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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.

***

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.

Flyers’ once-deadly power play wilted against Penguins

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No doubt about it, Flyers fans have a beef about the goal that really set the stage for the Penguins to put Game 6 – and the series – out of reach on Sunday.

Perhaps Sean Couturier would have received an embellishment infraction during the exchange, but either way, it sure seemed like Kris Letang took another penalty on Couturier just moments after leaving the penalty box for a different infraction. No call was made, and just moments later, Jake Guentzel scored to push the score to 6-4.

Things got weird after that as the Penguins eliminated the Flyers via an 8-5 score in Game 6, but plenty of Philly fans probably wonder “What if?” on that goal. Flyers players seem to agree that Letang deserved a penalty.

You can debate that call and different breaking points until you’re blue in the face, but the real “What if?” question might revolve around special teams. To be specific, the Flyers’ power play really let them down in that just-expired series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Flyers were held without a power-play goal in five of the six games during this series. The lone exception was Game 2, when the Flyers went 2-for-3 in a 5-1 win.

Philly went 2-for-21 overall during the series, generating a pitiful power-play percentage of 9.5. Only the Kings and Golden Knights were less productive with the man advantage, and that was during a skin-tight four-game sweep where goals were incredibly hard to come by (that series featured 10 goals total, three fewer than the Flyers and Penguins scored in Game 6 alone).

It’s especially remarkable that the Flyers also went 0-for-13 on the power play at home during this series. With their season on the line, that unit only managed two power-play shots on goal in three opportunities in Game 6, looking especially indecisive despite also receiving a 4-on-3 opportunity.

Now, heading into this series, the Penguins were expected to hold an advantage on special teams because of what could be a historically potent PP unit of their own. Still, it’s troubling that the Flyers rarely exploited what was a far from spectacular Penguins penalty kill. Pittsburgh’s PK unit was in the bottom third of the NHL percentage-wise since February, setting the stage for two strong power plays to trade blows. That didn’t happen as much as expected, with the Flyers’ failures ending up being fatal.

A question of personnel?

If you want to point to one factor, ponder Wayne Simmonds‘ lack of involvement.

The fantastic front-of-the-net presence implied that he might be undergoing surgery soon, which probably explains both his limited usage and limited production. Simmonds failed to score a single goal during this series, finishing with two assists in six games.

(Strangely, that matches his production from his last playoff appearance in 2015-16: zero goals, two assists in six games.)

Blame it on struggles or a lack of health, but either way, the Flyers were turning to different players when a man up.

It’s no surprise to see big PP TOI numbers for Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, and Shayne Gostisbehere. The notable swap is Nolan Patrick, who joins those Flyers in the four minutes per game range, while Simmonds was only logging about two minutes per night.

Patrick has come a long way as his rookie season goes along, yet Simmonds is one of the NHL’s true wizards in the dirty areas right in front of the net. Simmonds has generated at least 11 power-play goals for five straight seasons with the Flyers for a reason.

Would things have been different if Simmonds was truly healthy? It’s a fair question, but you also wonder if the Flyers didn’t make enough adjustments to get their once-potent power play back on track.

***

In looking back at this series, the Flyers will certainly want to solidify their goalie situation, a seemingly eternal conundrum for this franchise.

Sometimes it comes down to getting the right players and goalies in place, something that GM Ron Hextall must wrestle with during the summer. Still, there are also questions about putting the right players in the right situations, and in many cases that comes down to coaching.

Ultimately, a lukewarm power play hurt the Flyers’ chances of trading haymakers with the prolific Penguins. Maybe it’s a mere matter of small sample sizes, yet Philly’s failings in that area should at least prompt some soul-searching over the summer.

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.

Penguins vs Flyers: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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The last time these two teams met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs it was 10 days of insanity as everybody involved with the series — from the players, to the coaches, to the fans, to the media — completely lost their minds.

Lost. Their. Minds.

Neither goalie could stop the puck. Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov opened the series talking about his fear of bears in the woods. Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was driven to a sports psychologist a year later because of playoff series like this one. Elsewhere, everybody on the ice forgot how to play defense. There were fights. There were suspensions. The Flyers got themselves banned from getting ribs from a bar-b-que place in West Virginia (yes, this in-state rivalry crosses state lines).

Stanley Cup Playoffs streaming, schedule and more

When it was all said and done it even produced one of the most scorching hot takes in recent hockey media memory in a Tweet that still lives on and will never die.

We did not even get into the Jaromir Jagr playing for Philadelphia aspect of it, or the fact a missed offside call helped change the outcome of a game!

Obviously, it was quite a series, and it is sure to be referenced more than once over the next couple of weeks as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers meet in the first-round of the Metropolitan Division playoffs.

Only eight total players (three from the Penguins, five from the Flyers) and none of the coaches remain from that series, and most of the people responsible for turning it into a gong show have moved on. So it is probably not going to be as hectic this time around. I only say probably because you never really know what these two teams are capable of. The Penguins have been prone to getting their doors blown off on any given night this season, while the Flyers … well … the Flyers are capable of winning 10 in a row or losing 10 in a row at any given time.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Who knows which team on which side will show up when the puck drops.

While the potential for violence isn’t what it was in 2012, the potential for boatloads of goals is certainly on the table.

Six of the NHL’s top-27 point producers play for these two teams, while their goalies finished 22nd and 23rd in the league in save percentages, combining for only a .904 mark.

The two teams met four times during the regular season with the Penguins winning all four — two of them in overtime — and scoring five goals in each game.

What does that mean now? Nothing.

Here is what does matter.

Schedule

Forwards

Pittsburgh: This has always been the Penguins’ strength and they might be even better than they were the past two years, assuming Derick Brassard is healthy and ready to go. Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Sidney Crosby were all among the league’s top-10 scorers this season (first time since 2003-04 a team had three top-1o players) and they can still go four lines deep when they are healthy. Patric Hornqvist, one of the best net-front players in the league, is playing some of the best hockey of his career heading into the playoffs.

Philadelphia: Like the Penguins the Flyers boast three of the NHL’s top scorers in Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Sean Couturier, and also like the Penguins, they have one of the league’s best net-front players in Wayne Simmonds. Giroux and Voracek both had massive bounce-back seasons after down years in 2016-17, with each of them setting new career highs all over the board. Giroux topped the 100-point mark for the first time in his career, finished second in the league in total points, and led the league in assists. He should be an MVP finalist.

Advantage: Pittsburgh. Simply because they seem to have more depth. The Flyers’ top-line can match up with the Penguins’ top-line (or any top line in the league for that matter), but as noted in the pre-playoff Power Rankings the Flyers really tend to struggle when the Giroux and Couturier duo is not on the ice. The Penguins’ have won the past two years because Crosby can cancel out the other team’s top line allowing the Malkin and Kessel lines to do damage. Can the Flyers match up with that?

Defense

Pittsburgh: The good news for the Penguins is they won the Stanley Cup a year ago without Kris Letang. He is back in the lineup this year. The bad news is he really has not been himself and has been one of the most volatile players in the league, being equal parts brilliant and disastrous on a game-to-game — and sometimes even shift-to-shift — basis. From an analytics standpoint the Penguins did a lot of things well defensively during 5-on-5 play and were one of the best teams in the league when it comes to suppressing shots on goal and shot attempts at 5-on-5 play (top-10 in both). But they make a lot of glaring mistakes at times that just look bad. That, combined with some shoddy PK play and goaltending results in them entering  playoffs having given up more than three goals per game, the worst mark of any team in the playoffs.

Philadelphia: Here is a fun fact about Flyers 20-year-old defenseman Ivan Provorov — no defender in the NHL this season scored more goals than he did. With him, Shayne Gostisbehere, Travis Sanheim, and Robert Haag they have the long-term foundation of their blue line in place, and it looks like a really bright future. Like the Penguins they have strong shot-metrics during 5-on-5 play but are only a middle of the pack team in terms of goals against.

Advantage: Philadelphia. Neither of these teams are really great defensively and both have big question marks that could be exploited (whoever wins the Chad Ruhwedel/Matt Hunwick lineup spot in Pittsburgh; Philadelphia still plays Andrew MacDonald 20 minutes per night), but I think the Flyers, as a group, get a slight edge because they have succeeded in not being quite as bad as the Penguins have been at times.

Goaltending

Pittsburgh: As great as their offense was the Penguins probably would not have been able to get out of the first-round of the playoffs a year ago without great goaltending. Or the second round. They have not received that same level of goaltending this season and that has to be a concern. Matt Murray has shown flashes of being that player at times, but he’s also had stretches where his play has struggled.

Philadelphia: Stop me if you have heard this one before, but the Flyers have a question mark in net. Brian Elliott seems to alternate good years and bad years (the Flyers got him on one of the down years), Michal Neuvirth has been injured off and on, and Petr Mrazek has been a disaster since coming over in a trade from Detroit.

Advantage: Pittsburgh. As mentioned above the Penguins and Flyers were both in the bottom-10 in the league in save percentage this season and had virtually identical numbers. But Pittsburgh’s potential upside at the position seems to be higher given that Murray has a pretty recent track record of excelling in the playoffs.

Special teams

Pittsburgh: The Penguins’ power play is lethal to opponents and enters the playoffs as the best unit in the NHL. You simply can not take penalties against this team. On the other side the Penguins penalty kill has, very recently, been lethal to them. They simply can not take penalties.

Philadelphia: Given the talent they have the Flyers’ power play seems like it should be better than it was during the regular season, only finishing 15th in the NHL. But that’s not the concern. The concern is that their penalty kill was 29th in the league at only 75 percent.

Advantage: Pittsburgh. Both teams have been bad on the penalty kill this season, and the Flyers have managed to actually be worse than the Penguins. Given how dominant the Penguins’ power play is that has to be a concern.

X-Factors

Pittsburgh: Bryan Rust is probably the most underrated player on this team. He can play anywhere in the lineup and on any line, he brings that speed element that the Penguins love, and he is one of those players that seems to have a knack for scoring big goals in big situations.

Philadelphia: The Flyers have some All-Star level talent at the top of their roster but what makes them so intriguing long-term is the wave of young talent that has started to hit the NHL. We already talked about their young defenders, but they have a pretty nice collection of young forwards as well. No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick is a big part of that, but let’s not ignore Travis Konecny. The 20-year-old finished third on the team in goals (24) this season and was one of the team’s top overall point producers.

Prediction

Penguins in six games. Both teams have similar strengths, similar weaknesses, and similar question marks. But the Penguins just seem to be a deeper team that is going to be difficult for the Flyers to match up with.

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Philadelphia Flyers vs. New York Rangers

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[WATCH LIVE: Philadelphia Flyers vs. New York Rangers]

Projected Lines

Philadelphia Flyers

Forwards

Claude GirouxSean CouturierMichael Raffl

Oskar LindblomNolan Patrick – Jake Voracek

Travis KonecnyValtteri FilppulaWayne Simmonds

Scott LaughtonJori LehteraMatt Read

Defense

Ivan ProvorovShayne Gostisbehere

Travis SanheimAndrew MacDonald

Brandon ManningRadko Gudas

Starting Goalie: Brian Elliott

[NHL On NBCSN: Flyers look to clinch playoff spot against Rangers]

New York Rangers

Forwards

Chris KreiderMika ZibanejadRyan Spooner

Jimmy VeseyFilip ChytilMats Zuccarello

Vladislav NamestnikovKevin HayesPavel Buchnevich

Paul Carey –  Lias AnderssonPeter Holland

Defense

Marc StaalNeal Pionk

BradySkjei – Ryan Sproul

John Gilmour – Rob O’Gara

Starting Goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

————

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.

WATCH LIVE: Boston Bruins at Philadelphia Flyers

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NBC’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Sunday, as the Philadelphia Flyers will host the Boston Bruins at 12:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here.

[CLICK HERE TO WATCH AT 12:30 P.M. ET]

PROJECTED LINES

Bruins: 

Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak

Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciRyan Donato

Danton HeinenTommy WingelsDavid Backes

Tim SchallerNoel AcciariBrian Gionta

Zdeno CharaNick Holden

Torey KrugAdam McQuaid

Matt GrzelcykKevan Miller

Starting goalie: Anton Khudobin

 [The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

Flyers: 

Claude GirouxSean CouturierTravis Konecny

Oskar LindblomNolan PatrickJakub Voracek

Jordan WealValtteri FilppulaWayne Simmonds

Jori LehteraScott LaughtonMatt Read

Ivan ProvorovShayne Gostisbehere

Travis SanheimAndrew MacDonald

Brandon ManningRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Petr Mrazek