Ron Hextall has made a handful of fantastic moves so far this summer. Over the past few weeks, the Philadelphia Flyers have been able to shed salary and gain some phenomenal prospects.
Here is a brief recap:
1. Drafting Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny in the first round of the Draft was a steal. By some accounts, Provorov and Konecny are now the Flyers top prospects in their respective positions.
2. Trading Nicklas Grossmann and Chris Pronger for Sam Gagner and a conditional draft pick was a stroke of genius. Not only did the Flyers shed some seemingly useless salary, but they gained a useful player in Sam Gagner and a future draft pick.
3. Then, as the grand cherry on top, Hextall was able to rid the Flyers of Zac Rinaldo. An acceptable return for a player of Rinaldo’s caliber is something like “future considerations” or a conditional seventh round pick. However, Hextall was able to get a third round pick out of the Boston Bruins.
Despite all of these moves, the Flyers may not be in a much better position within their own division. Although the Flyers have made improvements for both the short and long-term, there are a few teams within the division who have greatly improved themselves for next season.
Under the current playoff format, a team cannot make the playoffs if they do not finish in the top five in their division (the Flyers finished sixth last season). The top three teams are guaranteed a playoff birth, and then the next two best teams in the Conference are wildcards. Therefore, it is possible for five teams from the same division to make the playoffs.
Let’s take a look at the five teams that finished ahead of the Flyers last season:
1. New York Rangers
The Rangers have made very few changes this offseason. They will lose Martin St. Louis to free agency and they traded away Cam Talbot and Carl Hagelin. The additions of Emerson Etem and Viktor Stalberg, the natural progression of young players like Kevin Hayes, and having Keith Yandle for the full season should be enough to keep the Rangers near the top of the division.
They may not have drastically improved, and it is even possible that they will slightly fall, but the Rangers were far better than the Flyers last season. There is little chance that the short term changes by the Flyers will be enough to catch a team like New York.
2. Washington Capitals
The Capitals finished second in the Metropolitan Division last season. So far this offseason they have lost Joel Ward, Eric Fehr, Mike Green, and Troy Brouwer. However, they have replaced those players with the likes of TJ Oshie and Justin Williams. They will likely be a better team when all is said and done.
The Capitals have a fantastic blueline, even without Mike Green. They will be led by John Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Matt Niskanen. Braden Holtby seems to have cemented himself as a quality NHL goaltender and the Capitals forwards will be far more skilled than they were a year ago.
A top six that includes the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, TJ Oshie, and Justin Williams will be one of the most skilled and lethal groups in the NHL. The Capitals look ready to be Stanley Cup contenders next season.
3. New York Islanders
The Islanders had a breakout season last year. Although they will be bringing back much of the same roster, top prospects like Ryan Pulock, Michael Dal Colle, and Josh Ho-Sang could push those players for roster spots.
With a tight core of John Tavares, Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, and Ryan Strome in tact, the Islanders will be a good team for years to come. Grabbing Matthew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier in the 2015 NHL Draft was a coup for this up and coming team.
The Islanders improvements have not been huge in the short term, but they should be just as good next year as they were last year, and that still may be better than the Flyers.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins
This may be one of the most obvious teams on the list. Despite the fact that the Flyers seem to have the Penguins number in head to head match ups, the Penguins continue to finish higher than the Flyers in the standings year in and year out.
Long-term, the Penguins are in poor shape. They have given away a lot of top draft picks and prospects so that they can be competitive for the next few seasons.
With that said, they are set up well for next season. With the return of Olli Maatta and the emergence of Derrick Pouliot, the blueline will be formidable.
The real kicker is the Penguins forward corps. Sidney Crosby is obviously elite. Phil Kessel will compliment Evegeni Malkin (or potentially Crosby) very nicely. Then forwards like David Perron, Patrick Hornqvist, Chris Kunitz, and Sergei Plotnikov can be freed up to terrorize opponents.
What has killed the Penguins over the past few years has been injury troubles. If the Penguins can stay healthy, they will be able to utilize their killer line up.
The Penguins may have long-term salary cap issues to deal with relatively soon, but their outlook for the 2015-2016 season still looks very bright.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets
Only one year removed from their second playoff birth, the 2014-2015 season was somewhat of a disappointment for the Columbus Blue Jackets. However, with the addition of Brandon Saad, the Blue Jackets have sent a clear message to the rest of the division: They plan to contend.
Sure, they have issues on the back end. However, if Ryan Murray can stay healthy, the Blue Jackets should be able to count on him to begin to show signs of being an elite defenseman.
Like the Penguins, he Blue Jackets boast a fantastic core of forwards. At the NHL level they will have Scott Hartnell, Brandon Saad, Ryan Johansen, and Nick Foligno to lead the way. Meanwhile, youngsters like Alex Wennberg and Kerby Rychel should continue to improve. Prospects like Sonny Milano and Oliver Bjorkstrand could make the 2015-2016 team, but whether they do or not, they will help keep the Blue Jackets competitive for years to come.
The Flyers expect to make the playoffs next season, as they always do. I trust that Dave Hakstol will bring quality changes to the organization and that the Flyers will look better than last season. Even so, they face a tough road.
No facts listed above of this should detract from the Flyers outlook into the future. They have a top notch set of defense prospects and an underrated group of forward prospects. As has been noted, teams like NYR, Washington, and Pittsburgh do not have the same prospect depth as the Flyers.
The Islanders and Blue Jackets both seem well set up to compete with the Flyers for years to come (and it would be wise not to sleep on the Carolina Hurricanes or New Jersey Devils either).
Ultimately, practicing patience can be tough. As difficult as it was to watch the playoffs this past season without the Flyers, it would not be the end of the world if they missed the post season again next season. The Flyers have a very bright future ahead, but there could still be some bumps along the way.