It can be a challenge to find an honest and forthcoming man in a pro sports locker room, but Jake Voracek comes closer to qualifying than most. The Flyers have missed the playoffs three times in five years and haven't won a postseason series since 2012, so during their getaway day at the SkateZone last week, someone asked Voracek the question that cuts to the heart of a critical offseason for general manager Ron Hextall and, really, the entire franchise. Claude Giroux, Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn: Can these players be the nucleus of a team that wins consistently?
Voracek waited several seconds before answering.
"I think so, yeah," he finally said. "There's no reason not to believe in ourselves."
With that, he dispensed with the platitudes and got real.
"It's tough to tell you something else," Voracek said. "We have, what, won one series, vs. Pittsburgh, in six years, right? If I'm not mistaken. It's not good enough. We're in our prime years. We've got to make sure that we step up our game and get this team to the playoffs and start winning some series, because if we don't, it's going to get broken up."
Hextall did his best to brush off Voracek's comments. "Jake is a hockey player," Hextall told reporters. "Jake should play hockey." But Jake also touched on the truth about the difficult nature of Hextall's mission this summer.
After these last three seasons, in which the Flyers missed the playoffs twice and found themselves overmatched in a six-game series against the Washington Capitals, it has become harder to argue that there's more excellence to be extracted from that core group of forwards. Giroux is 29, his production having declined steadily over the last four years. In August, Simmonds will turn 29; Voracek, 28. If the Flyers are committed to assimilating more of their young prospects into the lineup next season, one has to wonder whether these three players in particular can provide the quality of play necessary for the team to compete, eventually, for a Stanley Cup.
"Every one of our players has to prove themselves next year," Hextall said. "Will it stay together? I don't know. If we'd have won a couple rounds of playoffs there's obviously a better chance of them staying together. Does that mean it's not going to stay together? I don't know what's going to come our way. Am I happy with the team? No. I'm not. How can you be, right? We missed the playoffs and, again, we were capable. I don't know one way or the other whether there's going to be change."
Whatever changes Hextall might implement, they're unlikely to involve either Giroux or Voracek. That's not a matter of trusting that a few months of rest is all Giroux needs to become the dynamic forward he once was, or that Voracek is bound to repeat or surpass the career-high 81 points he put up in 2014-15. It's a matter of pure dollars and cents in a salary-cap age.
Giroux signed an eight-year, $66.2 million contract, with a no-movement clause, in July 2013. Voracek signed an eight-year, $66 million extension two years later; his contract doesn't have a no-movement clause, but the deal's average cap hit of $8.25 million is prohibitive enough. (Giroux and Voracek were the 11th- and 13th-highest-paid players in the NHL last season. Among the comparable-to-superior forwards who came cheaper: Phil Kessel, Vladimir Tarasenko, Nicklas Backstrom. The first lesson of salary-cap general management: If you're going to pay someone as if he's a superstar, you had better be absolutely certain he will play and produce like a superstar.)
Would it be impossible to trade Giroux or Voracek? No, but it would be pretty darned close. It's a safe bet that they're going to be here a good long while, and if the organization is able to develop other forwards who can supplant them as the team's top scorers - Travis Konecny? Oskar Lindblom? German Rubtsov? - then Giroux and Voracek can grow old gracefully. At the moment, though, that's a rather big if.
Then there's the question of just how patient Hextall is willing to be. If he wants to effect a faster turnaround, he can use one or more of the Flyers' defensive and goaltending prospects as trade bait. But if he were reluctant to give up any of those ascendant players, if he were really willing to wait as long as it took to rebuild the roster, wouldn't he have to consider trading Simmonds, Couturier and/or Schenn to get even younger, to kick the can farther down the road?
It might sound blasphemous to suggest that the Flyers should part with Simmonds, but the very attributes that make him so beloved here - his leadership, his toughness, his scoring touch - would make him an attractive trade commodity. More important, he is signed just through 2019 at an annual cap hit of less than $4 million, which makes him less expensive than either Couturier (through 2022 at $4.3 million per) or Schenn (through 2020 at $5.125 million per).
The Flyers don't have to trade him, but they probably have to think about it. That's just facing the reality of the situation. That's just being honest.