DeNicola's Dekes: So What Do We Do Now?

by Michael DeNicola

Thursday, May 01, 2014 --

We are back in a place we're all too familiar with; we've been ousted from the postseason dance, and now all we have are the offseason moves weighing on our minds. Some fans like to take a mental vacation from hockey once our Orange & Black hit the golf course. Not me; this is when I dig into my foxhole and really begin crunching numbers from my Armchair mountain. Hockey's a drug, and I'm the Rob Ford that can't get a fix. 

When we gaze backward to the 2013-14 season, it's tough not to give your head a shake. Coming out of the gates the way we did, I won't lie, I never thought we'd secure a Playoff berth. Neither did the majority. If you kept the faith and "knew we'd make a run" in October, congratulations, the Xanax kicked in hard.  

Another year, another Cupless season. When Lord Stanley isn't lifted in June, you question why. Your attention is focused on player personnel, and you wonder which position needs upgrading. We venture into this thought process, literally, every single year. Even the Cup champs. 

I'm going to drag a comb through this roster, and even front office, and see what I pick out. My knowledge of the upcoming Draft class is incredibly shallow, so I'll mainly be featuring my thoughts(suggestions) on contract extensions, trade transactions and free agency pickups. 

But first, Craig Berube, or "Chief" as he's come to be known in this city; is he the right man for the bench-boss position? Do we want to roll into next season with the man who replaced Laviolette three games into the 2013-14 campaign? Why, or why not?

Berube turned the ship around with a newer system. It was defensive-minded, and it took awhile for the players to really buy into it. Once everyone adjusted, we barreled hard through the schedule, punching together good chunks of wins that ultimately carried us into the Playoffs. 

I admire Chief, and I think he has done a hell of a job this season. None of that goes without regrettably saying that he's been out-coached more often than I cared to witness. I know he's a first-timer in his position, and there should always be a flexible margin for error in that case. But when I think of this team and compare them to squads like Boston, New York (R), or Chicago, coaching sticks out to me. I can't quite envision Craig Berube graduating to that class. I'm not saying we ought to relieve Chief of his coaching duties effective immediately, but at the same time, I am certainly suggesting that this front office give big fish like Barry Trotz and/or (fresh off his firing) John Tortorella some very serious consideration. 

I didn't want to spend too much time on our head coach, so I'm going to quickly transition to the immediate future; upcoming restricted and unrestricted free agents. 

Restricted Free Agents per the Flyers roster: Brayden Schenn, Jason Akeson, Tye McGinn, Erik Gustafsson and Cal Heeter.

Unrestricted Free Agents per the Flyers roster: Adam Hall, Steve Downie, Ray Emery, Kimmo Timonen and Hal Gill. 

For starters, I think it'd behoove the Flyers to table qualifying offers in front of each RFA, worth the absolute minimum allowed. This way if the Player agrees to the terms, you have an NHL asset for cheap. If the terms are denied by the Player, then our Club receives compensation from any outside organization that signs the Player to an offer sheet. If our terms are denied by the Player and he receives zero outside interest, then the Flyers could suspend the Player's eligibility for one full League Year.

With restricted status, the organization virtually has all the leverage. That's what makes RFA's so valuable to an NHL franchise. Which brings me to Brayden Schenn...

B. Schenn may have had one of the most boring 20-goal seasons I have ever seen. Chosen 5th Overall in the 2009 Entry Draft, the kid came to this city with a lot of expectation; especially since he is/was the nucleus in the return on Mike Richards (I think we all know now who the goods are). Fast-forward two-years later, Brayden has proven to be a streaky performer, and frankly I believe his hockey IQ is somewhere in the League's basement. From what I've gathered, Brayden is all reactionary and very little creativity. When you weigh these things against the role he fills (or is supposed to fill), which is a second-line centerman, it is surrounded by shortcomings. 

He's only 22-years old and (theoretically) has about five more years until he penetrates his prime. But when you look at the whole picture, names like Vincent Lecavalier, Sean Couturier and the up & coming Scott Laughton rush quickly to mind. This organization has operated on a particular model that focuses on depth and strength down the middle. It has certainly paid dividends. If or when Brayden hits his NHL stride, he'll likely do so by playing his natural position -- center. 

At this stage, on this team, all he's become is a project; constantly shuffled from the middle to the flank, back to the middle and then to the flank again. Note, not always to the fault of his own; we've seen our roster's journeyman, Vincent Lecavalier, drag the performance metrics of his linemates to the sea bottom. Vinny's big name, contract and ilk have given Berube no choice but to force him in & out of combinations all year long, never finding him a permanent home. When playing center, the left-wing on Brayden's line developed into a turnstile; Lecavalier, Raffl, Hartnell... it was like shuffling chairs on the Titanic. Yet no matter what, Schenn's possession numbers never grossed over an average that'd usually be associated with a top-two center. We saw flashes, but that's really all they were.

If this organization wishes to field a qualifying offer to Brayden and include him in the long-term model, I don't totally oppose. But that extension should be worth a modest cost, and come with even lower expectations. Or, at the very least, serve a similar purpose like Couturier's bridge-contract.

With that said, there's no doubt that Brayden is this organization's biggest bargaining chip, even without the existence of a SPC nailing him down. His restricted status is valuable, and there are teams willing to pay for that. So, if this Club truly has an interest in shopping Schenn, they can make good on return. Nothing outstanding, and certainly nothing that'd fill any one major need immediately, but it'd be a start. 

Fans who'd argue against this may be thinking that this would just be another "trading your core for win-now assets" type of move. In a sense, yes it is. But the grander picture isn't compartmentalized; there are assets in the system due for promotions, and others ready to absorb a higher NHL role. Brayden has had his chance to manufacture consistency. It isn't there. 

But to avoid backing myself into a corner, I want to visit a few reasons why Schenn is still a valuable piece to any NHL organization looking to bolster their center position.

As I mentioned before, he's 22-years old with three-years of NHL experience. He has restricted status for four more League Years. Add that to him being chosen 5th Overall, just four behind John Tavares, and ahead of current NHLers like Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Nazem Kadri, Ryan Ellis, Nick Leddy and Dmitri Kulikov. 

This past season, after averaging 15:44 of ice-time, Schenn's 41-points are bested by only four other forwards within a 15-second radius in TOI, and similar amount of games-played -- those four skaters are Jussi Jokinen (57pts), Derek Brassard (45pts), Brad Marchand (53pts), and Ales Hemsky (43pts).

Perhaps with some more ice time and opportunity to skate with a complete line, Schenn will one day string together a few 50-point seasons. These past two campaigns, he has been cut short of that mark, both tangibly and intangibly; this season's 41-points in 82-games versus last season's 45-point pace in 47-games (shortened by the work stoppage). 

I'll get to possible Brayden Schenn trade scenarios in a moment, but before I do, I want to finish my thoughts on the remainder of the RFA list --

Jason Akeson: the kid shined in the QuarterFinals. Until October, he'll be the last Flyer to score a competitive goal. Akeson might have had a couple bad plays early on in the New York series, but his highlights outweighed those negatives. And great timing, too, considering he's up for a contract extension. He should get one, as well as a starter's position on the Big Club's roster in 2014-15. He'll re-sign here, thank the organization for the opportunity, and continue blossoming from a bottom-six role.

...also, he's got a sweet ass. 

Yes, that's Akeson. Yes, that's his bare ass photobombing Streit's interview. 

Tye McGinn: if Tye's second tour of the season is any sign of who he is as a hockey player, then I think it's safe to assume McGinn is a borderline NHLer at best, possibly a career AHLer with scattered stints with the Big Club. Still, even those players are valuable. A team needs its depth, and lately we've seen why. Again, table a qualifying offer, absolute minimum allowance, wait for him to agree to terms and move on to the next name. Which is...

Erik Gustafsson: the "Gus Bus"! I'm not as in love with Erik as every other Flyers fan seems to be. He has huge ups, and ship-sinking downs. However, inconsistency is a trait among smaller, mobile, puck-moving defensemen. What they lack in their frame they makeup for with their possession skills and above-average speed. Gustafsson will never be a PK Subban or an Oliver Ekman-Larsson, but once again, depth is key. Especially when we're talking about a restricted free agent. Re-sign Gus to a Club-pleasing extension and expect him to be motivated at camp. 

Cal Heeter: With Mason's performance this season for the Flyers, and Anthony Stolarz's inevitable #1 start for the Phantoms in 2014-15, there doesn't seem to be much room for Cal in this system. If he has any trade value whatsoever, perhaps it's best for him and our organization to explore that channel. He has done fairly well in a defensively inept AHL, tending goal for one of the worst teams. But even so, I don't think the 25-year old is ready to be a NHL backup. If there's any team looking to tighten their farm's goal situation, I expect some bottom movement involving Heeter this summer. 

Now for the UFA's....

Adam Hall: this is difficult to speculate because fourth-line forwards are a dime a dozen. Hall is no different, and I mean that respectably. He knows his role, and plays it like a warrior; always 110%. Adam is a beast in the faceoff circle and does a good job on the penalty kill. Last summer, Holmgren managed to tie him down to a $600K contract extension, making it one of the best bang-for-buck contracts on our payroll. If he's up for signing at the same price again, I don't see how this team doesn't make it a slam dunk. If he wants a penny more, explore other options.

Steve Downie: I may be one of the few remaining advocates of Downie's. I know what type of player he is on the regular basis. He's nowhere near as incompetent as our fanbase made him out to be since the Talbot trade. On any given day, Downie is a grinder; he'll open space and get the puck to his two skilled linemates. Chances are bred from Steve's decision-making. However, he's had too many costly penalties in a small margin of time here, and he went on & off the IR routinely. It's best we let him walk into free agency. He'll catch on somewhere, and then next season he'll pot a fucking hat trick on us. It's science. 

Ray Emery: Razor played admirably, and we thank him for his service, but it's time to let that fish off the hook. Steve Mason is an acrobatic netminder; we ought to fill the backstop with another goalie whose mobility and lateral movement aren't such a nightmare. Ray's hips are visibly deteriorated, and his pipe-to-pipe movement is hindered by his physical ailment.... which really is a crying shame, because you can see he's got lots of fight in him left. 

Hal Gill: ......................................

Kimmo Timonen: hell, I could write an entire article on what Timonen's tenure in Philadelphia meant to Flyers fans. Forever and always, Kimmo's name will echo in our Flyers Hall of Fame. A permanent Philadelphia Flyer if there ever was one. Big question is, will he return to the NHL? My money says he'll retire, but if he really does decide to tack on one more season..... do we re-sign him? When I take a look at our salary cap, with all the contract extensions kicking in next League Year, I cannot fathom this organization re-signing Timonen to anything more than a $2 - 2.5M deal. Besides, would he make this team better? He's hit a drop-off, and you have to assume his game will continue plummeting over the summer with age. I can't see Timonen wearing our crest next season, whether that be because of retirement or otherwise. 

We love you Kimmo.

As for names on the farm and in our pipeline who have a legit shot at cracking the NHL roster....

Scott Laughton (C): a sensational season in the OHL, scoring 87-points in 54-games, Laughton is NHL-bound and ready to begin his career with the Flyers in 2014-15. We'll have to see how his new-found offensive game translates to this stage, but his two-way defensive style can no doubt secure a spot as our 4th line's centerman. Perhaps even a line higher, depending on which moves come to fruition this offseason. 

Robert Hägg (D): our 2nd round choice in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, Robert was a steal and he'll prove that fact throughout a very successful NHL career. I don't have many sources from within, but one friend of mine with some pull has told me that the Flyers consider Robert our best defensive prospect; not Gostisbehere, not Morin, not Alt. I've been touting this kid's name ever since Holmgren called it from the podium. The 19-year old comes on top, and I fully expect this kid to compete and win a spot on our blueline in camp. His skating ability and two-way game make him a dangerous weapon, and would quench that need among our defensive core. Hägg is more than capable of eating a lot of minutes, which seems to be a plus for this front office (re: MacDonald, Timonen, Coburn). 

Mark Alt (D): a right-handed defenseman with big size (6'5"), Mark Alt is coming off a season with the Phantoms scoring 26-points in 75-games. I've heard nothing but great things about this kid, and the feeling is... he's ready to make the NHL leap. If there are two NHL-ready defensemen within our system, they're Robert Hägg & Mark Alt. The two of them make blueliners like Grossmann and Luke Schenn expendable via trade (which I will get to eventually). To go along with his size, Alt's skating agility and speed are strengths of his, and weaknesses of ours. And best yet, he comes at a cap-friendly $781,667 AAV for the next two League Years. 

Petr Straka (RW): Straka's one of those left-handed forwards who makes his money at right-wing. The Czech skater racked 41-goals in the QMJHL in 2012-13, but had a difficult time producing at the AHL stage; just this past season with Adirondack, Petr lit a meager 9-lamps and tallied 27-points in 60-games. Still, his speed cannot be ignored, and he comes with a 200-pound 6'0" frame. He's got great hands in addition to powering himself in front of the net. If we decide to roll with four complete skill lines (aka, a Rinaldo-less fourth line), Straka would slot in nicely at Laughton, Hall, Lecavalier, or whoever's right-side. 

Close, but no cigar....

Shayne Gostisbehere (D): yea, I know, you're all pumped up about this kid and ready to see how that awesome NCAA skill of his translates to the NHL. The problem is... Shayne is 200-pounds with a fully grown male baboon sitting in his lap. Standing at only 5'11", the puck-moving prospect weighs in at a whopping 161-pounds. "Undersized" is an overstatement. Regardless whether his talent is ready to absorb NHL duties (which it isn't), it'd be worth filling out Ghost's frame and see how he handles a full season at the professional level in the AHL. There's no shame in that. His offensive skills will no doubt flourish at that level, and his defensive game will be tested. 

Editors Update: Since publishing this blog, I've received questions like, "Why do you consider Robert Hägg more NHL-ready at age 19, and not Shayne Gostisbehere at age 22?"

It's an outstanding question, really. One which I should have seen coming and addressed from the start. My answer is this: just this past season, Hägg played against men in the third-most competitive league in the entire world -- the Swedish Hockey League. This naturally gives him an advantage over any defensive prospect we currently have in our farm system and prospect pipeline. Shayne, on the otherhand, is smaller, and his greatest experience has been against NCAA competition. There's nothing wrong with that, but it does speak against his NHL-readiness when compared to a (soon-to-be teammate) player like Robert. 

Sam Morin (D): a damn man-child, Morin can be seen from Google Earth. What attracted our front office to Sam was his sheer size for only being 17-years old. We selected the 6'7" behemoth 13th Overall in the 2013 Entry Draft. At his age, the child weighs over 200-pounds. Imagine once that all fills out in a NHL weight room? Yea.... hockey chubby. Nevertheless, the kid's skill is rawer than diaper rash, but I still believe he'll turn heads at camp and give coaches reason to consider keeping him around for a 9-game regular season stint (similar to how Laughton started off before getting slid back to the OHL).

Taylor Leier (LW): in his last 126-games with the WHL Portland Winterhawks, Leier has scored 141-points. That may not be enough to drop some jaws, but in his last three seasons in the WHL, his goal totals have grown 67% between Year 1 and Year 3. His offense is really coming around, and our management is incredibly excited over this kid. But just like any young prospect, his development is contingent on wise adjustments. The NHL is an enormous leap for any young skater. Unless he rips the heavens down at camp, I don't see Leier cracking the roster in 2014-15. But after some battle-testing in the AHL, I suspect he'll be a force by the time we begin gearing up for 2015-16.

When you're talking trades, it's really tough to speculate the terms of the transaction. Sometimes players and/or Draft positions are overspent for. Other times we see players get dealt for organizational peanuts, like a mid-round pick or something. 

I love reading fans' trade proposals; "Hey! Luke Schenn sucks! We should package him with Laughton and get a top-two pairing defenseman!"

I can't recall reading that exact comment, but believe me, it's not far off. Most of the time, it's even worse. Fans believe that just because you bulk the quantity on our end, the opposing general manager is ready to pull the trigger. 

"Add Player X to sweeten the deal."

There is no sweetening any deal. No GM just takes on another contract, burning one of fifty roster spots just for the hell of it. Unless there's a rare salary dump occurring and the buyer is willing to take it all on (probably to reach the cap floor), both general managers expect to get equal value on return -- whether that's immediate value, or value through the long-term. 

Quantity does not (always) equal quality. 

At the moment, I am not expecting block bluster hockey trades on the Flyers' end. I believe our front office recognizes the future they have in this core, but that doesn't mean they aren't dismissing addition by subtraction.

Revisiting a possible Brayden Schenn trade scenario; remember, we're dealing his re-signing rights, so any team acquiring him would have to ultimately workout an extension. Though his RFA status is a tangible asset, the non-existence of a SPC lowers the trade value. It'd behoove our organization to include Brayden in a bigger package; whether the difference is made up of one more roster player (his brother, perhaps), an unproven prospect or two, and/or the inclusion of a Draft pick(s). 

One trade partner that comes to mind are the Vancouver Canucks. They're coming off a lousy season, just having fired Tortorella, they hired a new GM and they may be looking for a fresh start. They have a 28-year old, top-pairing blueliner in Alexander Edler who I'm extremely interested in acquiring. Perhaps it'd cost us both Schenn's, I'm not too sure. Trevor Linden is uncharted territory. Edler has a no-trade clause on his 6-year, $30-million contract, but it's worth prodding his interest and the 'Nucks to see if we could wiggle him outta British Columbia. 

Some bottom movement would include trading Nicklas Grossmann and a pick for a viable backup goaltender and possibly a mid-range defensive prospect. At the Draft, we could move Zac Rinaldo for a 4th round choice, opening opportunity for some of the younger forwards in the system to get a chance -- namely Petr Straka.

For those of you freaking out over dealing Rinaldo, no worries, he's got a clone climbing the ranks in our pipeline named Tyrell Goulbourne. Nicknamed "Ghoul", the 5'10" maniac just put together 37-points in 60-games with the WHL Kelowna Rockets this year. For comparisons sake, Rinaldo never had any more than 17-points in a single CHL season. So, basically Ghoul is everything Rinaldo is physically and psychotically, but he comes with tons more offensive upside (which doesn't mean much). He'll have a home with the Phantoms starting next season. 

So far, our blueline is shaping up to look something like:

Alexander Edler / Braydon Coburn

Mark Streit / Mark Alt

Robert Hägg / Andrew MacDonald

(Erik Gustafsson)

Others have entertained the idea of trading for Nashville Predator's captain, and arguably the NHL's best defenseman, Shea Weber. The cost would be somewhere in the realm of Brayden Schenn, Luke Schenn, Shayne Gostisbehere or Samuel Morin, Scott Laughton and one or two 1st Round pick(s).

That price is a lot to chew on. A year ago I shared my thoughts on the possibility of trading for Weber, and they're pretty much the same today. I don't think it can be done without taking a major punch to the books, as well as costing us three or four potential pieces. 

We also cannot forget to consider the contract extensions kicking in next season: 

Claude Giroux - $8.275mm, 8yrs
Sean Couturier - $1.75mm, 2yrs
Matt Read - $3.625mm, 3yrs
Michael Raffl - $1.1mm, 2yrs
Andrew MacDonald - $5mm, 6yrs
Steve Mason - $4.1mm, 3yrs

Throwing Weber's $7,857,143 cap hit into the mix is bold. 

But hey, if the Flyers really do wind up making an enormous splash this offseason by trading off a butt ton of assets for a truly elite #1 defenseman AND they remain financially & competitively compliant, then I'm all for it. However, I'm skeptical that it could be done practically. 

Moving along to free agency; one thing I had noticed throughout our season is that Giroux needs an undisputed top-line winger on his left. One whose scoring ability compliments Claude's playmaking prowess. A pure goal-scorer, if you will. It's clear that Giroux has outgrown Hartnell, and if we're going to get more dangerous, we must strengthen our most dangerous weapon even more. 

Taking a gander at the UFA pool, I see these names: Thomas Vanek, Jussi Jokinen, Matt Moulson, Jarome Iginla and Mike Cammalleri. Obviously when you're talking Vanek, you're talking $2 - 3 million more per season than the rest of those players. Although, if Vanek could be had for $7mm AAV, he'd be a harmonious piece to that top combination. 

Another player like Jokinen could pocket 25 - 35 goals skating next to Giroux, and come at a third of what'd it cost for Vanek. It's not as dangerous a combo, but Jussi could make it happen. 

Cammalleri has the agility, the speed, and a goal-scoring touch to boost the top line's points total.

Moulson's no flash, and it's unclear whether he tests free agency or re-signs with Minnesota, but his net presence draws attention from his linemates and could ultimately open more room for a guy like Voracek; if we could just get Jakub to play more selfishly. Space created by Moulson could generate opportunity for two skaters like Giroux and Jake. 

And Iginla, in his veteran age, hasn't shown signs of slowing down. We'll just have to wait and see how things pan out for him in Boston, who, currently, stand as Stanley Cup favorites this postseason. 

Imagine the forward lines looking like:

Vanek / Giroux / Voracek

Hartnell / Lecavalier / Simmonds

Read / Couturier / Akeson

Raffl / Laughton / Straka

Four complete lines, each laced with a sense of two-way play, scoring ability, backchecking, forechecking... and it's all perfectly capable of happening if our management turns its interests towards speed, finesse, and offensive hockey. 

Time for a change upstairs?

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