Offseason Game Plan: Philadelphia Flyers
Over the next couple of months, I will be taking a closer look at each of the Eastern Conference teams to show what their current status is and where their offseason focus lies. Knowing a team’s strategy should provide extra assistance in any offseason trading or keeper decisions. This week I’ll take a look at the Ottawa Senators.
As a reference, I’ll add each of the teams I’ve covered here at the top in case you’d like to look at some of the other game plans.
The cap space above (taken from capgeek.com) consists of 13 forwards, eight defensemen, and two goaltenders. Of the forwards, Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell, and Ruslan Fedotenko carry no-trade clauses, and Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier, Eric Wellwood, and Zac Rinaldo all have two-way contracts. On defense, Kimmo Timonen, Chris Pronger, Braydon Coburn, Luke Schenn, and Nicklas Grosmann all have some form of a no-trade clause, and nobody has a two-way contract.
Up front, the Flyers’ top line last year consisted of Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, and Jaromir Jagr. With Jagr’s departure, the most likely replacement is Jakub Voracek, a guy who finished third on the Flyers in postseason scoring, with 10 points in 11 games. Danny Briere will center the second line and his most likely linemates will be two of Brayden Schenn, Matt Read, and Wayne Simmonds. The third line will still be a strong one, featuring Couturier and Fedotenko, leaving a fourth line to consist of Max Talbot, Wellwood, Rinaldo, and Shelley.
Philadelphia has consistently been a team with a deep offense, and this year will be no different. Giroux will be put to the test without Jagr, but Voracek is a speedy replacement on the verge of a breakout. Briere has had issues finding chemistry with younger linemates in the past, but when he does find that right combination, he can be a dominating fantasy asset. With these two centers in place combined with the depth at wing, almost all of the top-nine will be fantasy relevant. One thing to keep an eye on with an offense like this is injuries. If any of the top-six members are out for an extended period of time, the replacement will see an immediate value spike. It can also open the door for the third line to elevate their game if either of the top two lines are struggling, and since both Giroux and Briere will enter the season with at least one new linemate, the chemistry may be off. If that turns out to be the case, Couturier could be a sleeper to steal some ice time and turn the Flyers into a true three-scoring line team.
In terms of players in the system who may be ready to make the jump, the Flyers have Jason Akeson, Ben Holmstrom, Harry Zolnierczyk, and Matt Ford. Of the prospects, Ford is the oldest (he’ll turn 28 in October) and a seasoned AHL veteran, and after scoring a point-per-game in 31 contests, he might be one of the first to get a call up. Like his younger counterparts Zolnierczyk (24) and Holmstrom (25), Ford doesn’t carry much fantasy value. Holmstrom and Zolnierczyk both saw NHL action last season though and might get a cup of coffee here of there as a fill in. Of this bunch, the only one with fantasy upside is Akeson, who two years ago scored 108 points in the OHL as an overager. In his first season as a professional, Akeson scored a team-leading 55 points in 76 games on a team that failed to make the playoffs. Although he didn’t have much talent around him, Akeson still managed to notch 41 assists, top among all AHL rookies. He is only 5-10, 190 lbs., but he is extremely talented who could turn a few heads if given the chance.
While the Flyers do have Nick Cousins under contract, he is not expected to make the team, but is instead expected to return to the OHL. Additionally, Flyers’ 2012 first-round selection Scott Laughton has impressed in the Flyers’ rookie camp, and appears to have a chance at making the team if he can continue his strong play. At this point however, he does not have an entry-level contract.
On defense, the Flyers are preparing to begin the season without captain Chris Pronger, who has been plagued by severe post-concussion syndrome effects, leaving some to question whether he will ever play again. If Pronger is unable to play for at least the upcoming season, the Flyers will add close to $5M in cap space, and based on their offers this summer, GM Paul Holmgren won’t be afraid to use it. Without Pronger, the Flyers top-four defensemen will include Timonen, Coburn, Meszaros, and Luke Schenn, leaving the bottom pairing to be a combination of two of Grossmann, Bruno Gervais, and Andreas Lilja. While Timonen is undoubtedly the top defenseman, he is an assist-heavy blueliner who does not have an intimidating point shot. This is one area the Flyers have missed with Pronger being out, and they have tried finding a replacement (see Pavel Kubina), but ultimately one of the existing crop will have to step up. The need for someone internal to step up becomes especially crucial now that Matt Carle is also out of town, so look for a big jump forward from one of Meszaros, Coburn, or Schenn. If none of them can take their game to that next level, expect the Flyers to make a move.
In terms of players in the system ready to make the jump to the NHL level, the Flyers have Erik Gustafsson, Brandon Manning, and Blake Kessel. Gustafsson is the most NHL ready of the group, and he plays a similar game to Kimmo Timonen, in that he is a smart, quick shorter defenseman who is also assist-heavy. Gustafsson had a strong career in the NCAA before going pro, and after splitting time in the NHL and AHL last season in addition to getting a cup of coffee the year before, now is the time for him to truly establish himself as an NHL defenseman. It won’t be easy with the depth the Flyers have added in front of him, but if anyone can do it from this group, it’s him. Manning is next in line, but with only one professional season under his belt, he could use some more seasoning in addition to adding some weight to his 6-1 frame. Kessel signed with Philadelphia as a free agent last summer, and his first year as a professional could have gone better. Luckily for him, most of the team could repeat that statement. The talent is there, but the consistency has not quite been there for Kessel. The good news is that as the team improves, it is possible that Kessel will improve as well, possibly leading to a cup of coffee or two.
In goal, Sergei Bobrovsky’s exit means less competition for Ilya Bryzgalov. The result should be a more focused and confident starting goaltender who will almost certainly perform better than last year. Without a backup in place, it appears that Michael Leighton returns from exile to assume the number-two role behind Bryzgalov. While Leighton’s value has certainly fallen, it has been only two years since he took this Flyers team to within two wins of the Stanley Cup, and despite Adirondack’s subpar season, Leighton beat out Johan Backlund and Jason Bacashihua to solidify himself as the starter, posting a 2.58 GAA and 0.918 save percentage in 56 games. He won’t be given the opportunity to become a starting goalie again unless Bryzgalov suffers a significant injury, but if you are looking for a backup goalie to produce when he gets in net (similar to Martin Biron), Leighton may be your guy.
In terms of goalies that might be ready to make the jump, the Flyers don’t really have anyone who has been tested and proven ready to make the jump. Adirondack will feature Niko Hovinen and Cal Heeter, two promising goaltenders with zero North American professional experience. Hovinen has been playing in the SM-liiga and is projected to be the starter in Adirondack. Last season he posted a 2.26 GAA and 0.920 save percentage in 41 games. Heeter on the other hand is coming fresh out of the NCAA as an undrafted free agent and has a ton of confidence. That confidence will make for an interesting dynamic in Adirondack, but whoever comes out on top, it is unlikely that either will be trusted to suit up for the Flyers this year. If one of Leighton or Bryzgalov is out of the lineup for an extended period of time, expect Holmgren to look at bringing in a backup with experience.
Biggest holes to fill: Heavy shot from the point, goaltending depth behind Bryzgalov
Priorities: The top priority for the Flyers is Chris Pronger. Unfortunately, that isn’t something anyone can rush. The only thing Holmgren can do is prepare for the year without him, but if he were to miraculously return, this team would instantly be a much stronger squad. Unsure about the timing of a potential return, Holmgren has to decide if he wants a long-term replacement or a short one, but looking at the offer that was given to Weber, it appears they are looking for a long-term replacement.
The next priority is one that will not be addressed until at least training camp, if not longer, and it is the backup goaltending. The Flyers want to see how their existing crop can handle the pressure and workload before adding any additional pieces. If it turns out they have a need to fill, there are plenty of goalies on the market with varying degrees of upside.
Overall, the Flyers could take a bit of a hit this season with the departures of Jagr and Carle and the likely continued loss of Pronger, but they are still a very strong team. The offense will once again need to receive production from their emerging youth, which has been a recurring theme annually since the lockout. While it might look like the Flyers are running too thin in areas where they used to have depth, in reality they are cutting down internal competition for key minutes and setting up their existing players to raise their level of play. This is especially true for their defense and the goaltending. The end result will be continued strong play from their top performers combined with a handful of emerging fantasy options.
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