Kurt from Broad Street Hockey was kind enough to answer three questions for Blueshirt Banter to set the stage before the first Rangers-Flyers game of the season. Let's get to know the Orange and Black a little bit better, shall we?
1. I know a few people who believe that Steve Mason might be the most underrated goaltender in the National Hockey League. Why do you think Mason flies under the radar?
Well, it could be for a couple of reasons. For one, the general lack of success the Flyers as a team have had in Mason's tenure, and the lack of buzz surrounding the team in that time, probably contributes. The closest he's got to really picking up much national attention was probably in that very series against the Rangers in 2014, where despite the Flyers' 4-3 loss he was outstanding after missing the first few games to injury. The guy, against all odds, led the league in 5-on-5 save percentage last season, a feat that can only manage to go unnoticed when you do it for a team that still ends up 24th in the season-ending standings. People always (rightly) talk about how bad the Flyers' defense has been for a couple of years now, and rarely are able to dissociate that from the fine work their starting goalie has done.
Also, I think so many people outside of Philadelphia still just never shook the lasting image that Mason's Columbus career left. The guy was downright brutal there, and was more or less left by most as an afterthought as he got traded to the Flyers. It's tough for many, even now, to accept that he's really not still that guy (and a rough start to this season hasn't stemmed that train of thought, though Mason's apparently been dealing with some personal/family issues this month). But we've got two seasons' worth of very good performance that indicates he isn't -- and if the Flyers do somehow snag a playoff spot this year in a crowded Eastern Conference playoff picture, it's almost certain that he (along with new backup Michal Neuvirth, whose Flyers career has gotten off to an outstanding start) will be a big reason why.
2. Is there really no escaping the Vincent Lecavalier contract? How serious are the Flyers' salary cap woes and how much of that is attributable to Lecavalier's contract?
Ugh. Yeah, it's tough to see a scenario at this point in which Lecavalier is off the Flyers prior to the end of his contract in 2018. Hextall has transparently been trying to deal him pretty much since the minute he took over the GM position in May 2014, but unsurprisingly no one's bit on that offer yet (or at least isn't willing to take on Lecavalier without likely sending some other sort of toxic asset back the Flyers' way). A normal-course buyout probably wouldn't happen until 2017, if at all. And there were mumbles last year that at some point Lecavalier -- who, lest we forget, has buyout checks coming to him from Tampa Bay until 2027 -- may just walk away from the rest of his contract next summer if things here continue to be miserable here for him, though that obviously is not something one should expect to happen. It's a shame to see Lecavalier's career come to an end this way, but his play has deteriorated quicker than even the most pessimistic would have expected, and the Flyers seem to have zero desire to see him on the ice wearing orange and black any time soon. Unfortunate situation for all parties involved.
The Flyers' cap woes on the whole are real, but they've cleared up a bit since Hextall has taken over and they clear up a bit more after this year ends. It helps that some of the biggest questions -- in particular, what the Flyers would do with Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier's pending contract extensions -- have already been answered, and it helps that the Flyers' have a high-end group of defensive prospects, at least a couple of whom should be able to step in as soon as later this season/early next season and contribute at a fairly inexpensive cost for just about the rest of the decade. By the time next summer rolls around, the only particularly burdensome contracts left on the docket are likely to be Lecavalier's and Andrew MacDonald's. Mark Streit and R.J. Umberger are both up there in age and cost, but they'll both only have one year left on their deals, and they're both still capable NHL players (at least, Streit is; Umberger was awful last season, but he's got out to a very solid start this year after offseason hip surgery, and even if the team wants to move on from him this summer, his buyout cost is fairly non-prohibitive).
3. After Andrew MacDonald and his $25 million contract were buried in the minors the Flyers' blue line really took a different look. There are a few names on the blue line that a lot Rangers' fans might not be familiar with in addition to some that we know all too well (i.e. Del Zotto), what are your early impressions of the Flyers' defensemen this season?
There are, indeed, a few new names on defense. Brandon Manning is a guy who's kicked around between the AHL and NHL a bit for the Flyers for years now, and he finally locked down an NHL roster spot this year after a strong camp. He's sort of just a guy, who can do a little bit of everything kinda well but not really do anything that well, and he's had his ups and downs so far this year, but he at least has some intrigue. Radko Gudas was the throw-in from Tampa Bay in the trade that sent Braydon Coburn out of Philadelphia last trade deadline, and he's sort of a firecracker. He's big, he can skate well, and he hits like a truck, but he's prone to fairly noticeable mistakes both on and off the puck. Which is to say that he's a guy who's really fun to watch play if he's not on your team and is someone you watch with both excitement and nervousness if he is on your team.
By far, though, the biggest addition to their defense that the Flyers made this past offseason (not including prospects) was the addition of Evgeny Medvedev, a rare 33-year-old rookie who came over this year after spending a decade-plus in the KHL. He's looked right at home from Day 1, and some folks out there -- including some on our staff -- already believe that he is the best defenseman on the Flyers' roster. I don't know if I would go thaaaaaaaaat far just yet, but there's no doubt that to this point he's looked like a keeper. He's a very sound defenseman who picks his spots carefully and knows where to be aggressive, especially in the neutral zone. He's passed the eye test, and so far the numbers have backed it up. I had figured before the year started that if the Flyers wanted to make the playoffs, they were going to need two defensemen to really step up and perform well in top-4 roles who hadn't in the past. Medvedev certainly appears on track to be one of those two.
So as a whole? The defense has been OK. Not by any means outstanding, but it's definitely looked improved from last year despite only one real key addition (Medvedev). There's certainly some subtractions that have made a difference, though. MacDonald is the obvious one, and Nicklas Grossmann being traded to Arizona this past summer may have also helped matters. A big part of new head coach Dave Hakstol's system has required more aggressiveness out of his defensemen, both in how they move the puck towards the offensive zone and how they attack the other team in the neutral zone. The personnel changes both in and out have helped make that system come to life a bit, and even though it's hard to see this group ever being more than a middling group until more reinforcements are on the way, I think most Flyers fans would be content if they generally played at the level they've been at so far for the rest of the year.
A big thank you to Kurt for coming up with this idea and for providing much more interesting answers than I gave him to post on Broad Street Hockey. Don't forget to check Broad Street Hockey for the best Flyers' hockey coverage out there.
Thanks for reading. Let's go Rangers.