Jason Brough

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 18:  Shayne Gostisbehere #53 of the Philadelphia Flyers takes a shot in the second period against the Washington Capitals in Game Three of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center on April 18, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.The Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 6-1.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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For the Flyers’ defense, the future is nearly here

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This post is part of Flyers Day on PHT…

The thing about drafting and developing defenseman is that it takes time and patience.

Oh, sure, there are some guys like Aaron Ekblad and Drew Doughty who can step into the NHL right away. But the large majority of them don’t.

Take Duncan Keith. Drafted in 2002, it took him three years until he joined the Blackhawks, and he still had some developing to do once he got there.

P.K. Subban was drafted in 2007. He stayed in junior for two additional years and then spent one season in the AHL before joining the Habs.

Shea Weber, speaking of Subban, took a similar path after being drafted in 2003. Two addition years of junior, then a few games in the AHL before graduating full-time to the Predators.

So it takes time and patience.

And let’s face it, that hasn’t always been the calling card of the Philadelphia Flyers. Under late owner Ed Snider and former general manager Paul Holmgren, Philly was arguably the most impatient team in the league. It was an admirable trait in many ways; the Flyers just really, really wanted to win the Stanley Cup again, and they were willing to flex their financial muscle to accomplish that goal. But at times their impatience cost them, and they learned the hard way that there are no quick fixes in the salary-cap age.

Suffice to say, it’s been a different attitude under GM Ron Hextall. The Flyers have not won a playoff series since he took over from Holmgren in May of 2014, but the fans are excited and optimistic all the same.

With all the young defensemen in the system, how could they not be pumped? Shayne Gostisbehere — a Holmgren-era pick, it should be noted — just finished second in the Calder Trophy voting after his stellar rookie season, and he was only the start. 

Gostisbehere was drafted in 2012. The next year came Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg. In 2014, Hextall added Travis Sanheim to the mix, then in 2015 got perhaps the jewel of the Flyers’ prospect pool when he selected Ivan Provorov seventh overall.

Over four years, it was quite the haul of defensemen.

Of course, it remains to be seen which of them will thrive in the NHL. Chances are, one or two won’t. But the great thing for the Flyers is that not all of them need to pan out. It would be nice if they all did, but there’s wiggle room for a bust or two.

That’s what patience has bought the club. And in 2016-17, the Flyers will continue to be patient.

“[Defense] is a harder position to play [than forward],” Hextall told reporters recently. “We’ve got enough players on our roster to play for the Flyers this year. So we’re not sitting here going Player X, Player Y has to play in the NHL. We’re not going to force one of these kids now. If one of these kids, or two or three comes in and they’re better than the guys we have, that’s competition.”

Now, granted, patience does have it limits. The Flyers have brought their young defensemen along responsibly; they haven’t given in to the temptation to trade them for older, “win now” pieces; and Hextall has remained committed to the long-term plan.

Just don’t mistake this for a team with zero urgency to win now, because there’s actually plenty. Claude Giroux is 28 years old, right in the prime of his career. Wayne Simmonds is 27 and Jakub Voracek is 26. Throw in Sean Couturier, 23, and Brayden Schenn, 24, and the Flyers have assembled a pretty impressive collection of forwards, all under 30 years of age.

The urgency comes from the desire to compete for a Stanley Cup while that forward group is still young and impressive.

And whether that happens will depend a lot on the youngsters on the back end, and how quickly they can start making a real impact.

Related: Flyers sign T.J. Brennan to multi-year deal

Poll: What should the Flyers do about their goaltending?

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 05:  Michal Neuvirth #30 of the Philadelphia Flyers is congratulated by teammate Steve Mason #35 after the win over the Montreal Canadiens at the Wells Fargo Center on January 5, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.The Philadelphia Flyers defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-3.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Flyers Day on PHT…

Steve Mason made 53 starts last season and went 23-19-10 with a .918 save percentage.

Michal Neuvirth started 29 times and finished 18-8-4 with a .924 save percentage.

Combined, they gave the Flyers one of the best goalie tandems in the entire league, a major factor in the team’s return to the playoffs.

And now, in an interesting twist, each goalie will head into 2016-17 in the final year of his contract, with the ability to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. They are both the same age, 28 years old. Mason’s cap hit is $4.1 million; Neuvirth’s is $1.625 million.

It’s worth noting that the Flyers also have some goaltending prospects, including recently signed Alex Lyon, as well as 2012 second-round draft pick Anthony Stolarz, who’s already spent a couple of seasons in the AHL.

Then there’s the trade market to consider. With the expansion draft looming, there could be some accomplished netminders come available. Ben Bishop is one big name that’s already out there. Marc-Andre Fleury is another potential trade candidate, and could you imagine him coming to Philadelphia? (Yeah, we couldn’t either, but that would be amazing.)

So, a big decision is on the horizon for GM Ron Hextall. Granted, he doesn’t have to do anything right now, and it looks like the Flyers will head into the season with Mason and Neuvirth competing for the starting job.

“I don’t believe that’s a strength that you want to weaken,” Hextall said in April, per philly.com.

It’s possible that whoever plays best — Mason or Neuvirth — receives an extension and the other doesn’t. Though re-signing both of them isn’t entirely out of question, that option would take up quite a bit of cap space, and one or both goalies might balk at that arrangement anyway. If one of Lyon or Stolarz is ready to backup in 2017-18, it would certainly be cheaper for the Flyers to go that route.

OK, time to vote:

(Click here if the poll doesn’t show up for you.)

PS — We didn’t provide a “let’s just wait and see how the season goes” option because that’s boring.

Under Pressure: Jakub Voracek

Ottawa Senators v Philadelphia Flyers
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This post is part of Flyers Day on PHT…

There are only 10 NHLers who will make at least $10 million in actual salary in 2016-17, and Jakub Voracek will be one of them.

Yes, this coming season will mark the first year of Voracek’s eight-year, $66 million extension —  a deal he signed last summer, after putting up a career-high 81 points (22G, 59A) in 2014-15.

The chemistry Voracek displayed with Flyers captain Claude Giroux was a major factor in the long-term commitment by the Flyers.

“Obviously, they’ve been dynamite together and we expect them to continue on,” GM Ron Hextall said at the time. “So that was a big part of our emphasis. I think when you build a team, you look at pairs, and I think the pair of [Voracek and Giroux] is very good, certainly one of the top pairs in the league.”

But they weren’t quite as good in 2015-16. Giroux went from 73 points to 67, and Voracek’s production fell even further, from 81 points to 55, with just 11 goals.

To be fair, Voracek had stretches of productive hockey. After a very slow start, he averaged around a point per game through January and February, and there was one mini-stretch where he had 11 points in six games.

But then he went down with an injury that caused him to miss nearly a month. When he returned, he only scored two goals in 19 games, including the playoffs.

It’s worth noting that before Voracek scored 81 points in 2014-15, his previous career high was 62. So it’s possible the Flyers bought high on him. In fact, it’s likely the Flyers bought high on him.

But even if that was the case, he’s a talented player who’s capable of producing more than he did last season. Assuming he stays healthy, a reasonable target would be 70 points.

 

 

Under Pressure: Mika Zibanejad

OTTAWA, ON - FEBRUARY 14: Mika Zibanejad #93 of the Ottawa Senators prepares for a faceoff against the Edmonton Oilers at Canadian Tire Centre on February 14, 2015 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Rangers Day on PHT…

For a team that’s spent the past few years living in the present — and at times sacrificing the future to stay competitive — last month’s trade that sent Derick Brassard to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad was notable in that the Rangers got younger, not older, while saying good-bye to their second-leading scorer.

In other words, it was a move to strengthen the Rangers’ future, even if it meant that the Senators, in the words of their general manager, got the “better hockey player at this point in time.”

Brassard is indeed a pretty good player. The 28-year-old had 27 goals and 31 assists last season. On the Rangers, only Mats Zuccarello finished with more points (61). Derek Stepan was third with 53 points. Keith Yandle, now in Florida, was fourth with 47 (meaning two of the Rangers’ top four scorers from 2015-16 are on different teams now).

Of course, Zibanejad is coming off a fairly production season of his own. The 23-year-old had 21 goals and 30 assists in 81 games for the Senators. He had a similarly production campaign in 2014-15 (20G, 26A).

“This is a younger player who is almost six years younger, has two 20-goal seasons, and is a player that we think is heading to the prime of his career,” Rangers GM Jeff Gorton said. “The ability to get him, a younger player, someone who is fast, plays well in his own zone, can do a lot of things for us.”

The trade also gave the Rangers some additional cap space — cap space they could theoretically use to address the defense, should an opportunity present itself.

But for the deal to be deemed a success for the Blueshirts, Zibanejad will still need to produce. After being drafted sixth overall in 2011, he’s used to high expectations. He has high expectations for himself.

“I’m quite excited to be able to get this chance with the Rangers and I feel like I’m at that moment in my career to be able to do that and hopefully break out here,” he said, per NHL.com. “I feel like I’m solid all-around, but I’m not happy just yet with what I’ve accomplished and where I am. I’m just looking forward to every year that goes by to get a little bit better and make a bigger impact every year as well.”

Zibanejad can become a restricted free agent next summer, so he’s got a contract to play for, too.

Related: Pavel Buchnevich is looking to make the leap

The biggest worry for the Rangers? It’s the defense

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 23: Ryan McDonagh #27 and Dan Girardi #5 of the New York Rangers line up for the national anthem prior to a game against the Washington Capitals at Madison Square Garden on December 23, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Alex Trautwig/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Rangers Day on PHT…

The biggest worry definitely isn’t goaltending, because there’s still Henrik Lundqvist back there.

It’s not up front either. The Rangers have some good, young forwards, and they’re about to add Pavel Buchnevich to the mix.

That defense, though. That’s where things could get dicey next season, assuming the group they have right now is the one they still have in October. Currently, the eight defensemen are Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Klein, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Nick Holden, Dylan McIlrath, Brady Skjei, and Adam Clendening.

Perhaps the biggest concern will be replacing Keith Yandle. He finished fourth on the Rangers last season with 47 points (42 assists) in 82 games. In the process, he earned himself a big contract with the Panthers.

The Rangers also lost Dan Boyle to retirement, which means the two d-men that played the most power-play minutes for them in 2015-16 are no longer there. Clendening, signed as a free agent, is an offensive specialist, but he’s only 23 and the Rangers are his sixth NHL team.

Let’s just say there’s a reason many still expect GM Jeff Gorton to make a move. He hasn’t ruled one out, either. Kevin Shattenkirk‘s name gets mentioned a lot, but then, his name gets mentioned a lot in Boston and Detroit, too. The Blues might just keep him anyway.

In addition to replacing Yandle, also of great concern is the declining play of both Girardi and Staal, two workhorse defensive specialists with plenty of hard miles on their bodies. Girardi is 32 now, and he’s signed through 2019-20 for a cap hit of $5.5 million. Staal turns 30 in January, and he’s signed through 2020-21 for a cap hit of $5.7 million.

The hope going forward is that Girardi and Staal won’t decline any further (or might even bounce back a little), and that McIlrath, 24, and Skjei, 22, can become full-time NHLers while gaining the trust of head coach Alain Vigneault. Both McIlrath and Skjei are former first-round draft picks who’ve been developing slowly but surely. In fact, Skjei was the last first-round pick the Rangers made, all the way back in 2012.

As for the Rangers’ best defenseman, McDonagh, don’t be surprised if his workload gets increased a touch, especially if there’s no trade for an established puck-mover. McDonagh was a huge part of the 2014 run to the Stanley Cup Final, and he’s especially motivated after this year’s early playoff exit.

“It’s not a good feeling to lose in the first round in five [games] the way we did,” he told NHL.com. “That’s the biggest motivation, kind of that feeling of embarrassment and letting your teammates down, letting your organization down, letting the fans down that appreciate us and watch us all year.”

The question is whether that kind of motivation will be enough to overcome what many feel is largely a personnel issue. Remember that the 2014 team was led by McDonagh, but it also relied heavily on Staal and Girardi, not to mention Anton Stralman, who left for Tampa Bay that summer. If the defense doesn’t improve in 2016-17, or at the very least stay at the same level, the Rangers may very well miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010.