As far as the Flyers came in 2013-14, they still have a distance to go. The draft, which Ron Hextall has declared his primary MO moving forward, is not likely to make them a contender next season. So to be better than just a first-round team in 2014-15, the Flyers must:
1) Find another top six forward. You know, and Hextall certainly knows, the crying need to make the Flyers an elite team is an elite defenseman. Chicago (Duncan Keith), Boston (Zdeno Chara) Los Angeles (Drew Doughty) the Rangers (Ryan McDonagh), Pittsburgh (Kris Letang) have skilled, minute-eating, guys and those clubs still are playing,
But the Flyers do not believe that Shea Weber, whom they forced Nashville to overpay a year ago by tendering an offer sheet is going to be traded. The immediate prospects of any defenseman from the list above -- or any reasonable facsimiles -- coming loose before next season are slim. And there isn’t a true first-pair defenseman on the slim list of unrestricted free agents becoming available July 1.
So the best defense often being a good offense, Plan B may necessarily have to become Plan A. Puck possession, according to Craig Berube, has become where the Flyers hang their hats, yet there were eight teams that scored more last season. A 30-goal caliber left wing – not just a center playing there because of a logjam in the middle – would give the Flyers as deep an offense as there is in the NHL.
“In a cap world, you’re always going to have a weakness,” said Hextall in talking about strength from the goalie on out through the middle. “So you want the weakness on the wing, that’s how I think.”
That’s the perfect cap world. Until the Flyers get the perfect defenseman to fit that model, playing more in the offensive end makes the most sense.
And one more thing about one more goal scorer. Game Seven was in New York in part because the Flyers were 3-8 in shootouts. Irrelevant as is that skill is to winning playoff games, shootouts can’t be an afterthought when you are putting together your team.
2. Mature. In an emotional game of nightly mood swings, even the best clubs have stretches where they get outplayed. But to the bitter end – that dooming second period of Game Seven -- bad too often turned terrible for the Flyers, who have to learn how to keep showers from turning into storms.
They only scored one more goal than surrendered this season, a reflection of suffering so many blowout losses, some even after their turnaround. Had the Flyers stayed in more games they might have had even more than 11 third-period comebacks.
3) Trim the penalties. To a degree, the Flyers did as the season moved along. During the playoffs their 14.4 regular season average (30th place) shrunk to a middle-of-the-pack 12.4. Nevertheless up 4-0 in Game 6, they still took three penalties.
Good teams know how to play according to the clock and score. Aggressive doesn’t mean stupid. Most offensive and neutral zone penalties are mindless ones. Seven of the top 10 most penalized teams in the NHL did not make the playoffs and the Flyers, an exception, didn’t get in with a lot of points to spare.
4) Execute better. If that, Berube’s first answer as to what cost the Flyers the Rangers series, sounded like the quintessential catchall, he nevertheless was correct. It wasn’t just because the Rangers had three order-keeping defensemen that the Flyers couldn’t sustain a forecheck long enough to impose their will.
Throughout the season, both in leaving the zone and coming through center, the passing and receiving had stretches of extreme sloppiness. An unforced, errant, 10-foot defensive zone pass up the boards turned into the winning goal in Game 7. Moving forward, those errors have to be reduced.
5) Improve the fit of the forwards. “We had a lot of guys move around the lineup this year,” said Hextall. “I’d like to find one or two guys that are a little better fit.”
Ideally, sure, but once potential trading partners get a look at some contracts of players Hextall would like to move, getting Michael Raffl and Vinny Lecavalier permanently into their best positions – by the way, what is Raffl’s best position? -- may not be quickly feasible.
At this point of his career, Lecavalier’s best usage may be as it evolved – into a fourth line center and second unit power play mainstay. Also keep in mind how fortunate the Flyers were with injuries this season, turning some of their versatility into more annoyance than asset. Had a center been hurt for a significant time, Lecavalier might have turned out be a godsend.
Complicating – in a good way -- the pounding of pegs into the right holes might be a strong camp from Scott Laughton, the 2012 No. 1 pick. Berube, not knowing what his roster will be for camp, refuses to speculate on the best permanent shell for any of peas he had to move around this season. We will see not just what Hextall and his advisors might be dying to see, because the plan is to . . .
6) Rush nobody. The Flyers cannot, apparently will not, put 21-year-old Shayne Gostisbehere, who dazzled the Frozen Four, in the position of being the Weber who never came. “We can’t rush the process with these guys, said Hextall. “We can’t just throw them in the lineup and expect them to make us a better team.
“The way I view it. I think if a player doesn’t come into training camp and really show you something, he probably needs more time. Tell me one young player in the history of hockey that’s been hurt by spending some time in the minors. I can tell you there are hundreds and hundreds that have been hurt by being put in an NHL lineup too soon.”
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