We're approaching the new year and the Flyers sit at 11th in the Eastern Conference with a 14-15-3 record. The inconsistency issues - aside from the mostly stellar play between the pipes for Canadian Olympic hopeful, Steve Mason - continue to plague this team in a year where there are fewer excuses than last season.
They have been one of the healthier teams in the league, yet they are only outscoring three other teams (27th in the league at 2.22 goals/game), special teams play is down from a season ago (17th power play and 13th on the PK), the defense hasn't produced enough offensively (Mark Streit and his $5.25M cap hit leads the corps with 11 points through 32 games, good for 58th among NHL defensemen) and has shown continued mobility concerns, and the top players have not consistently stepped up with point production - most notably the top line.
So how does this team improve, not only for this season but for planning ahead with the salary cap rising to a reported $71 million next season? Well, it's a bit tricky considering the Flyers generally subscribe to the "win-now" philosophy and have limited prospect depth (albeit slowly improving with each draft) in the pipeline to dangle in a trade. GM Paul Holmgren certainly has his work cut out for him if the Flyers can't soon prove the all-around consistency on the ice that would push them not only into the playoff picture, but as a legitimate contender.
Let's examine some of the team needs. Two that come to mind - especially for the future - are a legitimate sniping forward that can complement a Claude Giroux and improved skill and mobility on the blueline that, in turn, should help the transitional game and improve point production among the forwards. With free agency seemingly becoming a less reliable option each year in the salary cap era, Homer may have to explore some trade options to address these needs. But in order to get value, you have to give up value in a deal that makes sense for both teams.
I've given this a lot of thought, and the name that makes the most sense to me as a bargaining chip is 22 year old center-turned-left-wing, Brayden Schenn. Let me first say that I am a fan of Schenn's skill, grittiness, and two-way upside. But we're talking about a highly touted former 5th overall pick who has steadily developed into a decent top 6 forward. And hockey is a business. His name has been tossed around in past trade rumors (we all remember the Shea Weber talks last summer), and he may just be the chip to land the Flyers an Evander Kane or a Jordan Eberle, who would both fill a need for a shooting winger in the right package. Or he may be the recipe in churning out a deal for that elusive top-pairing, mobile, puck-moving defensemen.
While I do think it's a little too soon to make such a move - unless the price is absolutely right as Vinny Lecavalier's injury has pushed Schenn into the second-line center role - this may be something to think back on come trade deadline as the Flyers reevaluate their plans and their place in the standings. If not, this could be something to look at in the offseason as Schenn is set to become a restricted free agent and looking at raise, even if it's a bridge contract.
One reason why this could make sense in the right deal is the play of 2012 first-rounder Scott Laughton, who has absolutely dominated the OHL as captain of the Oshawa Generals (24 goals and 50 points in 29 games thus far). While he hasn't been as highly touted an offensive threat as Brayden Schenn, his numbers and juniors this year would loudly suggest otherwise. He is developing quite nicely and probably already has an edge on defensive ability at the next level on Schenn. The two-way upside and continued offensive progression of Laughton, who like Schenn also plays with a physical edge, could work its way into an every day third-line role for the Flyers in 2014/2015 (he did initially make the team out of camp before being sent back to juniors). This could in turn, bump Sean Couturier into the second line role and move Vinny Lecavalier to right wing on Giroux's line. The Flyers would have some options here if presented with this scenario, but the idea of Laughton as a cheaper, comparable talent to Schenn doesn't seem too far-fetched right now - especially with the way Laughton has looked this year in the OHL. Would there really be that big of a drop off?
Let's not forget that if the orange and black were to land a defenseman via a trade centered around Brayden Schenn (let's say Schenn, a prospect, and a pick), it would fill a void next year for when the blueline under contract includes Streit, Braydon Coburn, Nicklas Grossmann, and Luke Schenn. Meszaros and Timonen (who is widely assumed to be retiring) come off the books as well as Hal Gill, Bruno Gervais. Erik Gustafsson and Marc-Andre Bourdon are RFA's, and Chris Pronger won't be playing in the NHL again.
Only four regular defensemen remain under contract for next season, which means the Flyers either have to fill the voids internally and cross their fingers that some combination of Oliver Lauridsen, Brandon Manning, Mark Alt, 2013 first-round pick Samuel Morin, or Shayne Gostisbehere will be able to answer the bell - or they would have to look via free agency and very likely overpay an aging veteran or two. I'm not so sure any of these names above address the skill issues just yet, although there is some promise in the pipeline with guys like Alt, Morin, Gostisbehere, and Robert Hagg (who would still need to get acclimated with the North American rinks).
This brings us back to the trade route. If the Flyers are banking on a guy like Scott Laughton as part of their future core, then they may be better off planning sooner rather than later in addressing the issues of bringing in more proven scoring on the wings or some more skill on the backend. Moving Brayden Schenn may make the most sense in bringing the type of guy in that could address these concerns.