It’s an oft-recited adage: Nothing in sports is static. Things can get worse, or they can get better, but rarely if ever do they stay the same.
The Flyers will test that this season. Not because they didn’t make changes – eight players from last year’s opening night lineup are gone, as well as three others who saw significant action – including 25-goal scorer Brayden Schenn.
But the effect of those changes may not be measurable in the short run – i.e., the 2017-18 season.
The Flyers go into the season with:
Two or more rookie defensemen potentially making the opening night lineup, as well as two more defensemen with less than three full seasons of experience between them.
The distinct possibility that prospects Oskar Lindblom and Nolan Patrick will make the team and play significant roles.
A goaltending tandem that is, on paper, less impressive than the one that failed them a year ago.
Their captain coming off a 14-goal season in which he was affected by his most recent injuries in a disturbing history of them.
Given all that, this Flyers’ season looks as if it will be at least as volatile as the last one was. Especially early in the season, as third-year coach Dave Hakstol figures out how and where to fit in the new pieces, and as those pieces receive the unforgiving tutorial supplied by a division and conference still filled with wily veterans.
The offseason movement of such vets within and out of the Metropolitan Division, and the effect it has, will likely determine whether the Flyers are a skin-of-their teeth playoff team, as they were two seasons ago, or one ultimately undone by the measured youth movement – don’t call it a rebuilding — that general manager Ron Hextall began three seasons ago.
Both the Capitals and Penguins, the NHL’s two best teams of a year ago, lost key veterans because of salary cap considerations and the expansion draft. The Rangers lost offense and goalie depth, but added some valuable defensemen – most notably coveted free agent Kevin Shattenkirk. Columbus and its young, improving core traded picks to Chicago for power-play specialist Artemi Panarin, who had 17 goals and 24 assists with the man advantage over the last two seasons. Carolina and New Jersey, two teams that finished behind the Flyers, improved their chances of grabbing one of those last playoff spots via the draft and free agency.
Coming off a 70-point last-place finish, New Jersey doubled down. The Devils chose Nico Hischier first overall (over Nolan Patrick) and traded a pair of 2018 picks to Washington for 26-year-old Marcus Johansson. Washington’s consistently productive forward has two years left on a reasonably cap-friendly contract ($4.583 million per) and had a career season in 2016-17 with 24 goals and 34 assists in 82 games. He had at least 44 points in each of his last four seasons. Add in Taylor Hall, and the Devils are not likely to repeat their paltry goal total of a season ago (183). They did, however, suffer a blow with the recent news that top center Travis Zajac will miss four to six months because of an injury.
Carolina improved too with the acquisitions of Justin Williams, Scott Darling, Trevor van Riemsdyk, and Marcus Kruger, but that only puts them in the conversation for a last playoff spot. The Hurricanes also surrendered draft picks to improve immediately, in contrast to Hextall’s philosophy of stockpiling.
The Islanders appear immediately improved with the cap-influenced acquisition of 51-point, $6 million man Jordan Eberle from Edmonton, which came only after GM Garth Snow induced Vegas to trade for concussion-hobbled 33-year-old Mikhail Grabovski and his $5 million salary by including draft picks and money. The Isles also shipped out slumping defenseman Travis Hamonic and his $3.8 million cap hit to Calgary for a slew of future draft picks, including a first-rounder in 2018.
The Rangers lost valued two-way center Oscar Lindbergh to Las Vegas in the expansion draft and also packaged valued center Derek Stepan with backup goalie Antti Raanta in a deal that returned Arizona’s seventh overall 2017 draft pick and 21-year-old Anthony DeAngelo. An offensive-minded defenseman from Sewell, N.J., the 5-11 DeAngelo plays with an edge that has in the past put him at odds with teammates, officials, and ultimately the leagues he has played in. Originally a Tampa Bay prospect, he has been traded twice in the last two summers.
It’s hard to see how the Rangers became significantly better immediately with these moves, especially after adding free agent David Desharnais to fill the void left by Lindbergh’s departure. The 5-7 Desharnais, who collected 52 points for the Canadiens in 2012-13, mustered just 14 over 49 games last season playing for Montreal and Edmonton, adding four points (1-3) in 13 playoff games.
So it appears on the surface at least that the Rangers gained more production from the blue line in a swap for less up front, and both Shattenkirk and DeAngelo have been criticized for their defensive liabilities. They also lost Raanta as a reliable backup to 35-year-old Henrik Lundqvist, who has averaged 56 games played over the last three regular seasons and is coming off a knee injury suffered while playing for Sweden in the World Cup last spring.
Even if it leaves New York slightly improved from a season ago, the Shattenkirk signing came at the expense of the Capitals, who took a beating from the NHL’s hard salary cap, which increased from $73 million to $75 million this season.
Gone are valued veteran forwards Marcus Johansson (traded to New Jersey) and Justin Williams (free agent signed with Carolina), and three defenseman used in their latest postseason disappointment: Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner – a free agent signed by the Montreal Canadiens — and popular Nate Schmidt, plucked in the expansion draft by the Vegas Golden Knights.
As altered and younger as the Flyers will look, Washington will be hard-pressed to match its 118-point Presidents’ Cup season. When the teams first meet in the Flyers’ home opener Oct.14, there may even be momentary glimpses of the teams’ future encounters, as the Capitals attempt to replace those veterans with their own young players – forwards Jakub Vrana, 21, and Nathan Walker, 23, and defensemen Madison Bowey, 22, and Christian Djoos, 23.
Pittsburgh, too, will have to find replacements for a slew of key players, particularly gritty Nick Bonino, who signed a four-year free-agent deal with Nashville, and longtime team leader and assistant captain Chris Kunitz who, at 37, became the oldest player in NHL history to score an overtime goal in a Game 7 in the Pens’ 3-2 victory over Ottawa that allowed them to return to the Finals.
Like Washington, the Pens will try to fill their roles, and those of Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey, and Matt Cullen, with cap-friendlier players from their system. Like Washington, it is likely to pull them closer to the rest of the pack this season and beyond, as their remaining core adds another year of wear and tear.
That future is the one Ron Hextall envisioned when he undertook his rebuilding three years ago. Build your core from within, as those teams once did, skipping the quick-fix mentality that has so often sabotaged sustainability.
There have been glimpses of that vision, with the arrival of Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov and even Travis Konecny. For Lindblom, Patrick, and those young defensemen we have followed so closely in the minors over the last two seasons, this season will be an education for them, and for us. It may not lead to a playoff spot, but it should at least lead to a better idea of what this team can do in the future, when all the pieces have been sanded of their rough edges and put in place.