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Let's get one thing straight right off the bat here: “Making the playoffs” is an unreasonable goal for the Philadelphia Flyers. Yeah, they're on a nice little run here, with points from 11 of their last 13 games, but the way they're doing it is basically the textbook definition of unsustainable.
Of those 13 games, six have gone to overtime or a shootout, and it's tough to rely on getting that kind of thing over the course of any considerable length of time. They're also winning despite giving up a whole lot of goals — 34 over that stretch — despite the fact that this portion of their schedule hasn't been all that difficult (Buffalo thrice, Columbus twice, Arizona and Toronto once each, etc.).
But a lot of these points have also come with Steve Mason out of the lineup. Now, I'm still not ready to say Mason has transformed himself from a subpar goaltender to what he's been so far in Philadelphia — I don't weigh the most recent 100-something games (.922) more heavily than the previous 230-something (.903), regardless — but certainly he provides a better option than Ray Emery, who entered last night at .890 on the season. And the issue for the Flyers is that they probably have to put up with or, more accurately, suffer with Emery for most of these next two weeks as Mason recovers from arthroscopic surgery. The team is already six points out of a playoff spot, and would have to hurdle Florida and Boston (both with a game in hand) to get there.
And here's the problem: Since Mason went on the IR, the Flyers have won just once — against Buffalo, which, who cares? — and with another five games before the end of February, not getting results from them is likely to put a dagger in the heart of their playoff hopes. Especially if the Bruins get their heads on straight, though that's obviously not guaranteed. Not that this is a team which especially deserves to make the playoffs. They have 59 points from 58 games, which is pretty awful overall, they're a negative possession team that really hasn't suffered any kind of bad luck or anything like that. Winning became very difficult once Jake Voracek stopped scoring at his insane rate. We don't have a lot of evidence that he has the capability to return to that form either.
They're just, y'know, not that good. Slightly below average in the Eastern Conference, which in turn is a little more than slightly below the league average. We all knew that, though. If we were being honest with ourselves.
And what's interesting about that knowledge is that this hasn't stopped Ron Hextall from ignoring what is increasingly obvious: He has a rotten core that needs to be gutted. Instead, Hextall is largely doubling down on this issue, with all but a handful of regulars this season slated to come back for another go next year, and many beyond that mark.
In 2016-17, the Flyers will have Claude Giroux, Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, and Steve Mason under contract, yes. But also R.J. Umberger, Vinny Lecavalier, Matt Read, Mark Streit, Andrew MacDonald, and Nick Schultz. He'll also be very likely to re-sign pending RFAs Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn, neither of whom has really lived up to the promise of their early days in the league.
This, for better or worse (worse. it's worse. worse by a lot.) is the core of your Flyers going forward. And that's if Hextall doesn't keep re-signing the team's mediocre-at-best veterans. Take the Nick Schultz extension signed earlier this week. Why do you give Schultz two more years? You hear the word “consistent” a lot to describe his play and some people say he's been the Flyers' best defenseman this year in a lot of ways. I don't know how that can possibly be true for a guy who's not Braydon Coburn (positive possession, tough assignments) but Schultz plays the most difficult competition the team can find for him and so, yes, he gets buried — sixth out of seven Flyers D to get at least 500 minutes this season in possession — but clearly Hextall's thinking is that he can't just let the player walk.
So instead, he invests two years and $2.25 million per in a defenseman who he can likely replace for just about half that price in terms of both years and dollars, though this is a bargain by “guys the Flyers value for some reason” standards. But it does speak to the Flyers' biggest problem by far: They're paying Streit, MacDonald, Coburn, Luke Schenn, Nicklas Grossmann, and Nick Schultz a combined $23.6 million against the cap next season (and right now, not including Chris Pronger's LTIR-ed cap hit, they and Mike Del Zotto and Carlo Colaiacovo make up more than 37 percent of the Flyers' expenditures). That's six guys making a shade under $4 million apiece, on average, and basically all of them stink. That's not “They're on a bad possession team so their numbers are bad”-stink either. That's “basically their entire careers are testaments to general managers overvaluing things that do not make hockey players successful”-stink.
What this effectively does, I guess, is continue to make the Philadelphia neutral zone a breezed-through foyer in which opposing forwards can count on the ability to enter the attacking zone with possession and thus do more to threaten Mason and whoever happens to be the backup next season (because you'd hope it's not Emery). With the exception of Coburn — who by the way they're now saying might get shipped out to make room for a prospect or something — I'm not sure anyone on this super-expensive Flyers defense is much better than replacement level, so why any sort of commitment?
And look, a lot of these decisions aren't on Hextall. He only came aboard as assistant GM in July 2013, and at that point Streit, Schenn and Coburn had already been re-upped to their current deals (though Streit was like two weeks before Hextall came aboard), ill-advised though they were. But that at least partially still leaves him holding the bag for the other half of this awful defense, which still costs $10 million. And he gave up assets to acquire MacDonald, who's been a vortex of garbage for basically his entire career, then re-signed him. He signed this extension. Grossmann was re-upped while he was there. He re-signed Schultz.
This little run the Flyers went on creates two problems: 1) It makes them think they're better than they are, so while they're not buyers at the deadline (wisely enough) they're also not sellers, and they are instead re-signing guys who can be replaced more cheaply and with better players. 2) We don't have a clear idea of whether Hextall actually sees the game in a way that's going to be conducive to wins for the club on an ongoing basis.
For a club badly in need of a more or less complete rebuild (barring a few valuable pieces), the Flyers sure are sticking by the bad players, systems, and philosophies that got them into this mess in the first place. And even if they do by some miracle make the playoffs this season, what does that really accomplish except delaying the inevitable roster purge that should have come by now but is more likely to arrive over the next two or three years?
So far, all indications are to the contrary, and really the only nice thing you can say about him is that at least he's showing a little more restraint than Paul Holmgren. Which isn't saying much at all. And the team is still in the same position. How is that really progress?
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