Last season, when one looked at the Philadelphia Flyers roster and their salary cap issues there were four names that stuck out: Andrew MacDonald, Nicklas Grossmann, RJ Umberger, and Vincent Lecavalier.
However, so far in 2015-16 the Flyers have played two games without either player in the lineup. Their record? 2-0-0.
Yes, I know it is a small sample size. Yes, I know that the Flyers were the beneficiaries of fantastic goaltending during both games. And yes, I am aware that RJ Umberger looked much better during his two games in 2015-16 than he ever did last season.
But the point still stands: Having those players out of the lineup is addition by subtraction. If the Flyers continue to make smart personnel moves this season, they could be much better than expected.
At the end of Flyers training camp and at the beginning of the season, much was made about the Flyers lack of roster turnover. When the Flyers began the season, the only player who dressed for the team that did not suit up for them last year was Evgeni Medvedev. Newcomers like Radko Gudas and Sam Gagner were both scratched opening night.
With 19 of 23 players returning to the Flyers organization from the year before, there were certainly questions about how the Flyers would fare. If these players were not good enough to make the playoffs last year, what makes the Flyers organization think that this group can succeed this year?
The answer is not in any of the players that the Flyers added, although Medvedev and Michal Neuvirth have proven to be solid additions. The answer is in the fact that the Flyers were willing to trade away players like Grossmann and Zac Rinaldo, they are willing to scratch Vincent Lecavalier, and they are willing to keep Andrew MacDonald in the AHL.
In retrospect, the Flyers roster from 2014-15 does not look terrible. It looks like a roster of decent players, with a few “anchors” weighing them down. Now that those anchors have been removed, we are beginning to see why Ron Hextall did not allow for massive roster turnover.
What made it so necessary for the Flyers to rid themselves of certain players? It would be easy to point out their advanced stats, which are unequivocally bad. However, there are even more common sense reasons why each players needed to be off of the ice.
Let’s start with the defensemen, MacDonald and Grossmann. Neither player is a good fit for the system that Dave Hakstol has put in place. It is already evident that Hakstol requires his players to be good, aggressive skaters.
Grossmann, however, is not a good skater, and is not particularly aggressive. Because of his slow skating speed, he is usually forced to concede the blueline. Sure, he rarely gets beat from the outside, but in the process he is forced to back into his zone to make sure that he was not passed on the edges. These tendencies, which are made necessary by Grossmann’s skating, would make him a terrible fit for Hakstol’s system.
MacDonald, on the other hand, is a relatively good skater and can generally make a solid first pass out of the defensive zone. However, like Grossmann, MacDonald is notorious for his passive play in the neutral zone. Last year, Kevin Christmann of Broad Street Hockey wrote a great article chronicling MacDonald’s neutral zone struggles. As most people have noticed, aggressive play in the neutral zone is the most noticeable part of Dave Hakstol’s new system. Despite some decent tools, MacDonald would be a bad fit for a spot on the Flyers blueline.
In terms of forwards, Umberger, Lecavalier, and Zac Rinaldo each had similar problems to Grossmann and MacDonald. In the case of Rinaldo, he lacked the discipline necessary to play for Hakstol and the Flyers already had plenty of fourth line players to choose from, each with a better all-around game than Zac.
Both Umberger and Lecavalier have been plagued by the same issues over the past few seasons. Neither player can skate the way they once did. Although Umberger was able to chase down Jonathan Drouin last Thursday during the Flyers opener, he is now re-injured and could be out for a while. In the case of Lecavalier, he just cannot keep up with the NHL game anymore. His lack of speed, coupled with his lack of defensive awareness, make him a liability on the ice.
While the Hakstol regime is in place, there will not be any room for players who lack skating ability and/or play a passive brand of hockey. While there are still some players who are not great skaters (i.e. Luke Schenn), they will be fazed out soon.
What The Future Holds
For the players listed above, their futures in Philadelphia are not bright (with the exception of Grossmann who is, of course, no longer on the Flyers). The Flyers have improved in 2015-16 by subtraction, but their up and coming prospects signal that in the next few years, they will improve by addition.
Among the Flyers top group of prospects are players like Shayne Gostisbehere, Travis Sanheim, Ivan Provorov, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, and Travis Konecny. Each one of those players are known for their fantastic skating as well as for many other abilities.
By the same token, prospects who do not have extremely high offensive upside like Sam Morin, Taylor Leier, and Robert Hagg are still very good skaters and generally aggressive players.
Hextall has a vision for the Flyers. They have gotten off to a good start in 2015-16 and should only get better over the next few years.