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Flyers await free agency with rare luxury: a ton of cap space

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Philadelphia Flyers GM Ron Hextall is rapidly approaching “be careful what you wish for” territory.

For years, Hextall has been cleaning up whatever Flyers cap messes he could (sorry, Andrew MacDonald), breaking the franchise’s pattern of going after splashy, expensive moves that can sometimes blow up in their faces (sorry, Ilya Bryzgalov). Now, with what could be a ton of cap space looming in the off-season, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sam Carchidi reports that Hextall is expected to receive “free rein” in free agency.

(If the cap ceiling is at $80 million, they’ll have about $22 million in room, while a Jori Lehtera buyout could push that above $25M.)

“Ron has the flexibility to do whatever he wants with his cap space and his roster,” Holmgren said, via Carchidi. “If that’s the decision he wants to make moving forward, he’s got free rein to do that. I think Ron continues to do what’s right for the organization.”

That brings us back to “be careful what you wish for.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Hextall’s shown poise and patience in earning himself a clean slate, and this is his reward. That said, big moves can often be the downfall of a GM. Consider how Chuck Fletcher’s Wild era crumbled under the weight of the Ryan SuterZach Parise contracts, how the Flyers have regretted past moves, and how Ron Francis was undone in part by the ill-fated Scott Darling signing as just a few examples of mistakes that can cost people jobs.

With that in mind, here are some tips for Hextall.

One rule for them all

Let’s begin with an idea that seems far-fetched, but must be considered: any team that can land John Tavares should do whatever it can to make it happen. There’s a strong chance that he’ll just re-sign with the New York Islanders, but if not, the Flyers have plenty of cash to work with.

Goalie considerations

Rather than making Bryzgalov-style huge moves in net, Philly’s instead targeted value in goalies. That worked out very well in their Steve Mason sign-and-trade, while it’s been bumpier with Michal Neuvirth and Brian Elliott.

While the position is once again a headache for Philly, Hextall should be pleased that they’re at least not stuck with problem contracts. Elliott and Neuvirth are both cheap, and their contracts expire after 2018-19.

This gives the Flyers the flexibility to do whatever they want with the goalie free agent market. As of this moment, notable UFA goalies include Jonathan Bernier, Jaroslav Halak, Cam Ward, and Chad Johnson. The RFA list boasts higher ceilings yet would likely require some maneuvering via a trade; the Sabres might decide to part ways with Robin Lehner while the Capitals may decide that it would be better to gain assets for Philipp Grubauer rather than giving him a raise to back up Braden Holtby.

With Carter Hart waiting in the wings as the top goalie prospect in any NHL system (or, at worst, one of the top goalie prospects), the Flyers would likely look for a short-term upgrade if they decided to make a move. Maybe Carter Hutton would be the right fit?

Risk/reward

As usual, there are “buyer beware” situations for 2018 free agency.

On one hand, you have players who’ve inflated their values with career years they’re unlikely to match. The Flyers probably weren’t in the market for John Carlson considering their young defensemen, but even if they were, they’d be better off exploring a cheaper avenue.

With expensive, long-term contracts for Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek in mind, the Flyers need to be careful when it comes to pondering some of the more intriguing UFA forwards. James Neal seems like a prototypical Flyers forward, yet he’s also already 30, as just one example. Scorers like Evander Kane and former Flyer James van Riemsdyk are enticing, but most if not all of them will ask for the kind of term that could really sting.

Hextall might be better off avoiding the splashier moves, instead either a) seeing which players end up inexplicably being PTO fodder, which seems to happen every summer and/or b) going for guys lower on the radar. Could Patrick Maroon, Michael Grabner, Ian Cole, or Michael Hutchinson help out, and do so at cheaper rates? The Flyers might be better off going in that direction, as they’ll want to continue to give their own drafted players opportunities to seize prominent roles.

The Flyers also need to set aside some money for future extensions. Ivan Provorov figures to be expensive when his rookie deal expires after 2018-19. A decision regarding Wayne Simmonds‘ future is looming, as he only has one year left on his deal.

With Sean Couturier and Shayne Gostisbehere locked up on bargain contracts, some of the big conundrums have been settled by Hextall’s deft work, but there are still some key decisions to be made, especially if management wants to hedge their bets in net alongside Carter Hart.

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All things considered, the Flyers might actually be better off trying to improve by making trades.

If I were in Hextall’s shoes, I’d try to pry Max Pacioretty or Mike Hoffman away in swaps. The Flyers would get at least one season to see how such additions fit into their system, maybe opening the door for a team-friendly extension.

Either way, this summer stands as a fascinating fork in the road. This team showed signs of delivering on the potential prospect hounds have been hyping up. On the other hand, you never know how quickly your window of opportunity can close, particularly if Giroux, Voracek, and others slide.

Hextall has a great opportunity ahead of him, but that opportunity brings with it increased expectations. The honeymoon is about to end, and now he must guide the Flyers through those next, painful steps toward true contention.

Be careful what you wish for.

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.

Guentzel scores four as Penguins eliminate Flyers in Game 6

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It took until the sixth game but the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers finally had their series turn into complete chaos.

The Penguins were able to close out the series on Sunday afternoon with an 8-5 win what was clearly the most physical, chippy, and just downright crazy game of the series.

What made it all so wild? Well let’s go through this piece by piece if we can.

First, the Penguins were trailing by a pair of goals with less than 10 minutes to play in the second period only to rally and tie the game before the intermission, with Jake Guentzel‘s third goal of the playoffs in the final minute being the equalizer.

From there, Guentzel took over, scoring three consecutive goals to open the third period to help the Penguins take a 7-4 lead.

The third goal, the one that completed the hat trick, came moments after the Penguins had to kill off a Kris Letang penalty after he attempted to cross-check Flyers forward Sean Couturier through the Penguins’ net. In any context it would have been a bad, selfish penalty, but given that the Penguins were only leading by one mid-way through the third period of a potential knockout game it was … bad. After coming out of the box Letang appeared to get away with a trip on Sean Couturier, allowing the Penguins to keep possession of the puck and Guentzel to score his third goal of the game.

Just 10 seconds later Guentzel scored again, capping off a 16-minute stretch of hockey where he scored four consecutive goals.

After leading the league in postseason goal scoring a season ago he is now tied for the league lead as of Sunday with his teammate, Sidney Crosby.

Crosby also scored his sixth goal of the playoffs on Sunday.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Including the playoffs, the Penguins played five games in Philadelphia this season and not only won all of them, but scored at least five goals in all of them.

They scored at least five goals in eight of their 10 games against the Flyers this season, losing the only two games they did not top the five-goal mark.

They did it on Sunday without the services of Evgeni Malkin who missed the game after being injured early in Game 5.

Along with Malkin’s absence, the Penguins also lost Carl Hagelin on Sunday after he exited the game due to a devastating hit from Flyers forward Claude Giroux.

That was just part of the physicality from this game, most of which went uncalled on both sides.

When it came to the actual game, the Penguins needed another offensive outburst in Philadelphia because Sean Couturier did everything in his power to try and single-handedly will his team to a win.

After returning from injury on Friday and scoring the game-winning goal, he recorded five points on Sunday — factoring in all five Flyers goals — and recorded his second career postseason hat trick.

It was not enough because, well, the Flyers just simply did not have an answer for the Penguins’ offense.

Defenseman Radko Gudas had a particularly brutal game and was guilty of costly plays on the two Penguins’ second period goals to tie the game.

They also had more issues in net.

Michal Neuvirth replaced Brian Elliott in Game 5 and played well enough to get the win, making a highlight last minute save on Crosby. He was not anywhere near as good on Sunday giving up seven goals on the 27 shots he faced (the Penguins’ eighth goal was an empty net goal).

The Flyers used three goalies in this series — Elliott, Neuvirth, and Petr Mrazek — while none of them finished with a save percentage higher than .857.

All three of them gave up at least two goals to Crosby.

With that, the Penguins have now won nine consecutive playoff series. They will play the winner of the Washington Capitals-Columbus Blue Jackets series in the second round. They have played the Capitals in the second round in each of the past two seasons. The Capitals lead the series 3-2 entering Game 6 in Columbus on Monday night.

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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.

Sean Couturier returned and helped save the Flyers’ season

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PITTSBURGH — After four straight blowouts to open their first-round series, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers finally played a close game on Friday night. Thanks to a goalie switch that saw Michal Neuvirth replace Brian Elliott, and a couple of smaller lineup changes, as well as the return of one of their best players — Sean Couturier — the Flyers were able to keep their season alive with a 4-2 win to force a Game 6 in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon. (3 p.m. ET, NBC).

Couturier missed Game 4 due to a lower-body injury, but was able to return to the lineup on Friday to play the role of hero, scoring the game-winning goal with 1:18 to play in the third period.

The goal came after the Penguins were sloppy with the puck in their own zone and failed to clear on two different occasions, allowing the puck to come to a wide open Couturier at the blue line. From there, he fired a long-distance shot that deflected off of Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin and into the back of the net.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Given that he was limited to just 16:55 of ice-time and did not play on the power play at all, it was pretty clear that he was not anywhere close to 100 percent. Just consider that during the regular season he averaged more than 21 minutes per game and was playing more than 24 minutes in the first three games of the series. He refused to say after the game how he was feeling (he was twice asked to put a percentage on it and refused both times) but it was obviously enough to make an impact in what was to this point the biggest game of the Flyers’ season.

“I was just trying to take it one shift at a time, win your one-on-one battles, keep it simple,” Couturier said when asked what his mindset was. “Don’t want to overdo things or overthink the game. That was kind of the mentality I had, just keep it simple, keep my shifts short, make sure I was ready to go and fresh for the next shift.”

While his game-winning goal will be the moment that everybody remembers until puck drop on Sunday, it was his play on the penalty kill — and the Flyers’ penalty kill as a whole — that was probably the difference in the game.

Heading into this series the special teams matchup was going to be an important one to watch because the Penguins had the NHL’s best power play during the regular season. The Flyers, conversley, had one of the league’s worst penalty kills. Throughout the first four games when the Penguins power play clicked — and when the Flyers gave them ample opportunity to allow it to click — the Penguins won decisively.

On Friday, it most definitely did not click. And just as was the case in Game 2, the Flyers were able to win based on the strength of that penalty kill.

More than 40 percent of Couturier’s ice-time on Friday night came with the Flyers shorthanded. During that time he helped the Flyers not only go a perfect 5-for-5, but also score a shorthanded goal and completely shut down the Penguins’ power play, limiting the unit to just four shots on goal. At one point in the second period the Penguins had a 4-on-3 power play for more than a minute-and-a-half and not only failed to score, they failed to get a shot on goal and only attempted one (it was blocked, naturally, by Couturier). Couturier was the lone Flyer forward on the ice for almost the entire situation.

“We did a good job, but they had a lot of chances,” said Couturier of the Flyers’ PK. “[Neuvirth] bailed us out a few times, and we have to be more disciplined. That is too many penalties. We put ourselves in trouble because they can take over the game when they go on the power play. It’s tough to gain momentum. Tonight we fought hard, found a way to win.”

From almost the minute he arrived in the NHL at the start of the 2011-12 season Couturier has been one of the league’s top defensive forwards, even if he wasn’t always recognized for it in awards voting. Even though it is a defensive award, it still almost always goes to a player that also has huge offensive numbers. After getting elevated to the team’s top-line this season and playing alongside Claude Giroux, he went on to have a breakout year offensively that saw him shatter all of his previous career highs, scoring 31 goals and recording 76 total points. On Wednesday, it was announced that he is, for the first time, a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s top defensive forward.

“Him being in the lineup gives a boost to everybody just because of what he means to our hockey team,” said Flyers coach Dave Hakstol. “At the end of the day it comes down to going out and doing the job. He did that. Obviously he played a few less minutes tonight than he normally does, but I thought he did a heck of a job, especially on the PK, where was a huge factor for us. His play down the stretch was great, not just on the game-winning goal.”

It was not just Couturier’s return to the lineup that made an impact for the Flyers on Friday.

Hakstol also made a number of lineup changes (Dale Weise and Robert Hagg in; Travis Sanheim and Oskar Lindblom out) including the decision to go with Neuvirth in net after he had played just 59 minutes of hockey over the past three months.

It turned out to be a huge call.

After getting horrendous goaltending in three of the first four games, Neuvirth stopped 30 of the 32 shots he faced on Friday. The two goals he did allow were not great (a bad wraparound goal to Bryan Rust; a shot through the five-hole by Jake Guentzel off the rush) but he did end up making the save of the night in the final minute of regulation, just moments after Couturier’s goal to give the Flyers the lead, when he robbed Sidney Crosby on the doorstep.

With that, a series that has been defined by blowouts and lopsided scores is now a little more interesting as the Flyers return home and look to push it to a seventh game.

If they get goaltending and penalty kill work like they did on Friday, they will.

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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.

Michal Neuvirth gets Game 5 start for Flyers; Couturier returns to lineup

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With their season on the line on Friday night the Philadelphia Flyers are making a change in goal.

Michal Neuvirth, who has played just 59 minutes of NHL hockey since Feb. 18, will get the Game 5 start in goal when they take on the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Neuvirth replaced Brian Elliott in Philadelphia’s Game 4 loss on Wednesday night after Elliott gave up three goals on 17 shots, the second time he was benched in the first four games. The Flyers have already used three goalies in this series with Elliott, Neuvirth, and Petr Mrazek all getting playing time. None of them have played well.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

When healthy Neuvirth had the best numbers out of the group during the regular season, but health has been a constant battle for him the past few years.

The other big lineup news for the Flyers on Friday will be the fact that center Sean Couturier will be returning after sitting out Game 4 with a lower body injury. He may not be 100 percent, however, given that he took pregame line rushes on the team’s third line between Scott Laughton and Wayne Simmonds. Valtteri Filppula was skating on the first line alongside Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek.

Among the other changes for the Flyers: Robert Hagg will replace Travis Sanheim on defense, while Dale Weise will play on the fourth-line instead of Oskar Lindblom.

Related: Penguins will not have Patric Hornqvist in Game 5

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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.

Penguins won’t have Hornqvist; Flyers lineup murky for Game 5

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If the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to eliminate the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 5 tonight, they’ll do so without Patric Hornqvist.

The Swedish winger already missed Game 4 with an upper-body injury, and the team ruled him out for Game 5. Hornqvist had been playing quite well lately, including generating a point-per-game (three in as many contests) during this series. He’s also been a pain in the neck, riling up his opponents while amassing 16 penalty minutes in Game 2.

It’s worth noting that Hornqvist scored the Penguins’ last series-clinching goal. He found the net late in Game 6 of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, stunning the Nashville Predators as Pittsburgh repeated as champs.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Kessel gets boost with Hornqvist sidelined

The Penguins won Game 4 against the Flyers by a score of 5-0 after rearranging lines.

Hornqvist was lining up with Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin, while Phil Kessel climbed to that second-line spot in Game 4 after pairing with Derick Brassard. Brassard’s wingers changed to Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust, while Sidney Crosby anchors a line of Dominik Simon and Jake Guentzel.

Those configurations worked well, but a desperate Flyers team could provide a different look.

That’s especially true if Sean Couturier can return to the mix for Philly after missing Game 4 himself. The team considers the Selke finalist a game-time decision, while he was seen wearing a knee brace during this morning’s optional skate.

Shuffling with Couturier hurt

The Flyers fiddled around with some interesting combinations with Couturier in doubt. Nolan Patrick centered Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux during much of Wednesday’s loss, while Left Wing Lock indicates that Valtteri Filppula could replace Patrick between Voracek and Giroux if Couturier is out.

Couturier playing or sitting is pivotal, as he’s been carrying a huge workload for Philly. That was especially true in Games 2 (27:15 minutes of ice time) and Game 3 (26:18), when Couturier logged big minutes. He also benefited the Flyers from a balance standpoint, as they were able to place Giroux and Voracek on different lines at even-strength with Couturier available.

That’s not the only big question mark for the Flyers (and perhaps for the Penguins’ hopes of prepping for the Flyers). Head coach Dave Hakstol didn’t name the starting goalie for Game 5, generating speculation that Michal Neuvirth may step in for Brian Elliott.

For all we know, the Flyers are aware of their starting goalie situation, along with Couturier’s status, but we might need to wait to actually find out. Then again, when you consider Patrice Bergeron‘s late scratch for the Bruins in Game 4 of their series, it could indeed be a coin flip for Couturier, too.

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Game 5 airs on NBCSN tonight, with puck drop set for 7 p.m. ET. Click here for the livestream link.

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.