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Should Flyers sign Simmonds long-term? It’s complicated

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An NHL GM can make mistakes in a lot of different ways.

One of the most challenging hurdles an executive must clear is determining whether they should keep quality (but aging) mid-level talent around. It’s easy to pinpoint the nucleus of your roster, and try to lock those players down – ideally for value – and it should be easy to disqualify the filler. But what about nice assets with cloudier stances in the pecking order?

It’s maybe a bit amusing that the Flyers signing James van Riemsdyk – a player the Maple Leafs ultimately decided wasn’t a core player – might open the door for Wayne Simmonds to leave Philadelphia under similar circumstances.

Flyers GM Ron Hextall admits that he’d like to keep Simmonds, but he also doesn’t know if it will work out.

“We’d like to sign Simmer,” Hextall said, via Sam Donnellon of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Whether we can or not, I don’t have the answer to that.”

It’s fair to ask if the Flyers can sign Simmonds. It’s also reasonable to wonder if they should.

Now, if this wasn’t a salary cap league, a big-budget team like the Flyers probably wouldn’t fret about signing Simmonds, who’s an undeniable talent. Things get trickier when the belt tightens, and Hextall’s wise to acknowledge that there are some big decisions – and possibly mammoth raises to brilliant younger talents – coming in the near future.

So let’s explore many of the ins and outs of this situation, and the Flyers’ fascinating outlook with or without one of the league’s best power forwards.

Superb situational scorer

Possessing prolific power-play prowess might sometimes seem like a backhanded compliment (“He can’t score at 5-on-5,” – hypothetical jerks), but it can be highly valuable to unearth players who seem to score in those situations, year-in, and year-out.

Simmonds has been, unquestionably, a fantastic scorer on the power play since being traded to Philly. Since 2011-12 (his first season with the Flyers), Simmonds scored 86 power-play goals, the second-best total in the NHL during that frame. Only superhuman Alex Ovechkin was better, leaping tall buildings with a signal bound at 131 goals; Simmonds leads third-place Steven Stamkos by 10 goals (Stamkos had 76, albeit limited by injuries).

Fixating on the power play is only natural with Simmonds (86 of his 187 goals in 522 Flyers games came on the man advantage), yet he brings other strengths to the table.

While the physical winger’s fantasy value gets bumped up another notch by frequent trips to the penalty box (958 PIM in 762 career NHL regular-season games), Natural Stat Trick’s metrics show that he tends to draw about as many penalties as he takes. So that grit doesn’t necessarily put his team at a massive disadvantage.

Simmonds’ possession stats ebb and flow, but some of that might come down to the quality of his linemates. They were mostly “meh” at even-strength in 2017-18, with Valtteri Filppula and Jordan Weal ranking as his most common forward partners.

Between power plays and normal minutes, the bottom line is that Simmonds has been very productive. Last season’s 24 goals and 46 points were borderline alarming for him for the simple reason that he’s been very, very good at times for the Flyers. Simmonds previously scored at least 28 goals for four straight seasons, and with 24 last year, has five in a row with at least that many. He’s essentially been a 30-ish goal guy for most of his Flyers run, as he managed 15 goals in the 45 contests during the pattern and streak-ruining 2012-13 lockout season.

Long story short, there’s a lot to like about Simmonds. If the Flyers let him walk, plenty of teams will clamor for his services, and there are scenarios where he’d sign with a divisional rival and make his former team miserable.

The questions

Again, there are some stumbling blocks, especially if Simmonds wants serious term.

He’ll turn 30 on Aug. 26. While his rather unusual ability to score in tight might be a skill that actually ages well, there are reasons to also wonder if he’d hit the aging curve especially hard.

Most obviously, a physical player is involved in more demolition derby moments, and even if they “win” those collisions more often than not, they take a toll. (Consider that Scott Stevens retired in large part for health reasons, despite being the guy who was usually the culprit rather than victim of vicious hits.)

[James van Riemsdyk signing could spell end for Simmonds with Flyers]

Simmonds was slowed in 2017-18 by issues that ended up requiring core surgery. Maybe those issues can be considered a one-time thing, but age is a serious question here. With Claude Giroux (30), Jakub Voracek (28), and JVR (29) all signed to serious term and combining for a cap hit of $23.525M, the Flyers already boast some forwards whose contracts could become future problems.

JVR’s skills may also make Simmonds’ PP gifts relatively redundant. During his time with Toronto, 45 of James van Riemsdyk’s 154 goals came on the man advantage.

A clever special teams coach would look at a power play featuring JVR and Simmonds – along with gifted assets such as Giroux and Shayne Gostisbehere – as a buffet of brilliant options. Still, the salary cap sometimes dictates that team give up on luxuries to afford necessities, and JVR might make Simmonds expendable.

The bill’s coming

According to Cap Friendly, the Flyers currently enjoy a robust $13.22M in cap space.

With that in mind, it would be tempting to dismiss the fact that Simmonds is due to make a lot more than his bargain, expiring rate of $3.975M. The issue gets thornier when you consider other looming expenses, particularly if Simmonds – justifiably – seeks both a raise and serious term.

Ivan Provorov is entering a contract year, and Hextall might just want to get that situation wrapped up. The Flyers’ two goalies (Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth) will see their combined $5.25M evaporate after 2018-19. One way or another, netminding decisions are coming; it could be a cheap situation once more if Carter Hart ends up being ready, but it’s fuzzy right now.

Locking up the Provorov’s and eventually the Nolan Patrick‘s stand as serious concerns, yet there are also some positives that push the Simmonds decision closer to “go for it.”

Hextall’s been crafty with erasing the mistakes of the past, sometimes quickly and sometimes gradually. Some dead money will be fading soon, making it more plausible for a Simmonds deal to come into focus. Jori Lehtera‘s ghastly $4.7M goes away after next season. Andrew MacDonald‘s ridiculous $5M mercifully expires after 2019-10. They’ll also get to wave goodbye to Dale Weise, Michael Raffl, and Radko Gudas if they want to fairly soon.

Between some money coming off the books and (in an ideal world) another healthy jump for the salary cap, retaining Simmonds might become quite manageable. As Hextall acknowledges, some of the details need to be sorted out.

Wait-and-see?

Donnellon reports that Hextall said he’d be willing to negotiate with Simmonds into the season, and while that might seem like a throwaway detail, it might just be the ticket.

The bottom line is that it will be easier to understand how the pieces fall together (between JVR, Simmonds, and rising young talents such as Patrick and Travis Konecny) after seeing them all in action. JVR’s presence could just as easily boost Simmonds as it could push him to a secondary unit or clog too much of the same real estate in front of the net.

Taking that extra time could also give Hextall the opportunity to achieve cost certainty if he can figure out how much Provorov will cost, and if it would make sense to keep Elliott or Neuvirth around to support Hart.

The Flyers stand as a truly fascinating team to watch. There’s an appealing mix of established players and rising young stars, and if they can come to productive conclusions with the eternal questions about goaltending, they could rise from a playoff bubble team to a frequent, scary contender.

Figuring out what’s the best step to take with Simmonds – whether it be to sign him, let him walk, or trade him before his deal expires – is a very important decision.

For all we know, it could be one of the make-or-break factors as Hextall hopes to convert all of this potential into playoff glories.

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.

The Buzzer: Eichel explodes for Sabres; More history for Caps’ Carlson

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Three Stars

1. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres

The Sharks ended the first period up 2-0 against the Sabres, so it took quite the surge from Eichel & Co. to win that one 4-3 in OT.

Eichel was involved in all four of Buffalo’s goals, scoring two goals and two assists. That included the game-winner in overtime for the Sabres. The American-born forward ended the night with six shots on goal, a +2 rating, and went 12-10 on faceoffs.

The 22-year-old went two games without a point, but he’s still off to a hot start in 2018-19, as Tuesday pushed Eichel’s totals to 14 points in 10 games.

2. Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

Minnesota’s showing some signs of life with a two-game winning streak, but some of the joy was muted thanks to Devan Dubnyk leaving the game with an injury after a bad collision.

As ominous as that seems, it has to be a relief for the Wild to see Eric Staal finally have a breakthrough night on Tuesday. Staal scored two goals (including the 1-0 tally, thus the game-winner) and an assist, with those two goals being Staal’s first of the season. The 34-year-old’s been a revelation in Minnesota (peaking with 42 goals and 76 points in 2017-18), and he seemed to give the Wild a pretty sweet deal with his latest contract. Well, it’s a sweet deal if Staal’s game doesn’t sink too much; otherwise, you wonder if they’d be better off moving on and getting younger.

Anyway, this was a nice overall effort from Staal, who also had a +2 rating, five SOG, and went 8-7 on draws.

3. Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks

Like the Sabres, the Canucks fell behind early on Tuesday. The Red Wings opened up a 2-0 lead against Vancouver, only for the Canucks to explode with five unanswered goals in the third period.

Horvat contributed three of those goals. While Staal gets the higher star because all of his points came against a goalie (Horvat’s third tally was an empty-netter), it was still a strong night from Horvat.

Similarly to Staal, Horvat came into Tuesday on a quiet start, as Horvat only had two goals and one assists for three points through eight contests. He managed his first career NHL hat trick on Tuesday, pushing him to six points in nine games.

Highlight of the Night

It was already covered here (alongside a fun blooper), but it has to be David Pastrnak‘s between-the-legs goal, right?

Factoids

  • John Carlson cemented his spot alone atop the NHL’s scoring leaders list by generating two goals, pushing him to 20 points on the season as Washington beat Calgary. NHL PR points out some impressive history for Carlson, including that he joined Bobby Orr (twice) and wonderfully old-timey-named Baldy Northcott (in 1932-33) as the only defensemen to lead the league outright in scoring through 20 days. Carlson reached 20 points in 11 games, tying Orr (in 1974-75) as the second-fastest surge to 20 points for a defenseman. Only Paul Coffey hit 20 faster, doing it in 10 games in 1988-89. Sportsnet notes that Carlson’s already off to one of the best Octobers for a defenseman, and the Capitals have three more games left in the month.
  • Marc-Andre Fleury earned his 446th NHL win, breaking a tie with Terry Sawchuk for seventh all-time. Henrik Lundqvist is at sixth with 450, while Curtis Joseph ranks at fifth with 454. It should be interesting to see if MAF ends up higher than Lundqvist when they’re both done — which hopefully isn’t anytime soon.
  • Sabres wunderkind Rasmus Dahlin has 10 points through his first 10 games, landing on a short list of defensemen who managed such a short at 20 years old or younger. Another Sabres stat: Eichel scored his sixth overtime goal, already tying the franchise record at 22.

Scores

BOS 4 – TOR 2
BUF 4 – SJS 3 (OT)
FLA 4 – PIT 2
ARI 3 – NYR 2 (OT)
VAN 5 – DET 2
NSH 6 – ANA 1
MIN 3 – EDM 0
LAK 3 – WPG 2
VGK 2 – CHI 1 (SO)
WSH 5 – CGY 3

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Two goals, two extremes: Pastrnak beauty and Murray blunder

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You don’t often hear the phrase “keep your eyes on the puck.” Greg Wyshynski basically wrote a hockey book about watching how things develop away from the puck, for instance.

Tuesday presented one great highlight reel moment, and one for the bloopers, and you may note that the key figures involved either kept their eye(s) on the puck or couldn’t quite manage it.

To start, you have Boston Bruins star David Pastrnak in the moment that will probably linger in the memories of more hockey fans beyond Tuesday. After being robbed of an impressive goal thanks to an offside review early against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Pastrnak made a tremendous between-the-legs move to score for Boston, and add to his gaudy goal-scoring start.

Also notice that Pastrnak was able to keep his eye on the puck as it went into the net, as he gestured as such while others seemed bewildered — maybe by him being audacious enough to make that move.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray. He allowed a goal he’ll undoubtedly want back against Noel Acciari of the Florida Panthers, and it’s about as close to hockey’s version of “losing a baseball in the lights” as I think you’ll see:

It’s hard not to feel for Murray there, and one cannot help but feel pity for any goalie facing Pastrnak lately.

Pastrnak’s Bruins ended up beating the Maple Leafs 4-2, while Murray’s Penguins fell 4-2 to the Panthers.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

NHL over/under: How many goals will Pastrnak, Neal finish with?

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Entering play on Tuesday night David Pastrnak (Boston) and James Neal (Edmonton) sit on top of the NHL’s goal scoring leaderboard with nine goals each. They have been two of the hottest players in the league to start the season and are in action on Tuesday looking to increase their lead.

Pastrnak’s climb to the top isn’t all that surprising given how good he has been the past few years. He is coming off of his third consecutive 30-goal season and is part of one the league’s top lines alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. He scored 38 goals in just 66 games last season, a pace that would have had him pushing the 50-goal mark had he stayed healthy. Including his start this season, he has scored 52 goals in his last 82 regular season games played dating back to the end of the 2017-18 season.

He is simply one of the best finishers in the league and is just now entering what should be his peak years for offense.

Neal’s early success is a little more surprising.

He has always been a good goal scorer, but was coming off by far his worst season in the league in Calgary, scoring just seven goals in 63 games. He has already blown past that number this season.

With both players pacing the rest of the league so far, let’s try to project what they might be capable of for the entire season.

Let’s start with Pastrnak — As already mentioned, he has a recent track record of being a lethal goal scorer and is surrounded by two elite players in Boston. Their line is driving all of the offense in Boston right now and Pastrnak is at the center of it. He entered the season looking like a lock for at least 35 goals as long as he was able to stay healthy. Nothing he has done so far has shaken that belief. As is the case with most players on a nearly goal-per-game hot streak, he is carrying a shooting percentage well north of 30 percent, a number that is no doubt going to drop as the year goes on. Even the best players don’t shoot above 20 percent (and even that is an outrageously high number for a full year) for a full season, while Pastrnak himself has consistently settled around the 14 percent mark.

So let’s use some simple math here: If Pastrnak maintains his current 3.38 shots per game average (he easily could) and shoots at his normal 14 percent on those shots, that would be an additional 35 goals on top of what he already has this season. That would give him 44 goals, just shy of the pace he was on last year without the injury and that seems like a pretty fair projection.

Can he hit that? Or exceed it? And can he continue to make a run at knocking Alex Ovechkin from his goal scoring throne?

What about Neal? — Everything disappeared for Neal in Calgary last season. His shot volume plummeted, his shooting percentage cratered, he seemed like a player that was just totally out of it and had seen his career wash out. But given his track record there was always a chance he could rebound, and the Oilers are the team that is benefitting from it.

He is back to averaging close to three-and-a-half shots per game (up a full shot from Calgary) and so far is riding the same shooting percentage wave that Pastrnak is in Boston. He also has the added bonus of getting to play on Edmonton’s power play (an area he has always excelled) alongside Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. That is going to help a lot, but not so much that he keeps scoring on 30 percent of his shots.

The Oilers have 72 games remaining on their schedule. With his same shot rate and career average shooting percentage that would put Neal on a 35-goal track for this season, a number that the Oilers would have almost certainly signed up for in the preseason when they made the trade.

Can he get there? Or will he exceed it?

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Flyers remain one of NHL’s biggest mysteries

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General manager Chuck Fletcher spent his entire offseason overhauling the Philadelphia Flyers organization.

New coaching staff, new players, big trades, a big free agent signing, and everything else the team’s ownership was looking for when it wanted a “bias for action” in its new GM. Even with all of the changes the Flyers remained a gigantic mystery because it wasn’t entirely clear if they were actually any better than before all of the movement started. If anything, it seemed like a perfect representation of everything the Flyers have come to represent over the past decade where they have enough high-end players on the roster to make you want to buy into them, but just enough questions to give you pause in doing so because there were so many “ifs” attached to their success.

If Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere can rebound and take big steps forward as top-pairing defenders.

If Carter Hart can be a star in goal.

If Kevin Hayes is actually worth $7 million per year.

If Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun still have something left in the tank.

Usually the more “ifs” you throw at a team the worse it tends to turn out for them because pro sports is rarely kind enough for every “if” to work out in a team’s favor. Through the first seven games of the season there still isn’t much clarity on what the Flyers are. On Monday night they snapped a four-game losing streak with what was perhaps their best all-around performance of the season, completely demolishing one of the league’s best teams — the Vegas Golden Knights — in a 5-2 win to bring their record to 3-3-1, the type of record you might expect from the type of mediocre team you expect the Flyers to be. Still, there are some early signs that maybe this team has played better than its early record might indicate and that there could be some hope here.

The process has been good — And by “process” I mean there are strong signs that they are controlling games even if they are not yet turning into wins. They are third in NHL in shots on goal per game, they are allowing the fewest shots on goal, they are the NHL’s best team in both shot attempt differential and scoring chance differential at 5-on-5 (via Natural Stat Trick), and they dictating the pace of almost every game they have played. This is, at the very least, a positive sign because the most important part of scoring goals is generating shots, and the most important of preventing goals is preventing shots. It’s common sense, and if you can keep doing that over a full season the odds are going to be in your favor. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that they might be a little unlucky at this point. And not to make too big of an excuse here, but their early schedule was about as brutal as it could have possibly been playing three games, in three different countries, in three different time zones (going from Switzerland, to Philadelphia, to Vancouver for a three-game Western Canadian road trip) across the stretch of one week.

Hart hasn’t been all that good (yet) — This was always the big wild card for this Flyers team. He is supposed to be the savior of the position and the one to finally stabilize the position long-term. His rookie season was extremely promising and expectations were high entering the season. Through his first five starts, he hasn’t yet found his game yet with an .890 save percentage. The fact the Flyers are still 2-2-1 in those games is kind of accomplishment. He can be better, he needs to better, and there is every reason to believe that he will be better. Once that happens, and if the Flyers are still able to play in front of him the way they have, this could be an interesting team.

Some of their top forwards have been unlucky. There are three forwards in the NHL this season that have recorded at least 24 shots on goal and failed to score — two of them (Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk) play for the Flyers. Add Jakob Voracek (two goals on 17 shots) and three of the team’s top offensive players have scored on two of their first 76 shots on goal this season. That is a shooting percentage of just 2.6 percent. All three may be on the wrong side of 30, but none of them have completely fallen off a cliff yet as players and are still capable of producing like first-liners (as they did as recently as a year ago).

Basically, everything that could have gone for the Flyers right now has gone wrong. Their travel schedule has brutal, their starting goalie and arguably their most important player has struggled, and their best forwards have been unable to find the back of the net. Through all of that they have still managed to collect points in four of their first seven games and continue to tread water.

In the end, it still leaves the Flyers right where they were when the season started — a team that has given us plenty of reason to buy into them, yet one that we still don’t fully know anything about with a lot of “ifs” following them around.

Such is life with the Flyers.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.