Flyers

Ron Hextall just fine with uneventful free agency for Flyers

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Ron Hextall just fine with uneventful free agency for Flyers

Sometimes, not having a lot of salary cap money to spend can be a blessing.

It makes you less likely to do something extravagant or emotional, which the Flyers have been prone to doing every July when free agency arrives.

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall had about $4.1 million in spare change after signing goalie Michal Neuvirth on the first day of free agency (see story).

It wasn’t enough to make them major players in the pursuit of such names as Michael Frolik, Phil Kessel or Matt Beleskey.

And that’s just fine with Hextall.

“We didn’t have the flexibility to go after a big guy,” Hextall said. “Quite frankly, I hope most years are like this year when you’re looking for one piece or two pieces.

“I don’t like going into free agency needing three or four bodies and you kind of end up blowing your brains out there. We feel like we got a real good fit for our team and we like our team here.”

Hextall needed a backup goalie to replace Ray Emery. He found one in Neuvirth. The mid-level winger he spoke about at the NHL draft has now become Sam Gagner (see story).

Because he was unable to again rid himself of Vinny Lecavalier’s $4.5 million cap hit or lose salary with either Luke Schenn ($3.6 million) or Andrew MacDonald ($5 million) on his overcrowded blue line, Hextall tried to join a poker game without the entry fee.

Are the Flyers done in free agency?

Well, barring something involving Lecavalier or his defense, yes. Nothing really significant can happen the remainder of the summer without losing millions off the cap.

“We can’t go out and spend a whole bunch of money or we’re back in the situation we’re in now,” Hextall said. “We don’t want to be over the cap. We’re not gonna sign someone to put us over. We’re going to be patient here.”

He admits he would like to trim his budget on defense.

“Ideally, we’d like to clear a little bit of space there, but we’ll see,” he said. “We’re under the cap, albeit slightly, when we plug [Michael] Del Zotto in, you want some space to call players up, too.

“We’re close, we’d like to clear a little bit more, but you’ve got to have a partner there. We’ll see as we move along here.”

They need to re-sign Rob Zepp or some other depth goalie for the Phantoms. That should happen by the weekend.

Other than depth moves with the Phantoms, they appear done.

“We’ll listen to see what is out there and see if it makes sense,” Hextall said. “I am not gonna hold my breath because I’m not sure anything is going to make sense given where we’re at [on cap]. If you do the numbers, we don’t have a lot of space here.”

The $4.1 million cap money left doesn’t include the $1.3 million qualifying offer to Del Zotto. His final salary will more than double that if they agree on a multi-year contract, further lessening his cap dollars.

Hextall said it would “be crazy” to add an expensive player right now. He intends to be more fiscally conservative than his predecessor, Paul Holmgren.

Truth is, the Flyers won’t be able to solve all their issues in one offseason. This is going to take a few years.

It’s a process.

“I’m comfortable where we are as a team,” Hextall said. “Comfortable with the additions and Vandy (Chris VandeVelde) coming back and [Ryan] White coming back and upgrading our skill with Gagner and defense with [Evgeni] Medvedev and now upgrading goaltending with Neuvirth.

“For us to sign someone to a big contract this year would be crazy, but next summer might even be more crazy because we might have to move one of our good young players just to get under. So I’m not sure that something’s going to work out.”

Fiscal sanity. On the Flyers.

Whodathunk?

Now the pressure really picks up for Dave Hakstol, Flyers

Now the pressure really picks up for Dave Hakstol, Flyers

Dave Hakstol lifted his arm effortlessly with his hand steadily inclining toward the ceiling, almost portraying the takeoff of an airplane.

He was discussing the timeline for young hockey players, which his Flyers have a lot of and will gain only more as the blocks are stacked one by one.

And as the head coach digested a topsy-turvy, season-ending loss, his demonstration depicted what he knew wasn't the case.

"You always want development to be this smooth path and this smooth climb; it doesn't work that way," Hakstol said. "It's kind of a jagged climb, and as long as you're seeing a steady push to improve, then you stick with it and keep pushing in that direction."

The Flyers have been allowed to hit those jagged edges on their climb, like Sunday's 8-5 Game 6 defeat to the Penguins (see story). It was the final swing (and miss) in a best-of-seven first-round playoff matchup with the two-time defending champs, another cut along the grand hike for the Flyers.

But with it came a signal.

This is no longer the bottom of the mountain. The trek has been underway for three seasons and the long view should, expectedly, be coming into focus. In 2018-19, Hakstol will enter the fourth year of a five-year contract, according to CapFriendly.com. The Flyers' core, looking at its peak, will be a year older, as will the foundation pieces, already here and being counted on to drive things forward. 

The Flyers played four rookies in the playoffs, while five of their top eight regular-season goal scorers were 25 years old or younger. 

"For the most part, I liked the growth of our young guys," Hakstol said. "I think they had an opportunity to really see some tough points during the year and figure out how to be a part of battling out of them. They had the opportunity to play through and be part of a playoff push that other teams weren't going away, and we knew that with eight to 10 games to go, we knew that we would have to win our way in. So they had the opportunity to be a part of that and gain that experience of understanding and knowing how hard that is. And they were successful in that."

It resulted in 42 wins and 98 points during the regular season, both highs under Hakstol, surpassing the 41 and 96 set in Year 1. It also led to another first-round exit, the second under Hakstol against a topflight opponent. In those series, the Flyers went 1-5 at home, where they were outscored 26-9.

Harsh yet clear reminders the Flyers aren't where they want to be.

The Penguins, no duh, are. 

"We're working to build toward something like that," Wayne Simmonds said. "I thought we took a step in the right direction this year."

Claude Giroux, the 102-point, 30-year-old captain, sees it, too.

"I know for a fact that we got better as the season went on," Giroux said. "Look at our team last year and look at our team this year. We improved a lot."

While patience is always of the essence with general manager Ron Hextall, Year 4 will demand much more, unlike seasons past. This is Hakstol's team — the blocks are in place, both old and now not so new.

"There's going to be a lot of good and a lot of things that we'll say, 'Hey, these are good steps for our team,'" Hakstol said of this season. "End of the day, we didn't come into this playoff series to make steps, though."

That undoubtedly won't be the objective in 2018-19. It can't be, and the Flyers should know it.

Flyers' result shouldn't impact how Couturier's heroic effort is remembered

Flyers' result shouldn't impact how Couturier's heroic effort is remembered

Sean Couturier was still standing, somehow, when he let it slip.

Torn MCL, right knee, no surgery needed but normally a four-week healing period (see story).

“It wasn’t the ideal situation,” Couturier said. “I didn’t really feel a whole lot. I was just giving everything I got and not really thinking about it. But there were times I could feel it pretty bad.”

Most of the time, this story comes with a happy ending, after a month-long triumph. It’s the type grandparents tell their grandchildren, and it’s what makes the Stanley Cup Playoffs so great.

That’s not what this is. There is no grand finale here. The Flyers’ season is over. It ended Sunday night bitterly with a sour-tasting 8-5 loss to the Penguins in Game 6 at the Wells Fargo Center.

It’s a story, though, to remember, an all-time great individual effort on one leg that wasn’t enough. The Flyers’ result should not impact how we tell Couturier’s story going forward.

“He’s a warrior,” Wayne Simmonds said. “The things he’s done this year and the way he handled himself after missing a game there, he came back and was the best player on the ice.”

Couturier delivered his second career postseason hat trick and became just the fifth Flyer in franchise history to register a five-point playoff game with three goals and two assists.

With the Flyers’ back up against the wall, Couturier, nursing a “lower-body” injury far more severe than initially believed, put his teammates on his back and carried the weight.

The 25-year-old finished with 20 minutes and 5 seconds of ice time, not nearly where he was in the first three games of the series but four more minutes than Game 5, his first game back.

“He gave us a chance to win that game,” Flyers captain Claude Giroux said. “I know I said it before; I have a lot of respect for that guy. He’s one of our leaders. Our season is on the line, and he played a great game.”

On Friday, Couturier’s heroics forced the series back to Philly when he scored the game-winner in the final minutes of regulation. To the naked eye, it was hard to notice anything different.

There were limitations, but he had an impact. Then on Sunday, he raised his level of compete and almost single-handedly beat the two-time defending champs in a do-or-die situation.

“With Coots, there’s a real mental toughness there in terms of being able to focus on the job at hand,” coach Dave Hakstol said. “He had to change the way he went about his job a little bit.”

The torn MCL limited Couturier’s mobility and he said he let his wingers do the work when they had the puck. But it was Couturier who scored his first by crashing the net, and it was Couturier who showcased a power move to score on a breakaway.

After his five-point game Sunday, Couturier now has 13 career playoff points against Pittsburgh in 11 games with two hat tricks.

Last spring, Couturier asked for a larger role offensively and the Flyers rewarded him with one. He paid them back with a 31-goal, 76-point season.

“I think I showed I can produce in this league offensively,” he said. “I don’t think I really changed the type of game I play. I still take pride in defense. It’s just about getting more opportunities.”

And on Sunday, Couturier demonstrated one more thing.

He can produce in this league, on one leg, with his team on life alert.