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February 28, 2017

NHL Trade Deadline 2017: Hextall, Flyers can’t afford to sit back and watch

It’s a good thing February is the shortest month of the year because for the Philadelphia Flyers the 28 days of February have been a nightmare for No. 28, captain Claude Giroux, and the entire team.

During the month, the Flyers are 3-6-1, have scored only 16 goals and have scored two or fewer of those goals in seven of the 10 games.

Nothing has seemed to matter – home or away, East Coast or West, Canada or the United States, indoors or out – the Flyers have failed at almost every turn.

The net result is that they find themselves on the final night of the month at the Wells Fargo Center trying to cling to any sort of playoff prayers against the lowly Colorado Avalanche.

No matter what happens against Colorado, virtually every player will have to be wary of the next morning as the month of March is ushered in with the National Hockey League’s Trading Deadline.

In the NHL, players are traded at the deadline as if former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie had a remote control device on every NHL computer.

Players and draft picks are often swapped by the minute. It is an exercise of the haves and the have-nots, with those having a chance to make a playoff run trying to find the missing piece from those who are not so lucky.

And this time, the Flyers are a have-not.

The big question is what general manager Ron Hextall will do in order to regain the club’s status in the NHL. Last year provided at least some optimism as the Flyers turned their season around when defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere showed up and sprinkled some sort of magic dust on the ice.

That magic has been missing this season, as the Ghost has been largely invisible, with a brief appearance of his freshman self with three assists last week in Vancouver. Other than that, he has looked far less a player than the one who challenged for the NHL’s Calder Trophy last season as the league’s best rookie.

Hextall is now faced with what certainly appears to be a much larger rebuild than first anticipated.

For those who questioned the Flyers’ former game plan of acquiring veterans every year in order to make failed playoff runs, there is a new reality. And that new reality involves far more patience than most hockey fans ever possess – especially those fans in Philadelphia.

Unlike in other sports, as long as you get into the Stanley Cup playoffs, you can potentially make some noise. You might not win in all, as franchises such as the Flyers, Bruins and Rangers (two Cups over a combined 126 seasons) have learned, but there are always expectations.

And while the Rangers have renewed hopes yet again with their Kingly goalie and the Bruins are back in the playoff hunt after a coaching change, the Flyers appear to be spinning their wheels into the final full month of the regular season.

The much larger worry is that they will be spinning their wheels into the future as Hextall waits for what appears to be a promising young group of defensemen to join the likes of remarkable rookie Ivan Provorov and hopefully a return to form for Gostisbehere.

The recipe for success might be heavy on defensemen, but it takes goals to win – and the Flyers simply do not have enough players who can score on a steady basis.

Giroux has struggled mightily this season, and his statistics from the start of the calendar year are simply dreadful. Since ringing in the New Year, Giroux has played in all 23 games and has just two goals and 12 points. Over that time, he has no goals and just two points five-on-five and has a plus/minus rating of -15.

And it is hardly just the captain who has suffered during this short month and beyond. Jake Voracek has just two goals and five points in February, while the rest of the forwards are also struggling mightily.

The hopes of Braden Schenn becoming a top-level offensive player at even strength dwindle by the season and Sean Couturier is just never going to develop the offensive upside that had been expected.

In addition to all of that, the Flyers’ recycled problem of goaltending instability is once again an issue as neither Steve Mason nor Michal Neuvirth has stood up to take the job and it is increasingly unlikely that either unrestricted free agent will be back next season.

Second-year coach Dave Hakstol has attempted to shake up the locker room but he really doesn’t have many ingredients. The biggest problem is a lack of offensive balance, which means Giroux and his line can be targeted, which goes a long way to explaining the captain’s -18 rating on the road – where the home team can matchup against him – and his even rating at home.

The Flyers aren’t in the buy mode for this year’s trade deadline, – although Hextall should have a target on Colorado’s Matt Duchene – but that does not mean they should be on the sidelines. Hextall has more than a few candidates he can move, from Mark Streit, to either goalie, to any number of others.

Take a look around the NHL. Despite the Flyers’ belief they have talented young players on the way, the same is true in other Eastern Conference ports such as Buffalo, Toronto and Florida.

In the NHL, there is no long period of trusting the process, and Hextall should be in the process of making upgrades in a hurry.