Flyers General Manager Ron Hextall finally exited his comfort zone this summer.
Instead of playing it safe on July 1, the first day teams can sign unrestricted free agents, Hextall found his checkbook buried somewhere in his desk and shelled out $35 million over the next five years for left winger James van Riemsdyk.
It was a major departure from the past four years of his tenure, when his signature offseason moves included journeyman goalie Brian Elliott, disappointing fourth line center Dale Weiss, or oft-injured goalie Michal Neuvirth. Rather than continue to shop in the discount rack, Hextall targeted and acquired one the best free agent options on the market.
He also chose not to re-sign free agent goalie Petr Mrazek, defenseman Brandon Manning and forwards Valtteri Filppula and Matt Read – all considered additions by subtraction.
While the reunion with JVR, who was drafted second overall by the Flyers in 2007, has excited Flyers fans, the key question that remains as we approach the start of the training camp is: Did Hextall improve the Flyers enough this summer?
Before we answer, let’s break things down one decision at a time.
There is no debate that Hextall instantly upgraded the offense, and its depth, with the arrival of JVR, who scored a career-high 36 goals last season and has averaged in the high-20s over the past five seasons with the Maple Leafs. He figures to nicely complement Nolan Patrick and Jakub Voracek on the second line to give the Flyers a formidable one-two punch of lines with Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, and Travis Konecny up top.
The third line should be better as well. Wayne Simmonds, who scored 24 goals last season while battling several injuries, and emerging rookie Oscar Lindblom will play on the outside while the Flyers figure out who is the center in training camp from a long list of in-house candidates.
Expect JVR’s arrival to balance out the power play, too. He should join the first unit, which was lethal last year. Meanwhile, Simmonds, who is one of the best scorers in the league with the man-advantage, will drop to the struggling second unit.
On defense, Travis Sanheim, who is coming off a promising rookie season, should see an expanded role and ice time with Manning’s departure. It also possibly opens the door for Philippe Myers, another prized defensive prospect, to join the club during the season.
However, Hextall failed to address other key areas.
Hextall did nothing to stabilize the shaky backup situation in goal. Elliott was a steady presence last season as the starter but Neuvirth, his backup, is injury prone and unreliable, and another backup, rookie Alex Lyon, has little NHL experience.
While there is no shortage of candidates to win the third line center job, Hextall might have been better off spending a little extra money, which he has plenty of under the cap, on a veteran or even to retain Filppula, who signed a very manageable one-year, $2.75 million deal with the Islanders.
And lastly, the penalty kill, which ranked among the worst in the league, remains status quo.
To sum it up, Hextall moved his club forward and put it in a position to win a playoff round for the first time in six years with his offseason moves, but left too many holes for the Flyers to probably compete for anything more.