Philadelphia Flyers should focus on youth movement for remainder of 2018-19 season

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - JANUARY 28: Carter Hart #79 of the Philadelphia Flyers looks on during a stop in play in the first period against the Winnipeg Jets at Wells Fargo Center on January 28, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - JANUARY 28: Carter Hart #79 of the Philadelphia Flyers looks on during a stop in play in the first period against the Winnipeg Jets at Wells Fargo Center on January 28, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

After the Philadelphia Flyers struggled mightily in the first half of the season, an infusion of youth has seemingly resuscitated a team that looked to be dead on arrival.

You would be hard pressed to think of the last time the Philadelphia Flyers organization can say it was fully committed to building a core of young, promising players that would be able to bring a  lengthy period of sustained success back to Broad Street.

Perhaps the signing of Eric Lindros was the last time the front office truly hedged its bet on a young player becoming the cornerstone of the franchise, and the team’s desire to win was evident in the trail of broken records left in the wake of the monstrous trade that sent the young Canadian to Philadelphia in 1992.

But since then, the Flyers have hardly been a team that’s been known for drafting, developing or otherwise acquiring young talent, that is unless it was juniors or the minors after years of development before carving out permanent spots on the big club.

Related Story. 8 potential free agents Eagles could re-sign. light

Sure, there are the exceptions with guys like Simon Gagne, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, and Claude Giroux, who were all drafted by the Flyers and started their careers here. But after those four players, it becomes more difficult to think of anyone who was drafted as youngsters before developing a while in the system, and going on to have successful careers with the Flyers.

Developing young players is a crucial piece to the championship puzzle, and while it’s only one piece, it’s a fairly big one. The Flyers know this from their 2010 run to the Stanley Cup, where they were led by two homegrown players in Carter and Richards.

The organization spent time and money on those two players, and were it not for facing an eventual dynasty in the Chicago Blackhawks, that investment may have bore championship fruit.

Yes, drafting and developing is only one cog in the machine. A team must also make the right moves in free agency and acquire players through trades without disrupting the salary cap for the future. It’s not an easy thing to do, and more often, teams fumble with this in an attempt to strike when the iron is hot, only to fall short in their evaluations.

Ironically, the Flyers are a team that now finds itself gearing up to be one of the most active teams in the league this offseason, and perhaps before then at the trade deadline at the end of February. The 2018-19 season has not been kind to fans of the orange and black, as they’ve watched the franchise endure a tumultuous period of turnover that included the firings of both the general manager and the head coach, including additional front office personnel and an assistant coach.

The Flyers were expected to be one of the best teams in the Metropolitan Division this year. But when the season showed signs of becoming lost due to poor play on the ice, sub-standard coaching, and a refusal from the GM to address the team’s biggest deficiencies, it was clear that the organization was headed for a massive shake up.

During the Hextall era, Flyers fans were promised a change in philosophy for an organization that for years had built their teams by acquiring players from other teams and by handing out big free agent contracts to aging veterans.

However, the former Vezina trophy winner did deliver on many of his promises despite ultimately failing to improve the team at the NHL level. He drafted well and allowed the Flyers to assemble a deep and talented pool of prospects, some of which have already made the leap to the NHL.

Though Hextall’s tenure ended on a sour note, with the team drifting through five years of up and down hockey, the future looks undoubtedly bright because of him. At the very least, Hextall deserves credit for getting the Flyers out of the poor cap situation they were left in by Paul Holmgren and taking a huge risk by changing the philosophy of an organization that had operated the same way for nearly 50 years with only two championships to show for it.

It didn’t pay dividends right away, but there is a ray of hope on the horizon. Hextall labored for five years to bring a youth movement to the Flyers, and he went to great lengths to protect those players, sometimes to a fault.

But now we are seeing the fruits of those labors. Those young players, despite the negative publicity surrounding them and the team at times this year, are stepping up in big ways.

Nolan Patrick has begun to find his groove after looking like a giant bust to start his sophomore campaign. Travis Konecny continues to develop, while Travis Sanheim is looking every bit the part of a top pairing defenseman in the making as he continues to play 20+ minutes a night.

Make no mistake though, playoffs or not, the rest of this season is about youth. The Flyers are currently one of the hottest teams in the league and riding an eight-game winning streak. It’s not entirely implausible that they could find a way to sneak into the playoffs if their current level of play is sustained. But even if that happens, there’s no denying that the team as constructed right now is a flawed group, and changes will be necessary in order to get the team back on track for future runs to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Much to the relief of the Flyers fan base, new GM Chuck Fletcher has already begun to jettison non-essential player personnel such as Dale Weis and most recently Jori Lehtera, who were both waived. This is a sign that Fletcher is beginning to move the needle towards reshaping this core of players and allowing the young guys to have a larger role.

One of those young guys is Carter Hart, and he has quite simply been a revelation. Undoubtedly the jewel of this coveted group of young players, Hart was thrust into a situation that many believed he wasn’t ready for this season when the Flyers simply ran out of goaltenders. But what Hart has done with that opportunity has been nothing short of spectacular.

Through 16 games, Hart holds a .925 save percentage, which would place him amongst some of the very best goalies in the league currently. The only caveat is that Hart has not yet played enough games to qualify. But in those games, he’s looked more than capable. At times, he’s been flat out dominant, making highlight reel saves like the one he made against the Vancouver Canucks.

Hart appears to have been the move that has breathed new life into the Flyers, and the players seem to have nothing but praise for the young goaltender. Despite Hart only being 20 years of age, which is rare for a goalie in the NHL, he has handled his success with humility and a tremendous amount of maturity.

Should Hart continue on his current pace, it is entirely possible that he finds himself in the hunt for the Calder Trophy, which goes to the NHL’s Rookie of the Year. Hart would be battling fellow rookies Elias Pettersson and Rasmus Dahlin, but if the numbers that Hart has put up through his first 16 games are sustained, he will have one heck of a case to make. And at the very least, the Flyers will finally be able to boast that they possess a franchise goaltender.

In addition to Hart, it would benefit the Flyers from an organizational standpoint to have a few more guys up from the Phantoms as well. Philippe Myers is a defenseman that has the potential to round out what could be a very impressive top four defensive unit along with Ivan Provorov, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Sanheim.

Myers should get a look at some point, unless the Flyers somehow find themselves a lock to make the playoffs late, which seems unlikely. Even still, Myers figures to be a big part of the club’s future, and getting him NHL experience now should be at the top of the list.

Other players like forward Nicolas Aube-Kubel and defenseman Mark Friedman are having good seasons for the Phantoms, and Fletcher may want to get an extended look at those players before deciding how to approach the offseason.

Now, this does not mean that the team will simply rely solely on youth moving forward. Fletcher needs to do everything he can to bring in one or two additional veterans, especially at defense. Erik Karlsson is the biggest star that could be available at that position this summer unless he signs and extension with San Jose.

Next. 3 reasons Harris makes Sixers new favorites in Eastern Conference. dark

The Flyers will also be looking to acquire a quality player at forward, and with names like Matt Duchene, Artemi Panarin, and Mark Stone all set to hit free agency, this could be a very exciting summer for the Flyers if Fletcher gets creative.