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Three questions facing Philadelphia Flyers

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Philadelphia Flyers.

1. Is their goaltending good enough to take them on a long playoff run? 

Going into last season, not many people expected the Flyers to be a playoff team. Sure, they were one of the up and coming squads in the league, but expecting them to make the postseason seemed to be a bit of a stretch. But they made the playoffs. They eventually lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, but it was a positive season overall.

As always, the Flyers had issues with their goaltenders at times. The duo of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth suffered through injuries and inconsistency, so GM Ron Hextall went out and acquired Petr Mrazek from Detroit. The Mrazek acquisition didn’t work out, so he’s no longer with the team (he signed with Carolina in free agency).

The big question is whether or not the Flyers can get it done with a duo of Elliott and Neuvirth. Both goaltenders aren’t true number ones at the NHL level. They go through times where they look like they are, but they tend to come crashing back down to earth eventually. Both are veterans, so it’s unlikely that they’ll suddenly emerge as superstar netminders.

[2017-18 review | Breakthrough: Travis Konecny | Under Pressure: JvR]

The wild card is all of this is Carter Hart. The top prospect is turning pro this year, which means he has zero experience at this level. He’ll start the year in the AHL, but what happens if he dominates at a young age? It’s not likely, but the possibility can’t be ignored.

Ultimately, the Flyers will probably have to roll with Elliott and Neuvrith. That means that a long playoff run is unlikely. Making it out of the first round with that duo would be a bonus for this team.

2. What happens to Wayne Simmonds?

This is a contract year for Simmonds, who had 24 goals and 46 points in 75 games last season. Those are the lowest offensive totals he’s put up during a full season since 2010-11. It’s hard to blame him when you look at all the injuries he dealt with. At trade deadline time, there were rumblings that the Flyers were willing to unload the rugged winger.

Now that they’ve inked James van Riemsdyk to a massive five-year contract, there might not be anymore room for Simmonds. That’s where things get a little tricky for Philadelphia. If they’re in the middle of a playoff race, can they really afford to let go via trade? Probably not. On the flip side, are they good enough that they can keep him and then lose him for nothing in free agency? Again, probably not.

So they’ll have to make a huge decision at some point. There’s a chance that management isn’t interested in bringing him back on a long-term deal that a player of his caliber will command on the open market. That’s understandable, too. He’s almost 30, he plays a physical style and he’s had his share of injuries. Players like Simmonds rarely age well.

“I’ve played in this league a long time and I think you come to realize as a player if you’re not at your top, you’re probably not going to be getting probably what you usually should,” Simmonds said, per NBC Sports Philly. “I know that’s what maybe went down at the end, there’s not really much I can say about that. If I was 100 percent, then I think there might be some annoyance, but I wasn’t 100 percent and I understand the situation that we’re in, the position that we’re in, we were fighting for the playoffs.”

The Flyers also have a number of in-house options that could step into a top-six role, as well. With Simmonds on the shelf, youngster Nolan Patrick saw his ice time increase. The second overall pick’s ice time probably won’t be going down this season, either.

3. Can Sean Couturier replicate what he did last season? 

Coutier was one of the biggest surprises in the NHL last season. The 25-year-old had a career-high 31 goals and 76 points in 2017-18, which was 37 points more than his previous high. Those numbers came out of nowhere. Couturier was always regarded as a solid two-way player, but by putting him on a line with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, the Flyers discovered that he had a lot more to give.

Unfortunately for Couturier, he suffered a torn MCL after he collided with teammate Radko Gudas during a practice in April. He ended up missing Game 4 of the first-round series against the Pens, but he eventually came back and even had a five-point night in the final game of the series.

Couturier was expected to be ready to go for training camp, but this story took an interesting twist on Wednesday as Hextall announced the forward will miss a month with a knee injury.

All things considered, that’s not so bad (it could have been a lot worse). The big question now is: how will back-to-back knee injuries affect him both physically and mentally? The Flyers need Couturier to be the player he was last year. Anything less will be a huge disappointment.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Stamkos best of an era; Russian Rangers revival

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Steven Stamkos is the best shooter of the salary cap era. (Raw Charge)

• What active NHLers are Hall of Fame worthy? Here they are, ranked. (Yardbarker)

• Pittsburgh has players who rank among the best, worst at converting shots into goals. Who are they? (Pensburgh)

• Russian invasion fueling Rangers revival. (Featurd)

• Why the folding of the National Women’s Hockey League could be best thing for the sport. (AZ Central)

• Panthers view Bobrovsky signing as needed element for return to playoffs. (NHL.com)

• It’s time to move on from Jon Gillies. (Matchsticks & Gasoline)

• Competition aplenty as under-the-radar depth piece Nicolas Aube-Kubel re-signs with Flyers. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• NHL stands out when strengths of major pro leagues are pondered. (StarTribune)

• The latest on the changes and improvements coming to NHL 20. (Operation Sports)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Seattle close to naming Ron Francis as GM

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SEATTLE (AP) — Seattle’s NHL expansion team is close to an agreement with Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Francis to become its first general manager, a person with direct knowledge tells The Associated Press.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because the team had not made an announcement.

The expansion Seattle franchise is set to begin play in the 2021-22 season as the NHL’s 32nd team.

After longtime Detroit GM Ken Holland went to Edmonton, adviser Dave Tippett left Seattle Hockey Partners LLC to become Oilers coach and Vegas’ Kelly McCrimmon and Columbus’ Bill Zito got promotions, there was a limited pool of experienced NHL executives to choose from for this job. Francis fits that bill.

The 56-year-old has been in hockey operations since shortly after the end of his Hall of Fame playing career. All of that time has come with the Carolina Hurricanes, including four seasons as their GM.

Carolina didn’t make the playoffs with Francis in charge of decision-making, though his moves put the foundation in place for the team that reached the Eastern Conference final this past season.

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Provorov’s next contract presents big challenge for Flyers

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Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher has been busy overhauling his roster this summer and still has two big jobs ahead of him when it comes to re-signing restricted free agents Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov.

With close to $14 million in salary cap space remaining, he should have no problem in getting them signed and keeping the team under the salary cap.

Konecny’s situation seems like it should be pretty simple: He is a top-six forward that has been incredibly consistent throughout the first three years of his career. The Flyers know what they have right now, and they should have a pretty good idea as to what he is going to be in the future. There is not much risk in projecting what he should be able to do for them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Provorov, on the other hand, presents a far more interesting challenge because he is still somewhat of a mystery whose career seems like it can go in either direction.

Along with Shayne Gostisbehere, Provorov is supposed to be the foundation of the Flyers’ defense for the next decade and entered the league with much fanfare at the start of the 2016-17 season. From the moment he arrived the Flyers have treated him like a top-pairing defender and pretty much thrown him in the deep end of the pool.

At times, he has flashed the potential that made him a top-10 pick in the draft and such a prized piece in the Flyers’ organization.

During his first three years in the league he has not missed a single game, has played more than 20 minutes per game every year, and over the past two seasons has played the fourth most total minutes in the NHL and the third most even-strength minutes. The Flyers have also not gone out of their way to shelter him in terms of where he starts his shifts and who he plays against, regularly sending him over the boards for defensive zone faceoffs and playing against other team’s top players.

In their view, based on his usage, he is their top defender.

Or at least was their top defender over the past two seasons.

Given the performance of the Flyers defensively during those seasons, that may not be much of a statement.

The concern that has to be addressed is that so far in his career Provorov has not always performed like a top-pairing defender in those top-pairing minutes that he has been given.

Just because a player gets a lot of playing time and the toughest assignments does not necessarily mean they are going to handle those minutes or succeed within them. That has been the case at times with Provorov in Philadelphia. This is not like the situation Columbus and Boston are facing with Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy this summer where both young players have already demonstrated an ability to play like top-pairing defenders and have already earned what should be significant, long-term commitments from their respective teams.

This is a situation where a young, talented, and still very promising player has been given a huge role, but has not always performed enough to justify that much trust.

He is also coming off of what can probably be described as a down season where his performance regressed from what it was in 2017-18. He not only saw a steep drop in his production offensively, but the Flyers were outshot, outchanced, and outscored by a pretty significant margin when Provorov was on the ice no matter who his partner was.

He struggled alongside Shayne Gostisbehere. He also struggled alongside Travis Sanheim, while Sanheim saw his performance increase dramatically when he was away from Provorov.

The dilemma the Flyers have to face here is how they handle a new contract for him this summer.

On one hand, he does not turn 23 until January and clearly has the talent to be an impact defender. But he has also played three full seasons in the NHL, and even when looked at within the context of his own team, has not yet shown a consistent ability to be that player. Every player develops at a different pace, and just because McAvoy and Werenski have already emerged as stars doesn’t mean every player at the same age has to follow the same rapid path. Because they most certainly will not.

It just makes it difficult for teams like the Flyers when they have to juggle a new contract.

They were in a similar position with Gostisbehere a couple of years ago when they signed him to a six-year, $27 million contract when he came off of his entry-level deal. But while Gostisbehere had regressed offensively, he still posted strong underlying numbers and at least showed the ability to be more of a possession-driving player. His goal-scoring and point production dropped, but there were at least positive signs it might bounce back. That is not necessarily the case with Provorov.

Even though Provorov has played a ton of minutes, put up some decent goal numbers at times, and been one of the biggest minute-eating defenders in the league, this just seems like a situation that screams for a bridge contract to allow the player to continue to develop, while also giving the team an opportunity to figure out what they have.

Provorov still has the potential to be a star and a bonafide top-pairing defender.

He just has not played like one yet or consistently shown any sign that he definitely will be one, despite being given the role.

Related: Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

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.

Capitals re-sign Vrana for two years, $6.7 million

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Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan took care of his biggest remaining offseason task on Tuesday afternoon when he re-signed restricted free agent forward Jakub Vrana to a two-year contract.

The deal will pay Vrana $6.7 million and carry an average annual salary cap hit of $3.35 million per season.

“Jakub is a highly skilled player with a tremendous upside and is a big part of our future,” said MacLellan in a statement released by the team. “We are pleased with his development the past two seasons and are looking forward for him to continue to develop and reach his full potential with our organization.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Vrana was the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2014 and has already shown top-line potential in the NHL. He took a huge step forward in his development during the 2018-19 season, scoring 24 goals to go with 23 assists while also posting strong underlying numbers. He is one of the Capitals’ best young players and quickly starting to become one of their core players moving forward.

It is obviously a bridge contract that will keep him as a restricted free agent when it expires following the 2020-21 season. If he continues on his current path he would be in line for a significant long-term contract that summer.

With Vrana signed the Capitals have under $1 million in salary cap space remaining. They still have to work out new contracts with restricted free agents Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson. Both players filed for salary arbitration. Djoos’ hearing is scheduled for July 22, while Stephenson has his scheduled for August 1. If the Capitals want to keep both on the NHL roster on opening night they may have to make another minor move at some point before the start of the regular season.

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.