Photo credit: Amy Irvin (38Photography)
In the wake of the news that Andrew MacDonald is out for the remainder of the season, Flyers fans must face the harsh reality that this team simply cannot make the playoffs. Fine, there’s no correlation between those two facts. Still, there is plenty of reason to look back on the season before it officially comes to a close.
There are, of course, obvious points that we can get out of the way. Jake Voracek has had an amazing season, as has Claude Giroux. Giroux is also a good captain, regardless of what Randy J has to say. Everyone can finally feel comfortable saying that Steve Mason is a good goalie. Michael Del Zotto has turned his career around and, hopefully, the Flyers can re-sign him. While Ron Hextall failed at the nearly improbably task of shedding bad contracts, he did a pretty good job at the deadline of getting good returns for Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn, the unsung here of the blue line. He also stuck to his guns and did not trade away key pieces of the future for a brighter, fleeting glimpse of today. His restraint deserves a ton of praise.
All of this is common, easily agreed upon knowledge. But there’s more to this throwaway season to mention and to consider when looking forward.
While the focus has been on Craig Berube’s poor coaching, let’s not lose track of the Berube body count.
Berube, whose poor decisions became increasingly apparent this season, never gave Erik Gustafsson the chance he deserved to earn his stripes on defense. This clearly irked Gustafsson, who unexpectedly fled to the KHL in the offseason. This left a shaky but overcrowded defense with yet another hole to fill.
Fans were shocked and disappointed a few months later when Scott Hartnell was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets for R.J. Umberger. Hartnell was a fan favorite with a ton of personality and an allegedly terrific veteran locker room presence. Umberger, meanwhile, was quickly deemed as “completely useless” by many fans. In November, Hartnell openly stated that he thought that Craig Berube had something to do with the trade.
Throughout the course of the season, Berube overplayed the injured Mason and caused Mason to suffer setbacks and, perhaps, play at suboptimal levels. Ray Emery may not have been a suitable goalie to play big minutes and important games but, in a forgettable season, why run the risk of causing longterm damage to a goalie who has turned out to be one of the better goalies in the NHL? One could argue that Mason is on the fringe of the Berube body count.
Goalie coach, Jeff Reese, allegedly came to the defense of Mason and vocalized his disagreement with Berube’s mismanagement of the team’s starting goalie. This inevitably came to the point of no return when the Flyers and Reese mutually agreed to part ways. Reese and Mason had a very close relationship and is credited with turning Mason’s career around. Throughout his tenure in Philadelphia, he was given next to nothing with which to work but still somehow managed to make goalies like Michael Leighton play well above their skill levels.
For the first time in ages, the Flyers avoided a goalie controversy when Mason reemerged as a star, in part because of Reese. That alone is a monumental achievement.
Ron Hextall will likely let Berube go at the end of the season. It is hard to say who will replace him, although many fans — myself included — are likely holding out hope that the Flyers can successfully lure Mike Babcock out of Detroit.
To this point, Hextall has not made any blockbuster moves. This was not only promised by Hextall but also expected, given the mess of bad contracts and lack of cap space that he inherited from Paul Holmgren. Hextall preached patience and an importance on keeping prospects and allowing prospects to develop. What a radical concept!
Some of Hextall’s moves have been questionable. The most notable of which was the Hartnell trade. Perhaps we can forgive him for that and throw the blame on Berube. Sure. Why not?
Beyond that, Hetxtall’s only real head scratcher was his rush to re-sign Zac Rinaldo and Nick Schultz. In the grand scheme of things, this is not big deal.
On the flip side of the coin, he deserves credit for sticking to his word and finding solid role players like Pierre-Édouard Bellemare, Ryan White (who should have been re-signed instead of Rinaldo), Rob Zepp and Nick Schultz. Despite the criticism of rushing to re-sign Schultz, he has been one of the better defensemen in Philadelphia this season and keeping him around buys more time for prospects to develop.
Hexy’s most notable moves to date were taking a flyer on Michael Del Zotto and acquiring draft high picks instead of needlessly trading them away.
If he had a hand in shutting down Shayne Gostisbehere for the season, he deserves credit for that as well.
Looking forward, Hextall has a lot of tough decisions and Herculean tasks to accomplish this offseason. Ideally, he needs to find a way to move either Vinny Lecavalier or R.J. Umberger to clear up cap space. There will likely be some turnover on the coaching staff as general managers are often inclined to bring in their own people.
A prototypical Flyers move would be to give up on Sean Couturier, Matt Read and/or Brayden Schenn in a knee-jerk trade due to a lack of patience. It will be interesting to see how he handles these players and any pressure that might come from Ed Snider’s continually failing formula of attempting to make magic happen overnight.
One should approach this offseason with the same mentality as Hextall, with patience. Do not expect magic to happen overnight. Expect next season to move at a slightly quicker pace than this season. Expect the team to come into its own over a matter of years and not a matter of weeks. Do not expect Hextall to package prospects or draft picks in a trade just to move a guy like Lecavalier or Andrew MacDonald. In essence, that is still mortgaging the future for today and that goes against his philosophy.
It is possible, however, that Hextall could move Nicklas Grossmann or Luke Schenn. Both players have one contract year left and, to some teams, will have perceived value.
Here are questions to consider as the offseason approaches:
Will he move Mark Streit at the draft or keep him as a veteran presence to groom the younger players?
Will the Flyers find a left winger to play with Giroux and Voracek?
Can Hextall lure Gustafsson and Reese back to Philly? Does he even want to do that?
Who will replace Berube?
Will the Flyers bring a guy from the system up to back up Mason next season or look for a goalie who can play more games in case Mason suffers more setbacks?
Will the Flyers re-sign Michael Del Zotto and Carlo Colaiacovo?
What can Hextall do to create cap space without hurting the team in the long run?