The Philadelpia Flyers missed the playoffs for the second time in the past three seasons, but their roster isn’t necessarily conducive to going into a rebuilding mode.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at the challenges facing the Flyers, who seem to have forward talent and goaltending, but major defensive concerns.
First up, presumably, will be finding a new coach after Craig Berube was dismissed following the season. Mike Babcock’s name has been in the rumour mill, but his name is on a lot of lists these days. Dan Bylsma, Davis Payne and Dave Tippett (if he opts out of contract in Arizona) are also candidates.
Once a new bench boss is bound, it’s not as simple as adding a top-pair defenceman and everything will be all right with the Flyers, but that would be a start. The free agent market doesn’t have ideal top-pair candidates, though Mike Green and Christian Ehrhoff are a couple of big-ticket free agents that would be an improvement for the Flyers, if only they could manage to create roster and cap room in order to accommodate defencemen of that calibre.
The Flyers were a subpar team last season, but not dramatically so, handling about 49% of score-adjusted possession. They were good enough to make the playoffs with 50% possession in 2013-2014, and not good enough at 48% in 2012-2013, so they are still hovering in that bubble area – not bad enough to be terrible and focused on the lottery, not good enough to expect better than sneaking into one of the bottom playoff spots. It is conceivable that a new coach and personnel upgrades could bridge the gap to take the Flyers from a subpar possession team to at least league average or better.
If the Flyers are going to attempt a quick turnaround, they do have some options to get better. They have a ton of picks (seven in the first four rounds this year) and pairing a pick or two with an expiring contract like Luke Schenn could help open up some cap room, as would a buyout of Vincent Lecavalier. Ah yes, Lecavalier, the latest evidence of the Flyers going big into the free agent market and finding it much more enjoyable on signing day than in the following years.
Maybe writing a big cheque to Lecavalier will make the Flyers more cautious, but this hasn’t been an organization long on patience; they tend to move aggressively, which makes them interesting to watch, if nothing else.
|R J Umberger||67||9||6||15||46.6||99.3||45.6||-4.3||47.5||$4.6M|
FREE AGENT FORWARDS
Jakub Voracek has really stepped up his game in the past couple of seasons, going for a career-high 81 points last season. He faded somewhat after an amazing start to the season, but there’s not much room for complaining about 80-point campaigns. He’s big, skilled, dominates possession and is playing an increasingly feisty game.
In previous seasons, Voracek has been the beneficiary of skating alongside Claude Giroux and while that tandem continues to excel, Giroux is coming off a season with his lowest points per game (0.90) since 2009-2010. Let’s not get too picky, though: no one in the league has more points since the start of the 2010-2011 season.
In the three full seasons that Wayne Simmonds has played for the Flyers, ignoring the 2013 lockout year, Simmonds has scored 28, 29 and 28 goals (his 15 in 45 games during ’13 would be a 27-goal pace in an 82-game season). His possession numbers improved a bit last season and his penalty minutes were down 40 minutes from the year before, a nice evolution from a scoring winger that can still play a physical game.
Maybe Brayden Schenn hasn’t busted out as a big scorer as might have been hoped, but he’s a 23-year-old who has 88 points over the past two seasons, which puts him in pretty good company. At the very least, he’s a capable second-line scorer, but it’s not unreasonable to think he still holds some upward mobility.
While he has yet to break through offensively, 22-year-old Sean Couturier has been asked to take on exceedingly difficult assignments, facing other teams’ top lines and starting most of his shifts in the defensive zone. That doesn’t have to stop, but perhaps a new coach will loosen the reins on Couturier to some degree so that he has a chance to contribute more offensively.
It was a rough season for Matt Read, previously a 15% shooter, who only finished on 5.6% of his shots last season, on the way to eight goals in 80 games. He played through a high ankle sprain, and that appeared to affect his production because, normally, Read is a responsible player who can contribute offensively.
If Michael Raffl isn’t careful, he won’t remain underrated for long. A season with a shooting percentage of 15.7% gave him 21 goals in 67 games, which draws attention, and he tends to get favourable ice time with quality linemates, but his relative possession stats have been excellent through his first two NHL seasons.
The decline of Vincent Lecavalier has been precipitous and, after finishing last season with a career-low 20 points while playing a career-low 12:39 per game, there doesn’t seem to be a reasonable option other than to buy out the remaining three years on the 35-year-old’s contract. It’s easy to write cheques with someone else’s money, but unless his late-season concussion has long-term effects, there’s no justification for paying Lecavalier $4.5-million per season for fourth-line productivity.
After dealing Scott Hartnell to Columbus for R.J. Umberger last summer, the Flyers likely had higher hopes for Umberger’s return to Philly than a career-low 15 points. He battled through hip and abdominal injuries, so there may be some hope that he can be better when healthy, but banking on a big rebound from a 33-year-old is an optimist’s game.
The rare native of France to hold down a regular spot in the NHL, 30-year-old Pierre-Edouard Bellemare earned a contract extension after a respectable rookie season. He doesn’t provide much offence, but is a blue-collar, shot-blocking penalty killer.
Agitating winger Zac Rinaldo is one of the least productive players in the league, ranking 377th out of 379 forwards (that have played more than 750 5-on-5 minutes over the past two seasons) in points per minute. He leads the Flyers with 447 hits over those two seasons, but it requires a real belief in the intangible benefits of physical play to think that Rinaldo, with tangibly terrible production, warrants a regular spot in the lineup. And yet, he’s under contract for two more seasons, so he obviously has support within the organization.
So, how can the Flyers fill out their forward spots? Prospects like Scott Laughton and Nick Cousins could challenge, but never ignore the Flyers when it comes to making aggressive off-ice moves. If they shed some salary, with a trade of a defenceman and a buyout of Lecavalier, then Philadelphia could be in the bidding for quality free agents like Justin Williams and Jarret Stoll, who played for the Flyers’ West Coast branch in L.A., trade for someone like Patrick Sharp (remember him?) or Phil Kessel, or sign free agents like Michael Frolik, Matt Beleskey and Carl Soderberg, all of whom would represent upgrades to the current lineup.
FREE AGENT DEFENCE
|Michael Del Zotto||64||10||22||32||48.9||100.4||47.5||-0.5||50.4||$1.3M||RFA|
37-year-old Mark Streit tallied 52 points last season, ranking in the Top 10 among defencemen with his highest total since 2008-2009, and he remains a decent possession player. There’s something to be said for high skill level and smart decision-making; there are also very few defencemen in their late thirties that are capable of anchoring a team’s defence.
Nick Schultz played 19:03 per game for the Flyers last season, his highest ice time per game since 2011-2012, and his possession numbers weren’t ideal but, no matter, it was good enough for a two-year contract extension from the Flyers. In a vacuum, it’s a defensible decision. Given the Flyers’ existing contract commitments on their blueline, it does seem to create a bigger logjam of mediocrity.
Luke Schenn was decent in the second half of last season for the Flyers, so while he’s maligned for not contributing like James van Riemsdyk, the player for whom he was traded, Schenn doesn’t have to be considered a lost cause either. Heading into the final year of his contract, though, Schenn might be a candidate for trade if the Flyers are looking to create some roster room and clear salary.
A big-bodied, immobile defender, Nicklas Grossmann saw his role reduced as the season progressed and the 30-year-old is probably suited to a third-pair and penalty-killing role (except that he did not have a good season on the PK in 2014-2015). Like Schenn, Grossmann is entering the final year of his contract and could be a candidate for trade.
There are probably some pangs of regret in Philadelphia as it pertains to Andrew MacDonald, a defenceman that was signed to a six-year, $30-million contract, only to get healthy scratched several times during the first season of the extension on his way to playing a career-low 20:01 per game. MacDonald has posted some poor relative possession numbers in recent seasons, but was better in that regard last season – still not positive, but passable.
Acquired from Tampa Bay in the Braydon Coburn trade, 24-year-old Radko Gudas is a bruiser who plays a physical game, blocks shots and saw his role reduced in Tampa Bay before suffering a knee injury. He may have some upside to explore or, at the very least, is an inexpensive option on the blueline.
Brandon Manning is a rough-and-tumble defenceman who has piled up 566 penalty minutes in the past three AHL seasons, but his point totals have been climbing too and he’s held his own in 21 career NHL games. At the minimum, he’s a viable option as a seventh defenceman, but maybe Manning could handle more than that.
After his game tailed off in 2013-2014, and he didn’t receive a qualifying offer from the Nashville Predators, Michael Del Zotto rebounded nicely with the Flyers last season, playing nearly 22 minutes per game and contributing 32 points in 64 games. Coming off that season, the Flyers are practically obligated to re-sign the restricted free agent.
The interesting position the Flyers are in when it comes to their defence is that, while they are chock full of mediocre veterans, they do have some quality young prospects that will be bucking for jobs. Samuel Morin, Travis Sanheim and Shayne Gostisbehere are the best, but not only, candidates. The question is: if the young guys are good enough, what will the Flyers need to do in order to make room for them?
|NAME||GP||W||L||T||SV%||EV SV%||ADJ SV%||'15-16 CAP|
FREE AGENT GOALTENDER
|NAME||GP||W||L||T||SV%||EV SV%||ADJ SV%||'14-15 CAP||STATUS|
Rare is the goaltender that can establish a subpar track record over five seasons as an NHL starter, then turn around and become above average on a new team. Yet that’s where we are with Steve Mason, who had a .903 save percentage in 232 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets, and has a .923 save percentage in 119 games since joining the Flyers. There is always the risk that Mason slips – goaltenders are witchcraft, after all – but, right now, goaltending is right near the bottom of the list of the Flyers’ problems.
With an opening for a backup goaltender, the Flyers could upgrade from Ray Emery. Jhonas Enroth or Thomas Greiss may be the best free-agent options that aren’t number ones.
|Travis Sanheim||D||67||15||50||65||+27||Calgary (WHL)|
|Samuel Morin||D||38||5||27||32||+26||Rimouski (QMJHL)|
|Shayne Gostisbehere||D||5||0||5||5||-1||Lehigh Valley (AHL)|
|Scott Laughton||C||39||14||13||27||-16||Lehigh Valley (AHL)|
|Robert Hagg||D||69||3||17||20||-12||Lehigh Valley (AHL)|
|Nick Cousins||C||64||22||34||56||+2||Lehigh Valley (AHL)|
|Taylor Leier||LW||73||13||18||31||-9||Lehigh Valley (AHL)|
|Anthony Stolarz||G||31||0.905||Lehigh Valley (AHL)|
|Mark Alt||D||44||2||8||10||-15||Lehigh Valley (AHL)|
|Nicolas Aube-Kubel||RW||61||38||42||80||+13||Val d'Or (QMJHL)|
7th – Mathew Barzal, Lawson Crouse, Mikko Rantanen
26th - Mitchell Vande Sompel, Brock Boeser, Jake DeBrusk
The Flyers have approximately $61.6M committed to the 2015-2016 salary cap for 19 players.
Two top-nine forwards, one top-pair defenceman, backup goaltender
WHAT I SAID THE FLYERS NEEDED LAST YEAR
One top-nine forward, depth forwards, one top-pair defenceman, depth defencemen, backup goaltender
R.J. Umberger, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Ryan White, Michael Del Zotto, Nick Schultz
Brayden Schenn, Matt Read, Nicklas Grossman, Luke Schenn, Andrew MacDonald
POSSIBLE 2015-2016 PHILADELPHIA FLYERS DEPTH CHART
|LEFT WING||CENTRE||RIGHT WING|
|Jakub Voracek||Claude Giroux||Justin Williams|
|Brayden Schenn||Sean Couturier||Wayne Simmonds|
|Michael Raffl||Jarret Stoll||Matt Read|
|R.J. Umberger||Pierre-Edouard Bellemare||Zac Rinaldo|
|Scott Laughton||Ryan White||Colin McDonald|
|Taylor Leier||Nick Cousins||Jason Akeson|
|LEFT DEFENCE||RIGHT DEFENCE||GOALTENDER|
|Mark Streit||Nick Schultz||Steve Mason|
|Michael Del Zotto||Radko Gudas||Jhonas Enroth|
|Andrew MacDonald||Nicklas Grossmann||Anthony Stolarz|
|Samuel Morin||Brandon Manning|
|Shayne Gostisbehere||Mark Alt|
Enhanced stats via www.war-on-ice.com.
(SAT% - shot attempt percentage; SAT%Rel - shot attempt percentage, relative to team when off the ice; SPSV% - combined on-ice shooting and save percentage; OZS% - percentage of faceoffs to start shift in the offensive zone vs. defensive zone)
Scott Cullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org