The Philadelphia Flyers returned to the playoffs, for the 17th time in the past 19 seasons, where they were eliminated in seven games by the New York Rangers.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Flyers team that has challenges going forward, as they try to fit under the salary cap and try to maintain their hold on a playoff spot.
New GM Ron Hextall has lots of talent on hand, but has issues to face too. For one thing, they ranked 23rd in puck possession last season and it's not easy to sustain success when the other team has the puck so frequently.
Perhaps the biggest issue to handle this summer will be what to do with Vincent Lecavalier, last summer's big free agent acquisition who fell flat after joining the Flyers. A buyout would be awfully expensive, so maybe the Flyers could find team willing to take on Lecavalier's contract while Philadelphia pays some of the salary. The Flyers have enough skilled players, and young, developing forwards, that they should still be decent on the attack.
Then, there is the defence, where they are faced with the prospect of losing their best defenceman, Kimmo Timonen, to retirement, and are paying a lot of money to guys who aren't pusing the puck in the right direction when they are on the ice. It might be easier to convince Timonen to play another season, to buy some time, rather than overhauling a defence corps that needs improvement.
Even once the lineup is sorted, Hextall looks at a goaltending situation which remains a question mark. Steve Mason is coming off a good year, his best since his rookie year of 2008-2009, but what happens if Mason regresses towards his previous norm?
Hextall appears to be taking the long view to his new job. "I like young players and I like draft picks," Hextall told CSN Philly. "My vision is to build this team and to continue to make this team better through the draft. That doesn't mean we won't make trades. At some point if it's a good enough player, and we've got to trade a young player, we may look at that. But it's not a vision of mine to trade young players for older players."
With all of the decisions that Hextall gets to make as a first-time GM, he has a team that will expect to make the postseason again next year, yett he's walking a fine line, fine enough that a few wrong decisions or even a couple of bad breaks could be enough to cost them.
Of course, the flip side is that the Flyers are close enough that a few sharp decisions and a few good breaks could put them right back in the playoff mix again next season.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts), via www.extraskater.com.
Ron Hextrall/Craig Berube
Free Agent Forwards
||'13-'14 Cap Hit
After having finger surgery last August, it turned out that Claude Giroux wasn't in peak form to open the season, and he started out with no goals and seven assists in the first 15 games, but Giroux was a force after that, scoring 79 points in 67 games the rest of the way. He's one of the premier power play point producers in the league and no one has scored more total points in the past four seasons.
Jakub Voracek has emerged as a real offensive threat, a solid complement to Giroux on Philadelphia's top line. Over the past two seasons, Voracek ranks 23rd with 108 points and he's a skilled, big winger that can be difficult to remove from the puck. Voracek, 24, also happens to be hitting his prime.
Coming off a career year, Wayne Simmonds had career-highs in goals (29), assists (31) and points (60), while playing a career-high 16:46 per game. He's missed nine games, total, in six NHL seasons and only two players (Alex Ovechkin, James Neal) have more than Simmonds' 32 power play goals over the past three seasons. He's not an ideal possession player, but contributes plenty otherwise.
A solid two-way player who plays tough minutes, against quality opposition with more defensive zone starts, Matt Read has also scored 57 goals in three seasons and played a career-high 18:48 last season. He's valuable because he can play a variety of different roles and ranked third among Philadelphia forwards in ice time per game.
Read frequently rides shotgun with Sean Couturier, the 21-year-old who plays a shutdown role. He scored a career-high 39 points last season, but only three of those points came on the power play, so there is potential for more offensive production if he is given the opportunity. He had 96 points in each of his last two junior seasons and scored 28 points in 31 AHL games as a 20-year-old, so the pedigree is there for Couturier to take on a bigger role offensively, if he gets the chance.
Vincent Lecavalier's game went off a cliff last season. He had poor possession numbers, despite offensive zone starts and relatively easy quality of opposition; 37 points in 69 games was his lowest points per game since 2001-2002 and he ended up playing 15:11 per game, his lowest time on ice since his rookie year, 1998-1999. He's still under contract for four more seasons which is more than a little problematic for a 34-year-old coming off a bad year.
Austrian winger Michael Raffl made a surprising jump to the NHL, almost directly from Leksands in Sweden's second tier, and while his production was modest, he had respectable possession stats, which makes him a reasonable option as a depth forward. He's 25 and may not have enough offensive upside to fit higher on the depth chart.
He's a physical presence on the fourth line, but Zac Rinaldo gets buried in possession terms, and has seven goals and 470 penalty minutes in 165 career games. Among those lucky few who play enough to register at least 400 penalty minutes over the past three seasons, Rinaldo's production is on the low end.
Jay Rosehill has fought 14 times in 45 games over the past two seasons, so he's a heavyweight face-puncher, if that's required. He's also put up eight points in 117 career games and has been overmatched when it comes to puck possession, which is why he ends up as a part-time player.
Progress has been gradual for Brayden Schenn, who did set career-highs with 20 goals and 41 points last season, but he also had poor possession stats despite facing relatively easy competition. It may be fair to wonder whether Schenn and Couturier are blossoming as effectively as possible, as they both compete for playing time down the middle behind Giroux.
As the Flyers look to improve long-term, yet also under some financial constraints, they could look to free agent wingers like Mason Raymond, Benoit Pouliot or Radim Vrbata as possibilities to fit in a scoring role without necessarily breaking the bank.
Free Agent Defence
||'13-'14 Cap Hit
In the past seven seasons, there have been four defencemen to produce at least five 40-point seasons and one of them is Mark Streit, who missed one full season (2010-2011) in that span as he recovered from shoulder surgery. Streit may not be driving play, but the Flyers can do worse than getting respectable possession numbers to go along with his offensive production.
It's difficult to imagine what the Flyers saw from Andrew MacDonald in 19 games to warrant a six-year, $30-million contract extension, because MacDonald has been a puck possession nightmare, whose with-or-without-you stats show that nearly everyone fares better without him. There has been some evidence that his neutral zone defence is an issue, and that would have to improve in order to give MacDonald's new contract some value.
Braydon Coburn hasn't materialized offensively the way that might have been expected after a 36-point season in 2007-2008 but, as a big guy who can skate and move the puck, he's been able to hold his own in a shutdown role. The question going forward may be just how effective Coburn could be if Kimmo Timonen doesn't return. It's pretty clear that, over time, Coburn has been better with Timonen.
Stay-at-home defender Nicklas Grossman scored a career-high 14 points last season and that indicates certain limitations to his game, the same that are inherent to many stay-at-home defensive defencemen. Grossman gets eaten alive in relative possession terms, yet he played more last season (1491 minutes) than he had in any previous season. This is the disconnect that comes between old-school coaching and analytics that emphasize positive shot differentials.
After a decent showing in his first (lockout-shortened) season in Philly, Luke Schenn's game regressed dramatically. In six NHL seasons, Schenn has alternated between having seasons with at least 21 minutes of ice time per game seasons in which he's played fewer than 17 minutes per game. Last season saw him play 16:32 per game and his per-game scoring rate (0.15 points per game) was the lowest of his career. Even with that reduced ice time, Schenn ranked third among defencemen with 260 hits last season, which means he didn't have the puck that much, but the Flyers may need Schenn to handle a bigger role again in the future.
There are some holes on the Philadelphia defence. Maybe it was part of the reason that they were so quick to sign MacDonald to an extension.
A mobile, undersized defenceman, Erik Gustafsson couldn't earn a regular spot on the Flyers' blueline and made the decision to sign in the KHL for next season. Chris Pronger, while on the payroll, hasn't played since November 19, 2012 and isn't going to play again.
39-year-old Kimmo Timonen could be on his way to retirement, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Flyers or another team try to convince him to keep playing. Timonen has been a stalwart on the Flyers' blueline, putting up strong possession numbers while facing top-tier opposition. If he really is going to leave, that would create a significant hole. Philadelphia could use a quality addition on defence even if Timonen returns, so if Timonen leaves, might as well make it two.
Free agents Sami Salo, Anton Stralman or Raphael Diaz might help and taking a shot at top AHL defenceman T.J. Brennan (from nearby Willingboro, NJ) might improve the Flyers' ability to move the puck from the back end.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'13-'14 Cap Hit
Has 26-year-old Steve Mason found what he's been looking for in Philadelphia? In four-plus seasons with Columbus, Mason had a .903 save percentage, and was one of the worst starting goaltenders in the league over that time. But, in 68 games with the Flyers, Mason has a .920 save percentage. His real value may be some point in between, but having a point in between counts as progress.
Should the Flyers lose Ray Emery to free agency, they will need to find a suitable backup for Mason. How much the Flyers will be willing to spend will likely depend on cap space, but a veteran with some measure of reliability would be ideal. If not, why not take a chance on Alex Stalock, a 26-year-old who was very good in 24 games for San Jose last season?
||40-47-87, +12, 54 GP
||7-24-31, +12, 54 GP
||9-25-34, +33, 42 GP
||11-18-29, -9, 74 GP
||4-22-26, -16, 75 GP
||2.52 GAA, .926 SV%, 35 GP
||Modo Ornskoldsvik (SHL)
||1-5-6, even, 50 GP
||24-40-64, -17, 70 GP
||20-15-35, -20, 54 GP
||37-42-79, +48, 62 GP
||9-18-27, -4, 60 GP
||8-23-31, -24, 73 GP
Picked 20th overall in 2012, Scott Laughton has already played a handful of games for the Flyers, and the gritty forward had a strong season in the Ontario Hockey League. He should be able to challenge for a job next season.
The 11th pick last summer, Samuel Morin is a towering blueliner who could become an intimidating presence, but he skates well for his size and has improving puck skills.
A third-round pick of the Flyers in 2012, Shayne Gostisbehere finished an impressive junior campaign with national-champion Union College. He's not big, but Gostisbehere can skate, move the puck and work the point on the power play.
Taken in the third round in 2011, Nick Cousins is a two-way centre who went through a learning process in his first pro season. He'll need to get stronger and continue to improve if he's going to take the next step, but the 20-year-old can play a feisty game that should endear him to the Flyers.
Acquired from Carolina in January, 2013, Mark Alt is defenceman with good size and physical game who had a solid first pro season, during which he saw power play time and played a big role in the AHL.
A second-round pick in 2012, Anthony Stolarz has posted a .924 save percentage in 55 OHL games since leaving Nebraska-Omaha. At 6-foot-6, Stolarz has prototypical size, yet he's a 20-year-old goaltender so it's likely to take some time before he's ready to mount a challenge for an NHL job.
Drafted in the second round last summer, Robert Hagg is a steady defensive defenceman who joined Adirondack late last season after a solid season in the Swedish Hockey League. He could use time to develop, but Hagg holds promise as a well-rounded blueliner.
Undrafted winger Jason Akeson has forced his way into consideration for a spot with the Flyers, after scoring 172 points in 208 AHL games over the past three seasons. He took a regular spot in the Flyers' top nine in the first round of the playoffs, and had respectable possession stats to show for it.
Power forward Tye McGinn was a fourth-round pick in 2010. He's scored seven goals and 10 points in 36 NHL games since, and had 34 goals and 61 points in 100 AHL games over the past couple seasons.
A fourth-round pick in 2012, Taylor Leier is a skilled two-way forward who plays on a powerhouse Portland team and has improved steadily over three WHL seasons.
Signed as a free agent after he failed to come to terms with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Petr Straka has some offensive upside and was okay in his first pro season. He'll need to produce more to warrant further promotion.
Undrafted out of the Western Hockey League, Brandon Manning is making it hard to ignore his contributions, racking up penalty minutes to go with improving point totals.
Flyers advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater
17th - Dylan Larkin, Alex Tuch, Josh Ho-Sang.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Flyers have approximately $59.6M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 16 players.
Check out my possible Flyers lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.
Needs: One top nine forward, depth forwards, one top pair defenceman, depth defencemen, backup goaltender.
What I said the Flyers needed last year: One top six forward, one top four defenceman, goaltender.
They added: Vincent Lecavalier, Michael Raffl, Mark Streit, Ray Emery.
Vincent Lecavalier, Brayden Schenn, Luke Schenn, Nicklas Grossman.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.