Meltzer's Musings: A Crucial Offseason Begins
The annual goal of the Philadelphia Flyers organization is, put quite simply, to get better each season at all levels of the organization. The NHL team overachieved a bit in posting 96 points and reaching the playoffs in 2015-16. Meanwhile, on an individual prospect-by-prospect basis, it was a good year at all levels the development system although the American Hockey League's Lehigh Valley Phantoms had a disappointing campaign.
What would constitute progress over the next year?
For the NHL team, a four-point improvement would mean a 100-point season in 2016-17. A 100-point season doesn't mean as much as it used to pre-2005 and especially pre-realignment (for example, the New Islanders had a 100-point season this year and, due to the NHL's current playoff formatting, it was only good enough for the upper wildcard spot). Even so, it's a virtually certain return to the playoffs: no 100-point team has ever missed the playoffs in either conference.
From a financial standpoint, clearing more salary cap space and replacing non-productive contracts with useful pieces -- even if acquiring star-level talent cannot be accomplished this summer -- can set the team up to eventually make a bigger splash in adding a nucleus piece.
On the developmental level, a strong 2016 draft and the continued progress of the prospect pool on par with the progress rates of the last two years is a fair goal. Some prominent names (such as Travis Sanheim and Nicolas Aube-Kubel) will play their first pro season in 2016-16. A few young Phantoms players (Samuel Morin and Taylor Leier, for instance) will try to push for NHL promotions. Top-two prospects Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny will push to make the NHL team out of camp and, if not, must make the most out of additional junior season.
There are also upper-level management adjustments to be made, such as appointing a new governor to the NHL's Board of Governors and selecting a new organizational chairman. The passing of Ed Snider leaves a massive void that no one person can fill because the iconic team co-founder defined the franchise for a half-century.
He did, however, create an identity and a style of management by which those who remain -- not the least of whom is club president Paul Holmgren and general manager Ron Hextall as well as senior vice president Bob Clarke in an advisory capacity -- are devoted to upholding what Mr. Snider created.
"I still look at my phone thinking that [Mr. Snider] is going to call to be honest with you. It's been different and I'm sure it will continue to be a little bit different for awhile here," Holmgren said at the Flyers end-of-season press conferences on Wednesday at the Skate Zone in Voorhees, NJ.
Holmgren said that the organization's chain of command for hockey-related decisions and Snider's philosophy -- spending what it takes to be competitive and to put whatever resources hockey operations and the NHL team itself need at their fingertips -- will not change.
"Overall, I think that it will be handled the same way. We have a budget that we agree on with Mr. Snider, [Comcast CEO] Brian Roberts, and whoever. Obviously we went to Mr. Snider in the past, but Brian was aware what was going on. [Comcast-Spectacor president] Dave Scott has been part of the organization for the last two years and he's been involved a lot this year and what we're doing, so what do we talk about? Budgets. We have our budgets that we move forward with and Ron knows the parameters. If there is something that maybe doesn't fit in what we have budgeted for then we'll probably have another meeting."
Holmgren assured Flyers fans that the Comcast management involved in executive decisions will also not deviate from Mr. Snider's overriding goal of making the team a success on the ice.
"I know from talking with Brian Roberts that he wants to win," Holmgren said. "He wants to win in the worst way. And Dave Scott, I’m getting to know. I think Dave is enjoying it– well, he even made the comment there that being owner of a hockey team is a lot more fun than doing cable TV stuff. And it is.
"So we hope that in time he becomes more invested in the hockey team and learns the game more. I’ve spent a great deal of time with Dave over the last couple years, just talking about the game. Because to his credit, he knows he doesn’t know a lot about it, but he’s willing to listen and learn and watch, so I think it’s going to be great moving forward. So no, I don’t think there’ll be any change. We’re trying to win."
As long as the crucial elements of Ed Snider's way of doing things is upheld, Hextall will continue to have the ability to implement his vision of building from within and not depleting draft pick and prospect resources for quick fixes but also not tearing down the NHL team to go into a rebuilding process that will take at least a half-decade to get the NHL team back to where it is right now in terms of having enough experience and know-how to win.
At his press conference, Hextall stressed two main themes that may seem contradictory at first glance-- not being satisfied with a 96-point season and a hard-fought first-round playoff loss to the President's Trophy winning Washington Capitals yet not assuming the team is ahead of schedule on his plan to rebuild a perennial Cup contender and not rushing into the next phase in which today's prospects become vital pieces of the NHL team and also in which the team would be more likely to go all out to add a major impact player from the outside.
Hextall, however, believes that the two tenets are very much compatible.
"I'm not going to throw any rose petals around. We still lost out in the first round and I'm not thrilled about that and I don't think our players are necessarily either," Hextall said.
"We did take steps. I think the leadership group for sure. The leadership of all our players, but particularly the small group. I think in terms of the commitment needed to be an NHL player, to perform at a high level, I think our guys have a better understanding now than they did a year ago. So we made some strides I would say, probably in the culture part of it.
"We need to get better. ...We're not going to sit around all summer here and rest on making the playoffs and losing to Washington in six games. So yeah, we need to get better. That's my job. It's also every player’s job to find ways to make himself better this year and to contribute to the team and make us a better team. It's also the coaches’ responsibility too to look at what we did right and what we did wrong. It's certainly my responsibility to do what I can to our team to make it better."
Hextall said that, with the team in somewhat better cap shape than it was a year ago, the organization could be a little more active in the trade and free agent markets than it has been able to be the last two offseasons. However, the GM added that he's not going to overestimate his team's status as a contender nor does intend to spend recklessly on July 1 only to get buyer's remorse and realize shortly thereafter that he's tied the team into untenable long-term contracts that actually set back the process he's started.
"We can’t throw a long-term deal at somebody that is going to box us out of one of our own players in a couple of years. You got to be really careful not to get too excited on July 1st and then kind of look back and go, ‘What are we going to do?’ the season after next with player X, Y, and Z," Hextall said.
Assessing the situation realistically, Hextall said it is probably a stretch to get the team into the status of a top Stanley Cup contender in 2016-17. However, that does not mean it is impossible to improve in the regular season and for the team to get further in the playoffs. Much of this will rely on continued improvement from within the roster.
""I think every year there's going to be a lot of growth. That's what I expect because all of these young players. There are very few players that we have that are on the downside, so we get these kids coming who are better and that are going to make our team better, the younger guys on our team are going to get better and quite frankly, the middle aged guys are going to maintain," Hextall said.
"If those guys maintain and the younger guys like Brayden [Schenn] showed growth this year, Coots [Sean Couturier] showed growth this year, [Brandon] Manning, [Scott] Laughton at times, [Nick] Cousins. We showed a lot of growth, but we need to continue to grow in that group.
"Again, you have the guys that maintain, the guys that are getting better, and then you have the other guys that are coming in and are younger. If you have a team that's like we were, you could probably call us a bubble playoff team, you want upside there. You want to be on the right side of getting better rather than on the other side.
"If you're an older team and you're just making the playoffs, your future probably isn't that great and you feel that next year will either be a top eight team, top six team, I don't believe so. I think we should be better than this year. That's our goal to get better every year with the kids coming and they get younger every year."
Hextall reiterated, as he so often does, that he will not rush any prospects to the NHL level. Regardless of their upside, the players are going to have to earn their way onto the NHL roster by outplaying veteran competition and then maintaining a high level of play.
With AHL-eligible players, this is easy to do. It's a tougher decision where someone such as Provorov or Konecny are involved. It would be hard to argue that either player "needs" another year of junior hockey. Both could play at least in the AHL level right now. However, the longstanding AHL age restriction on CHL-eligible players means that playing for the Phantoms next season is not an option: It has be either the Flyers or junior hockey.
Hextall conceded that there is some risk of prospects the caliber of Provorov and Konency stagnating in their development by playing at too low of a level relative to their established development (which is not a matter of offensive statistics, but rather in their progress toward the type of consistency and avoidance of bad habits on the ice that it takes to play as an NHL regular). However, he sees greater peril in playing someone too high before he's ready.
Both players will get shots at the NHL roster out of camp. Neither one is a lock. Of the two, the physically mature Provorov probably has the better shot. Highly skilled but undersized forward Konecny perhaps has a 50-50 shot.
Put directly and humorously by Holmgren, "Ron likes his prospects well-cooked, not raw."
In terms of specific team needs on the NHL team that may be addressable this summer, Hextall admitted that he'd like to upgrade the forward corps with more goal-scoring and/or playmaking, hopefully with a little more size addded to the mix as well.
Hextall was asked for his assessments a variety of players on the current roster, particularly the impending restricted and unrestricted free agents as well as players perceived to have underachieved this season. A quick rundown:
* Hextall on impending restricted free agent Brayden Schenn: "I've got a lot of things on my to-do list. I don't have it done, but I've got a lot of things on it and sometimes those things take time. I venture to guess that it's not going to be the first thing we get done, but in the end we'll get it done. here's a lot of factors that come into play with term, money, cap. So I can't make a blanket comment right now and say that we'll sign Brayden to a long term deal. I would certainly be open to it, but I have no idea right now where that's headed."
* Hextall said he was very upset by the NHL's three-game suspension of Schenn and is considering an appeal of the Department of Player Safety's ruling. An appeal would go to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Only suspensions of six or more games can be appealed to an independent arbitrator. Within the season, appeals must be filed in writing to the NHL within 48 hours. However, Hextall indicated that since it now the off-season for the Flyers, they have longer to decide.
* Hextall said he would like to sign Radko Gudas to a long-term extension.
* Hextall said he hopes to be able to re-sign impending unrestricted free agent Ryan White.
* Hextall said no final decisions have been made on any of the team's unrestricted free agents but conceded that the organization is leaning toward not trying to re-sign defenseman Evgeny Medvedev. While not commented upon by the general manager, the 33-year-old player's DUI arrest in Lower Moreland in the wee hours of Wednesday morning did not help his cause, but he was unlikely to be back, anyway. For Medvedev, the question is whether there'd be another NHL team interested (likely at significantly less than the $3 million he made this season) or if a return to the KHL or another European circuit is likely for the frequent Russian national team defenseman.
* R.J. Umberger conceded on Tuesday that he expects to be bought out this summer. Hextall would not confirm that a buyout is the plan but was lukewarm in his assessment of the veteran's status: "I think R.J. was a better player this year than last year. How he scored one goal [until the final game of the season], I don’t know. He skated much better this year. Obviously he was healthier, but production-wise, he didn’t produce. So I’m not sure I have an answer there. I certainly thought he’d be a better player. In terms of the buyout, we’ll consider everything here to make ourselves better."
* On Tuesday, Sam Gagner said that, after a frustrating start, he enjoyed his season with the Flyers. The impending UFA said he was unsure about his future and that he knew the Flyers had a lot of things to figure out for next season before July 1st. Said Hextall, "We gotta think that one through. Sam played well. He seemed to start doing the little things better than he was at the start of the year… That’s a decision.” Likely meaning: If Hextall feels he can upgrade at forward, Gagner will not be re-signed. However, he might be a Plan B option if Gagner is not signed by another team come July 1st and the price is right on a one-year or two-year contract.
* Hextall on whether he will be looking to the trade market, the free agent market or a combination of both: "We'll try everything. First of all, the first thing we have to look at is where we can get better from within. Whether people improve in fitness levels, players on the way up, those are ways we can get better. Then we'll certainly look at the free agent market and if something makes sense we'll look at the trade market and if something makes sense we'll do it. But I can't define right now what's going to come about because I truly don't know who's available July 1st."
* Hextall's assessment of the Flyers' goaltending rotation with Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth:
"Neuvirth's become a better player this year and I think that Michal Neuvirth has a belief that he can be a number one, maybe for the first time, maybe when he was younger he did. He proved it to himself, he proved it to us.
On the other hand, Mase [Steve Mason] did the same thing. Mase has played the last month and a half and was terrific. He played a great game and quite honestly, we didn't have another guy to go to. Stolie [Anthony Stolarz] is a good, young prospect, but he's young and he's not ready to take the ball at this level, so Mase took the ball and ran with it. We've two guys that I think our team feels very comfortable with and so do I.
"I think it's terrific. To have inner competition is a good thing, so we get two good goalies and I think as we saw this year, it's nice to have. If we have one of them this year, then we're probably nowhere near the playoffs. They were a strength of ours and I give them both credit for giving us a chance to win those nights."
* Hextall on whether, barring a spectacular offer, he would be willing to trade either Mason or Neuvirth this summer to address a different positional need: "I don't believe that's a strength that you want to weaken. ...It's certainly not something we're focusing on or looking to do."
* Hextall on Neuvirth's injury history and ability to remain healthy: "I don't usually talk about meetings with players behind closed doors, so I'll leave that to him. But I think, Neuvy it's the one way he told me that he could get better, by changing his training a little bit. So I think it's great that a guy who's looking to get better, to whatever you want to call it: 'prehab', 'prehabilitation', trying to avoid injuries. I think it's terrific when players have the mindset to try and make themselves better over the summer. That's exactly what we want."
* Hextall on the play of Matt Read: "I thought Reader played well the last two, two and a half months probably his best hockey of the year. I’m not necessarily talking playoffs but that stretch before that when we were all going pretty well. I think Matt played very well. I think sometimes he’s been bumped around the lineup, which is no excuse. Reader can play better.”
* Hextall's assessment of head coach Dave Hakstol's first year on the job: "After talking with the guys yesterday, I think our guys are really on board. I think our guys have a better understanding of the sacrifice and the hard work that it takes to get the most out of yourself and collectively as a team.
"There's talk about leadership, accountability from within the group that we haven't seen in the past. So I think we've seen a lot of growth. Like I said, I'm not going to throw rose petals out here because we made the playoffs and we got out in the first round. We're the Flyers and we have high expectations, and we expect to be better next year.
"Is not Dave's culture, it's the Flyers culture. It's the culture that Mr. Snider established and passed on the Bob Clarke, Dave Poulin, and anyone that came through here. It's what we're all about as an organization. Dave [Hakstol] was chosen as a coach partly because he understands that culture, he believes in that culture, which is what he created in North Dakota. This is the Flyers culture and I think we all have an enormous responsbility to uphold the identity, the culture, the tradition of the Philadelphia Flyers, as Mr. Snider did for 49 years.
"It's a huge responsibility, Dave's a huge part of that, every player is a part of that, our staff is all a part of that, we're moving in the right direction. There's a lot of really good signs this year on the ice and also off the ice."
Hakstol also spoke to the media on Wednesday. As is his norm, he did not want to talk much about himself, his own learning experiences in his first season or drum down much in the way of specific details but did speak in general terms about what he thought was accomplished this season and what lies ahead.
"I said it coming in – the game of hockey is the game of hockey. At this level, everything happens a little quicker, a little higher volume and obviously at a higher level. It’s an adjustment to all of those new little things. There’s not one major item or one major area. It’s just a whole bunch of little things. As you go through new things day after day, you have to digest them, adjust to them and then be able to operate at that level," Hakstol said.
"I don’t think the word 'easy' is associated with anything in this league. I think we’ve got a good foundation to work off of, but we’re going to have to be extremely diligent in the work we do and we’re going to have to be very hungry to get off to a good start.
"You go through a lot of different experiences throughout a season. There’s a professional level and there’s a personal level. I’ll stay away from the personal level; that doesn’t belong here. But there’s something about being invested in what you’re doing.
"The more experiences you have within a group, within an organization with some of the struggles, some of the small successes, I believe you become more invested in what you’re actually trying to achieve. We had some ups, we had some downs this year. It’s easy to talk about pride and passion last summer, but I’ve had a chance to experience some of that pride, some of that passion at a lot of different levels within the organization.
"There’s no question that I know Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Flyers organization much better today than I did 11 months ago."
Neither the coach nor the general manager made any concrete statements about whether the assistant coaching staff would retained in its entirety as it was last year when Hakstol was hired as head coach (save for the addition of Kim Dillabaugh to fill a goaltending coach vacancy). The shape and direction of the coaching staff will be decided in weeks to come.
Hakstol's comment, "We [evaluate our staff] throughout the year. We look at a lot of things that we do, and we’ll continue to sit and talk, yes. We’ll have individual discussions."