By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)
As the long offseason begins for the Philadelphia Flyers, there is a feeling of transformation in the air. The Flyers won the second overall pick in the draft lottery, and have highly touted prospect Oskar Lindblom on the way over from the SHL. Robert Hagg and Sam Morin are just about guaranteed to make the Flyers roster out of camp. Mike Vecchione will probably be re-signed and take a bigger role, and with any luck the team will let Chris VandeVelde walk as a free agent in July. For the first time in a few years the roster will look very different from the previous season.
Having said that, the one thing that will stay the same, Dave Hakstol, will still be behind the bench for the 2017-18 season. However with a much improved roster, what are the chances Hakstol could mess it up as bad as he did this season?
I’ll be the first to admit the Flyers roster in the 2016-17 NHL season was not one that had a serious chance of winning. With a pathetic bottom six and Claude Giroux in desperate need of a superstar to play with, the forwards were simply not up to the caliber they needed to be. The defense was led by 19-year-old Ivan Provorov who was bonded at the hip to human traffic cone Andrew MacDonald. While the rest of the defense tried its best, it just didn’t have the level of talent necessary to dominate the blueline.
The winds of change are on the horizon and the differences should be felt immediately once the 2017-18 season starts — or that’s the plan anyway. Even with all this new talent I can’t help but feel like Hakstol is, somehow, some way, going to blow it. Hakstol’s biggest issue in my mind was his inability to roll consistent lineups, and awful player usage, with players like Jordan Weal, Konecny, and Brayden Schenn playing on all four lines at some point or another.
Philly has a good problem right now: too much talent. Most of the prospects — forwards and defensemen — all have the potential to crack the NHL roster at some point in the near future. I’m going to base this assuming Weal is re-signed. I’m not going to actually take a shot at deciphering which players will end up where, but a rough look at the Flyers lineup next season is as follows (in no particular order)
Scratches: Read, Cousins, Weise
Now, this will probably not be accurate by the start of the season, given that the Expansion Draft and free agency have not happened yet. However, I don’t expect things to look too different. Noticeably missing is the second overall pick. I can only guess that, whoever it is, will probably not make the team out of camp as general manager Ron Hextall said as much. There are many question marks as well, a seventh defenseman and a goaltender are expected to be added.
For the sake of this article, let’s assume this is the opening night roster. It’s already better than last year, but will Hakstol’s player usage bury young guys like Lindblom? I get slowly working young guys into the lineup, but continuously hampering them by limiting their ice time and not playing them with the best possible line combos is frustrating.
My point of all this is something I’ve thought about all offseason. Can Hakstol still mess up the player usage if the lineup is full of talent? Assuming Chris VandeVelde doesn’t come back, the only two real problems left at forward would be Bellemare and Matt Read. It’s possible one gets picked by Vegas, but lets assume it’s not dumb enough to do that.
All in all that’s not too bad of a lineup. While they are still missing a bonafide stud, there isn’t any glaring weaknesses either. I’d be shocked if they let Weal or Vecchione walk, so they should both take on bigger roles. Konecny now has a full NHL season under his belt and just got done impressing at World Championships with Hakstol being the assistant coach. Hopefully the coach took notes on what he has with Konecny.
While Hakstol is mainly to blame, the players have to take some responsibility for their failures. Players like Bryaden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and Claude Giroux all have issues with scoring at a steady pace, often going through multi-game dry spells. By no means am I saying that they are bad, but they need to score on a more consistent basis for them to reach that elite level.
But that’s where the problems arise. They can’t be at that next level when their linemates are Weise, Read or Bellemare. Building a solid four-line team is a must in today’s NHL. The Penguins and Capitals are great examples of teams that roll four successful lines. A classic chicken or the egg scenario; one needs to happen so the other can succeed as well.
Now on to the defense. The youth movement is in full swing, but not complete yet. Michael Del Zotto and Nick Schultz were informed that they will not be re-signed by the Flyers and Hagg and Morin will likely take their place. Ideally four of the six defensemen will be under the age of 25 (Gudas is 26 and MacDonald is 30). While there will be growing pains with Hagg and Morin, Hakstol again will have no choice but to roll the kids in some form. With Philippe Myers and Travis Sanheim still yet to come, the blueline isn’t done getting better.
Unless a miracle happens, MacDonald will still be a Flyer. Given the fact that Hakstol thinks he’s a top-three NHL d-man, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him with Provorov again. I’ve been dying to see a Ghost-Morin pair for years, and that might actually become a reality. That leaves a Hagg-Gudas pair, which is fine by me. The Flyers have been waiting for years for these young prospects to take the step to the NHL and it’s finally happening.
The defense will take a huge step forward, but as long as MacDonald is still under contract it causes a logjam through the whole defense core. There is only six spots in the lineup, and with one occupied by the former Islander, the Flyers simply can’t take that next step forward. Sanheim will be the next prospect ready, probably for the 2018-19 season, and Myers may even be ready by then too. Guess what, MacDonald will still be under contract. His contract doesn’t run out until the end of the 2019-20 season. Something will have to be done, either via buyout or a pick to sweeten a trade of him. This team will never fully succeed with him on board.
For now, even with MacDonald, there isn’t any real way for Hakstol to roll a pair where both players can’t hold their own. With five of six of the defensemen all actual hockey players, I have a decent amount of confidence that this will be a much better year for the defense.
Goaltending turned out to be a real weak spot for Hakstol and the Flyers. Mismanaging the starts between Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth got so bad it essentially chased Mason out of Philadelphia. As of right now the goalies for the 2017-18 season are Neuvirth and Anthony Stolarz. That pair doesn’t exactly inspire a ton of confidence. It’s possible Neuvirth re-finds his form from the 2015-16 season, where he was solid during the season and stood on his head during the playoffs, but he has to earn that trust back from me.
With a solid free agent goalie market, there is a chance the Flyers add a decent starter, allowing for Stolarz to get one more year in the AHL before he’s thrust into full-time NHL action. Hakstol’s handling of the goaltending caught many eyes toward the end of the season. Most noticeable after a sub-par stretch where Neuvirth played the Flyers out of a playoff spot. Mason didn’t get tossed back into action until it was too late.
Simply put, there is very few things Hakstol got right in the 2016-17 season. From playing fringe NHLers over young talent to pairing arguably the best defense prospect in the league with a dumpster fire on skates,to being unable to divvy up the goaltenders minutes in a proper fashion, He managed to turn the whole fan base against him.
With Lindblom signing his ELC and the Flyers winning the secnd overall pick, this team finally feels like the rebuild is going to pay off. even with a roster oozing potential, the thought that Hakstol will mess it up is still heavy on my mind. Only time will tell, but if Hakstol’s 2016-17 season is anything to go off of, we could be in for another disappointing season.
Photo credit: SI.com