Future Flyers Report: How will NHL trade deadline affect Phantoms?

Future Flyers Report: How will NHL trade deadline affect Phantoms?

Before this week begins, it's time for our weekly check-in on the Flyers’ prospects playing in the AHL, overseas and at the junior and college levels.

In this week’s report, we take a look at what impact Wednesday’s NHL trade deadline could have on the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and their push toward a run at the 2017 Calder Cup.

State of the Phantoms
With Flyers general manager Ron Hextall declaring last Friday that he will not be a buyer Wednesday, it is safe to say the orange and black will be open to selling off pieces, which could have a direct impact on the Phantoms’ push toward a run at the Calder Cup.

Lehigh Valley (34-17-3) sits in third place in the Atlantic Division and East with 71 points. If the playoffs began today, the Phantoms would be the 3-seed in the Atlantic Division bracket and face the Providence Bruins, who would be the 2-seed, in the division semifinals round.

The Phantoms have 22 games left and barring a complete meltdown down the stretch, they appear set to make a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09 when they were still in Philadelphia. It would be their first postseason appearance in Lehigh Valley in their third season in there. They never made the playoffs in five years in Adirondack, New York.

Behind the turnaround
There is no shortage of kids that have played a factor in Lehigh Valley already reaching its win total from last season, but Hextall made it a point last summer to make the Phantoms competitive again. He wants the Flyers’ AHL affiliate to win because building a winning culture on the farm helps prospects develop in a positive environment. So far, so good.

The addition of AHL veterans T.J. Brennan, Greg Carey, Will O’Neil and Andy Miele have bolstered the Phantoms turn into one of the league’s top teams. Then there is Chris Conner and Colin McDonald, two vets who were there last season, fitting well into the equation.

Brennan leads AHL defensemen with 17 goals and 45 points and is eighth among all AHL players, while O'Neil has added 29 points to the blue line. Carey leads the Phantoms with 25 goals, Miele leads the way in the assist department with 34, while Conner (44) and McDonald (34) have combined for 78 points. Veterans are key in the turnaround.

The kids are all right … too
Make no mistake: veterans are not the only reasons behind the Phantoms' turnaround. Lehigh Valley is also benefitting from prospects growing and an influx of first-year pros. Sam Morin is coming along nicely. Robert Hagg has taken perhaps the biggest leap in his development in the organization. Anthony Stolarz is knocking on the NHL's door. Adding 22-year-old Scott Laughton -- and his 109 NHL games -- into the mix also doesn't hurt. Jordan Weal, who is currently with the Flyers, had a major impact, too, with the Phantoms.

The Phantoms also are receiving contributions from five AHL rookies, too. Forwards Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Radel Fazleev have performed well in bottom-six roles. Defensemen Travis Sanheim and Reece Willcox, too, are contributing. And then there is goalie Alex Lyon, whose 21 wins is tied for third among qualified AHL goaltenders.

Sanheim has become more comfortable and more consistent in both the offensive and defensive zones with each game. He's third among Phantoms defensemen with 26 points, and second behind Brennan with eight goals. It wasn't a great week for him last week -- pointless in two games with a minus-4 rating -- but his addition to the blue line has helped.

Head coach Scott Gordon has done an excellent job splitting up the net with Stolarz and Lyon, though the latter has started more games because the former had a brief stint in the NHL. Lyon bet on himself with a one-year contract and the Yale product has proved he's a legitimate prospect with the potential of being a future NHL goalie.

Lyon has a .909 save percentage and a 2.72 goals-against average -- nothing spectacular, but respectable numbers for a first-year professional carrying the load, at times, in the AHL. He has struggled a bit over his last four games, with a 3.77 goals-against average and .858 save percentage during the span, but the overall product has been promising.

A combination of strong, young goaltending, prospects developing and adding five first-year pros have factored into the jump in Lehigh Valley, too. Next season, some of the kids are expected to make the jump to the NHL, but more youngblood will be added.

Deadline impact on Phantoms
Which brings us to what impact Wednesday's NHL trade deadline will have on the Phantoms' playoff push. It all depends on the route Hextall decides to go with the Flyers. The Flyers have four expiring contracts that could be attractive to contending teams. As we discussed Sunday, defensemen Mark Streit and Michael Del Zotto and goalies Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth all are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents on July 1.

Because of the expansion draft this summer, there is a belief in the hockey world that rentals will be in high demand at the trade deadline. Streit and Del Zotto don't figure much into the Flyers' future plans and just one of Mason or Neuvirth will return next season, if at all. There is both immediate and long-term incentive to trading at least two of the four.

For one, moving an expiring contract that doesn't factor into the Flyers' future plans makes sense in all realms of thought. While this year's draft class is not expected to be deep, getting a draft pick -- or multiple draft picks -- for a free-agent-to-be is just smart. The Flyers already have nine draft picks this year and potentially 10 depending on the conditions of the Petr Straka trade with the New Jersey Devils. More can only help.

Secondly, subtracting a body on the blue line or in net could open up a spot for a kid that's expected to be here next season to gain valuable NHL experience the rest of this season. Two Phantoms defensemen come to immediate mind: Hagg and Morin. With Stolarz's cup of coffee when Neuvirth was injured, there is no reason to believe he could not serve as a legitimate backup to either Mason or Neuvirth and get more NHL game experience, too.

We don't know what Hextall will do Wednesday, but there are a few scenarios that could impact the Phantoms and their playoff push. Because of AHL playoff eligibility rules, don't expect the Flyers to call up any Phantoms before the 3 p.m. deadline Wednesday. That doesn't mean, however, that what the Flyers do at the deadline will not have an impact on the Phantoms. Let's take a quick glimpse at some scenarios that could affect Lehigh Valley.

• Flyers trade either Streit or Del Zotto

• Flyers trade both Streit or Del Zotto

• Flyers trade one of Mason and Neuvirth without getting a goalie back

• Combination of trading Mason/Neuvirth and Streit and/or Del Zotto

Since the Flyers have eight defensemen, trading one blueliner does not necessarily mean Hextall will call up a prospect from Lehigh Valley. If the Flyers unload both Streit and Del Zotto without getting a D-man back, Hextall would likely bring up either Hagg or Morin because the Flyers like to carry at least one extra defenseman and would have an opening.

Trading Mason or Neuvirth without seeing a goalie under contract for next season back would have a direct impact on the Phantoms because it would mean Stolarz would be called up to the Flyers to serve as the backup. The Flyers currently do not have a goalie to expose for the expansion draft with both Mason and Neuvirth not under contract beyond this season, which makes trading one of them a little more complicated. If Hextall were to trade one, it would be a safe bet to see a goalie come back whom they could expose.

With all that in mind, there is a realistic chance the Phantoms could see one of their defensemen make the jump to the NHL. If that were to happen, Willcox would be the big winner in Lehigh Valley. Willcox is often the odd man out with the Phantoms, so he would receive more playing time if the Flyers were to call up a defenseman. If a goalie goes and the Flyers call up Stolarz, it would mean the Phantoms' net belongs solely to Lyon. Whatever happens Wednesday in the NHL also will have an effect in the AHL, too.

Quick hits
• The Phantoms are going outdoors next season for the second time. Lehigh Valley will face the Hershey Bears at Hersheypark Stadium on Jan. 20, 2018, in the 2018 Outdoor Classic.

German Rubtsov returned to Chicoutimi's lineup after missing a few games injured. He picked up an assist in two games last week. He now has 19 points in 13 QMJHL games.

Pascal Laberge added a goal and an assist last week for Victoriaville. He has four points in his last three games, and seven points in his last seven games.

• Everett's Carter Hart stopped 86 of 91 shots he saw last week in two starts for the Silvertips. On Sunday, he was pulled after letting in three goals on 12 shots in a 6-1 loss to Seattle.

Anthony Salinitri added two goals and an assist in four games last week for Sarnia.

• A goal and two assists for Clarkson defenseman Terrance Amorosa last week.

Felix Sandstrom had a bounce-back week for Brynäs IF, starting two games and appearing in three. Sandstrom allowed three goals on 45 shots.

• Two more goals and two more assists for Brynäs' Oskar Lindblom last week.

End to End: Expectations for Scott Laughton in 2017-18

End to End: Expectations for Scott Laughton in 2017-18

Throughout the offseason, we’ll ask questions about the Flyers to our resident hockey analysts and see what they have to say.

Going End to End today are CSNPhilly.com reporters John Boruk, Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone.

The topic: What are your expectations for Scott Laughton?

Boruk
Ron Hextall certainly raised a few eyebrows when Laughton was one of seven forwards the Flyers protected in the Vegas expansion draft despite playing just two NHL games last season. Struggling to find his place with the Flyers during Year 1 of the Dave Hakstol era, Laughton spent 2016-17 in Lehigh Valley refining his game, his mental approach and learning how to contribute without necessarily putting up numbers.

At the NHL draft in Chicago, Hextall said, “This kid took a step in terms of his dedication, his attachment to the game, his passion for the game, the way he plays the game. … Last year I think he figured it out.” Translation: He developed more into the type of defensive-minded player required on a Hextall-constructed team. A couple of weeks later, the Flyers and Laughton agreed on a two-year contract worth $1.925 million.

I think Laughton will have a strong training camp and will begin the season sliding into the fourth-line center role left by Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (selected by Vegas). Laughton should also pick up some of Bellemare’s penalty-killing role, an area he worked on and improved during his time with the Phantoms. If Laughton can chip in with 15-20 points playing primarily on the Flyers' checking line, he’ll prove to be a nice upgrade over Bellemare.

Dougherty
We can connect the dots. The Flyers expect Laughton to make the team when training camp breaks in October. Hextall protected Laughton over Bellemare in the expansion draft.

Makes sense, right? Protect the 23-year-old over the 32-year-old. Easy decision. Hextall didn't draft Laughton, but by protecting him, it shows they still believe in Laughton. Earlier this summer, Hextall said Laughton grew up a lot in Lehigh Valley last season.

Laughton signed a two-year contract extension earlier this month. He is no longer waiver exempt. That's important to note. They no longer have the option to send him to the AHL without subjecting him to waivers first. I don't see any scenario he passes through.

So, Laughton will be with the Flyers on Oct. 4 in San Jose. Has to be. The Flyers respected Bellemare way too much to protect Laughton in the expansion draft and then risk losing the Oakville, Ontario, native on waivers. The question is will he be a regular?

The Flyers lost the dynamic duo of Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde this summer. All three spots on the fourth line are open for business. Laughton will be in consideration.

We can count seven players competing for three spots in the lineup: Laughton, Dale Weise, Jori Lehtera, Mike Vecchione, Michael Raffl, Valtteri Filppula and Taylor Leier. I expect Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom to have top-nine roles. Filppula probably also has a top-nine role as well, but he's also a candidate for the fourth line.

That means six players for three spots. Then there will be one or two extra forwards. The other guy isn't here. Laughton will be here. In what capacity, I just don't know.

Hall
Following 2015-16, Laughton's first full NHL season in which he played mainly on the third line, the 2012 first-round pick said he had goals of being a top-six forward.

I think that's where he could actually show his true colors, but wouldn't everyone love top-six minutes?

Of course, but more often than not, you have to earn them and Laughton has not shown enough to climb the ladder with the Flyers. So what does he have to do? Be ready to capitalize on a fourth-line job, a role with not as much glamor and more dirty work in shorter minutes. He first needs to prove he can be such a player, especially now given the Flyers have an overcrowded group of forwards.

If Laughton can find his niche there, then maybe he sees more opportunity. The Flyers are smart, though, to not totally give up on Laughton. Think about it? He's only 23 years old and has had some bad luck with injuries to go along with just 109 games on his NHL résumé. He needs more time — and with it, he could turn out to be a nice scoring threat in a depth position, something the Flyers have needed.

Considering he was protected in the expansion draft and is now on a new two-year deal, it's likely Laughton makes the roster out of training camp. As for playing time, he'll have to earn it and then keep it if he does.

Paone
This upcoming Flyers training camp, in so many ways, is about opportunity. It will be abound for Patrick, Lindblom and the rest of the team's prospects … including Laughton.

It feels weird to still call Laughton a prospect, but he still just turned 23 in May and he spent basically all of last season reinventing himself in the AHL so he can become a better NHL player than he was before, no matter what the role may be.

That year of hard work last season obviously left an impression on Hextall and the Flyers' brass, who ultimately decided to protect Laughton from Vegas in the expansion draft despite the fact he played just two NHL games last season and has just 27 points in his NHL career. He impressed them so much so that he even got that two-year extension a few weeks ago.

So what does the immediate future hold for Laughton? Well, there is now a renewed sense of trust there that didn't exist before between player and organization. If there wasn't, the Flyers wouldn't have protected him and handed him that extension.

That makes me believe the organization prefers a defensively rounded Laughton in a bottom-six NHL role and that's where I believe he'll start the season. From there, it's up to him where things go and how he uses that year in the AHL to prove he really is a better NHL player. I see him starting on the fourth line and being a guy who could be a candidate to move up the lineup if the situation calls for it. The Flyers will need a solid defensive game from Laughton and if he can chip in points-wise, too, that's even better, obviously.

But Laughton now has something many thought he might not get again in Philadelphia — an opportunity. It's up to him on how he takes advantage of it.  

End to End: The state of Claude Giroux

End to End: The state of Claude Giroux

Throughout the offseason, we’ll ask questions about the Flyers to our resident hockey analysts and see what they have to say.

Going End to End today are CSNPhilly.com reporters John Boruk, Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone.

The topic: The state of Flyers captain Claude Giroux.

Boruk
The state of Giroux is more of a state of mind at this point of his career. There was one very revealing quote that surfaced following his breakout day when he said, “Your mind wants to do something but your body doesn’t do it, it’s frustrating.” That tells me the dynamic part of his game that we came to expect and admire for much of his career is perhaps no longer there, and he’s searching for a way to reinvent himself. He still has a big-time slap shot, terrific vision and an unbelievable set of hands.
 
The bigger worry here is that Giroux, who turns 30 in January, hasn’t performed as a No. 1 center (despite being paid like one) at even strength for the past three seasons, where he’s ranked 81st, 60th and a mind-blowing 189th last season in even-strength points. It’s an accumulation of facing the top lines and defense pairings every single game, and eventually, it takes a toll.

If this trend continues, I would give thought to moving him back to wing where he started his Flyers career during the Mike Richards-Jeff Carter era. I agree to some extent with Jeremy Roenick’s assertion that he lets too much get into his head, and that probably includes all facets of life, even off the ice. Giroux needs to come to camp like a finely-tuned Ferrari, and if he can start strong, it will go a long way toward a rebound season.  

Dougherty
The numbers tell a cautionary tale. Since the 2014-15 campaign, Giroux’s goal, assist and point totals have been in a consistent decline. What makes that season important?

That was when his eight-year, $66.2 million contract extension began. Giroux’s decline over the last three seasons should concern the Flyers. He’s not the same player he was in 2013-14. But I don’t believe he’s the player he was in 2016-17, either. I think there’s a happy medium here, and I expect Giroux to have a much better season in 2017-18.

It’s two-fold as to why I believe so. One, Giroux's confidence was rocked last season after undergoing hip and abdominal surgery last summer. Was he fully healthy all season? He’ll never say, but toward the end of the year, I thought he was much better. I think with a full summer of training and added motivation, Giroux will come in with a chip on his shoulder.

More importantly, there will be less pressure on Giroux to carry the workload because the talent level at forward will be deeper. I expect Nolan Patrick to be a Flyer. I also expect Oskar Lindblom to be here too. Then there is Jordan Weal and Travis Konecny. Weal will be here all season, and I expect Konecny to make a big jump in Year 2. Those four should lessen the demand placed on Giroux.

We may never see Giroux reach 70 points again. But with expected scoring depth incoming, the Flyers can live with Giroux in the 60-65-point range, which I think he’ll be in. The contract could be a cap problem in a few seasons, but I don’t think the Flyers are there yet.

Hall
Giroux's right — he's his toughest critic, which can be a blessing and a curse.

Any organization wants a driven player. With Giroux, it's not so much about what outsiders think, but it's his own expectations. So when he struggles, he sort of creates his own pressure because he expects a lot of himself — just like the fans and media expect a lot from him.

What I expect this season is an ultra-motivated Giroux, maybe the most fueled we've ever seen him. It didn't look or sound like Giroux was healthy last season, which only added to his frustration when he didn't perform. A summer full of recouping and training — he's pretty excited about both — should help Giroux's chances of rebounding.

I don't think he'll ever put up 80-plus points again, but that doesn't mean he can't be productive — say 20 goals and close to 50 assists? Giroux needs a supporting cast, not all the weight on his shoulders, because it has a negative affect on the captain.

The supporting cast should be better in 2017-18, and so should Giroux.

Paone
Is Giroux still an upper-echelon, high-level NHL player? Absolutely he is. The skill is still there and the guy isn't a former Hart Trophy finalist and four-time All-Star by accident. But after last season's woeful campaign where the captain, in many ways the sparkplug of the Flyers' offense and arguably the team's most important player, struggled mightily, it's more than fair to question just which echelon and level he is on these days, especially as he enters his age 29-30 season.

In so many ways, as Giroux goes, so does the Flyers' offense. And it's been that way for the last several years as he is still the main guy other teams gameplan for when preparing to play the Flyers. But the decline in production has been steady over the last few years and the Flyers' offense has suffered because of that.

In 2014-15, Giroux posted 73 points (25 goals, 48 assists) and the Flyers averaged 2.59 goals per game. In 2015-16, Giroux put up 67 points (22 goals and 45 assists) and the Flyers averaged 2.57 goals per game. Last season, the captain notched 58 points (14 goals and 44 assists) and the Flyers averaged 2.59 goals per game again. All of those goal-per-game numbers the last three seasons were in the bottom half of the league's numbers. Compare all that to 2013-14 when Giroux, a Hart finalist that year, posted 86 points (career-high-tying 28 goals and 58 assists) and the Flyers tallied 2.84 goals per contest, seventh in the league.

That Giroux may not be there any more. It's a legitimate question with the the decline shown over the last several seasons. That's why this season is all about answering questions for Giroux. And he couldn't answer those questions for the better part of last season as that hip surgery turned his hockey world upside down. He couldn't get a full summer of training in and then jumped right into the World Cup of Hockey, where he took this hit from Joe Pavelski in an exhibition. That's an injury that lingers, especially for a hockey player, and Giroux was basically stuck in mud the for most of the year as he tried to get his motor going. The quote John mentioned above from breakout day is so telling with that. Shayne Gostisbehere knows the feeling. But much like Gostisbehere, Giroux started to turn it on more and more and showed flashes of his more productive self as the season wound down.

Giroux is a guy who takes his play to heart and he can be very hard on himself. The way you see him break his stick over the bench every so often is proof of that. He expects so much more out of himself than he gave last season.

But now healthy, with a full offseason of training and a year's worth of motivation under his belt, I expect him to be much better and much more productive. The Giroux of five years ago? No, probably not. But with another year of young talent surrounding him and a healthy slate, I really don't feel there's a reason Giroux can't be a top-line threat again and I even look for him to be reckoned with as the season gets underway. But he's the guy who will provide the answers that both he and Flyers fans have been looking for.