The Jackets and Flyers really got to know each other on the ice last season, their first as divisional foes. This is in addition to their off-ice familiarity thanks to a handful of high-profile trades between the teams. There was of course the Jakub Voracek for Jeff Carter fiasco, then (in different deals) essentially swapping Sergei Bobrovsky for Steve Mason. This past offseason saw the Jackets pick up Scott Hartnell in a deal for the unhappy RJ. Umberger.
To learn more about a team that the Jackets will be battling all season in the Metro Division, we sat down with Kurt R. of Broad St. Hockey, and he offered up some terrific insight into the Flyers:
1 - Steve Mason was given a multi-year contract. We've seen in Columbus what happens when he gets too comfortable and loses his competitive edge. Is there a concern that now that he's signed his deal and has the keys to the bus that he'll regress?
Well that certainly depends on who you talk to. There are a lot of people who, following Mason's generally-strong regular season and outstanding playoff series, seem convinced that Mason is truly the savior that we've been looking for in Philly since ... oh, I don't know, the late '80s. There are also some people who are pretty convinced that last season was an aberration and that he'll go back to being his Columbus-era self (read: bad). Me? Personally? I have no idea. Goalies are voodoo and for the most part trying to guess what to expect from any given goalie in any given year is a sucker's game.
With that said, I think your point about Mason not having to compete as hard for his position and having some more security is a valid one. I was iffy on Mason from the start last year, but figured that if it was going to work, it'd be because he was motivated by his competition with Emery. And it looks like that's exactly what happened -- he came into camp with the right mindset, started strong, grabbed the starter's spot, and never really looked back. Hopefully the same thing will happen this year. I like to think it will. But the work ethic does still need to be there, now that he's not feeling the pressure from his backup.
2 - What expectations do you have for Vincent Lecavalier this season? There's no way he'd get bought out again...right?
Man. That's a tough one. Lecavalier didn't have a good year last year by just about any stretch of the imagination. His points-per-game were his lowest in a season since 2001-02, he was a trainwreck in terms of defense and possession, he was injured multiple times, he couldn't play anywhere except center, and the best he looked all season was in March when the team put him on the fourth line. Which pretty much sums it up.
I don't think things are going to be much *worse* for Vinny this year, because it would be hard for them to be. It was such a stark drop-off for him from even just 2012-13 to 2013-14 that I don't think we'll see a similar dropoff again. But they need to be getting better, and expecting that seems optimistic. As for the buyout possibility, it absolutely COULD happen, because come on it's the Flyers let's not kid ourselves here. But if it were to happen I don't think it'd be until at least 2016. Who really knows, though.
3 - With R.J. Umberger heading back to Philly for Scott Hartnell, what role do you think Umby will play with the Flyers?
That's tough, but mostly because of how the Flyers' "lines" actually work. I see Umberger as a third-liner at this point in his career, but the Flyers' "third line" is, in terms of ice time, more of a second line, as Sean Couturier and Matt Read get the tough defensive assignments and usually do pretty well in them. I know Umberger had some relatively tough assignments last year in Columbus and did not fare well with them. So it may be more likely that he gets moved to Brayden Schenn's line, which is the second line in name but more of the third line in terms of minutes/usage.
So ultimately my best guess is that he plays a bottom-six role but ends up being shifted around quite a bit (Craig Berube does love him some line-blending), likely making some cameos in the top six on occasion. I could also see him getting second power play time, depending on how the rest of the forward lines shake out there. So no, he's no Scott Hartnell (but I'll save those thoughts for the next question!).
4 - Will Claude Giroux miss having Hartnell on his wing?
Yes and no. I lean closer to 'yes', so we'll cover that part first. Giroux and Hartnell spent a lot of time on the ice together for each of the last three seasons, and most of Giroux's best stretches in that time came with Hartnell on his left wing. Hartnell was a strong even-strength possession player during that time, and was especially good from that spot in the high slot on the power play. There's no doubt that he, Giroux, and Jakub Voracek (and Jaromir Jagr before him) had a lot of success together, and that's not easy to replace. Hartnell's a 25-goal/25-assist guy (in my estimation) who was excellent on the power play and who drove possession forward to at least some positive extent, and that's not an easy thing to make up for no matter how good a center you are. And I don't think it's something the Flyers, with the state of their current roster, have adequately replaced.
With that said, Hartnell has never been the most skilled player on his team or really ever on his line, and when things would go bad for the top line, Hartnell would typically look pretty damn invisible (remember all that crap Giroux took for his bad first month of the 2013-14 season? Hartnell was awful in that time, too). Some of that is kind of just how Hartnell is -- a lot of how successful he is will depend on the guys playing around him. A lot of people in Philadelphia, even before the trade, had wondered if maybe there's a better fit at top-line left wing than Hartnell. Like I said, I don't think the Flyers currently have a better, more skilled player to really put in that top-line spot than Hartnell. But I'm sure there are host of guys they could at least try there and end up with decent enough results, including guys who have different styles of play than Hartnell does.
I guess the TL;DR version of that is to say that I think yes, Claude Giroux will miss Scott Hartnell, but it'll be interesting to see who emerges in that top-line winger role and how they'll do, since playing alongside Giroux and Voracek isn't exactly the world's most challenging job.
5 - Which Flyers prospect are you most excited about, and when can we expect to see him in the NHL?
The Flyers -- for what may, literally, be the first time in my life -- have a nice little stable of prospects on defense, and there's some genuine optimism regarding as many as four of the team's young blueline prospects. That's something we'll be watching for all year, with two of them -- including last year's Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player, Shayne Gostisbehere -- having an outside chance at cracking the NHL team at some point this season.
Still, though, I'm going to defer to the Flyers' bread-and-butter here and say that Scott Laughton is the guy I'm most excited about. A center in the OHL who was seen as a little bit of a reach when the Flyers took him in 2012, Laughton has progressed tremendously the last two years, and was a first-team All-Star in the OHL last year (ahead of some dudes named Bennett and McDavid, not bad) while putting up 1.6 points per game for Oshawa. There is truly nothing I trust the Flyers with more than their knack for drafting and developing good centers. Laughton does find himself walking into a bit of a logjam at the NHL level with the Flyers' number of bodies at the spot, but there's a pretty good chance he finds a way to crack the roster at some point this year -- if not on opening day, then as an injury call-up down the road.
A big thanks to Kurt for taking the time to answer our questions. Head on over to Broad St. Hockey if you want to learn more about the Flyers this season. They'll be a tough opponent in the division this year!