Doors open for Flyers' prospects as they close on Nick Schultz, Michael Del Zotto

Doors open for Flyers' prospects as they close on Nick Schultz, Michael Del Zotto

VOORHEES, N.J. -- Ron Hextall last month said the Flyers want to "get better every year, get younger every year."

They did not get better this season.

They did, however, take a step toward getting younger for next season when Nick Schultz and Michael Del Zotto left their exit interviews at Flyers Skate Zone.

To no surprise, the two blueliners strapped with expiring contracts were told on Tuesday they would not be re-signed this offseason.

Schultz turns 35 years old in August, while Del Zotto will be 27 in June. Both saw the writing on the wall with the Flyers' stable of defensive prospects not far from the NHL doorstep.

As the Flyers watch the playoffs for the third time in the last five seasons, Hextall will look to get younger, as promised.

"He thanked me for my time; I thanked him for the opportunity," Del Zotto said. "We both talked about which way the organization's going. I think it's no secret with what's happening here and we ended on that note."

Schultz, a veteran of 15 seasons (three with the Flyers) and contemplating retirement, had the same message.

"Obviously, I kind of know where I'm at -- contract's done and I know the young guys here in the system," Schultz said. "They are going to turn to those guys. Just kind of move on and move forward."

Del Zotto spent three seasons with the Flyers but was limited to 52 games in 2015-16 and 51 in 2016-17 because of injuries, which resulted in a shrunken role.

"It's unfortunate, a little emotional," he said. "I've been here for three years, have made some great friendships. Obviously, there was a little up and down and very frustrating at times. You understand the business and you learn that at a very young age. You see where this team's at -- a lot of young guys coming up on the back end."

This leaves two jobs for the taking on defense. Another could open, courtesy of the Vegas Golden Knights and the June expansion draft (i.e. Brandon Manning, Andrew MacDonald). The departures also loosen Hextall's pockets a bit. This season, Del Zotto carried a $3.875 million cap hit and Schultz $2.25 million.

So, who's in line for the vacancies?

We saw two auditions last week in the NHL debuts of 21-year-old Sam Morin and 22-year-old Robert Hagg. Both were drafted in 2013 and have developed at Hextall's preferred pace. Morin is 6-foot-7 and strong along the boards. Hagg possesses a sound two-way game with good size at 6-foot-2, 207 pounds. The pair owns a combined five seasons of experience at AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley.

"They're great players, they've got lots of talent down in the AHL," 20-year-old defenseman Ivan Provorov said. "They've got a great team. Hopefully they'll go deep in the playoffs. It'd be a good experience for them but it's definitely exciting -- we've got a great team here and lots of talent everywhere else, juniors and AHL."

Including Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers. Last summer, Hextall acclaimed Sanheim for his physical growth since being drafted in 2014. The 21-year-old is an offense-oriented defenseman who has put up 35 points (10 goals, 25 assists) in his first season with the Phantoms. Myers is only 20 years old and still playing at the junior ranks, but impressed greatly through training camp and preseason, when he stuck around longer than anticipated.

T.J. Brennan and Reece Willcox should be in the mix, as well, come fall.

What's prevalent is the Flyers will have options and competition for spots to join the likes of Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere, both budding in their own right.

"We've got [several] free agents this year, so we'll probably have a little bit of turnover," Wayne Simmonds said. "There's a lot of younger guys in Lehigh that are high on the radar and they're really good players. I'm expecting a lot of young kids to be coming up and things to change a little bit."

Schultz and Del Zotto were the start.

"When kids are younger now and growing up, they are training sooner and doing more at a young age," Schultz said. 

"Obviously there's a learning process playing in the NHL and playing a full 82-game season. It's a process, but it's something where those young guys are developing a lot quicker and are ready to play when they come in."

There's a new game in town: The Philadelphia Rebels

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John Boruk/CSNPhilly.com

There's a new game in town: The Philadelphia Rebels

The opportunity to watch a Briere play again in Philadelphia will be an exciting reality for hockey fans this season.

No, Danny Briere isn’t coming out of retirement as the former Flyers forward has committed to handling the day-to-day operations of the organization’s newest ECHL team.  

However, Briere will be keeping close tabs on his younger son, Carson, who’s currently on the Philadelphia Rebels' 30-man roster and is setting his sights on making the team’s final cuts during training camp.

“It’s great,” Briere said Monday. “Growing up here for most of my life, I love Philly. It’s fun getting to play in the same city that [my dad] did. Whenever I think of him playing, I always think of that playoff run [in 2010] for the Flyers.”

After spending the past two seasons at IceWorks in Aston, Pennsylvania, the NAHL’s (North American Hockey League) Rebels are moving their operation to the Penn Ice Rink at the Class of 1923 Arena, where they made the formal announcement on Monday. It will be the organization’s third different home rink in the past four seasons after relocating from the Rio Grande Valley in 2015.

“It was a no-brainer,” team owner Marko Dundovich said. “When the opportunity presented itself, it was very easy. I think it will give the boys a better opportunity to play, get them seen and I think it’s going to continue to grow here, and our business and organization will do much better here.”

The Rebels and junior hockey simply didn’t attract a broad appeal in the Philadelphia suburbs like ownership had hoped, and as a result, attendance lagged as the team typically averaged around 125 fans a game.

“It was the first time we tried Junior A hockey here,” Dundovich said. “If we had a 300-, 400- or 500-person fan base, we would have been OK in Aston, but I think it was tough to sell a junior hockey ticket in Aston. It’s a difficult sell in a small town.”   

Conversely, hockey fans in Philadelphia haven’t had much of an alternative to the Flyers since the Phantoms left the city in 2009 for Glens Falls, New York. Rebels forward Aaron Maguyon, who stays with former Flyers captain Keith Primeau throughout the season, feels the team cannot only fill the 2,500-seat ice rink, but the players will greatly benefit from the college vibe.  

“I think it prepares us for the future and playing college hockey, for sure, so in that way, it’s like a sneak peek for what’s to come," Maguyon said. "I think it helps pull guys closer together. We have restaurants we can go to or just activities we can do in the city."

According to the league website, the NAHL set a new single-season NCAA record with 280-plus commitments, and the Rebels had 12 commit to Divison I programs. Head coach Joe Coombs has built a tier-II junior hockey powerhouse over the past two years. Last season, the Rebels finished with the NAHL’s best regular-season record, advancing to the championship game of the Robertson Cup in Duluth, Minnesota, where they came up short in a 2-0 loss to the Lone Star Brahmas. 

“This is business,” Coombs said. “Let’s bring the game to the people. Over the last two years, we struggled with our attendance. I didn’t even know this place was here — UPenn hockey rink — and we couldn’t think of a better venue right here in University City to try and market our brand of hockey and bring our game to the people.”  

And who knows? You might just see a few former Flyers in the seats, as well.  

NHL Notes: Penguins sign defenseman Brian Dumoulin to 6-year contract

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USA Today Images

NHL Notes: Penguins sign defenseman Brian Dumoulin to 6-year contract

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin has turned his steady play for the Stanley Cup champions into a new contract.

Dumoulin and the team agreed to a six-year deal on Monday that will run through the 2022-23 season and will pay him an average of $4.1 million per year.

The 25-year-old Dumoulin had three goals and 11 assists during Pittsburgh's run to the Cup this spring and hasn't missed a playoff game during the team's sprint to back-to-back titles.

Dumoulin averaged a team-high 21:59 of ice time this postseason, and his plus-9 rating was best among Penguins defensemen. Dumoulin was forced to take on a larger roll this spring after injuries forced Kris Letang to miss the playoffs.

Predators: Watson signs 3-year, $3.3 million deal
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Nashville Predators have signed forward Austin Watson to a three-year $3.3 million deal keeping him under contract through 2019-20.

The Predators announced the deal Monday.

Watson will earn $1 million this season, $1.1 million in 2018-19 and $1.2 million in the third year.

The 25-year-old forward is coming off his best season yet with Nashville. The 6-foot-4, 204-pound Watson had a career high with five goals and seven assists in 77 games this past season. Watson scored four goals and had nine points in 22 playoff games helping Nashville reach the Stanley Cup Final.

The 18th pick overall in the 2010 draft, Watson had three goals and 10 points in 57 games during the 2015-16 season.

Now, center Ryan Johansen is Nashville's lone restricted free agent awaiting a new deal.

Sabres: Okposo says he’s healthy after concussion
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Sabres winger Kyle Okposo said he is fully healthy after a concussion led to sleeping trouble, significant weight loss and a trip to intensive care last March.

Okposo missed the final few weeks of Buffalo's season with a previously undisclosed illness. In a letter posted on the team's website Monday, Okposo said a routine hit in practice caused his mood to change and other problems that required hospitalization.

The 29-year-old said he lost his appetite, had a negative reaction to sleep medications and that at one point he weighed less than 200 pounds. He spent time in the Neuro Surgical ICU at Buffalo General Hospital to be stabilized. Okposo's playing weight is listed at 218 pounds.

Okposo played in a 4-on-4 summer league game in Minnesota with other NHL players last week and reported feeling great. New general manager Jason Botterill said Okposo was on track to be ready for training camp.

"I've worked with a lot of different people -- concussion experts and people who have dealt with concussions themselves -- and I feel confident in the fact that I can play hockey again," Okposo said in the letter. "In fact, I know I can play again. I know I can play and not worry about hitting my head, which is a major hurdle for someone who's dealt with this. If I didn't feel 100 percent right now, that probably wouldn't be the case."

Okposo's last NHL game was March 27 against Florida. He had 19 goals and 26 assists for 45 points in 65 games during his first season with Buffalo. He signed a $42 million, seven-year contract with the Sabres last summer.

NHL: Gamble to get back Hall of Fame ring
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- A scuba-diving treasure hunter who found an American Hockey League Hall of Fame ring in one of New York's Finger Lakes is returning it to its owner.

Gary Gavurnik, of Auburn, New York, plans to return the prized ring to former AHL star Dick Gamble on Monday. Gavurnik found it with a metal detector in Canandaigua Lake over the Fourth of July weekend.

The 88-year-old Canadian-born Gamble starred for the AHL's Rochester Americans and retired early in the 1969-70 season. He was inducted into the AHL Hall of Fame in 2007.

Instead of wearing the ring, though, he gave it to his son, Craig, who wore it every day for seven years before losing it in the lake. He never told his dad and ordered a replacement.