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."

Eric Lindros' drastic rule change would make hockey safer, but is it too extreme?

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Eric Lindros' drastic rule change would make hockey safer, but is it too extreme?

The NFL's new helmet rule has caused confusion and frustration in the preseason.

Routine tackles in the past have been flagged, and players, media members and fans have voiced their concerns with what exactly will be a legal tackle come the regular season.

Enough with football. Could something like this come to hockey?

If Flyers legend Eric Lindros had his way, it would, and it would go a bit further too.

Lindros said last week at See The Light, a concussion conference at Western University in London, Ontario, that he would be in favor of eliminating body contact altogether.

Via the National Post:

“Let’s get right to it. You talk about me playing. I love hockey, and I continue playing hockey. But it’s funny — the hockey I was playing all those years was really physical, and I have just as much fun [these days], but we don’t run into one another. We’re still having as much fun, the same enjoyment of it. We know concussions are down in a league without contact.”

Lindros clarified his position on Twitter, saying that he believes clean body contact still has a place in professional hockey.

Let’s unpack Lindros’ suggested rule change because there is a lot there for the hockey traditionalists to chew on. I’m sure we’ll see some in the comments section below.

Removing body contact from hockey would be a fundamental adjustment to a game that has a culture of being a tough, physical sport where hockey players notoriously play through injuries.

Hockey players have a reputation of being warriors, and they get celebrated for it. Heck, Ivan Provorov played Game 6 vs. Pittsburgh with a Grade 3 AC separation that requires eight weeks to heal. Wayne Simmonds played the entire year with more injuries than he could remember.

The toughness hockey players display on a nightly basis is admirable, but it’s also sometimes stupid. When it comes to concussions and head injuries, it’s especially dumb.

But removing body contact altogether seems extreme. If contact remains in the sport at higher levels and pro leagues, then proper body contact should be stressed in youth hockey. Perhaps limitations on contact would make sense. It's not a totally crazy idea for young players.

The point, though, shouldn’t be lost. Concussions remain a serious issue and the NHL isn’t doing enough to address it. The league won’t even admit there’s a correlation. That’s a problem.

On Friday, the same day as Lindros’ suggested rule change, the NHLPA contributed a joint donation of $3.125 million toward concussion and brain injury research.

Lindros is one of several former hockey players who have been vocal about concussions and hockey, and understandably so. Concussions are very much part of Lindros’ legacy.

There are other ways to address concussions and the sport. It begins by admitting there is a link between CTE and hockey. The NHL has taken steps in protecting its players, but it can do more.

Headshots are penalized more seriously, but there remains inconsistency in the how NHL’s Department of Player Safety governs. That’s another area that should be addressed: more consistency.

The International Ice Hockey Federation, which oversees the Olympics, European leagues and international tournaments, penalize all hits to the head. That would be an enormous step.

Let’s not get sidetracked by Lindros’ idea of removing body contact from hockey. Instead, let’s stay on the NHL to continue to do better in protecting its employees from serious brain injuries.

After all, NHL players do have families to go home to after work and lives to live after their playing days are over.

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Why Wayne Simmonds could come out stronger than ever for Flyers

Why Wayne Simmonds could come out stronger than ever for Flyers

Wayne Simmonds had just finished describing the season from hell.

He was the Flyers' 2017-18 version of the walking wounded, fighting so many injuries that he lost track running them off in late April.

At the time, no one would have blamed Simmonds for lacking some aplomb. Sitting at his end-of-the-season press conference, Simmonds was destined for surgery to address a tear in his pelvic area while coming off a stability-shaken year that produced his fewest goals (24) and points (46) over a full campaign since 2010-11.

Then again, it takes a lot to knock down a player like Simmonds.

This wasn't going to do it.

When asked if he believed he would be fully healthy for 2018-19, Simmonds responded with a resounding confidence.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "One hundred percent, no doubt."

Simmonds, a driven athlete, might have the most fuel he's ever had in a Flyers uniform. There are motivational factors flying at him from every angle and would you expect anything different than Simmonds embracing them all with open arms?

"When you're as dedicated as Wayne is and you put in the effort, the time, the preparation on a daily basis and get better every year, that's what we all should strive to do," Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said in March 2017. "I think Simmer is an example for everybody to get better every year."

What exactly is the motivation this year?

Everything.

For starters, Simmonds is about to step foot into a contract year, unless his representation and Hextall agree on an extension beforehand. That very well could happen, but the Flyers may want to see Simmonds prove his health and production. Not only would that serve as reassurance on the soon-to-be 30-year-old, it also could help with trade value, if the Flyers decide to contemplate that route.

"If it has to go into next year, we're comfortable with that," Hextall said July 1.

Such a scenario wouldn't be a terrible idea for Simmonds. A loud and fast start to 2018-19 would provide him leverage in what he'll ultimately receive from the Flyers or elsewhere.

So, many eyes will be watching Simmonds' production. From where it comes will be one of the more intriguing storylines throughout.

With the Flyers, Simmonds has built himself into an elite power-play producer. Since the 2011-12 season, his first in orange and black, Simmonds owns 86 man-advantage goals, second in the NHL to only Alex Ovechkin with 131.

Which made it hard to believe when Simmonds lost grip of his first-unit net-front role down the stretch last season. The power forward went down from Feb. 20 to March 4 with a torn ligament in his thumb, opening the door for 19-year-old rookie Nolan Patrick, who impressed with his savvy and skill around the blue paint.

Patrick netted three power-play goals during Simmonds' seven-game absence and never lost his spot the rest of the way. He led the Flyers with five markers on the man advantage over the final 23 regular-season games and dished out this beauty of an assist.

Simmonds, a team-first guy who was never healthy, took it in stride.

"I've played in this league a long time and I think you come to realize as a player if you're not at your top, you're probably not going to be getting probably what you usually should," he said after the season. "I know that's what maybe went down at the end, there's not really much I can say about that. If I was 100 percent, then I think there might be some annoyance, but I wasn't 100 percent and I understand the situation that we're in, the position that we're in, we were fighting for the playoffs. 

"While I got hurt there, Patty got put on the first power-play unit and scored two goals the first [two games], so what am I going to argue with? The kid's a heck of a hockey player and he earned it, he definitely earned it, and there's not much I can say. Just going to go out there once I got back and do what I can to help the team."

None of this is to suggest Simmonds won't regain his post on the power play. When healthy, there aren't many better at it, but the competition is clear with the rise of Patrick and the addition of James van Riemsdyk, a net-front guy himself.

Even before JVR jumped back into the picture, Simmonds saw his ice time dip. He played 15:13 during the Flyers' last six regular-season games and just 14:36 in six postseason contests. Simmonds simply wasn't himself. As a result, he was relegated to a third-line slot and may see the same in 2018-19 now that the Flyers are deeper.

"He can play every way," Hextall said about Simmonds when the Flyers inked van Riemsdyk on Day 1 of free agency. "He's net front on the power play, he's a physical player, forechecker, straight-line, go-to-the-net-with-your-stick-on-the-ice guy. Simmer can play up top or certainly down your lineup."

No matter where he plays, Simmonds will be motivated, maybe even a little ticked off.

That's a scary thought.

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