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Meltzer: Flyers 2018 Summer Plan

A look at what could happen this summer as Flyers prepare for 2018-19 season

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer

When the Flyers enter next season, there will be a variety of benchmarks the entire team must meet in order to better the 98-point result from the 2017-18 campaign and to go further in the playoffs. Significantly improved penalty killing is at the top of the list, along with building upon the strides that were taken this past season in even strength play. 


During his end-of-season media availability, head coach Dave Hakstol spelled out specific areas he feels the team needs to improve from the 2017-18 regular season and especially the playoffs. 


"A couple areas for me were starts of periods, starts of games, starts of periods carry over from one period to the next. In terms of push back, I thought our team was pretty resilient this year, I'll be honest with you. Whether it was from tough stretches or tough periods, more so for me is the carryover from one good period carrying over to another excellent period. That is maturity. We need to do a better job in that area... You can look at the number of [6-on-5] goals to tie games up, we had pretty good resiliency there. For me it's the flip side of getting and going on the front side," Hakstol said.


How to accomplish that?

"It's about quick puck movement. It's not about one play, a lot of times what got us in the Pittsburgh series was the second play. It wasn't the first pass, first pass boom on the tape, second one to get through neutral zone where there's very little time and space especially when you get to playoffs and the pace that Pittsburgh plays at without the puck they present one of the larger challenges in the league. For me it's not about team the speed portion it's about what we're doing with the puck and our play with the puck. I do think we improved a little bit in that area this year, I think it's gotta be an area we keep growing in and be more efficient in."


The big-picture question: How can these objectives be met? 


Much of it will have to come from the continued maturation of the young players on the roster. For example, defenseman Travis Sanheim will likely be entrusted with more ice time as his second NHL season progresses, while Nolan Patrick and Travis Konecny will be relied upon as regular offensive contributors and the likes of left winger Oskar Lindblom and defenseman Robert Hagg must build upon their rookie-year experiences. 


Samuel Morin, who has had an injury-plagued season spent mostly with the AHL's Lehigh Valley Phantoms, stands a good chance of moving up to a full-time NHL roster spot if he stays healthy and performs well again in camp; this past year, he got caught in a numbers game and then got set back repeatedly by injury.


There will also be some roster change. 


Every off-season, a certain amount of personnel change is inevitable. Flyers general manager Ron Hextall informed most of the team's pending unrestricted free agents -- veteran forward Matt Read and defensemen Brandon Manning and Johnny Oduya -- that the organization does not currently plan to offer them new contracts over the summer. Veteran forward Valtteri Filppula is also an unrestricted free agent. Hextall reported that he told Filppula the organization may have interest in re-signing him this summer dependent on what other moves are made. Goaltender Petr Mrazek will not be back. 


There will likely be other changes to the mix, whether via free agent signings or trade. 


Last summer, after the Flyers moved up in the NHL Draft Lottery from the 13th to the second overall pick and were able to draft Patrick, an unexpected trade unfolded that sent Brayden Schenn to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for a 2017 first-round pick (Morgan Frost, who had a splendid 2017-18 regular season for the OHL's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds), a conditional 2018 first round pick, and veteran forward Jori Lehtera. 


The trade was completed when the Flyers officially secured the 14th overall pick of the 2018 NHL Draft from the Blues. The Flyers will also pick 19th overall with their own selection. 


Hextall did not rule out making any trades this summer. Whether that would involve a veteran player going elsewhere and/or take on the form of trying to move up in the first round of the Draft remains to be seen. 


"There are certain players that aren't assured a spot on this hockey club next year. If we can get better by bringing in someone in that's better, that's an upgrade, then we're going to certainly look at that. There's a lot details that go into a decision like that. If we can be better, we're going to be better," Hextall said.


Simultaneously, the GM reiterated his commitment to building from within through youth, with the major caveat that players must first earn their roster spots and then earn the coach's trust to take on larger roles on the ice. Hextall sounded some by-now familiar notes as relates his philosophy on the promotion of young players, using this past season as an example. 


"We felt halfway through the [2017-18] year that Oskar Lindblom was an upgrade, so we brought him up to see if he was. We felt he was. Same with when Travis [Sanheim] went back down. We brought him back up and he played very well. If we can upgrade our team, whether its training camp or halfway through the year, we're going to do it. There's obviously a development curve down below. You want to try and make sure a player's productive enough and good enough at that level. There's also the thing of a guy playing down there for 20-21 minutes and comes up here and plays 6-7 minutes. Number 1, How much is he going to help us here? Number 2: How much better is he getting on a nightly basis up there?" Hextall said. 


He also notes that the team's main focus entering the offseason is to look to upgrade down the middle. The third-line center spot is of particular focus. He also plans to at least consider some adjustments to the roster mix on the blue line.


In an ideal scenario, the Flyers would be able to simultaneously add speed as well as muscle. It can be tough to do both, as players with both attributes come at a premium especially when they are players capable of be used in a variety of manpower situations. 


At a minimum added speed up front, especially on the penalty kill, and upgraded puck moving from the back end on defensive zone exit attempts would be highly desirable for the Flyers this offseason. 


The goaltending outlook is a complicated situation. On the one hand, Hextall said he is comfortable going into next season with Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth as the NHL-level tandem assuming both are healthy. Elliott is still recovering from core muscle surgery in February, while the oft-injured Neuvirth will undergo arthroscopic surgery on both hips. Neuvirth also plans to overhaul his summer training regimen, hiring a new trainer (Adam Francilia) with whom numerous NHL goaltenders have worked in recent years.


On the other hand, Hextall admitted that he is concerned about the risk of experiencing another season like 2017-18 from a goaltender health standpoint. The plan of having a 1A/1B tandem went astray due to Neuvirth getting hurt, which put a very hefty workload on Elliott's shoulders. Later, both goalies got injured simultaneously, forcing a trade for Mrazek and for rookie goaltender Alex Lyon to make a handful of starts and relief appearances. 


Hextall admitted that it is disruptive to the tandem plan to have at least half of the tandem frequently unavailable. As such, he said at his end-of-season press conference that goaltending personnel will be monitored closely and he would not rule out making a change in the mix over the summer. 


In terms of salary cap planning, the Flyers have the most cap space available they've enjoyed since the summer of 2007. Hextall said he plans to use some space to address team needs --- whether externally or internally through re-signing players -- but it does not appear likely the Flyers will heavily pursue marquee names that would require a massive cap hit and term.


One huge consideration: While next year's cap outlook has a lot of flexibility, the organization also needs to make a long-term cap plan. After next season, several top young players will complete their current entry-level contracts and are eligible for new contracts at substantial raises. A year from now, Ivan Provorov, Konecny and Sanheim will head the list of potential restricted free agents. Two years from now, Patrick will be eligible for a new contract.


Hextall also needs to make a decision about the future of alternate captain Wayne Simmonds. The power forward, who will turn 30 on Aug. 26, has one year to go on his current contract. He can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2019. Due to an extensive list of injuries before and during the 2017-18 season, including a pelvic tear that will require offseason surgery, the power forward had a down year by his standards. The upcoming surgery will entail a lengthy rehab period before Simmonds is back to 100 percent of his normal power and skating capacity. 


For his part, Simmonds made crystal clear that he wants to remain a Flyer. 


"This is where I want to be for the rest of my career, but I do realize at the same time that hockey is a business and whatever happens, happens. If I do end up signing the extension then that's great, but hopefully I stay here and get to work my way into an extension. I know this year wasn't ideal for me and they probably didn't see for me what would require an extension, but this is definitely where I want to be," Simmonds said.


Hextall said that no decision would be rushed. He will have dialogue with Simmonds' agent, Eustace King, and go from there.  


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