Sean Couturier

Could this be a troubling sign for Flyers?

Could this be a troubling sign for Flyers?

Jakub Voracek listed off the things that many ponder about these equivocal Flyers.

He was running down all the positive developments to the team's 2017-18 season.

For one, Voracek himself had a career year (65 assists, 85 points). So did Claude Giroux (34 goals, 68 assists, 102 points) and Sean Couturier (31 goals, 45 assists, 76 points). Shayne Gostisbehere did the same (52 assists, 65 points), while Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov made significant leaps in Year 2. Even an injury-ravaged Wayne Simmonds managed 24 goals.

Yet, here the Flyers were, needing all 82 regular-season games to clinch a playoff berth before losing another first-round series that felt more lopsided than even. The Flyers were outscored by the Penguins, 28-15, while dropping all three games at home by a combined tally of 18-6.

Then again, they were able to push the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions to six games and would have forced a Game 7 had they held a 4-2 second-period lead. Konecny felt the Flyers had Pittsburgh "exposed." Brian Elliott was convinced they were winning the series after that two-goal advantage.

But, really, how close were they?

"It seems like we were really far," Couturier said two weeks ago at the Flyers' end-of-the-season press conferences. "They dominated us, but at the same time, I feel we were that close to beating them. Maybe it's funny to say, but if we capitalized on a few chances earlier in games, if we're a little more disciplined, then they don't take over and it's a tight series."

From a personal standpoint, so much went right for the Flyers during the regular season. Still, this offseason, they're left in the same position they've been in since 2012-13: no playoffs or a first-round defeat.

"Even if we didn't have a great playoffs, we basically almost pushed the Stanley Cup champions into a Game 7," Voracek said.

"We've got to win at least a playoff series next year. But a lot of bright futures, lot of guys that had great years and hopefully we're not that far off."

Which is a phrase the Flyers have reiterated at past clean-out days. And it's hard to blame them. The players are supposed to believe general manager Ron Hextall's plan is moving forward and nearing greater accomplishments.

In 2017-18, the problem certainly wasn't the core pieces, at least not during the regular season. 

What might be the biggest issues?

Many say it's the goaltending. Some may think it's the coaching. Or maybe the Flyers are just a year away from the youth finally meeting the core in perfect harmony.

"Now we have young players coming up and making a difference," Giroux said. "You look at our team and we have a good balance of older and younger guys. I'm not sure what the plan is coming September, but if we have the same team in the locker room, we're going to be pretty happy about that."

However, what's worrisome is the Flyers' mainstays (and even some of the kids) were significantly productive across the board but the end result remained the same.

So, sure, there are plenty of questions.

With more cap space, should the Flyers add in free agency? How much different will the defense look? Which prospects are next? Will the goaltending tandem hold up?

But these ones should go near the top of the list: can the big boys do it all again and will it even be enough?

Flyers' young foundation yearning for long-term relationship

AP Images

Flyers' young foundation yearning for long-term relationship

Travis Konecny had just finished up his sophomore season and had a few days to process how it came to an end, bitterly against the Penguins in his first taste of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Konecny leaped from an immature rookie to an established scorer. He built onto his reputation as a chirper, and his personality screams bloody murder on the ice.

Two weeks ago, at his end-of-the-season news conference, Konecny didn’t let losing his voice impede that charisma from rising when asked about Nolan Patrick wanting to improve his shot.

“Yeah, he needs that,” Konecny quipped.

Now 21 years old, Konecny is one of the Flyers’ many young building blocks, along with the 19-year-old Patrick (see story). The Flyers are getting younger. Their average age in 2017-18 was 25.92, which was their youngest since the 2008-09 season (25.55), and the expectation is that they’ll get even younger next season. They haven’t had back-to-back seasons with an average age below 26 since a five-year period from 1990-95.

It’s hard to ignore, and the Flyers know it. Konency sees a young nucleus building. He came into the league with Ivan Provorov, who, at 21, is already among the league’s first-class defensemen. The current core knows what’s coming, and while some outside noise howls for the Flyers to break it up, GM Ron Hextall doesn't appear to have any plans on doing that.

Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds and Sean Couturier have been together since 2011-12. Giroux’s time as a Flyer spans back further. From a Flyers historical perspective, keeping a core together for this long without sustained playoff success is unprecedented.

“It’s funny because I see these relationships that these guys have,” Konecny said. “All those guys who have been around, talking about when they were rooming together way back. You see how close they are. They have that long relationship that they’ve built. I think it’s exciting for us. All the young guys get along here. We’ve all got stories with each other.”

While the Flyers’ playoff struggles under this core have continued, the core is still producing. At 30, Giroux posted the Flyers’ first 100-point season since 1995-96. Voracek, 28, set a career high with 85 points. Couturier finally broke down the walls with a 31-goal, 76-point year. Simmonds, despite playing through major injuries, still scored 24 goals.

As Konecny and Patrick prepare for a larger slice of the pie, there will be others stepping in too. Think Oskar Lindblom, who gained valuable experience in 21 games this season, and perhaps any of the forward prospects who graduate to the NHL.

“We all know what’s going on in junior,” Voracek said, “in AHL, the farm team. For us, the older players, which is weird for me to say, it’s a good thing. You need to be pushed sometimes.”

The Flyers are in a transition phase, and Hextall made it a point to declare that they’re not passing the torch from the core to the kids but it’s balancing experience and youth. Hextall pointed to the Sharks a few seasons ago when they made the Stanley Cup Final with Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton in their mid-30s.

“It’s all about those older players as they get older, our younger players are gonna take a bigger piece of the pie,” Hextall said. “If you look at teams that win, they typically got their older group and their middle group, and maybe a couple of young guys. That’s the way we’re going.”

Konecny wasn’t done poking at Patrick. With the heckle about Patrick’s shot behind him, Konecny told a story about how he turned Valtteri Filppula’s jeers against him onto Patrick.

“Fil says a lot of stuff to me,” Konecny said. “Like, ‘Oh, in my second year, I never would have done this.’ I say that stuff to Patty. ‘Oh, last year, I never would have done that.’ I’ll still do it next year.”

And so the Flyers’ next long-term relationship begins.

Sean Couturier becomes model citizen for Flyers' process

Sean Couturier becomes model citizen for Flyers' process

The breakout season didn't even feel over yet.

Sean Couturier's arrival had reached a new apex just three days prior when he amazed the Wells Fargo Center with superhuman effort.

But at his end-of-the-season press conference last week, Couturier, only 25 years old, found himself talking about leadership.

Because, well, with production comes leadership.

That's just natural in sports. When a player performs, others tend to look up.

"I try to lead in any way I can. More by example, I should say," Couturier said. "I'm not really the guy who's going to yell or talk often. I try to lead by example. Maybe show the new guys, I should say young guys, how the game should be played. Play it out by example."

From the overhead view, Couturier is an example of much more — a model of what the Flyers are hoping to accomplish and a true representation of Ron Hextall's plan.

While the general manager fights to supplement his team's core, it's really all about the Flyers' younger players taking a "bigger piece of the pie," as Hextall put it.

After six seasons, Couturier's sliver finally turned into a bigger piece.

And he ate plenty.

"I wanted to have a bigger role offensively," Couturier said. "I've scored in juniors. I was drafted as a high pick, offensive guy. I've always been solid defensively. Try to play a solid 200-feet game out there. That doesn't change, but offensively, I wanted to step forward and prove to everyone that I can produce in this league."

With a first-line center role, first-unit power-play time and greater responsibility across the board, Couturier blew past his previous career highs by posting 31 goals, 45 assists and a plus-34 rating. In fact, going back to March 4 of last season, a stretch of 101 games, Couturier's plus-52 mark was best in the NHL.

Not a bad example for the likes of Travis Konecny, Nolan Patrick, Oskar Lindblom, to name a few. Sooner rather than later, the Flyers will need those players to take the eventual (or next) jump.

"There are a lot of good players on this roster and, I don't care, I'm done talking about young or old — I think we've got a lot of good players on this roster," Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. "It's not just about two or three guys having to go out and play great. … I think we have enough depth and enough good players that that core is continuing to grow."

Compared to the Flyers' current youth, Couturier's timeline was a bit different. The 2011 first-round pick was a part of the team's early-to-mid-20s nucleus when it came together his draft year. He's still a part of it but uniquely blended with the up-and-coming kids, as well.

"I think we grew as a group this year," Couturier said. "We took some strides. All these young guys, they've got a lot of talent, lot of potential, bright futures. It's definitely exciting to be a part of this group. Hopefully we can have great success for a long time."

Couturier has set the example. He just needed more pie like the rest.