselves better, we will.”

Let’s take a step back and make some sense of the Flyers’ current state. They are seventh in the Eastern Conference with 50 points as of Tuesday morning. They are 8-12-3 on the road, with nine straight defeats away from South Philadelphia. They are a top-10 scoring team, with 127 goals, but have allowed a league-high 144 goals against.

Steve Mason’s confidence is completely shook. Michal Neuvirth hasn’t been much better, if at all. Claude Giroux hasn’t scored a goal in 11 games and has just one marker in his last 17 games. (To be fair, he does have seven assists in his last eight games.)

Shayne Gostisbehere has been a healthy scratch twice this season, with his latest coming last Saturday in Boston. He’s struggled with his gap defense, among other areas, and is enduring growing pains in his second NHL season — as expected.

While the Flyers’ defense has scored 102 points, second most in the NHL, it struggles with gaps, turnovers and has too many breakdowns. Ivan Provorov, 20, has been the lone bright spot among the group of eight defensemen.

Head coach Dave Hakstol has juggled his lines and defensive pairs in attempts to find something that works. Some of the moves have worked, others have not. Questioning some of Hakstol’s lineup decisions is fair, but there’s no question his systems work.

There is only so much Hakstol can do with what he has to work with. Part of the blame can be placed on Hextall because this team, as currently constructed, is not there yet. It is, however, unfair to put every decision Hakstol makes under a microscope.

“Hak has tried a lot of things,” Hextall said. “In the end, it’s a group and we win together, we lose together. We have to react as a group better when something doesn’t go our way. That’s bottom line. … Line changes, different D combinations, flipping Mase, Neuvy. Everything that’s there, Hak has tried. In the end it comes down to our whole group just being better and not reacting the way we do when something negative happens.”

One of the reasons Hextall opted to hire Hakstol, who came directly from college with no prior NHL coaching experience, is development. Growth takes time, and there is rhyme or reason behind each Hakstol benching, whether we see it or not.

The Flyers’ play the last few weeks has been dumbfounding because a lot of the same mistakes that plagued the team in the beginning of the season — lax team defensive coverage, bad decisions with the puck, letting opponents enter the zone too easily, among others — are reappearing and that’s a fair criticism on the current coaching staff.

But, when we put things in perspective, there are positives. Provorov has proven he’s the real deal before he turned 20 last Friday. Travis Konecny is here, and while he’s been the victim of a Hakstol benching, he’s shown glimpses of what’s to come. Jakub Voracek (41 points) has bounced back, Wayne Simmonds is an All-Star and added penalty kill to his résumé. Brayden Schenn leads the NHL in power-play goals with 11, though his 5-on-5 scoring could improve. And there’s a lot of upside on the farm system, with the potential of seeing an influx of kids joining the Flyers as early as next season. 

“The window is actually starting to open, the way I see it,” Hextall said last week. “The kids we have on our team. The kids we have coming. There’s things happening here that are good. We’re going to get better here. We’re not going to get worse.”

And Hextall is right — the window is just opening and will only open wider. Patience remains key here, and don’t trust the process with the Flyers. Just enjoy the course.

Best of NHL: Penguins halt Capitals 9-game streak with wild 8-7 OT win

Best of NHL: Penguins halt Capitals 9-game streak with wild 8-7 OT win

PITTSBURGH -- Conor Sheary scored 34 seconds into overtime and the Pittsburgh Penguins ended the Washington Capitals' nine-game winning streak with a wild 8-7 victory Monday night that included nine second-period goals.

Sheary had two goals and an assist for the Penguins, who snapped a three-game losing streak. Evgeni Malkin picked up his 11th career hat trick during a frenetic second period, and Sidney Crosby collected his NHL-leading 27th goal to go with two assists. Bryan Rust and Nick Bonino also scored for Pittsburgh, and Matt Murray got the win despite allowing seven goals on 28 shots.

The Penguins trailed 3-0 before scoring six goals in less than 11 minutes in the second period, more goals than the Capitals had allowed in a game all season. Pittsburgh led 6-5 after 40 minutes.

Lars Eller scored twice for Washington, and T.J. Oshie, Brett Connolly, Nicklas Backstrom, Justin Williams and Andre Burakovsky also found the net. Philipp Grubauer made eight saves after coming on in relief of Braden Holtby, who was pulled during Pittsburgh's second-period deluge (see full recap).

Eichel scores twice to give Sabres' 4-1 win over Stars
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Jack Eichel scored two goals and the Buffalo Sabres defeated the Dallas Stars 4-1 on Monday.

Tyler Ennis scored 19 seconds into the first period. Ennis returned after missing 30 games with a groin injury that required surgery.

Jake McCabe also had a goal and Robin Lehner made 31 saves after missing the past three games with an illness.

The Sabres snapped a two-game losing streak and beat the Stars for the first time in four matchups.

Radek Faksa scored for the Stars in the opener of a three-game road trip. Kari Lehtonen stopped 25 shots. Dallas has lost two in a row and six of eight (see full recap).

Bishop anchors Lightning to 2-1 win over Kings
LOS ANGELES -- Brian Boyle scored the go-ahead goal late in the second period, and the Tampa Bay Lightning opened a six-game road trip with a 2-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings on Monday.

Ben Bishop made an early mistake that led to Kyle Clifford's goal for the Kings, but bounced back to make 31 saves in his second start back from a three-week absence with a lower-body injury.

Tyler Johnson scored in the first period for the Lightning, who won for just the second time in seven games.

Peter Budaj stopped 27 shots for the Kings.

Both teams played without stars due to illness. Kings captain Anze Kopitar missed his first game since Nov. 20, and All-Star defenseman Victor Hedman missed his first game of the season for Tampa Bay (see full recap).