“I’m a big believer that this last series against Pittsburgh was a winnable one. We just needed everyone to play well. There’s a lot of good players on this roster and, I don’t care, I’m done talking about young or old, I think we got a lot of good players on this roster. It’s not just about two or three guys having to go out and play great.’’– Flyers coach Dave Hakstol, April 25.
“Four years ago, I sat here. I said our vision is to build a top contending team to win the Stanley Cup. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen overnight. If someone thinks we’re going to add three players, four players this summer that are going to make us the top team in the league, I don’t know where we’re going to get those players from, nor the cap space nor anything else. This is a bit of a slow process.’’– Flyers general manager Ron Hextall, April 25.
OK, so where are we? After Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov slid that overtime goal through the legs of Matt Murray on Monday to eliminate the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins – who had scored 28 goals in six games against the Flyers – where does that put the Flyers’ “process’’?
Hakstol believed the first round to be winnable and Hextall later doubled down with the observation that this latest Flyers version had “shot itself in the foot’’ – which an undermanned Capitals team underlined with its unlikely six-game victory over the flawed but favored Penguins.
But is that something for title-starved Flyers fans to celebrate? Or rue?
Consider that Phil Kessel and Derick Brassard, two proven playoff performers, registered a goal apiece in the 12 games the Pens played this postseason. Are they getting old? Kessel and Brassard are 30, and the former is coming off a season in which he notched 92 points.
Hey, you can always hope.
No, it doesn’t look like the Pens are going away any time soon. After losing some big pieces due to cap considerations last summer, they aren’t in danger of losing one significant piece this time around. Patric Hornqvist, their only potential unrestricted free agent, was signed to a five-year, $26.5 million deal in February. And there is enough room, especially with the anticipated expanded cap space increased from $75 million in 2017-18 to $80 million in 2018-19, to re-sign all five of their restricted free agents — Riley Sheahan, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, Dominik Simon and Jamie Oleksiak.
They have a two-time Cup-winning goaltender returning, a nice backup in Casey DeSmith, and some nice depth with touted prospect Tristan Jarry in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and about four NHL-ready forwards down there as well to fill in for injured starters. They could use some veteran blue-line help – who couldn’t? — but the assets listed above don’t exactly cash-strap their general manager Jim Rutherford.
And what about the Capitals? They were the team that was supposed to cascade down the standings this season, not finish atop them. That they beat Pittsburgh without three key regulars could be used as evidence that Hak and Hexy are right – the Pens were takeable. But it also could be read as an indictment of the Flyers’ core which, save Sean Couturier, didn’t exactly seize upon that perceived vulnerability the way Washington’s depleted core did.
Then again, as Jake Voracek pointed out on his way out the door, it’s hard to play your A-game while chasing the lead. Hak might be right – the Flyers might have enough players on this current roster to make noise. But until they find the kind of dependability in goal enjoyed by virtually every conference team that finished ahead of them, the coach’s “Do your job’’ mantra might not be enough.
And as Hextall made clear, juniors sensation Carter Hart is not the immediate solution to that dilemma.
The Caps are heavy underdogs in the upcoming Eastern Conference finals against Tampa Bay, a team with no apparent weaknesses, a team that won four straight from the 112-point Bruins after spotting them the first game of their semifinal series. The bulk of the Bruins’ stars will be 30 and older when next season begins. Patrice Bergeron is 32, but three rookies – defenseman Charlie McAvoy and forwards Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen — played prominent roles for them this year.
Which leads to this final thought about the Flyers’ future, expressed by their GM that day when asked if he was at all concerned about Father Time putting a monkey wrench into that slow process of his.
“As they get older, our younger players are gonna take a bigger piece of the pie, so they don’t have to produce at the level they’re producing at right now,’’ Hextall said. “If they slip a little bit, the younger guys are coming up and it all balances together. If you look at teams that win, they typically got their older group, and their middle group, and maybe a couple of young guys.’’
Those aren’t reassuring words if you’re one of those older guys.
Or someone who was hoping this team was past the halfway point of this slow process.