Flyers take a step back, but pipeline is promising

Flyers prospects like Robert Hagg will get valuable postseason experience in the AHL playoffs.

G eneral manager Ron Hextall would rather be deep in the first round of the Stanley Cup tournament with the Flyers, hoping they could build off last year's playoff appearance against Washington.

Instead, he's preparing for the NHL draft, deciding on which players he will protect in the expansion draft that will stock the Vegas Golden Knights, and keeping close tabs on his franchise's top farm team, Lehigh Valley, as the Phantoms compete in the AHL playoffs.

But it must be extra painful as he watches a rookie-laden team such as Toronto gain invaluable postseason experience.

With stronger performances from some of his veterans, Hextall realizes, it could be the Flyers, not the Maple Leafs, climbing a rung toward relevancy.

"We're all disappointed," Hextall said last week. "We made the playoffs last year, and it was a step in the right direction, and we took a step back this year."

While the big-league team regressed, the Phantoms tied for the second-best record in the 30-team AHL. Yes, the Phantoms used some past-their-prime players such as Colin McDonald, Andy Miele, and Chris Conner as they made a 26-point improvement from last season, but they also developed many youngsters who inched closer to the Big Show.

In his three years as general manager, Hextall has not done well in the free-agent market, and his trades have had mixed results.

But he and his staff have excelled in the draft, and the farm system has received a major upgrade.

That's imperative because if the Flyers want to someday get to the level of the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins - whose elite farm system doesn't get nearly as much credit as it deserves - they must continue having productive drafts and keep sending top-notch prospects to the big-league team.

The pipeline has gotten much better in recent years. Shayne Gostisbehere arrived last season, and Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny this season. Those three were draft picks, while Jordan Weal, another promising young player, advanced from the Phantoms after being acquired from Los Angeles.

This spring, Hextall is looking for the Phantoms, particularly the young ones, to benefit from what he hopes is a long playoff run, starting with their opening-round matchup against talented Hershey.

"You're looking for the kids to play big at the right time of the year," Hextall said. "This is what you play for all year, and it's the biggest stage they've been on all year, so it's another good test."

Hextall said the heated matchup against Hershey "is the best viewing we should get on these kids to see where they're at."

The Phantoms, who have 12 Flyers draft picks on their roster, opened the playoffs with losses Friday and Saturday at the PPL Center in Allentown.

Most of Lehigh Valley's blue-chip prospects are on a defense that includes Sam Morin, Travis Sanheim, Robert Hagg, and the recently added Phil Myers. At some point next season, it wouldn't be surprising if three of them were playing at the Wells Fargo Center.

There are many other intriguing prospects, including goaltenders Alex Lyon and Carter Hart.

Some scouts think Hart and Felix Sandstrom are the Flyers' goalies of the future, but Lyon and Anthony Stolarz, who is injured, are also highly regarded.

Lyon, 24, had a solid rookie season after being signed as a free agent out of Yale. But he injured his right left Saturday night, and his status is unknown. Because Stolarz spent lots of time with the Flyers this season, Lyon played more games than expected.

"It was a totally interesting, bizarre, roller-coaster of a year," Lyon, who overcame a rocky beginning and finished the regular season with a 27-14-5 record, a 2.74 goals-against average, and a .912 save percentage, said before the playoffs began. "I feel it's been a good test for me as an individual and I've definitely grown."

Coming from defensive-minded Yale, Lyon wasn't accustomed to opponents' getting as many quality scoring chances as in the much-faster and much more competitive AHL.

"It's tough going from a year where you give up 1.50 goals a game, but that's the adjustment I knew I was going to have to make," Lyon said. "It's been difficult, but it's been a learning and a growing process."

Lyon was accustomed to being a starter, but he had to share duties when Stolarz was around.

"It was a very valuable tool to put in your tool belt," he said of learning to coexist with Stolarz. "If I'm going to make it to the next level, I realize they're not going to hand the keys to Alex Lyon and say, 'Here, you go.' I'm going to have to earn my spot and work my way up."

Hart is with the Phantoms after starring for Everett Silvertips in the Western Hockey League and compiling a league-best 1.99 goals-against average. He is not expected to see action in the AHL playoffs, but is practicing with the team and getting the feel of pro hockey. His day will come.

"Great things take time," he said.

Because of his young age, Hart will not be AHL-eligible in 2017-18 until his junior season ends. He either will go back to Everett or join the Flyers.

Hart, who won't turn 19 until Aug. 13, doesn't lack for confidence.

"My goal is to push hard and make it to the big club" next season, he said. He acknowledged it's unlikely to happen, "but if you don't set goals like that, you're selling yourself short."

Hextall called Hart "technically sound," and said playing for Team Canada in the World Juniors was an "enormous experience for him in terms of his development, so we're real happy where Carter is at. He can go back [to Everett], and they didn't win this year, so there will be more for him to accomplish."

The Flyers have waited many decades for a dominating goalie, so what's another few years?