Riding a five-game winning streak, victorious in nine of their past 10 and rapidly climbing up the Metropolitan Division entering deadline day, some would've expected the Philadelphia Flyers to be active ahead of the trade freeze. After all, in a division that includes the Washington Capitals and back-to-back defending Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins, it's going to take one heckuva performance in the playoffs to escape the Metro, so it wouldn't have raised many eyebrows if Philadelphia plugged holes at the deadline and attempted to win the division in a campaign where it appears very much up for grabs.
That’s not quite what the Flyers did, though. All told, Philadelphia made one trade acquisition prior to the deadline, striking a deal with the Detroit Red Wings that brought goaltender Petr Mrazek to town in exchange for a pair of draft picks. And they did this as the Penguins went out and swung deals for Derick Brassard and Josh Jooris, as the Capitals bulked up their blueline with Michal Kempny and Jakub Jerabek, and as the wild-card contending New Jersey Devils added offense by way of deals for Michael Grabner and Patrick Maroon.
And while there’s certain to be a contingent of the Philadelphia faithful that will absolutely bemoan the fact the Flyers, relatively speaking, stood pat the deadline, it's difficult to label it a poor decision by GM Ron Hextall & Co. Rather, it may have been the best choice the Philadelphia front office could have made.
First, take into consideration what Philadelphia has been able to accomplish with their current roster. After all the deadline hullabaloo came to a close on Monday, the Flyers took the ice and battled the Montreal Canadiens to a 1-0 shootout victory. The win was Philadelphia's sixth in a row, pushed their record to 10-0-2 over their past dozen games and vaulted the Flyers into top spot in the Metro. Their place atop the division is no mirage, either. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington have all played 63 games, so there's no games-in-hand asterisk that needs mentioning.
That the Flyers are in this position at all is somewhat mind-blowing, too, considering the team isn't too far removed from a 10-game losing skid that some believed put coach Dave Hakstol in peril of losing his job. But since that miserable run, one which saw the Flyers lose six of 10 games by one goal, Philadelphia has been excellent. Their 26-8-3 record is the best in the NHL since Dec. 4, when they snapped the losing streak, and they've accomplished that with much the same roster they are set to ice the rest of the way.
Much of the success has been powered by the play of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier, who are first, second and third in team scoring, respectively. But Philadelphia has also been able to not only keep pace but surpass their divisional rivals thanks to secondary scoring by the likes of Travis Konecny, Wayne Simmonds and defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov. Over the past month, even rookie Nolan Patrick has gotten in on the action, registering five goals and seven points in 13 games. The second overall pick seems to be finding his touch in the big leagues.
To be sure, there are ways Hextall could've improved this roster. Adding another depth winger, for instance, could help Philadelphia in the matchup game come the playoffs. Likewise, another center may help counter the three-headed monster Pittsburgh has assembled down the middle should the Pennsylvanian rivals meet in the post-season. And though the Flyers have some bright young pieces, another top defender would have made the blueline slightly more sturdy. Waiver pickup Johnny Oduya, while experienced, isn't exactly going to be skating top-four minutes. Still, Philadelphia's success over the past few months gives no reason to suggest the roster, as currently composed, can't make noise in the playoffs.
But even if the lack of deadline movement comes back to bite the Flyers this season, here’s where Hextall made the smart move: he decided to play the long game.
While true that moves made by the Penguins and Capitals could give them the slight edge this season, Hextall focused instead on building towards a Stanley Cup instead of gambling on deadline day in an attempt to buy a championship. And when you consider the price some teams paid yesterday and in the lead up to the trade freeze — seven first-round picks were exchanged in the days leading up the deadline — it's hard to argue with that strategy.
None of this is an assumption, either. Hextall made it clear that he wasn’t interested in paying high rental prices at the expense of building a long-term contender. “When I took over four years ago I said we’re going to make a long window here,” said Hextall after the deadline, per philly.com’s Sam Donnellon. “Well, we can’t forget about the window. We’re not going to mortgage our future to take one run with rentals and stuff. We’re going to do it the seven-, eight-, 10-year way, where we feel like we’re going to be competitive for a long period of time.”
So, while some may have viewed Hextall’s deadline activity as far too conservative in a year where the Flyers could have as good a chance as any to win the division, there's going to be a time in the not-too-distant future when the Penguins’ window begins to shrink and ultimately shuts, and the Capitals, too, might not be far from the same fate. And while the Devils, Islanders and even the Hurricanes may be headed in the right direction, the Flyers look as though they'll crack open their window and be ready to truly compete in short order. When that time comes, Hextall has designs on boasting the deep prospect pool, young talent, productive prime-aged players and skilled veterans that can keep Philadelphia in Stanley Cup contention. A one-year, pay-and-pray deadline strategy doesn’t make that possible. And that's why the decision not to spend big this season might've been the best thing Hextall could have done.
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