Ron Hextall deftly cleared some space that will help the Flyers keep the players they will want to retain going forward, But the Flyers were too tight against the cap to get a game changer in free agency. So how much room do they have for immediate improvement?
Did they still make some time when all Ron Hextall had to spend was one thin dime? For the future, absolutely, as he added their best defensive prospect yet, Ivan Provorov, to a cache destined to make a splash down the road.
In the meantime the Flyers have to make up the 14 points by which they missed the playoffs a year ago. Improvement is going to have to come from within, and here are the means by which it has to happen:
There would not have been a coaching change if Hextall had not felt a lot of young Flyers underachieved a year ago. These were mostly the same players who gave them seven 20-goal scorers in 2012-13, so talent unrealized in 2014-15 has to be realized again to 2015-16.
Dave Hakstol will get more out of some players than Craig Berube did. That’s inevitable in almost any coaching change and hopefully this one specifically raises the production of Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier, players that the organization remains committed to building around. But their usage has to change in some way to unlock more. That could mean linemates, roles, or ice time.
Wayne Simmonds - Only 14 of his 28 goals a year ago were scored at even-strength, a waste of a big body with a finishing touch. There is ample evidence that Sam Gagner, who was the sixth player taken in a draft on his playmaking ability, has been much more comfortable at center than on the wing,
Could he be this year’s Michael Del Zotto, a lost soul reclaimed with a regular role and a fresh start? Perhaps, but Gagner can’t be a round peg in a square hole, which too often has been the case with Vinny Lecavalier during his two seasons in Philadelphia. The reality is that more of the organization’s future is invested in getting Schenn’s career on the upswing again, which is apparently why Hextall says the Flyers will go to camp thinking Gagner as a winger. But everything is subject to change.
Evgeni Medvedev - Barring one of the kid defensemen making the team with a spectacular camp - that’s what it is going to take, considering Hextall’s resolve not to rush prospects – the Russian represents the most immediate help gained in the off-season. The Flyers didn’t sign a 32-year-old to learn the trade in Lehigh Valley. Whatever the complaints about Braydon Coburn’s puck sense and Nick Grossman’s foot speed, they were second-pair defensemen.
That could mean having Steve Mason healthy for more games. Absolutely it means having a better chance when he has the night off.
Michal Neuvirth has added youth and athleticism, an upgrade over Ray Emery, who was exposed particularly in shootouts. We’ll see if Neuvirth brings the consistency that he didn’t demonstrate in Washington when he was presented with the opportunity to be a No. 1. There are points to be won in that third game amongst four nights, when Mason gets a rest. The Flyers need them.
Claude Giroux’s production slipped 13 points in 2014-15, despite the blossoming of linemate Jake Voracek into a top-10 scorer. There is another level there for the captain, particularly at even strength, but that is an almost team-wide concern.
Andrew MacDonald is a better player than he showed in his first year of a new, large deal. This isn’t so unusual. MacDonald has become a poster boy for the Flyers cap woes, but he is a solid pro who will provide value over the course of the deal.
Scott Laughton is a No 1 pick still one year out of junior and has more offensive ability than he showed in a premature promotion to the big team last year. A good camp by Nick Cousins could put him on the team. Prospects take time. It is now time for somebody to step up.
The Flyers weren’t nearly good enough on the road or against non-playoff teams, another reason why Hextall is convinced they underachieved a year ago. This coach will put more pressure on the team’s leadership.
With a change of sudden death procedure coming, you have to like the Flyers chances better in the three-on-three than in the shootouts, where they were 3-11 last season.