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Hextall keeps the faith

Posted by Eric Fisher On March 4

Fisher column logo2Ron Hextall hasn’t given up.

Many fans may have given up on the Flyers. Many media members have written them off. But the Flyers general manager hasn’t given up his team’s chances of qualifying for the playoffs.

The reaction to the Flyers’ trade of veteran defenseman Mark Streit to the Lightning in exchange for center Valtteri Filppula, a fourth-round draft pick and a conditional seventh-round pick was underwhelming. Most of the complaints centered around getting rid of Streit’s contract, which expires this summer, while picking up Filppula’s salary for another full season.

Critics point out that the Lightning immediately flipped Streit to the Penguins for a fourth-round draft pick. Why couldn’t the Flyers get a fourth-round pick in return for Streit without taking on Filppula’s $5 million for next season?

But those people are looking at Filppula as a contract.

Hextall is looking at Filppula as a player.

Filppula, a 12-year veteran, may not be the same player he was during eight seasons with the Red Wings, but he had seven goals and a respectable 27 assists this season in 59 games with the Lightning. He is a two-way center who can play on the power play and penalty killing units.

This trade could be an indication that Hextall hasn’t given up on making the playoffs this season. A fourth-round draft choice wouldn’t help the Flyers this season. Filppula might.

For his first game, Filppula centered a line with Brayden Schenn on the left wing and Jakub Voracek on the right. That puts three good passers on the same line. The hope is clearly that he can set up Voracek and, in particular, Schenn for goal-scoring opportunities at even strength, where the talented Schenn has been particularly ineffective.

Hextall wasn’t simply dumping a player who wasn’t going to be back next season. He was bringing in a player who could help the team this season – and beyond.

The Flyers have been carrying eight defensemen all season. Trading Streit alleviates that logjam without substantially affecting the quality of play on the ice. Streit had just 21 points in 49 games this season. He is mediocre, at best, in the defensive zone, and young defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov can handle Streit’s duties at the point on the power play.

Streit was not part of the Flyers’ future. They weren’t going to re-sign the 39-year-old Streit, especially with highly regarded defensemen such as Robert Hagg, Samuel Morin, Travis Sanheim and possibly Philippe Myers pushing for roster spots next fall.

The Flyers, however, don’t have the same situation at forward and center. Their better prospects still seem two or three years away from making the team. Filppula could be the perfect guy to fill the gap. And, in a best-case scenario, he could be a player they would want to keep around beyond next season.

There is certainly a place for Filppula on the Flyers’ current roster. So Hextall traded a superfluous defenseman who wasn’t going to be with the team next season for a player at a position of need who will be here next season, and could be around longer.

Filppula scored the only goal in regulation during his Flyers debut, a 2-1 shootout win over the Panthers. We shouldn’t overreact to one game, but Filppula certainly got off to a good start.

There’s no guarantee that the addition of Filppula will propel the Flyers into the playoffs this season. Even after beating the Panthers, the Flyers are still four points behind the Islanders, who hold the second wild card position. And the Flyers have to leap frog the Panthers and Maple Leafs in order to get to the Islanders.

But they have a better chance of making the playoffs with Filppula than with Streit. They certainly have a better chance with Filppula than with only draft picks coming back in return for Streit.

As for the argument that Filppula’s contract takes up too much space under the salary cap, keep in mind that the replacements on defense next season will be rookies who won’t make a lot of money. Even if they allow a few players with expiring contracts (defenseman Nick Schultz and possibly defenseman Michael Del Zotto) to leave and lose a forward (Matt Read or Dale Weise) or goalie (Michal Neuvirth) in the expansion draft, they probably wouldn’t have the money available to lure a top free agent to Philadelphia.

Filppula is a solid player whose contract doesn’t require a long-term commitment. It’s as if the Flyers kept Streit’s salary on the books for one more season, but allocated it to a position of need. That’s not a bad tradeoff.

Especially if Filppula turns out to be a good fit with Schenn and Voracek and helps the Flyers make the playoffs this season.

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