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.

Hakstol intrigues with pairing, potential of Konecny, Couturier, Voracek

Hakstol intrigues with pairing, potential of Konecny, Couturier, Voracek

VOORHEES, N.J. — Travis Konecny, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek styled matching green jerseys during Friday’s practice at Flyers Skate Zone.

Together, they whipped around the ice in what head coach Dave Hakstol called a “physical, grinding, competitive day, probably the most competitive of camp … and that was for a purpose.”

Flyers fans are likely crossing their fingers, hoping the trio in green holds a purpose, as well.

The line of Konecny, Couturier and Voracek was a new wrinkle to 2016 training camp, a day before the team’s fifth preseason game. Maybe an experiment of sorts by Hakstol, but one that exudes all kinds of potential leading up to Saturday night’s contest against the Bruins at the Wells Fargo Center.

“It’s one day of practice,” Hakstol said. “They were fine. I wasn’t keying on that line in any way, I was keying on a lot of our team play. They were fine, they worked hard. To really see what kind of chemistry they have and how productive they can be, we’ll have to wait until the game [Saturday] if they’re together.”

Will we see that?

“You might,” Hakstol said. “I don’t have anything set yet.”

Konecny played left wing Friday, next to Couturier at center and Voracek on the right. If that is in fact the case Saturday, the 19-year-old Konecny will see another golden opportunity to woo management in his push for a roster spot. The Flyers purposely paired Konecny with NHL forwards Brayden Schenn and Michael Raffl in Wednesday’s 2-0 preseason win, and the 2015 first-round pick responded with a goal and an assist.

Friday marked a new day with new possibilities.

“It felt good,” Konecny said. “Just like the game [Wednesday] night, you’re playing with good players and it makes the game easier. I was just trying to keep things simple and work hard.”

Couturier and Voracek are two of the Flyers’ most skilled passers and playmakers. Combine them with Konecny — a prized prospect with the same traits — and it’s hard to measure the upside.

“It opens up a lot of space,” Konecny said. “Those guys are big out there, so when they’re going to the corners, it creates a little room for me. I’ve just got to find the holes and find the spots and the puck kind of just comes to you.”

Left wing is Konecny’s best shot at making the team’s roster and snagging a top-six role. The Flyers are heavy at right wing while light at left. Among the Flyers’ group of forwards, it’s the position of greatest need.

Like Hakstol said, Friday’s practice had purpose. So Konecny’s trying out left wing had substance, too.

“I think it’s a possibility,” Hakstol said. “I wouldn’t say that’s an absolute, but that’s one area that we’re looking at — not just for him, but for other players. So that’s one possibility.”

Konecny, more of a right winger and/or center, has no qualms with playing left. Really, a player of his ilk can make an impact regardless of position.

“I’ve played all positions through junior,” he said. “I’ve played right, middle and left, so wherever I fit in, I’d play there. I’m trying not to look too far ahead, though, just trying to play every day, and wherever I am that day, I’ll focus on that position and get the job done that day.

“I usually end up on the left wing when I’m coming across the ice anyway. I enter the zone on that side of the ice, so it helps me. I actually think I see the ice better when I play on that side of the ice.
 
“I got another day to play today. It’s just about earning each and every day.”

Voracek and Couturier, both of whom have yet to play in a preseason game because of World Cup of Hockey competition, looked at Friday as just another practice with new elements — such is life in training camp.

“It needs some work, obviously we need to get used to each other but if we skate and play with the puck, we should be fine,” Voracek said.

“Even last year along with this year, every game [Konecny has] been very solid. He’s a hard-working kid for his size. He’s very greedy, he’s not scared and he’s skating well. For a 19-year-old, he’s looking very, very sharp.”

Roster talk
According to a report by generalfanager.com, the Flyers waived forwards Petr Straka, Andy Miele, Chris Conner and Greg Carey, as well as defenseman and South Jersey native T.J. Brennan. None of the five were seen practicing Friday and the Flyers did not have an announcement. If they clear waivers — which seems likely — they’ll report to AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley.

With the reported moves, the Flyers’ roster stands at 34, including injured players Nick Schultz, Mark Alt and Cole Bardreau. The Flyers will have to be at 23 by the season opener Oct. 14.

Goalie situation
Hakstol said whomever is in net Saturday will play the entire game. He would not say if it would be Steve Mason or Michal Neuvirth. An announcement will be made Saturday morning. Neuvirth is back from the World Cup and has yet to play a preseason game.

Gudas update
Defenseman Radko Gudas (wrist), who said Wednesday he’s “pretty close” to 100 percent, will “definitely” play in a preseason game, Hakstol said. The coach would not say whether it would be Saturday or next week.

Canada wins World Cup, rallying to beat Europe

Canada wins World Cup, rallying to beat Europe

TORONTO -- Canada was not the best team on the ice until it mattered.

Down two goals with 3 minutes left, the high-powered Canadians kicked it up a notch and Team Europe simply couldn't stop them.

Brad Marchand scored a short-handed goal with 43.1 seconds left after Patrice Bergeron tied it with 2:53 to go on a power play, lifting Canada to a 2-1 victory and the World Cup of Hockey title Thursday night.

Sidney Crosby's line with the Boston Bruins pair of Marchand and Bergeron dominated in the final minutes as the trio did throughout the two-week tournament.

"They're addicted to winning and they just make it happen," Canada coach Mike Babcock said.

The Canadians won the best-of-three finals 2-0.

They've won 16 straight games, including Olympic gold medals at the Sochi and Vancouver Games, since losing to the U.S. in the 2010 Olympics.

"It's pretty special," Crosby said. "It's not easy to do and for a good chunk of us, a lot of us were there in Russia."

Europe seemed as if it had a chance to score a go-ahead goal late when Drew Doughty was called for high-sticking with just under 2 minutes left, but Canada was the team that took advantage when Marchand got the puck into open space and beat Jaroslav Halak with a shot from the slot to win the first World Cup since 2004.

"It's just crazy the way everything worked out," said Crosby, selected the MVP of the tournament after scoring three goals and finishing with a World Cup-high 10 points. "When you get a penalty that late in the game, you're just trying to force overtime."

After Crosby got his latest personal reward, he was presented with a silver World Cup of Hockey trophy and skated with it around the ice just months after hosting the Stanley Cup for the second time in his career.

He set up the tying goal, passing the puck off the boards to Brent Burns, whose shot just inside the blue line was redirected by Bergeron's raised stick.

"In the biggest moments, he turns it up," Babcock said.

Carey Price made 32 saves for the Canadians, who started slow before ending the tournament with a furious rally that fired up a once-quiet crowd.

Zdeno Chara scored early for Europe, and Halak made 32 saves for the eight-nation team .

"It's a tough loss because we were able to push them all the way to the limits," Chara said.

In front of an unenthusiastic crowd and a lot of empty seats in the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Canadians started flat and the Europeans made them pay for their apparent apathy.

Unlike the last two times Canada trailed briefly to the U.S. and Russia, it could not come back against Europe quickly.

It looked as if it wasn't going to be Canada's night when John Tavares had a wide-open net to shoot into, but hit the right post from the bottom of the right circle. Earlier in the same shift, the New York Islanders forward missed the net on a one-timer opportunity.

Canada averaged 4.4 goals over the first five games of the tournament, giving Price plenty of support. It didn't score as much in the final game of the tournament, but two goals were enough to win thanks to Price.

Europe outshot the Canadians 12-8 after the first period and 27-21 after the second before they closed well enough to finish with one more shot.

Canada had a man advantage again early in the third period, but only got one shot on Halak, a Slovak and Islanders standout, on the possibly pivotal power play.

Crosby had a chance to score with 7-plus minutes left, but Halak kicked the shot away with his right skate.

In the end, Halak could not keep the puck out of his net twice.

"The way it turned out at the end is very painful," Europe coach Ralph Krueger said. "But you need to open eye to big picture and the journey. How we played was amazing. They played their hearts out. ... We beat the odds and we turned this into a hell of final, which nobody expected."