VOORHEES, N.J. — Ron Hextall has one month to decide how he’ll proceed with a team that has made a rapid ascension up the Metropolitan Division standings.
With the Feb. 26 trade deadline looming, the Flyers have 14 games to help solidly their playoff position, which would give the general manager a little more clarity into the legitimacy of the team's current stretch of solid play.
Two years ago, when the Flyers advanced to the postseason in Dave Hakstol’s first year as head coach, Hextall was content riding with his current roster without making a single upgrade. You could even debate Hextall created addition by subtraction once he dealt Vinny Lecavalier and Luke Schenn to the Los Angeles Kings for Jordan Weal and a third-round pick, clearing roughly $8 million in cap space.
“I guess filling a hole and upgrading might be a little different,” Hextall said Wednesday. “I’m not going to say ‘no’ because we’re going to try and get better if we can get better.”
Which leads to a more pressing question.
What area(s) can the Flyers improve through a trade?
For depth purposes, the Flyers could use another defenseman, but so would every team and they don’t come cheap.
Personally, the Flyers need more flexibility at the forward position, in particular, at center. Sean Couturier has been a rock-solid No. 1 and Nolan Patrick is an emerging No. 2. Valtteri Filppula, who Hextall added at last season’s deadline, has proven to be a serviceable third-line center who plays reliably defensively and can easily adapt to the wing, but his lack of speed will become a factor in the playoffs.
If one of those three suffers an injury, then the Flyers would be forced to shuffle personnel to make up for the loss. Hakstol could move Claude Giroux back to the middle, but considering how well he’s played working in tandem with Couturier and now Travis Konecny, you'd prefer to keep Giroux at left wing.
Scott Laughton has the ability to contribute more minutes, but he’s settled into the role of a fourth-line center, who can also contribute on the penalty kill. Hakstol has even utilized Weal and Jori Lehtera at the center position at different times, but those moves are not ideal either. Weal has speed, Lehtera has size, preferably you would like a center who combines both attributes.
Hextall, and every other GM, knows you need two solid, reliable scoring lines. As well as Michael Raffl and Jakub Voracek have played, they could truly thrive with a center that brings more offensive upside.
Two years ago, when the Flyers battled the Capitals to a six-game series, their biggest downfall clearly was offensive production, having scored just six goals in six games, and never scoring more than two goals in any game of that series. The Flyers never had a chance in that series, as the Capitals were the deeper, more dominant team. Washington finished 24 points better than the Flyers in the standings.
This season is different. The Flyers are deeper and there’s considerably more parity, not just within the division but within the entire Eastern Conference. They’ve proven they can hang with the heavyweights by winning three straight games against the Capitals and Lightning. For the first time in the Hextall era, it’s a Flyers team that can not only make the playoffs but potentially win a series or two.
“Whether something is out there, I don’t know," Hextall said. "I feel like we have kids who can fill in if we have injuries or erratic play. Unless it was a nice upgrade at a reasonable price, I’m not going to trade a good young player at this point.”
Thankfully for Hextall, barring a rash of injuries to key players, the Flyers won’t need to offer up a talented prospect since they’re not in the market to add a marquee player or bonafide goal scorer, and unlike previous seasons, there appears to be a larger pool of prospective sellers, a list that includes the Sabres, Senators, Panthers, Canadiens, Red Wings, Coyotes, Canucks and Oilers.
According to SportsNet Canada’s Elliotte Friedman, Ottawa is already fielding calls on Jean-Gabriel Pageau (my preference would be Derick Brassard) and Minnesota has received inquiries into Charlie Coyle.
Still, Hextall doesn’t appear too convinced.
“If you look at the history of it, it’s not very good," Hextall said. "Name me a player, the big player the team got at the deadline and was a huge factor in them winning. It doesn’t happen very often. I don’t feel like we have to do that. Our big guys are our big guys and are playing well. Our kids are getting better.”