Upgrading defense must be Flyers' top priority

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Upgrading defense must be Flyers' top priority

Among the issues facing new general manager Ron Hextall this summer is what to do about upgrading his blue line.

Did the blue line get better with the acquisition of Andrew MacDonald at the trade deadline? Yes.

Was it good enough to slow down the New York Rangers in the playoffs? No.

Is it good enough to leave untouched for next season? No.

The Flyers go into the summer with about $6.58 million in projected salary cap space for next season, according to salary calculation site GapGeek.com, assuming the cap rises to $71.1 million as expected.

Upgrading the defense has to be Hextall’s No. 1 priority -- no ifs, ands or buts.

Hextall has made it clear he wants more out of players within the organization and wants to stop the hemorrhaging of prospects and draft picks, which is the reason why the Flyers remain the only NHL club since the decade began that has yet to produce a defenseman through the draft who plays significant minutes for them.

They’ve got a few playing elsewhere in the NHL, but not on their own roster, which is embarrassing.

“I’ll be looking hard at that,” Hextall said recently. “I think on defense we’ve got a couple guys that are getting older, so we’ve got to take a peek at that as well. We do have three good, young defensemen coming right now that we’re real excited about.

“We also can’t rush the process with these guys. They’re young people and they’re young players, and we can’t just throw them in the lineup and expect them to make us a better team. That’ll all shake out at training camp and throughout the year, but the one thing I’m not in favor of is rushing young players.” 

Although Hextall has said he doesn’t think it is essential to promote one of the Flyers’ prized defensive prospects to the NHL roster next season ahead of schedule, it’s pretty clear that the organization’s philosophy on the blue line hasn’t worked, and therefore, needs adjustment.

If Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith can each be promoted to the Chicago Blackhawks' roster inside of three years after being drafted, and learn on the job -- while winning a couple Stanley Cups -- what’s the Flyers’ rationale for saying they can’t do the same?

Where does it say that the Flyers can’t take a chance on a young defenseman? Why can’t they let a kid play through his mistake and growth period? What do the Flyers have to lose?

What has their present philosophy gained them? The answer is nothing. 

That's why the Flyers have to promote one of three prospects next fall onto their roster. Will it be Robert Hagg, Shayne Gostisbehere or Samuel Morin?

Among the three, Hagg and Gostisbehere are said to be the closest to being NHL ready.

This is where we will find out whether Hextall represents a true change in moving forward or whether the organization just changed faces, but not philosophy.

Now, that said, the Flyers have always been active participants in free agency.

There’s nothing wrong with looking at the defensive market this summer and seeing who can best help them, even though that does zero on the developmental side of the ledger.

If the Flyers move toward signing a free agent defenseman, the one player they should target is Pittsburgh’s Matt Niskanen.

The 6-foot, 209-pound Niskanen won’t turn 28 until next December and has seven NHL seasons under his belt.

He will be seeking his fourth contract as well as a nice raise above the $2.3 million he earned the past two years with the Penguins.

This season represented a career-best for Niskanen in goals (10), assists (36) and points (46).

Signing him would bolster the Flyers' blue line while hurting the Penguins simultaneously.

Taking from the rich and giving to the poor, so to speak.

Niskanen represents a far better investment in salary cap dollars for the Flyers than re-signing Kimmo Timonen, who turns 40 next season.

This is another area where Hextall has to change the culture and think of the Flyers from more of a business standpoint than from the organizational philosophy that the team is a family business.

There are no easy decisions that lie ahead for Hextall, yet it’s fair to say the entire fan base will be watching this summer to see if there truly is an organizational change in how the Flyers go about improving their team.

It begins on defense.

Flyers regroup behind Steve Mason for big win over Wild

Flyers regroup behind Steve Mason for big win over Wild

BOX SCORE

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- When Zach Parise scored for the Minnesota Wild just 2:07 into Thursday's game, the Flyers were in another difficult position on the road.

This time, they responded with the type of game they've needed on the road all season.

The Flyers scored three unanswered goals by Sean Couturier, Matt Read and Jakub Voracek to beat Minnesota 3-1 and snap a four-game losing streak on the road (see Instant Replay).

"They're a tough team to handle in their transition," Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said of Parise's goal. "It's quick and it's fast. The players on the bench were outstanding, talking, real calm. Just go out and push it the other way the next shift and I thought we were able to do that."

The Flyers responded with one of their best efforts on the road in nearly two months and pulled within six points of Boston for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins lost 6-3 at home to Tampa Bay.

Steve Mason made 24 saves in goal for his 100th win with the Flyers as the team was rarely challenged thanks to an all-around performance that has been missing on the road. The Flyers entered the night tied for the second-fewest road wins in the conference this season.

"Certain things on the road, you've got to be a little more specific with your game and detailed, and I think we did a better job of that tonight," said Flyers defenseman Nick Schultz, who returned to the arena where he played 10 seasons with Minnesota. "Everybody throughout the lineup did that and that's why we got a big win."

The beginning looked all too familiar, though.

An innocent looking dump-in slid to Mason, who tried to cover the puck. The puck went off his stick and Parise quickly poked it past Mason. The Wild had four quality chances early before the Flyers took control.

"They came hard early on in the game and to be able to match that speed; that was a completely different pace of game compared to what we came from in Winnipeg," Mason said. "So, it almost took a second to get your bearings straight to get up to speed."

The Flyers weathered the early flurry by Minnesota, which is safely in playoff position in the West but is facing its own late-season issues. The Flyers killed off both Wild penalties, allowing just two shots on the penalty kill.

Couturier's 12th goal of the season was critical in tying the game with 2:01 left in the first.

"Coming into the room after the period, I think it's important that when you get a big goal like that," captain Claude Giroux said. "You feel like you have the momentum a little bit, so it definitely helped us a lot."

Read provided the lead in the second and the Flyers, who are now 15-2-2 when leading after two periods, pressured in the third. They outshot the Wild 9-4 in the final period.

"We didn't sit back," Hakstol said. "I thought we were confident with the puck and made some plays and spent a good amount of time in the offensive zone. We played with real confidence in our game."

Mason had been critical after the Flyers lost in Winnipeg on Tuesday, saying the team needed to be more desperate. The Flyers responded Thursday in the difficult position of being on the road and allowing the first goal.

"We knew we had to be better," Schultz said of Mason's comments. "I think on the road, you've got to be at least a .500 team and take care of business at home, and we haven't done that this year. So, obviously, we've got to get better and I think we did responded tonight. Now we have to build on it."

Instant Replay: Flyers 3, Wild 1

Instant Replay: Flyers 3, Wild 1

BOX SCORE

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- A much-needed win for the Flyers came in an unlikely spot: on the road against one of the Western Conference's top teams.

Sean Couturier, Matt Read and Jakub Voracek scored for the Flyers, and Steve Mason made 24 saves in a 3-1 win over the Wild on Thursday. It snapped a four-game winless streak on the road and kept the Flyers' playoff hopes alive.

Mason allowed an early goal to Zach Parise but recovered, and Couturier tied the game in the first. The Flyers responded as a whole and Read scored for the second time in an as many games, while Voracek had his first goal in 11 games with his 18th of the season.

Goalie report
Playing for the 11th time in 12 games, Mason was a little shaky at the start after not covering the puck twice and then coming far out of the cage, leading to a wraparound opportunity for Minnesota. But after Parise's goal -- one of the times Mason thought he had the puck covered -- the netminder was very steady. He didn't get out of position and allowed less than two goals for the fourth time in 12 games.

The victory marked Mason's 100th in a Flyers uniform. He is third in franchise history behind Ron Hextall (240) and Bernie Parent (232).

Faceoffs
The Flyers were dominant in the faceoff circle on Thursday, winning 61 percent of the draws.

Power play
The Flyers didn't take advantage of their one opportunity in the game as defenseman Ivan Provorov was called for a hooking penalty halfway through their lone power play. The Flyers are now 3 for 40 on the power play over the past 12 games.
 
Penalty kill
The penalty kill had one of its better performances in recent games. The Flyers killed off both penalties and allowed just two Minnesota shots in the three minutes of penalty time. Entering the game, the Flyers had allowed 10 goals in 28 occasions on the penalty kill in the previous nine games.

A small move
With the win, the Flyers were able to pull closer to the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Boston lost, 6-3, at home to Tampa Bay, allowing the Flyers to close within six points with nine games left. The Bruins have only eight games remaining. Two of the teams between Boston and the Flyers -- the Lightning and Hurricanes -- did win Thursday, while the Islanders were idle (see wild-card standings).

Lines change
Looking for a spark, three of the four lines were changed for Thursday's game. Claude Giroux centered Read and Voracek. Valtteri Filppula was between Jordan Weal and Wayne Simmonds. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare teamed with Travis Konecny and Chris VandeVelde. Coach Dave Hakstol kept the line of Brayden Schenn, Couturier and Dale Weise together.

Blue line return
Defenseman Brandon Manning made his return after missing five games with a shoulder injury.
 
Scratches
Forwards Nick Cousins (upper body) and Roman Lyubimov (healthy), and defenseman Michael Del Zotto (healthy).
 
Up next
The third game of the four-game road trip is Saturday at Columbus. The Flyers are 0-1-1 against the Blue Jackets this season, including a 5-3 loss at home on March 13.