Upgrading defense must be Flyers' top priority


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.

Steve Mason, Flyers hope to channel emotion in opener

Steve Mason, Flyers hope to channel emotion in opener

Fiftieth anniversary home opener. Electricity in the stands. And a stirring tribute to the late Ed Snider, the founding father of the franchise.

All of that is on tap Thursday night for the Flyers as they welcome the Anaheim Ducks to the Wells Fargo Center.

Steve Mason, who didn’t get the start in Los Angeles for the season opener, gets the nod in the even larger home curtain lift.

“It’s a special night for everybody who is involved with it,” the Flyers’ goalie said. “This organization is rich in history, largely because of Mr. Snider. 

“It will be nice to see him get the respect he most definitely deserves beforehand. It will be an honor to be part of it.”

Fans attending the game will have lighted bracelets hanging off their seats for the on-ice tribute to Snider. His family will be there, as well.

When the Flyers offered a bracelet tribute to Snider last April in their playoff home opener (Game 3) against Washington, fans threw the bracelets on the ice during a 6-1 blowout loss.

“It’s up to us to give them reasons to keep them on their wrists,” Mason said. “They’re cool introduction shows and you hope everyone is respectful.”

Some of the Flyers said they need to channel the emotion of the evening toward getting off to a better start in the game. The Flyers had poor starts in their recent three-game road trip out west.

“Most guys are pretty excited, it’s going to be a full house and there’s nothing like opening at home,” said Nick Cousins, who is back in the lineup (Roman Lyubimov is out). “I’m looking forward to it. There will be a lot of emotion in the building. 

“Mr. Snider was the heart and soul of the Flyers. Very passionate about the hockey team. Like I said, there’s going to be a lot of emotion in the building. Hopefully, we can get this win for him. The boys are looking forward to it.”

Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said he addressed his club briefly today about channeling their energy off the Snider ceremony into something positive without being consumed by it.

“We discussed it a little bit in a quick team meeting,” Hakstol said. “And really, there’s nothing more to be said. Take that emotion, take that energy and direct in the right way into our game. 

“Sometimes, that’s easier said than done, but our group is veteran enough in here that we will be able to do that.”

On Cousins
Hakstol said he didn’t want to leave Cousins sit “too long.” 

Cousins said the explanation for his benching in Chicago wasn’t punitive and that Hakstol explained to him he wanted to get Lyubimov his first taste of NHL play.

“I really like what Lubey did in his role the other night,” Hakstol said. “I thought he took a step forward. But tonight we got Cuz back in there and the things he brings to the table are important to us.”

Provorov bounce-back
Rookie defenseman Ivan Provorov was minus-5 in the 7-4 loss at Chicago. He was responsible, in part, for three goals.

“It happens to the best of us,” Provorov said, sounding like a veteran. “The best players in the world make mistakes. If nobody made mistakes, the game would end 0-0. 

“The thing that separates the better players from average players is they limit those kind of nights. It happens to all of us. You learn from it and move on.” 



Flyers-Ducks 5 things: An extra-meaningful home opener

Flyers-Ducks 5 things: An extra-meaningful home opener

Flyers vs. Ducks
7 p.m. on CSN, Pregame Live at 6

The Wells Fargo Center will be filled with emotion Thursday night.

It marks the beginning of the Flyers’ home schedule for the organization’s first season without iconic founder Ed Snider, who died in April. The team is planning a special pregame tribute to commemorate the man who birthed the franchise in 1966.

Building blocks Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov will make their regular-season home debuts as 19-year-olds, another significant shift for the franchise.

And hockey returns to South Philadelphia.

The Flyers (1-1-1) welcome the Anaheim Ducks (0-3-1) for their 2016-17 home opener.

Here are five things to know for the game:

1. Schenn returns
With Brayden Schenn’s return from a three-game suspension, the Flyers now see a full arsenal at the head of their lineup, making for a top six head coach Dave Hakstol and the front office likely envisioned when the decision came to keep Konecny.

Schenn will rejoin Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds on the Flyers’ first line, followed by the fast-starting second unit of Konecny, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek, which has produced 10 points over the opening three games.

"Obviously Brayden coming back is going to be big for us," Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday. "He's a physical presence, he scores goals, he's good on the power play. So I think Brayden [will make] a big impact, too, so it's nice to get your lines in how Hak foresees them.”

The 25-year-old forward, with a new four-year deal signed this offseason after a career year, is a huge component to the Flyers’ man advantage, on which he scored the team’s second-most goals (11) and tied for the second-most points (22).

Typically a player that heats up in January and February, Schenn is motivated beginning the season in position to replicate his 26-goal, 33-assist campaign in 2015-16.

"I think I continue to get more confident and get better every year,” Schenn said. “I think heading into this year, I start off with a great opportunity to play with great players throughout the start here and try to run with it. I feel confident, I feel good heading into Game 1 for me.

"I'm going to do everything in my power to try and beat my points from last year."

2. The rookie’s response
That would be Provorov, who endured his first game to forget as an NHLer in the Flyers’ 7-4 loss to the Blackhawks on Tuesday.

The blueliner committed a few mistakes, highlighted by a costly blunder, en route to a game-worst minus-5 rating.

Provorov has spoiled fans thus far with his precociousness. For once, he actually looked 19.

It’ll be interesting to see how he answers in a hyped-up environment such as the home opener. The Flyers are not worried, nor should they be.

"Even though there were a couple of mistakes and a couple of things that didn't go right, he just kept playing,” Hakstol said. “He kept trying to make a difference in the game. I think that shows his overall mentality and his care of the team. Those are things that kind of tell you where his maturity level is at."

3. Not-so mighty Ducks
Anaheim is off to a lousy start.

Winless through four contests, the Ducks are 29th among the NHL in both goals per game (1.75) and goal differential (minus-5).

Interestingly, Anaheim was handed a five-game road trip to start the season. The Ducks also started slow in 2015-16, going 1-7-2 over their first 10 games. However, they finished with an overall goal differential of plus-26 and a playoff berth.

They also went 21-15-5 on the road and boasted the league’s No. 1 power play and penalty kill.

The absences of forward Rickard Rakell (abdomen) and defenseman Hampus Lindholm (contract holdout) have not helped.

4. Keep an eye on ...
Flyers: We’ll say Schenn — who’s “chomping at the bit,” according to Hakstol — makes a dent in his first game. Over his past four season debuts, Schenn has two goals and one assist.

Ducks: Skilled center Ryan Getzlaf is a tough matchup with his 6-foot-4 frame. He also owns five goals and 10 assists in 12 career games against the Flyers.

5. This and that
• Steve Mason will start in net for the Flyers after relief duty in Tuesday’s loss. He’s 5-9-2 with a 3.36 goals-against average and .889 save percentage in 17 games lifetime against the Ducks.

• Anaheim goalie John Gibson is 0-2-1 with a 3.07 goals-against average to start the season. He’s faced the Flyers only once in his career, beating them, 4-2, on Dec. 27 of last season with 24 saves.

• Nick Cousins is back in the lineup for Roman Lyubimov. The forwards were swapped on Tuesday as Cousins was scratched and Lyubimov made his NHL debut.

Michael Raffl is out 10 to 14 days with an upper-body injury. Schenn essentially fills his spot in the lineup.

• The Flyers have lost three of their last four home openers.

• Konecny leads all NHL rookies in assists with four.