Flyers

Analyzing Flyers' free-agent class, Part 1

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Analyzing Flyers' free-agent class, Part 1

While the hockey world awaits July 1 and the start of free agency, the Flyers are still looking to get their own house in order as they make the crucial financial decisions with a handful of restricted and unrestricted free agents. The organization has between now and the June 25 deadline to make qualifying offers to their RFAs.

We break down the Flyers’ free agents and their futures moving forward with Part 1 of our two-part series:

Valtteri Filppula (UFA)
Filppula simply doesn’t have the speed to keep up with the league’s younger, more skilled forwards. However, he proved he can still be a valuable asset on a penalty kill, a mentor to younger players and capable of that occasional big game (Game 5 vs. Penguins).

Comparable player: Tomas Plekanec, Maple Leafs
You have to think these two players will be watching to see what the other does when free agency starts on July 1. Both are in their mid-30s and play a very defensively-responsible game, while their offense has receded significantly over the past few years. Interested teams would be looking at both players as third or even fourth-line checking forwards.

Outlook: I’d be really surprised if the Flyers lock up Filppula before free agency starts. Filppula will be looking for a multi-year contract, which in all likelihood would be the last contract he signs. The Flyers can afford to wait out the situation and sign him to a more team-friendly one-year deal that would be at a 50-75 percent reduction over his most recent $5 million cap hit. 

Robert Hagg (RFA)
Hagg surprised many by earning a full-time role with the Flyers straight out of camp. A bruising defenseman who’s a good complement to a more offensive-minded blueliner, although he can be sneaky offensively as well. Hagg’s game tailed off over the second half of the season, but as a rookie, that’s not uncommon. Expect Hagg to bounce back in Year 2. 

Comparable player: Derek Forbort, Kings
Forbort plays a similar game to Hagg, although not quite as punishing with his checks and hits along the boards. Over the past two seasons, Forbort averaged just over 20 minutes per game for the Kings, who have considerably more depth on their blue line. Forbort signed a two-year RFA deal after seeing action in 14 games as a rookie.  

Outlook: General manager Ron Hextall would like to lock up Hagg for at least two seasons around the $1.25-1.5 million range and keep him under club control as a restricted free agent. You have to think Hagg’s agent would also like a short-term bridge, which would give his client a chance to prove his worth and then cash in with a more lucrative deal next season or in 2020.   

Taylor Leier (RFA) 
Leier showed potential as a valuable fourth-line forward who brings quickness and skill to the bottom six. Leier needs to develop into a more reliable penalty killer and provide that consistent jolt of energy he showed in the first 20-25 games of the season while maintaining defensive responsibilities.

Comparable player: Tomas Hyka, Golden Knights
Drafted two rounds after Leier in 2012, Hyka went unsigned by the Kings before he eventually latched on with the Golden Knights. Both Leier and Hyka are smaller, energy guys still looking to prove they belong in the NHL.

Outlook: Under club control, look for the Flyers to offer Leier a short-term contract with the expectation that he takes the next step in his development as an NHL regular.

Alex Lyon (RFA)
Lyon can take pride in his first two pro seasons coming out of Yale. He progressed from 2016-17 to this past season and gave the Flyers some decent play in net over his 11 appearances following injuries to Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth. Lyon wasn’t rattled when he was called upon at a moment’s notice to join the Flyers in a pinch this past season.   

Comparable player: Garret Sparks, Maple Leafs
Interestingly, these two AHL goalies battled each other in the Eastern Conference Finals. While Sparks didn’t take the collegiate route that Lyon did, the Leafs have shown patience with the 24-year-old netminder who has played just 17 games with the Maple Leafs in 2015-16. He will have earned between $575K-675K in the three years after signing his entry-level contract.  

Outlook: Somehow, I find a way to keep Lyon in the organization on a two-year, two-way deal around $750K annually. Lyon understands his role and how he fits in. He’s perfect as a backup to Carter Hart, who I expect to start the season with the Phantoms. 

Alex Lyon provides keen insight on Carter Hart's transition to pro hockey

Alex Lyon provides keen insight on Carter Hart's transition to pro hockey

VOORHEES, N.J. — Regardless of his playing status, it’s easy to gravitate to the Yale-educated Alex Lyon with his insightful answers and his introspection on all things hockey. Following his call-up from Lehigh Valley, Lyon provided some keen observations on what he’s seen from goaltending prospect Carter Hart, who struggled in his initiation to pro hockey.

“You’ve got to learn it for yourself, that’s the key,” Lyon said Friday from the Skate Zone in Voorhees. “I don’t try and get in his ear. He’s a great goalie. From my end, the only thing I try to let him know is that it’s going to be hard, and there’s going to be days when you don’t practice or get your gear on, but you have to and you have to make the most of it.

You can’t feel sorry for yourself even when you want to. That’s what I try and let him know. Just prepare right now for the fact that it’s going to be extremely difficult, even if you’re the most highly touted second-rounder or whatever he may be."

Lyon took a different route to pro hockey, spending two years in the USHL in Omaha, Nebraska, before enrolling at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where he spent three more years. When he signed with the Phantoms, Lyon was 23. Hart, on the other hand, is just three months removed from his 20th birthday and still adjusting to independent living in a city 2,820 miles away from where he came from.  

“It just takes time. I don’t know how else to put it than that. It’s so difficult,” Lyon said. “If you think he was living with somebody who cooked him all his meals and didn’t have to pay rent, didn’t worry about taking out his garbage at night. You come home and your fridge is stocked. All of a sudden your whole world gets turned upside down. He was the most important player in that franchise (Everett Silvertips) for four years, and then everything is totally different.” 

Compounding the myriad of changes is that Hart is now cashing big paychecks in the first year of his entry-level deal that pays him roughly $750,000 bi-weekly over the course of a six-month season after receiving a mere monthly allowance at the junior level.

“You get a pay check every two weeks,” Lyon said. “It’s pretty easy to get high on life when you start making money. I’ve fallen into that trap so many times. I still fall into it.”

But financial matters don’t define greatness, and with that, Hart is forced to prove himself all over again to a group of coaches and teammates who have the same NHL aspirations as he does. 

“You get to professional hockey and he’s just another commoner,” Lyon said. “Obviously, he’s a very good goalie. It’s just so different and it’s easy to look at it in terms of your glove isn't quite as sharp or your squareness isn’t quite as sharp. Maybe his long-distance girlfriend just broke up with him. I don’t know, but that’s what it is and that stuff affects your play. It does. And to think that you can just erase that when you get to the rink is just crazy. I think that’s one thing that gets overlooked is you have to try and adjust to that.

It’s just patience. He’s going to be fine.”

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Between the pipes, Ron Hextall's patience and process being pushed to the brink

Between the pipes, Ron Hextall's patience and process being pushed to the brink

Ron Hextall, a build-from-within ideologist, is having his belief system tested.

In fact, the staunchness behind that belief system has come back to bite the Flyers — and it took only 19 games into the season.

Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth are the Flyers' placeholders. The organization has its plan with young goalies waiting in the wings — one, in particular, by the name of Carter Hart.

But those prospects haven't been deemed ready. And Hextall's vision since taking over as general manager in May 2014 has always been competitiveness in the present with a keen eye on the future. Turns out, the Flyers' fort had to be held down much firmer than the shaky stakes currently in the blue paint.

This season marks the biggest win-now moment in the era under Hextall and Dave Hakstol. The Flyers went out and landed James van Riemsdyk for five years, $35 million. The core, a big chunk of it coming off career seasons, is getting a year older, while the Flyers' youth movement has climbed another peg on the ladder.

During the offseason, though, the Flyers stood pat in net and they're now trying to survive the backfire at the mid-November mark.

Was this a risk they could afford? We'll find out.

But banking on Elliott and Neuvirth looked a heck of a lot more risky than it did safe.

Elliott underwent core muscle surgery in February and had a summer comprised of recovery and a cleanup procedure. He played 43 games in 2017-18 and, as a tandem goalie for most of his career, has played more than 50 games just once, back in 2009-10.

The oft-injured Neuvirth had offseason surgery on his hips after playing just 22 games last season and 28 the year prior. This year, Neuvirth suffered an injury during the preseason, has played one regular-season game and currently isn't practicing with the team.

The situation appears dire.

Even with Elliott out only two weeks approximately after sustaining a lower-body injury Thursday, who's to believe he won't get hurt again? He's 33 years old and was injured trying to go post to post, oftentimes a routine maneuver in net.

So what now?

Calvin Pickard is the guy. He's a goalie from outside the organization but not exactly a savior given he spent almost all of last season in the AHL.

Alex Lyon is the backup. He's played four AHL games this season and has 11 career games of NHL experience under his belt.

This is all part of the Flyers' internal approach — trusting who's next in line. Maybe Lyon or another prospect quickly rewards them.

The Flyers believe in the overall approach. They like their goalie prospects and are willing to be patient, but did the Flyers have enough time to be patient?

Or even the bodies?

Again, this is just 19 games into a season that should mean something.

The Flyers may have to act.

Because Hextall's build-from-within mindset is breaking down in net.

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