Flyers

Upgrading defense must be Flyers' top priority

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Upgrading defense must be Flyers' top priority

Among the issues facing new general manager Ron Hextall this summer is what to do about upgrading his blue line.

Did the blue line get better with the acquisition of Andrew MacDonald at the trade deadline? Yes.

Was it good enough to slow down the New York Rangers in the playoffs? No.

Is it good enough to leave untouched for next season? No.

The Flyers go into the summer with about $6.58 million in projected salary cap space for next season, according to salary calculation site GapGeek.com, assuming the cap rises to $71.1 million as expected.

Upgrading the defense has to be Hextall’s No. 1 priority -- no ifs, ands or buts.

Hextall has made it clear he wants more out of players within the organization and wants to stop the hemorrhaging of prospects and draft picks, which is the reason why the Flyers remain the only NHL club since the decade began that has yet to produce a defenseman through the draft who plays significant minutes for them.

They’ve got a few playing elsewhere in the NHL, but not on their own roster, which is embarrassing.

“I’ll be looking hard at that,” Hextall said recently. “I think on defense we’ve got a couple guys that are getting older, so we’ve got to take a peek at that as well. We do have three good, young defensemen coming right now that we’re real excited about.

“We also can’t rush the process with these guys. They’re young people and they’re young players, and we can’t just throw them in the lineup and expect them to make us a better team. That’ll all shake out at training camp and throughout the year, but the one thing I’m not in favor of is rushing young players.” 

Although Hextall has said he doesn’t think it is essential to promote one of the Flyers’ prized defensive prospects to the NHL roster next season ahead of schedule, it’s pretty clear that the organization’s philosophy on the blue line hasn’t worked, and therefore, needs adjustment.

If Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith can each be promoted to the Chicago Blackhawks' roster inside of three years after being drafted, and learn on the job -- while winning a couple Stanley Cups -- what’s the Flyers’ rationale for saying they can’t do the same?

Where does it say that the Flyers can’t take a chance on a young defenseman? Why can’t they let a kid play through his mistake and growth period? What do the Flyers have to lose?

What has their present philosophy gained them? The answer is nothing. 

That's why the Flyers have to promote one of three prospects next fall onto their roster. Will it be Robert Hagg, Shayne Gostisbehere or Samuel Morin?

Among the three, Hagg and Gostisbehere are said to be the closest to being NHL ready.

This is where we will find out whether Hextall represents a true change in moving forward or whether the organization just changed faces, but not philosophy.

Now, that said, the Flyers have always been active participants in free agency.

There’s nothing wrong with looking at the defensive market this summer and seeing who can best help them, even though that does zero on the developmental side of the ledger.

If the Flyers move toward signing a free agent defenseman, the one player they should target is Pittsburgh’s Matt Niskanen.

The 6-foot, 209-pound Niskanen won’t turn 28 until next December and has seven NHL seasons under his belt.

He will be seeking his fourth contract as well as a nice raise above the $2.3 million he earned the past two years with the Penguins.

This season represented a career-best for Niskanen in goals (10), assists (36) and points (46).

Signing him would bolster the Flyers' blue line while hurting the Penguins simultaneously.

Taking from the rich and giving to the poor, so to speak.

Niskanen represents a far better investment in salary cap dollars for the Flyers than re-signing Kimmo Timonen, who turns 40 next season.

This is another area where Hextall has to change the culture and think of the Flyers from more of a business standpoint than from the organizational philosophy that the team is a family business.

There are no easy decisions that lie ahead for Hextall, yet it’s fair to say the entire fan base will be watching this summer to see if there truly is an organizational change in how the Flyers go about improving their team.

It begins on defense.

Andrew MacDonald out 4-6 weeks with lower-body injury

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Andrew MacDonald out 4-6 weeks with lower-body injury

A roster spot for Samuel Morin appears to have opened up.

Andrew MacDonald will miss 4-6 weeks with a lower-body injury, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall announced Sunday. MacDonald will likely land on injured reserve.

The injury likely occurred midway through the third period against the Oilers on Saturday, when MacDonald blocked a Mark Letestu slap shot with 10:48 left in regulation and 1:44 left on an Edmonton power play.

MacDonald hobbled around on basically on one leg before being able to clear the puck and make it to the bench after 44 seconds. MacDonald blocked a game-high six shots Saturday.

“You just got to get up,” MacDonald said after the Flyers’ 2-1 win. “If you don’t get up, it’s 5-on-3. There are other opportunities that can arise from it. Do your best and try to hang in there. Wait for some help. Wait until you clear it. Everyone battles through it.

“You take a shot. You just get up, get back in there and help your guys.”

With MacDonald injured, the Flyers now have six defensemen. Brandon Manning has been a healthy scratch the past two games as Travis Sanheim drew back into the lineup.

The Flyers have yet to make a corresponding roster move, but considering Morin nearly made the team out of training camp and hung around for the four-game season-opening West Coast trip, it’s a safe assumption that Morin will find his way back to the NHL.

Morin had a goal and an assist for the Phantoms on Saturday night, an assist Friday night and points in all his three games in Lehigh Valley.

If Morin does come back up, the question is will he play?

The Flyers were reluctant to play three rookie defensemen on their season-opening trip and scratched both Sanheim and Morin for the season opener.

Things have changed now, though. MacDonald is third on the Flyers in ice time, averaging 19:36 while playing with Ivan Provorov, who will now find himself with a new partner.

Dave Hakstol could insert Manning into the lineup, which is a strong possibility. How Hakstol draws up his pairings remains to be seen, though it’s unlikely he’ll break up Shayne Gostisbehere and rookie Robert Hagg. It’s possible Provorov finds himself with Manning or Morin, or perhaps Radko Gudas. We’ll know more after Monday’s practice.

Calling up Morin is not Hextall’s only option. The Flyers also have T.J. Brennan in the AHL, who is a better fit as a seventh defenseman.

Scott Laughton credits longtime skating coach Dawn Braid for NHL rebirth

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Scott Laughton credits longtime skating coach Dawn Braid for NHL rebirth

After spending nearly the entire 2016-17 campaign at Lehigh Valley, Flyers center Scott Laughton looks like a whole different player this season. But the demotion and time spent in the minor leagues aren’t the only reasons behind his NHL rebirth.

Laughton also became a far better skater.

Through eight games, Laughton has two goals and one assist with a plus-one rating – hardly the kind of numbers that typically garner a lot of attention. However, the former first-pick is centering a quality fourth line for the Flyers, a grouping that has been strong in its own end while also generating impressive offensive opportunities at the other. Laughton leads the club’s forwards in shorthanded time on ice as well, playing a huge role in a penalty-killing unit that’s managed to ward off all but one of the last 13 power plays it’s faced.

The difference is apparent, and Laughton knows it, too. Some of that comes with age and experience – he’s only 23, with 117 NHL games under his belt. Yet Laughton directs much of the credit for his growth on the ice to his longtime skating coach, Dawn Braid.

“Worked with the same skating coach I have been for the last six, seven years,” Laughton said Friday of his offseason regimen. “She actually just got hired with Arizona. She was a skating coach there.

“I've been working with her. I did a lot of tight edges, a lot of tight work, and I did a lot of crossovers to try and develop speed. I think everything kind of comes together though — your off-ice training combined with that — and just getting stronger as I get older. I'm getting older and coming into my body.”

A former figure skater, Braid was named the Coyotes' skating coach in August of 2016, become the NHL’s first full-time female coach in the process. From the sound of things, the hiring was long overdue.

Braid had built a following around the league, and from players vastly more acclaimed than Laughton.

“She works with (Islanders center and four-time All-Star) John Tavares and helped him,” Laughton said. “She's got (Stars center Jason Spezza). She's got a bunch of guys. A lot of guys go to her. She's like Barb Underhill in Toronto. They were partners.

“I've been skating with her since I was in first year of juniors, so I really like her.”

It sounds like Laughton is getting an education in more than how to be better on his skates. As Braid has worked with more NHL stars and teams, she’s began teaching more than just being quicker and more fluid on the ice.

There are applicable hockey lessons and techniques involved in their training.

“I think she's really incorporated puck work,” Laughton said. “It used to be no pucks. She watches game film and things like that, and sees what's going on in the game and tries to help you that way.”

Whatever Laughton is doing, it appears to be working. A year ago, he couldn’t crack the Flyers’ main roster, managing to appear in just two games. He finished with 19 goals, 20 assists and a plus-17 rating in 60 games for the Phantoms in 16-17, with an additional two goals and one assists in five playoff tilts. Despite finishing with a 39-33-10 record and missing the postseason, the big club never felt as though Laughton was needed.

It’s early into the 17-18 campaign, but it’s already difficult to imagine this Flyers squad without Laughton’s contributions – so give the assist to Baird on this one.