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.

Steve Mason named NHL's 1st star after strong week

Steve Mason named NHL's 1st star after strong week

There’s a number of reasons why the Flyers have a five-game winning streak, why they’re playing better hockey, and why they own the No. 1 wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
 
Perhaps the biggest reason of all is goaltender Steve Mason, who has won four of those games, compiling a 1.71 goals against average and .945 save percentage during that span.
 
Mason was named the NHL’s first “Star of the Week” on Monday. St. Louis Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko and San Jose Sharks goalie Martin Jones were second and third stars.
 
“The team is on a roll right now and I’m a benefactor of that,” said Mason, who needs a win Tuesday against Florida to tie his career-high streak of five set Dec. 17-30 in 2013, during his first, full season as a Flyer.
 
“There’s strong play in front of me. The team is playing a little tighter in our defensive zone of late and making the goaltender reads that much more simple. 
 
“Right now, there’s a comfort level with the guys in front of me … Winning five in a row is nice and we’d like to keep making ground in the standings.”
 
His four victories last week were tops in the NHL. Among them, he had a season-high 45 saves in a 3-2 shootout win against Boston. 
 
Like many goalies, Mason prefers action. Games such as the 3-2 overtime win at Ottawa last week when the Senators only fired 21 shots, bother him.
 
“Those games, when you are not getting a lot of shots, the ones you do get will be a high-grade scoring chance,” he said. “And when you’re sitting around a few minutes not seeing the puck and all of a sudden see a chance like that …
 
“It’s more difficult to play [those games] than the games where there is a constant workload and you’re not thinking, but just playing. For myself personally, those are the games I enjoy the most. When I see a lot of pucks.”
 
The Flyers have seen dramatic improvement over the past month in their overall defensive play, from both their defensemen in down-low coverage in the slow and with their forwards on the backcheck.
 
Mason said the team has gone through “growing pains” with trying to integrate some younger bodies to the lineup this season – Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, and Nick Cousins  come to mind.
 
“You have to familiar with everybody,” he said. “Have a constant lineup where guys go out  shift after shift and night after night, you know what to expect from one another. When you have that kind of confidence in guys, it makes playing easier.” 
 
Mason’s 4-2 victory at Nashville on Sunday saw him go over .500 for the first time this season with a 9-8-3 record. 
 
His GAA is coming down at 2.76 while his save percentage has risen to .904.
 
“I was aware of it obviously, just because of the way the year started,” he said. “It’s taken a lot of work to get it above the .900 level.
 
“We’re obviously going to continue to work at getting it even better. The way the team’s playing right now and the way everybody’s clicking, we’re going at a good pace right now.”

Future Flyers Report: Welcome to the Carter Hart Show

Future Flyers Report: Welcome to the Carter Hart Show

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 edition, we continue our weekly check-in on a dominant goalie prospect and a pair of AHL players fighting for the next call-up and much more. Let’s dig in.

Carter Hart, G, 6-1/181, Everett (WHL)
It appears the Flyers have struck gold with a legitimate goalie prospect, one of a few in the system, in Hart. The 18-year-old is dominating the Western Hockey League. Last Monday, Hart was named the WHL Goaltender of the Week for the second consecutive week. More good news for Hart came Tuesday, when he was named to Team Canada’s selection camp roster.

Hart also saw his shutout streak reach an Everett record 193 minutes and 48 seconds. He pitched a 20-save shutout Wednesday in the Silvertips’ 5-0 win over Kootenay. That was his second straight shutout, and his third in his previous four games. He saw his shutout streak snapped at 6:47 in the first period Friday against Medicine Hat, a game in which he stopped 23 of 26 shots in a 4-3 Silvertips’ win.

Oskar Lindblom, LW/RW, 6-1/192, Brynäs IF (SHL)
More points for Lindblom last week, as he now is second in the SHL with 24 points. The winger had a two-assist game in Brynäs IF’s 3-2 defeat to Skelleftea on Thursday, then a goal in Brynäs’ 2-0 win over Växjö. The 20-year-old has developed into force as a kid playing among men. He’s been a mainstay of the Future Flyers Report this year, and it’ll be interesting if he comes overseas for a tryout again with the Phantoms once the SHL season ends.

Jordan Weal, C, 5-10/179, Lehigh Valley (AHL)
There is not much to be disappointed with Weal this season. He came into Flyers’ training camp and nearly wrangled a roster spot, and then responded by going down to the Phantoms and torching the AHL. His wrath continued again last week, and he’s currently on a four-game point streak. Weal has seven points in his last four games, and nine points in his last six games. Overall, Weal leads the Phantoms with 15 assists and 24 points — which has him tied for second in the AHL. He’s third on the team with nine goals. Weal’s production offers general manager Ron Hextall some scoring depth in the American League, which should allow some comfort if an injury falls to one of the Flyers’ skilled forwards. Weal would be the first call-up from Lehigh Valley.

Taylor Leier, LW, 5-10/176, Lehigh Valley Phantoms (AHL)
Leier has heated up over the past few weeks, and last week he turned in another impressive string of games for Lehigh Valley. Leier displayed unselfishness last Tuesday in the Phantoms’ 4-1 win over Toronto, dishing a pass to Colin McDonald for an empty-net goal instead of going for the goal himself. He picked up another apple on a McDonald goal Saturday in the Phantoms’ 4-3 overtime win over Hershey. To cap off the week, Leier recorded a goal and an assist for Lehigh Valley in its 3-2 win over Bridgeport. He’s now two points shy of a point-per-game pace with 20 in 22 games, and sits behind Weal for the team lead. Could be an injury call-up at some point this season.

Quick hits
• Ohio State’s Tanner Laczynski turned in a four-point night for the Buckeyes Saturday vs. Minnesota, scoring one goal and three assists. He now has 22 points in 15 games.

Wade Allison registered his seventh collegiate goal and scored in a shootout Saturday for Western Michigan in a 5-5 tie to St. Cloud State. He has 10 points in 14 games in his freshman campaign.

• Bowling Green’s Mark Friedman picked up another assist Saturday against Lake Superior. Friedman has nine assists and 13 points in 17 games this season.

Merrick Madsen started two more games for Harvard last week. Madsen stopped 44 of 47 shots in two Crimson wins. He’s goaltended every game for Harvard this season.

• Brynäs IF goalie Felix Sandstrom pitched a 22-save shutout against Växjö on Saturday, his first start since Nov. 22.

Sam Morin tallied his second goal of the season last Tuesday in the Phantoms’ 4-1 win over the Toronto Marlies. His D-partner, Travis Sanheim, had an assist last week.

• A good week for Robert Hagg, who picked up his first goal of the season Friday against Hershey and then an assist Sunday against Bridgeport.

Alex Lyon started three of the Phantoms’ four games last week, going 2-0 and allowing seven goals on 78 shots. He let up four in his only loss last week.

• After returning from a concussion two weeks ago, Pascal Laberge missed both of Victoriaville’s games last week with concussion symptoms.

• Rouyn-Noranda’s Philippe Myers had a goal and two assists in two games last week for the Huskies. Myers will join Hart on Team Canada’s selection camp roster.

Connor Bunnaman scored a hat trick in Kitchener’s 5-4 overtime win over Ottawa on Saturday night. He now has 15 goals in 25 games.

• Sarnia’s Anthony Salinitri words had a goal and an assist in two games last week.

Carsen Twarynski picked up a goal and an assist in Calgary’s 7-5 loss to Moose Jaw on Saturday night.