Flyers' priority should be defense

Posted: May 02, 2014

BARELY 24 HOURS have passed since the Flyers' official time of death occurred at 9:44 p.m. on Wednesday night in New York. The corpse is still warm; the wounds are still fresh.

Yet, even after just a day after a first-round exit with a long summer of pondering ahead, the most glaring fact from the seven-game series remains the most startling: the Flyers' best defenseman was . . . drumroll, please . . . Luke Schenn.

That is not a knock on Schenn, one of the hardest-working Flyers. He was calm, consistent and played better in bigger moments down the stretch than he did through most of the first 50 games of the regular season.

It's just that, well, the Flyers had the highest-priced defense in the NHL.

The Flyers' defense - and not their much bandied-about offense - was the difference in their death struggle with New York. Steve Mason and Ray Emery went above and beyond, stopping far more than should have been required.

Wednesday's Game 7 second period was proof; no one would have faulted Mason if it was 6-0 by the time the buzzer sounded. Scoring chances, in a do-or-die game, were handed out like candy.

When you remove blocked shots, the Flyers gave up 4.4 percent more attempts on net than they produced in the first round. If that doesn't sound like much, two out of the only three teams with a worse percentage (Colorado and Tampa Bay) were also ousted.

And now, the Flyers anxiously await word of Kimmo Timonen's future. Timonen was the Flyers' anchor on the blue line again this season. He won a bronze medal with Finland in Sochi. He saved some of his best hockey of the season, impressively enough, for after the Olympics.

But he will turn 40 next season. His lack of footspeed, obvious against a quicker New York team, was saved only by his hockey sense and positional awareness.

Timonen earned $6 million this year. The little Finnish warrior has banked north of $54 million in his career and now needs to decide whether 1 more year is worth 1 more year missing his children grow up.

Was Wednesday Timonen's last NHL game?

"I hope not," coach Craig Berube said. "He's still a good player . . . He gave everything he had."

Berube hopes not because he knows the Flyers do not currently have the player to replace Timonen on the depth chart. Timonen was not a No. 1 defenseman, but an All-Star caliber No. 2 during his time in Philadelphia.

Judging by the contracts Paul Holmgren handed out recently, including $30 million to Andrew MacDonald last month and $21 million to Mark Streit last summer, the Flyers had a sense Timonen might not be back.

One thing is for certain: If Timonen wants to return, the Flyers will surely take him, but it will have to be for less money. If that is a sticking point, he can retire or go play for his first agent, Jarmo Kekalainen, the general manager in Columbus.

For a so-called team coming of age, this summer needs to be one of transition for the Flyers. Even if Timonen is back, he cannot be their best option. The Flyers have to be willing to give ice time to younger, faster, cheaper players - particularly ones on entry-level deals like NHL-ready Shayne Gostisbehere - to hasten the transition period.

Frankly, the players to help usher the transition haven't exactly panned out. Streit was strong for the second half of the season, earning his money, but he turns 37 next season.

MacDonald, 27, struggled mightily against New York, making many wonder why the Flyers rushed to sign him to his massive deal on the eve of the playoffs. He made $550,000 each of the last three seasons. If offered the same deal today, would he not have taken it? After this last series, the offer would not have been as high.

And what to do with Braydon Coburn? This series was everything that is frustrating about him: tremendous in Game 4; an absolute liability in Games 5-6-7. His play is borderline bipolar, plainly obvious when his physical gifts are neutered by his lack of confidence.

Chris Pronger will never play again. Nashville matched to keep Shea Weber - and the contract the Flyers ultimately drew up for him ironically will prevent the Predators from trading him after paying $39 million up front on a $110 million deal.

Holmgren has swung and missed. Now, with no other No. 1's readily available, the Flyers need to grow their own. It is possible to do so without completely bottoming out. Bowing out in the first round with a clear transition path in place would be so much easier to take.

5 big questions for the offseason

* Will Ron Hextall be poached? The Flyers’ assistant general manager could be the target of quite a few openings in the NHL this summer, including Washington or even Vancouver. Capitals GM George McPhee was fired this week after 17 years on the job. Hextall, who turns 50 tomorrow, rejoined the Flyers last summer to take the same position he held in Los Angeles under Dean Lombardi. He has long been mentioned as a possibility for a big-time GM job.

* What to do with Brayden Schenn? Once labeled by Paul Holmgren as an “untouchable” on the trade market, Schenn had an underwhelming playoff run after an up-and-down season. Schenn, 22, netted career-highs in goals (20), assists (21) and points (41) during the regular season, but no goals in seven playoff games. The Flyers need more out of their second-line center. He’s comfortable playing with older brother Luke in Philadelphia, but he’s a restricted free agent and could help deliver defensive help in a deal.

* Which young guns are ready? If Kimmo Timonen heads to greener pastures, a spot likely will open up on the blue line for one of recent picks Shayne Gostisbehere, Robert Hagg or Samuel Morin. It appears Morin has a ways to go to be NHL ready, but Gostisbehere, already 21, has been ultra-impressive and plays the exact style the Flyers desperately desire.

* Does Vinny Lecavalier still fit? Lecavalier, 34, collected just 37 points in 69 games with the Flyers in his first year not in a Lightning uniform. In perspective, he had 32 points in 39 games with Tampa Bay last season. He was demoted to the fourth line again in the playoffs and his play was so off that it made you wonder if he was completely healthy. Next year is just the second of a 5-year, $22.5 million deal with a full no-movement clause, so he will be back. But he could be a serious drain on the salary cap.

* Who will be the big splash? The Flyers have at least one or two every summer. Last summer, it was Lecavalier and Mark Streit. The free-agent market isn’t all that promising, with some older but big names like defenseman Dan Boyle available. That usually means, though, a trade could be in order.

Pending free agents

UNRESTRICTED

Player Pos. Age

Steve Downie RW 27

Ray Emery G 31

Hal Gill D 39

Adam Hall C 33

Kimmo Timonen D 39

Chris VandeVelde C 27

PHANTOMS Pos. Age

Yann Denis G 32

Bruno Gervais D 29

Ben Holmstrom C 27

Kris Newbury C 32

Unrestricted free agents may re-sign with the Flyers or hit the open market on July 1.

RESTRICTED

Player Pos. Age

Jason Akeson RW 23

Erik Gustafsson D 25

Tye McGinn LW 23

Brayden Schenn C 22

PHANTOMS Pos. Age

Tyler Brown LW 24

Marc-Andre Bourdon D 24

Cullen Eddy D 25

Kyle Flanagan C 25

Cal Heeter G 25

Tyler Hostetter D 23

Brandon Manning D 23

The Flyers must extend qualifying offers to retain negotiating rights of restricted free agents.


On Twitter: @DNFlyers

Blog: ph.ly/FrequentFlyers

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