With their goaltending and defensive flaws on display throughout the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, the Flyers showed just how far they have to go to become a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Never was that more evident than Sunday, when they blew a 4-2 lead and were eliminated by the two-time-defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins, 8-5, at the Wells Fargo Center.
But the Flyers made strides from last year, finishing 10 points better and earning a playoff berth despite an early 10-game losing streak.
They may not be on the Penguins’ level, but they appear headed in the right direction, especially since their farm system is among the league’s best.
“We took a big step forward this year,” right winger Wayne Simmonds said in the frustrated Flyers’ locker room. “We had a lot of young pieces this year and I think everyone developed as the year went on. This team definitely has a bright future.”
After they ended their 10-game skid, the Flyers were tied for the league’s fifth-best record (75 points in 56 games) from Dec. 4 until the end of the regular season. That probably means coach Dave Hakstol will return.
Young players such as Nolan Patrick, Travis Konecny, Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, Robert Hagg, Oskar Lindblom, and Alex Lyon were contributors at various parts of the season.
“It’s tough right now to see positives,” center Sean Couturier, 25, said after a herculean five-point performance Sunday. “It’s a young group. We grew and we matured with the way we play. We will become stronger.”
Patrick, 19, improved dramatically in the second half of the season and was a strong performer in the six-game series against the Penguins.
“I thought Patty was one of our best player in the playoffs,” forward Scott Laughton said.
Hakstol said people want young players to develop on a “smooth path and smooth climb. It doesn’t work that way. It’s kind of a jagged climb. As long as you’re seeing a steady push to improve, then you stick with it and keep pushing in that direction.”
The series against the Penguins showcased the Flyers’ deficiencies. Their goaltending was weak, although Brian Elliott was trying to come back from core-muscle surgery and wasn’t himself, and their defense was shoddy.
General manager Ron Hextall, who will have a significant amount of cap space in the offseason, may try to add another veteran goalie and another veteran defenseman this summer. And a third-line center may be on his shopping list if he wants to compete with the Penguins and their up-the-middle strength.
The Flyers will look much different next season. Lots of decisions will have to be made because Val Filppula ($5 million cap hit this season), Matt Read ($3.625 million), Brandon Manning ($975,000), and Johnny Oduya ($1 million) are unrestricted free agents. It wouldn’t be surprising if none of them are back. In addition, Jori Lehtera ($4.7 million) might be bought out.
Goalies Petr Mrazek ($2 million), Lyon ($874,000), and Anthony Stolarz ($725,000) are restricted free agents. Of that group, Mrazek almost definitely won’t receive a qualifying offer. With goalie-of-the-future Carter Hart headed to the Phantoms next season, it will be interesting to see if Stolarz, whom the Flyers protected in the expansion draft last year, and Lyon both remain with the organization. They probably will if the Flyers deal the injury-prone Michal Neuvirth.
Several players from the Phantoms will try to make the team in camp, and mammoth defenseman Sam Morin, who was injured most of this season, is the leading candidate to win a spot.
Jake Voracek and Simmonds, wingers who combined for 44 regular-season goals, were goalless in the series. Simmonds implied he played injured. “You guys will find out later,” he said. … Sidney Crosby had a goal and two assists Sunday and finished the series with six goals, 13 points, and a plus-7 rating. … Couturier led the Flyers with five goals (in five games) and nine points in the series. … Jake Guentzel’s four goals Sunday were scored consecutively. His four-goal game was the fourth against the Flyers in the playoffs in franchise history. The last was by Mario Lemieux, who scored five goals in a 1989 playoff game against the Flyers. … Hakstol said he considered going with seven defensemen and dressing Sanheim because Provorov wasn’t very healthy, but he decided he needed 12 forwards because of injuries among that group.