Flyers

Doors open for Flyers' prospects as they close on Nick Schultz, Michael Del Zotto

Doors open for Flyers' prospects as they close on Nick Schultz, Michael Del Zotto

VOORHEES, N.J. -- Ron Hextall last month said the Flyers want to "get better every year, get younger every year."

They did not get better this season.

They did, however, take a step toward getting younger for next season when Nick Schultz and Michael Del Zotto left their exit interviews at Flyers Skate Zone.

To no surprise, the two blueliners strapped with expiring contracts were told on Tuesday they would not be re-signed this offseason.

Schultz turns 35 years old in August, while Del Zotto will be 27 in June. Both saw the writing on the wall with the Flyers' stable of defensive prospects not far from the NHL doorstep.

As the Flyers watch the playoffs for the third time in the last five seasons, Hextall will look to get younger, as promised.

"He thanked me for my time; I thanked him for the opportunity," Del Zotto said. "We both talked about which way the organization's going. I think it's no secret with what's happening here and we ended on that note."

Schultz, a veteran of 15 seasons (three with the Flyers) and contemplating retirement, had the same message.

"Obviously, I kind of know where I'm at -- contract's done and I know the young guys here in the system," Schultz said. "They are going to turn to those guys. Just kind of move on and move forward."

Del Zotto spent three seasons with the Flyers but was limited to 52 games in 2015-16 and 51 in 2016-17 because of injuries, which resulted in a shrunken role.

"It's unfortunate, a little emotional," he said. "I've been here for three years, have made some great friendships. Obviously, there was a little up and down and very frustrating at times. You understand the business and you learn that at a very young age. You see where this team's at -- a lot of young guys coming up on the back end."

This leaves two jobs for the taking on defense. Another could open, courtesy of the Vegas Golden Knights and the June expansion draft (i.e. Brandon Manning, Andrew MacDonald). The departures also loosen Hextall's pockets a bit. This season, Del Zotto carried a $3.875 million cap hit and Schultz $2.25 million.

So, who's in line for the vacancies?

We saw two auditions last week in the NHL debuts of 21-year-old Sam Morin and 22-year-old Robert Hagg. Both were drafted in 2013 and have developed at Hextall's preferred pace. Morin is 6-foot-7 and strong along the boards. Hagg possesses a sound two-way game with good size at 6-foot-2, 207 pounds. The pair owns a combined five seasons of experience at AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley.

"They're great players, they've got lots of talent down in the AHL," 20-year-old defenseman Ivan Provorov said. "They've got a great team. Hopefully they'll go deep in the playoffs. It'd be a good experience for them but it's definitely exciting -- we've got a great team here and lots of talent everywhere else, juniors and AHL."

Including Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers. Last summer, Hextall acclaimed Sanheim for his physical growth since being drafted in 2014. The 21-year-old is an offense-oriented defenseman who has put up 35 points (10 goals, 25 assists) in his first season with the Phantoms. Myers is only 20 years old and still playing at the junior ranks, but impressed greatly through training camp and preseason, when he stuck around longer than anticipated.

T.J. Brennan and Reece Willcox should be in the mix, as well, come fall.

What's prevalent is the Flyers will have options and competition for spots to join the likes of Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere, both budding in their own right.

"We've got [several] free agents this year, so we'll probably have a little bit of turnover," Wayne Simmonds said. "There's a lot of younger guys in Lehigh that are high on the radar and they're really good players. I'm expecting a lot of young kids to be coming up and things to change a little bit."

Schultz and Del Zotto were the start.

"When kids are younger now and growing up, they are training sooner and doing more at a young age," Schultz said. 

"Obviously there's a learning process playing in the NHL and playing a full 82-game season. It's a process, but it's something where those young guys are developing a lot quicker and are ready to play when they come in."

Best of NHL: Blue Jackets shut out Rangers

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Best of NHL: Blue Jackets shut out Rangers

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Sergei Bobrovsky made 36 saves for his 21st career shutout and Zach Werenski and Artemi Panarin scored in the Columbus Blue Jackets' 2-0 victory over the New York Rangers on Friday night.

New York ran into a hot goalie in Bobrovsky, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner who notched his second shutout of the season in powering Columbus to its third straight victory.

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist was nearly as good against the increasingly aggressive Blue Jackets, stopping 40 shots on the night. The Rangers (11-8-1) lost their second straight following a six-game win streak.

After a scoreless first period in which both goalies made some slick, sprawling saves, Werenski found the back of the net with his sixth goal of the season 13:34 into the second.

Brandon Dubinsky lost the handle of the puck in the slot, and Werenski picked it up just inside the right circle and beat Lundqvist with a one-timer.

Columbus (12-7-1) was the aggressor in the second frame, outshooting the Rangers 19-9, and kept up the pressure in the third.

Panarin scored his fourth goal of the season on a power play 7:14 into the third period, rocketing a slap shot from the high slot that ricocheted off the bar and in.

The Blue Jackets are 9-1-0 this season when allowing two goals or fewer (see full recap).

Red Wings’ 3rd-period goals enough to top Sabres
DETROIT -- Tomas Tatar scored a go-ahead goal midway through third period and the Detroit Red Wings went on to beat the Buffalo Sabres 3-1 on Friday night.

Detroit's Luke Glendening broke a scoreless tie late in the second period. Ryan O'Reilly pulled Buffalo into a 1-all tie 5:50 into the third.

Dylan Larkin scored late in the game and Jimmy Howard had 19 saves for the Red Wings. They have won consecutive games at home for the first time this season.

Buffalo's Robin Lehner stopped the first 20 shots he faced and finished with 30 saves.

The Sabres have lost four straight, one away from their longest losing streak of the season, but were thankful they didn't lose more than a game in Detroit.

Jack Eichel went to the dressing room late in the second period after coming off the ice slowly, keeping weight off his right skate following a collision with Glendening, and making a brief stop on the bench. Buffalo's standout center was cleared to return at the start of the third period.

After a scoreless first period with a combined 14 shots, Detroit outshot Buffalo 13-4 in the second and took control without that translating to a big lead (see full recap).

End to End: How to solve the Flyers' scoring woes

End to End: How to solve the Flyers' scoring woes

Throughout the season, we'll ask questions about the Flyers to our resident hockey analysts and see what they have to say.

Going End to End today are NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com producers/reporters Tom Dougherty and Jordan Hall.

The topic: How to solve the Flyers' scoring woes.

Dougherty
If Thursday night's 3-2 shootout loss in Winnipeg confirmed anything, it's the Flyers cannot break up their top line. They might not be able to score much, but their only scoring is coming from Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek.

The Couturier line accounts for 48 percent of the Flyers' offense, or 25 goals. Factor the defense and top line together, and that's 59 percent, as the blue line has produced six tallies this season.

Of the 21 goals the Flyers have scored that do not come from the top line or blue line, 12 have come from two players, Wayne Simmonds and Valtteri Filppula. Simmonds hasn't scored in 11 games, and Filppula has one goal in his past nine games.

Two lines have stayed intact since Day 1 — the Couturier line and the fourth line of Scott Laughton, Taylor Leier and Michael Raffl. Head coach Dave Hakstol has been hesitant about breaking up his fourth line, and rightfully so. Laughton, Leier and Raffl have chemistry, and they're almost always cycling in the offensive zone.

Nolan Patrick just returned after missing three weeks because of a "suspected" concussion and played sparingly against the Jets. He should help the Flyers' scoring woes, but he won't solve them. I think it's time to break up the fourth line, and based on the Winnipeg game, it looks like a possibility Hakstol is considering.

Here's why. Raffl played on the second power-play unit against the Jets, which was a first this season. Perhaps Hakstol didn't want to throw Patrick back into the fire and watched the rookie's minutes.

Breaking up lines Nos. 2, 3 and 4 is the best course of action. Travis Konecny is struggling with confidence, Jordan Weal hasn't been great, and those are two players the Flyers need to get going. It's time to end the Dale Weise in the top-nine experiment.

With what the Flyers have, here is what I would do:

Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Travis Konecny-Nolan Patrick-Wayne Simmonds
Jordan Weal-Valtteri Filppula-Michael Raffl
Taylor Leier-Scott Laughton-Dale Weise

Hall
There's no need to panic if you're the Flyers.

First, you finally have a no-doubt-about-it top line. Voracek, Couturier and Giroux have blended beautifully and are doing damage, as the Flyers entered Friday one of only three teams in the NHL with a trio of players over 20 points each. Don't break that up just because there's an imbalance below it. 

And second, it's a long season. Ups and downs are common and things can change quickly. Just look at last season. The Flyers ripped off 10 straight wins and scored the NHL's second-most goals through the first two months of 2016-17. As we all know, they didn't make the postseason and finished as a bottom-third goal-scoring club.

The Flyers simply need to continue experimenting with their middle six and see what eventually works best. A little patience was going to be required when you're relying on a 19-year-old rookie in Patrick, a 20-year-old still finding himself at this level in Konecny and a 25-year-old facing his first full NHL season in Weal.

And let's not forget, the defense is exceptionally young with two rookies (Robert Hagg and Travis Sanheim), a 20-year-old leader (Ivan Provorov) and a third-year player coming off a sophomore slump (Shayne Gostisbehere).

But back to the forwards. 

If you recall, a stretch from Oct. 10-17 featured Filppula centering Weal and Simmonds on the second line, with Patrick centering Konecny and Weise on the third unit. It resulted in a pretty productive three-game span in which the Flyers picked up two wins and outscored the opposition 18-9.

I really liked the dynamic of that middle six. And the Flyers can now return to it with Patrick suiting up. He will be eased back into heavier minutes, but he can make a difference when healthy and comfortable. Patrick and Konecny can still play plenty of minutes on the third line with less pressure and potentially more favorable matchups.

We've seen Weal and Simmonds work well together, and Filppula adds smarts and steadiness down the middle.

But the important thing to remember is the Flyers are only 19 games into an 82-game grind. Scoring can come and go at times, and there's no reason it can't come down the line.

So, here's what I like best for the Flyers right now:

Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Jordan Weal-Valtteri Filppula-Wayne Simmonds
Travis Konecny-Nolan Patrick-Dale Weise
Taylor Leier-Scott Laughton-Michael Raffl