September 3, 2018 | 11:20am ET
By Anthony Di Marco, The Fourth Period

HEXTALL, FLYERS READY TO TAKE NEXT STEP

 
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Ron Hextall, Flyers GM

 
 

MONTREAL, QC -- It has been a long four years. Four years since Ron Hextall took over as the General Manager of the Philadelphia Flyers. A lot has gone on since his inauguration. Waving goodbye to seasoned veterans like Scott Hartnell, Mark Streit and Kimmo Timonen. Restocking the prospect cupboard with promising young talent in Ivan Provorov, Carter Hart, Travis Konecny and Nolan Patrick via the draft may have been the highlight. It has been a long road over the last number of years, and not all of it has been enjoyable. 
But the time is finally here, Philadelphia.

When the Flyers inked former team member and Free Agent forward James van Riemsdyk to a five-year, $35 million contract on July 1, it was a clear sign that times were changing in the Flyers’ front office. Up until then, the biggest free agent signing Hextall had landed was Dale Weise in 2016 on a four-year, $9.4 million deal (which has been anything but rewarding). Hextall stuck to his philosophy, building from within and staying the course. Acquiring draft picks and going by the “addition by subtraction” motto, Hextall steered clear from making a “splash” via trade or free agency.

Signing van Riemsdyk is a clear indication the Flyers are poised to take the next step in the team’s development. Signing a 28-year-old free agent to a contract worth north of $30 million is not typically done unless the team is confident in its direction. Adding JVR to the mix relays that Hextall is confident that the Flyers are on the verge of contention, and after years of suffering, he may have reason to believe this.

The Flyers have made the playoffs in two of the last three seasons, but last year’s campaign was one that truly portrayed where the organization was at. The club’s stars in Claude Giroux (102 points), Jakub Voracek (85 points) and Sean Couturier (76 points) all had remarkable seasons, proving they could continue to be the team’s core.

The team’s top two defensemen in Provorov (41 points) and Shayne Gostisbehere (65 points) each had career, break-out seasons. Together, the duo formed a stellar top pair for the Flyers that carried an otherwise mediocre defensive group.

The youth was sprinkled in throughout the lineup from the season’s beginning. Former first round picks Patrick (30 points) and Travis Konecny (47 points) both shot up the club’s depth chart, each finishing in the top six come the playoffs (while the latter became a staple on the top line down the stretch). Young rearguards Travis Sanheim and Robert Hagg each had their stays in the starting lineup, experiencing some early season success along with some expected growing pains.

Between the pipes, the ongoing search for stability continues. Brian Elliott (2.66 GAA, .909 save percentage) and Michal Neuvirth (2.6 GAA, .915 save percentage) both performed adequately given their expectations, but a combination of health and instability ultimately did them in.

So where does this leave the Flyers heading into the 2018-19 season?

The injection of youth onto the roster will continue, without fail. Oskar Lindlbom, who finished the year with the Flyers, is expected to land a full time spot with the club in the bottom-six. NCAA standout Mike Vecchione, who had 40 points in the AHL last season, will have an opportunity to crack the roster as a depth centre man. Morgan Frost, the team’s 2017 first round pick, looks poised to make a push, as the forward finished second in OHL scoring this past season, notching an eye popping 112 points in 67 games. 

With veteran forwards Valtterri Filppula and Matt Read both being let go through free agency, along with Weise, Jori Lehtera and Jordan Weal having their roster spots anything but guaranteed, there are forward positions for the taking.

Defensively, Phillippe Myers, who is a much needed right-hand shot defenseman, will have a prime opportunity to insert himself into the equation on the main roster. With the club moving on from free agent defenseman Brandon Manning and the injury suffered to Sam Morin, Myers will have all the opportunities he wants, along with the aforementioned Sanheim and Hagg (RFA). Free agent signing Christian Folin will add some internal competition, but he is expected to be no more than a six/seven option on the back end.

The Flyers could look to add a depth centre through free agency. Antoine Vermette and Mark Letestu could be attractive “cap friendly” options, as both seemingly fit the bill as the perfect “third-line” centre role. Vermette’s penalty killing expertise in particular may be enough to entice Hextall to field a professional try-out at the very least. With the team being already so young, it could be wise to add some experience up the middle.

In goal, it will be more of the same, for now. 

Hart will be turning pro, and although the sky is the limit as far as his potential goes, all indications point to him spending the season in the AHL. With Alex Lyon performing remarkably in the Calder Cup playoffs, he may look to push out one of Neuvirth or Elliott for a full time NHL job. Given Head Coach Dave Hakstol’s reliance on Elliott throughout the season, his spot seems all but safe. Neuvirth, who has ongoing injury problems each and every season, would likely be the one to lose his job should Lyon impress in training camp.

As it stands, the Flyers are a club on the brink of contention with some holes left to fill. The team has proven superstars in Giroux and Voracek, along with a solid nucleus of Couturier, van Riemsdyk and Wayne Simmonds. With numerous young players in Konecny, Provorov, Patrick and Gostisbehere on a collision course with NHL stardom, the Flyers continued progression seems imminent. The club’s goaltending and defensive depth still leaves something to be desired, but has the potential to be solidified through in house talent. The Flyers have all the pieces in place, now it’s just a waiting game.

Hextall said at the end of the season that the status quo is no longer acceptable, and that it’s time for the team to start winning. After four long rebuilding seasons, it seems as though Hextall will no longer be looking just to the future; the present is just as important. The time is here for the Flyers to start succeeding, and after six years without a playoff series win, it is long overdue for the Orange and Black.

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Anthony Di Marco is the NHL Correspondent for The Fourth Period.
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