January 26, 2016
The Flyers will play their last game before the NHL All-Star break Wednesday night in Washington, where they face the preposterous task of trying to shut down the Capitals and, more specifically, Alex Ovechkin.
The Caps appear to be on the fast track to Eastern Conference's top playoff seed, but then will have to dismiss some springtime demons to get through the playoffs. As for Ovechkin, he has elevated himself past Sidney Crosby on the NHL’s elite ladder, and his goal-scoring ability in this dead puck era has likely already carved out a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The Flyers, currently seven points behind the Devils for the conference's final wild card spot, will head into the break as an outsider looking in on the playoff picture. But they also find themselves in the peculiar position of trying to maintain the strides made this season, balanced against what is right for the future.
Despite their place in the standings, the Flyers have maintained contact with playoff teams. In addition, under first-year coach Dave Hakstol, they have already earned some stripes as a team that is difficult to beat.
Mind you, that does not usually sit well in Philadelphia, where the bottom line is a “W” and no points are given just for getting close. But when you consider where the Flyers have been -- the fact they have played 26 games that have been decided by one goal -- you can see that Hakstol has instilled some sort of mission to compete with the best in the NHL.
Although everybody loves a playoff series, the better endgame to this season would likely be a decision to move some veteran players before the NHL’s February 29th trade deadline. In that scenario, the Flyers would probably shrink any chance of making the 2016 playoffs, but be better suited to enter an era where making the playoffs once again becomes an annual expectation.
This is not a tank job, like the situation in Buffalo last season, or what Edmonton appears to go through year after year. Instead, this would be a maneuver to earn some more salary cap space and make room for what is expected to be a graduating class of prospects.
This year has already provided a glimpse into the future with the development of rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. It took an injury to cajole general manager Ron Hextall to abandon is steady-as-he-goes blueprint for young players. And since, the Ghost has been a jolt of energy not only for the team on the ice, but also the fans who buy tickets and watch the games on television.
Despite star players such as Claude Giroux or Jake Voracek, it is Gostisbehere who has breathed a new life into the organization, and he has everybody thinking the Flyers might have a few more of these gems in the system.
This is where Hextall can truly make some bold moves, and rather than deciding which of his prospects has the best upside, it might be deciding which he will be willing to deal away.
At this point, the Flyers are the envy of teams all around the NHL with young prospects on defense such as Sam Morin, Travis Sanheim and – especially – Ivan Provorov. From all indications, Provorov is as close to a can’t-miss as you are going to get with a defensive prospect. The Flyers also have a highly regarded young player at center in Travis Konecny.
There is just no way Hextall will move Provorov. But the others are no guarantee. An opposing team may be tempted enough to deal for one – along with a Flyers veteran – in exchange for another NHL-ready player who doesn't fit on their own payroll.
The Flyers will also benefit from the fact that Hextall has already done some excavating for the future by dispersing Vinny Lecavalier and his contract -- along with Luke Schenn -- to the Los Angeles Kings. It’s a feel good story for Lecavalier, who has become a productive player in his short time with the Kings, but a feel-even-better story for the Flyers, who can now do some serious planning for the very near future.
Rather than being a couple of years away because of a payroll that was choking them, the Flyers are only a short distance away from a young, speedy lineup that will allow them to contend in an Eastern Conference that will only get better with the rising status of teams such as Buffalo and the Florida Panthers.
Is it possible Steven Stamkos could be on their radar from Tampa? It’s not likely Hextall would want to get involved with that sort of money, but if Tampa is going to move young Jonathan Drouin, the Flyers could be in the mix with chips such as Morin and a young veteran such as Brayden Schenn.
Suddenly, there are all sorts of possibilities for the Flyers –- along with the temptation of a draft that includes a supposed franchise-making forward Auston Matthews, and players such as forward Matthew Tkachuk.
So, if you go into the All-Star break and feel a bit woozy that the Flyers aren’t in the playoff picture as the league shuts down for its three-on-three intramural festival, realize that most general managers attending that event will be envious of what Hextall has carved out for the Flyers future.