Jori Lehtera

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Simmonds goes from game-time decision to game-winner for Flyers vs. Oilers

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With extra protection on his face and at least a couple ailments slowing him down, Wayne Simmonds wasn’t even a sure-thing to play for the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday. In true hockey player fashion, Simmonds ended up being the difference-maker.

(That’s so hockey, right?)

Simmonds finished off some fantastic work from Jori Lehtera and Valtteri Filppula to score the decisive goal in the Flyers’ tight 2-1 win against the Edmonton Oilers this afternoon:

The gritty-but-talented winger also made his usual havoc in front of the net as part of Philly’s vaunted power play, ultimately getting the primary assist on Claude Giroux‘s goal:

This victory moves the Flyers to 5-3-0 in this young season, with three wins coming in their last four games. They’ve shown an ability to limit opponents lately, too; the Flyers have only allowed three goals in as many games and five in their last four.

While the Flyers stayed in the merciless Metro’s arms race, the Oilers feel punchless once again.

Their only goal was somewhat random, as Patrick Maroon made a great play, and a rare tally without the help of Connor McDavid:

It doesn’t really kill the trend of the Oilers relying far too much on McDavid and his top line. Maroon and McDavid fired eight of Edmonton’s 24 shots on goal in this contest, with another eight coming from the Oilers’ blueline.

Some of these top-heavy struggles come down to the structure put in place by GM Peter Chiarelli. Still, you wonder if head coach Todd McLellan needs to make some tweaks where he can, as the Oilers are asking a lot of a small group. (Ryan Strome continues to be a disappointment, as he didn’t register a single shot on goal after showing some life with nine SOG in his past two games.)

There’s also the impression that the Oilers sorely need Leon Draisaitl to carry his own line whenever he can return from concussion issues. Even in their slump-breaking victory on Thursday, they needed two McDavid assists, including one of the best you’ll ever see.

The Oilers close off a three-game road trip in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, then maybe they’ll get a chance to gather their wits with a five-game homestand (though their opponents aren’t always the easiest).

Meanwhile, the upstart Flyers aim to win four of five during a solid homestand. What a difference a goal (and Wayne Simmonds) makes.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Penguins, Rangers, Capitals headline PHT’s mighty Metro Division preview

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The Metropolitan Division hasn’t just produced the last two Stanley Cup winners (Pittsburgh Penguins) and last two Presidents’ Trophy winners (Washington Capitals).

It’s also a division that runs deep. The Columbus Blue Jackets took the league by storm in 2016-17, and while Sergei Bobrovsky might not be sensational again, many still believe they’re legit. The New York Rangers and New York Islanders still boast significant strengths, while the Carolina Hurricanes are dark horse candidates once more.

Even the New Jersey Devils keep adding promising talent.

Let’s preview what might once again be the best division in the NHL.

Also, check out these other previews: Atlantic Division, Central Division, PHT’s picks and predictions.

Carolina Hurricanes

Poll/looking to make the leap

Columbus Blue Jackets

Poll/looking to make the leap

New Jersey Devils

Poll/looking to make the leap

New York Islanders

Poll/looking to make the leap

New York Rangers

Poll/looking to make the leap

Philadelphia Flyers

Poll/looking to make the leap

Pittsburgh Penguins

Poll/looking to make the leap

Something noteworthy from today:

Washington Capitals

Poll/looking to make the leap

Ron Hextall wants you to know this isn’t a rebuilding season for the Flyers

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Coming off of their third non-playoff season in the past five years the Philadelphia Flyers are expected to have some young, inexperienced players take on some big roles this season.

You can call this upcoming season a lot of things for the Flyers, but one thing general manager Ron Hextall doesn’t want you to call it as a rebuild. Or a rebuilding season. Or anything have to do with the word “rebuild.”

He made that very clear when speaking to Sam Carchidi this past week.

An excerpt from Philly.com:

“You’re not rebuilding when you’re competitive,” Hextall said in a firm tone. “A rebuild, to me, is when you go to the bottom and you pick high, high, high – and essentially, you’re not trying that hard to win. That’s not in our DNA. We want to win. We want to win as many games as possible. We’re not going to go to the bottom of the league and pick first overall for four or five years. That’s no way to build culture. Our vision was to stay competitive, and build, and get younger — and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

He also later added, “How would you like to be a player going into an 82-game season knowing the team is rebuilding so basically has no expectations to win. Think about that. That’s not in our DNA.”

So don’t call it a rebuild, okay?

The 2016-17 season was kind of a bizarre one for the Flyers. They entered the year with some fairly high expectations after making the playoffs in 2015-16, but stumbled out of the gate by only winning nine of their first 22 games. Then in mid-November they started what would go on to be a 10-game winning streak that seemed to bring them back into playoff contention in the Eastern Conference. But as soon as that winning streak ended the bottom completely fell out on the season and they went just 19-22-6 the rest of the way.

They ended up finishing 19th in the overall league standings but made a massive move in the NHL draft lottery, jumping all the way up to the No. 2 overall spot where they could take Nolan Patrick.

Along with Patrick, the Flyers are going to lean on a lot of younger players this season, especially on defense with Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov, Sam Morin and Robert Hagg all expected to play major roles at some point during the year.

But they still have a core of veteran players in place led by Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, and recent additions Valterri Filppula (acquired before the trade deadline this past season) and Jori Lehtera (acquired over the summer for Brayden Schenn). They also attempted to fix their goaltending position by bringing in Brian Elliott to pair with Michal Neuvirth.

Given the overall veteran makeup of the roster it’s probably fair to not call it a rebuild, which kind of puts the Flyers in an odd spot. They have a lot of young players, but they haven’t totally torn the team down to the ground. But is this a roster that is going to compete in the Eastern Conference with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens and even the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs? They’re probably in that blurry middle ground teams can sometimes get trapped in where they’re not rebuilding and they’re not really contenders.

Sometimes that can take longer for a team to get out of than a full scale rebuild.

Hextall deserves to see Flyers rebuild through

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This post is part of Flyers day at PHT…

If you look at GM Ron Hextall’s playing career, you might have expected the Philadelphia Flyers to continue their charming-yet-maddening run of impulsive, often-reckless moves. After all, Hextall echoed Billy Smith in goalie-stick-swinging rage.

Instead, Hextall’s almost writing the blueprint for how to rebuild a team in a tasteful way. Almost to the point where you wonder if his absence may partially explain the erosion of the Los Angeles Kings’ salary structure.

(Hextall was even rebuilding on the fly without the typical run of lottery ball luck, but that trend changed in Philly’s favor when they ended up with the second pick and Nolan Patrick.)

Let’s consider the great job Hextall is doing, even if there’s some fear that someone else might ultimately get the greatest credit if management grows impatient with this incremental approach.

Cleaning up

Hextall inherited an absolute mess in Philly, and he’s been making lemonade out of Bobby Clarke’s lemons.

Moving Vincent Lecavalier and Luke Schenn for Jordan Weal and a third-rounder felt like wizardry. The assets he managed for Kimmo Timonen, Brayden Schenn, and Braydon Coburn brought the Flyers a mix of picks, solid roster players, and financial breathing room.

Even mixed moves seem to point to better things in the future.

One imagines the Flyers getting a little more than they did when they took Valtteri Filppula off of Tampa Bay’s hands, especially since the Bolts didn’t retain salary in the process. You’d expect Jori Lehtera‘s time with Philly to be short, as the team seemingly took on his contract merely to get nice picks from the Blues for Schenn.

Prospects and picks

Hextall has assembled quite the war chest of prospects that mixes quantity with, ideally, quality choices.

Even heading into the 2018 NHL Draft, the Flyers currently hold an extra choice in the first, fifth, and seventh rounds. That’s promising, especially since they’ve already made a lot of picks.

Take a look at their draft history during the last three years.

2015: two first-rounders, zero second, two third-rounders, two fourths. Nine picks.
2016: Normal number of picks, except: three second-rounders and two sixth-rounders. Ten picks.
2017: two first-rounders, plus Isaac Ratcliffe, who was close to a first-rounder at 35th. Also two fourth-rounders. Nine picks.

And, again, they currently hold 10 choices in 2018. If the Flyers can aim those “darts” with even any accuracy, things look good for the future.

Still some problems

The troubling thing is that the Flyers don’t exactly look like a no-brainer playoff team in 2017-18. (Vote on that subject here.)

They’re standing as something of a fringe team even as they still spend quite a bit of money; they’re only about $5 million under the cap ceiling right now, according to Cap Friendly.

Still-troubling spending is part of the reason why Claude Giroux ($8.275 million per year) is under pressure. It’s not necessarily that Giroux and Jakub Voracek ($8.25M) are bad, but there are questions about one or both of them slipping, and with contracts that begin to look frighteningly long.

Combine those deals with Andrew MacDonald‘s $5M punchline of a cap hit and that’s about $21.5M on the books, just like that.

There’s a path to greater financial freedom, especially if they part ways with Filppula ($5M) and Lehtera ($4.7M). Hextall’s run of strong goalie moves continues with the cheap pairing of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth after Steve Mason‘s surprisingly impressive run, and Philly isn’t locked into any Bryzgalovian deals in net.

So there are a lot of positives, even if it still feels like Hextall is hitting the “backspace” button on some salary cap death sentences.

Who gets to see the light at the end of the tunnel?

The Flyers boast a bounty of prospects, especially on defense; plenty of teams likely look at that farm system with some envy.

Will everything fall into line at the right time, though? Key forwards such as Giroux, Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds might see declines in the near future, to the point that Hextall must be willing to at least consider bold moves there, too.

Philly is getting close to the finish line as far as cap struggles go, which means that, sooner or later, they need to start making bigger gains toward being a stable contender. Hextall deserves to see it through, but we’ve seen more than a few examples of a GM laying the groundwork for someone else to put together the finishing touches.

Under Pressure: Paul Stastny

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This post is part of Blues Day on PHT…

On the opening day of free agency in 2014, the Blues signed free agent center Paul Stastny to a four-year, $28 million contract. It instantly made him the highest-paid forward on the team — since surpassed by Vladimir Tarasenko — and, in announcing the deal, GM Doug Armstrong raved about Stastny’s hockey IQ and how he “thinks the game strong.”

It was expected the gifted playmaker would become St. Louis’ top-line center.

But things haven’t exactly gone to plan.

The Stastny era is now three years old, and the major theme throughout has been health — specifically, his lack thereof. He’s missed 42 contests over that time, and failed to crack the 70 games-played plateau in each of the last two seasons. Unsurprisingly, his production has tailed off. After racking up 60 points in his final year in Colorado, he’s gone 46-49-40 with the Blues, and now heads into a contract year facing a number of major questions.

Among them:

Is Stastny a No. 1 center?

Blues head coach Mike Yeo certainly thinks so, describing the 31-year-old as such when Stastny got hurt back in February.

“He’s usually the first guy over the boards for a power-play faceoff or the first guy over the boards for a penalty-kill faceoff, and those are key,” Yeo said, per the Blues website. “He’s a very important player for us. You don’t take out a top-line center from too many lineups where they don’t feel that.”

The Blues certainly paid him like a 1C. At $7 million per, he’s making more annually than the likes of Patrice Bergeron, Nicklas Backstrom, John Tavares and Jeff Carter. What’s more, the Blues don’t have much depth down the middle. Patrik Berglund has proven to be a decent, if unspectacular, option that scored 23 goals last year, but his ceiling is a 3C that can be pushed into the 2C role in a pinch.

Jori Lehtera, who underwhelmed last season, was flipped to Philly in the Brayden Schenn trade, but the Blues might have the same problem with Schenn that the Flyers did —  is he a center, or better suited on the wing?

Youngsters Robby Fabbri and Ivan Barbashev can also play the middle, but aren’t yet considered full-time guys. Fabbri’s coming off a torn ACL.

So is Stastny a No. 1? Traditionally speaking, maybe not. In St. Louis, maybe so.

Do the Blues want to keep him?

Given what we just laid out, probably. But it would have to be at the right price.

Next July, Armstrong has some work to do and not a ton of cap space to do it with. The most pressing contracts will be for a pair of young RFAs — Fabbri, and d-man Joel Edmundson — while Stastny’s the lone UFA of note.

If Stastny’s willing to take a significant haircut, his return could happen. Signing with St. Louis back in ’14 was essentially a homecoming, as he grew up in the city and went to Chaminade College Prep School. Both his father and brother previously played with the Blues.

The real question, it would seem, is if Stastny fits with the direction of the club. Armstrong hasn’t been shy about turning his team over to the younger generation over the last few years, while cutting ties with veterans in a myriad of ways.

Just consider what happened to Stastny’s former running mates up front. Lehtera was traded Philly, T.J. Oshie was flipped to Washington, while David Backes and Troy Brouwer were allowed to walk in free agency.

Could this be another Kevin Shattenkirk situation?

Two years ago, Armstrong opted to keep Backes and Brouwer — both UFAs — past the deadline, and the Blues responded with a playoff run to the Western Conference Final. But that summer, both assets were lost for no return.

Last year, Armstrong took a different tact, opting to flip Shattenkirk, a pending UFA, at the deadline for a package that included promising forward Zach Sanford and a first-round pick (the Blues later used that pick to acquire Schenn).

“We are not in the business of trading good players for prospects when your team has a chance to win the Cup,” Armstrong said at the time, per the Post-Dispatch. “This team now has to get in on its own. It’s going to be more difficult, but if we get in, you always have a chance to win.”

One wonders if last year’s experience might’ve changed Armstrong’s outlook.

All things considered, the Blues fared well following Shattenkirk’s departure. They finished third in the Central Division, and upended 106-point Minnesota in the opening playoff round before bowing out to the eventual conference champ, Nashville, in Round 2.

The big difference between Shattenkirk and Stastny, though, is the depth at their respective positions. Parting ways with Shattenkirk was made easier by the presences of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, and the emergence of Edmundson and Colton Parayko.

At center, the Blues don’t have such options.