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March 24, 2015

Hextall can’t let Mason-Berube rift distract him from Flyer rebuild

Opinion Al Morganti
032415_mason_AP Alex Brandon/AP

Steve Mason reportedly won't be back next season.

In what can politely be described as a lost season, the Flyers will have one of their few “feel-good” moments tomorrow night when they welcome back former defenseman Kimmo Timonen.

Timonen, who recently turned 40, basically escaped a dismal end to his career just before the trade deadline when the Flyers mercifully dealt him to the Chicago Blackhawks. After a long wait to return from blood clots, Timonen was ready to come back and play, and the Flyers did him a favor by sending him to Chicago.

Thus, Timonen, who will retire at the end of this season, gets a chance to finally get his name on the Stanley Cup.

And the Flyers?

In a season that was already woeful, the downward spiral accelerated during their recent winless four-game road trip through Canada. In ended with back-to-back losses in Alberta where once again there appeared to be a disconnect between coach Craig Berube and goalie Steve Mason.

The Flyers are now drifting into the worst sort of finish -- not bad enough for a real chance at the top draft pick, but not good enough to even stay in the playoff race.

Berube yanked Mason at a very curious juncture of a loss in Calgary, and one game later in Edmonton, Mason was unavailable for the start of a game against the Oilers. Mason took place in the warmup and then was too sick to start the game.

The most telling aspect of this is that there appeared to be no communication between goalie and coaching staff about an illness during the day. The end result is that Mason – who has been the club’s MVP this season, is once again the central focus of the club’s woes.

Mason has been the least of the Flyers’ on-ice problems, but the lack of communication with the coaching staff is a real problem. There has already been an issue with the departure of goalie coach Jeff Reese, and now things are really breaking down to a point where it is illogical to believe things will get better.

It sure looks like the coach is done. After watching the team limp toward April, it would be a surprise if Berube and his staff return. Under Berube, the Flyers had been hanging around the playoff race as recently as early March, but now, they have lost their balance.

Berube actually did a pretty good job with an inadequate lineup through much of the season, but this recent stretch has seen the team fall apart. The Flyers are now drifting into the worst sort of finish -- not bad enough for a real chance at the top draft pick, but not good enough to even stay in the playoff race.

They could still pull a rabbit out of their hat by hitting on the lottery and landing the franchise-saving draftee Connor McDavid, but the odds (just six percent as of Tuesday) are stacked against them. If there are hockey gods, maybe they will make sure the Flyers get that top pick as a make up for losing the top spot to Chicago in 2007 and the services of Patrick Kane.

But don’t count on it.

More likely, they will have to face this offseason without that top overall pick – and just a whole lot of questions.

The mistake would be to assume that much of the recent problems might be blamed upon the lack of communication between the goalie and the coaches. But the fact of the matter is that Mason played pretty well through the season. His history of injury and his durability questions would likely cause any coach and staff some worries, but bottom line is that he has put up some pretty impressive stats with a team that has provided little offensive support.

The issues for Hextall go way further than the goalie/coach disconnect, and what he does this off-season will be crucial to the future of the organization.

The Flyers are lacking in more than just a couple of areas. They need a second line, more overall scoring … a general overall boost in confidence. And mostly they need a leader on defense.

This is where the presence of Timonen back in Philadelphia is so telling. If you look at the crucial breakdowns of the Flyers this season, there was a huge issue with killing penalties, and that is where Timonen’s absence was felt the most.

What Hextall is faced with is a rebuild from the bottom on up. This might even call into question the status of captain Claude Giroux, who remains among the NHL’s top players, but lacks the power to beat defenses on his own to the outside. Giroux might be the one star player who takes the most hits in the NHL and he simply isn’t a guy who can beat you alone.

The suggestion here is that Hextall attempts to make a deal with Edmonton for young winger Nail Yakupov -- the first pick in the 2012 draft -- who has struggled with the Oilers.

Then again, Hextall’s foundation for the future is presumably a core of defensemen who should be shuttling into the lineup next season. Among them are Shayne Gostisbehere, who had this season fractured by a knee injury, Sam Morin, Robert Hagg, and the kid who had a spectacular year in junior hockey with the Calgary Hitmen, Travis Sanheim.

All have promise, especially Gostisbehere and Sanheim, but there is a danger that they will run into the same problem Yakupov and other young forwards have experienced in Edmonton – too many young players and not enough steady veterans to lean on.

Timonen would have been just that sort of veteran player, but he has made it quite clear he is not coming back next season – with Chicago. the Flyers or any other team.

So, Hextall’s mission, which he is supposedly plotting as this season winds down into dust, is to find the right supplements to Giroux and Jake Voracek, and find the sort of stable presence on defense over the next few seasons to mentor what is supposed to be the best group of home-grown young defensemen in franchise history.

There might be a lot of talk about the goalie and the coach from now until the end of this season, but the real work is remaking the roster in front of the goalie and in front of whomever is behind the bench next season.