The sting is still all-too fresh for Flyers fans.
After all, the hated Pittsburgh Penguins just captured their fourth Stanley Cup — and second in the last seven years — on Sunday evening in San Jose. And, for a little extra sprinkle of salt in the wound, Sidney Crosby, one of Philadelphia’s favorite seasonal tourists, took home the Conn Smythe trophy as the league’s playoff MVP.
But there’s a twisted sense of solace Flyers fans can take in the archrival’s championship glory.
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General manager Ron Hextall has the Flyers positioned to follow the blueprint of success the Penguins drew this season.
The Penguins’ road to the title was built on three pillars that all intertwine with one another — young players complementing veteran stars, defense and speed.
Those three pillars also just happen to make up the backbone of the program Hextall and head coach Dave Hakstol are putting together here on the Eastern side of the commonwealth.
But it takes time and there can be bumps in the road just like there were for the Penguins.
Let’s hop in the time machine and take a trip back to a year ago when the Penguins were a team teetering on the edge. They had just been thoroughly dominated by the New York Rangers in a swift five-game exit in the first round of the playoffs. Good tidings were nowhere to be found as the consensus was the talented core of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury had become stale and reached its endpoint. The franchise itself was even heavily rumored to be for sale. Change seemed inevitable.
Instead, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford identified his team’s weaknesses last offseason and pulled off an impressive on-the-fly retooling that focused on adding depth to take the heavy burden of reliance off his stars and put more trust in the youth in the team’s system. The only move that made big headlines was the addition of sniper Phil Kessel.
Less-heralded players added included Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr. But that meant a youthful wave also came along as Connor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl and Brian Doumoulin all saw significant playing time this season. And, of course, goalie Matt Murray took the hockey world by storm.
Then, important veteran additions were made during the season when Carl Hagelin, Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz were added.
All of those guys made major contributions for Pens, especially in the playoffs. While some doubted the move, give Rutherford credit for thinking Kessel would be the right fit in a role where less of the spotlight would be on the forward.
With the stocked farm system the Flyers have, they're set up to follow this blueprint.
While it may take a bit longer as Hextall continues to use heavy elbow grease to scrub away the Flyers' salary cap woes, prized prospects Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, Sam Morin on the back end and Travis Konecny and Nicolas Aube-Kubel up front, just to name a few, all could very well could be calling Philadelphia home sooner rather than later.
We saw the first influx this past season when Shayne Gostisbehere put games in the palms of his hands and Nick Cousins proved he can be an effective player in the NHL. And don’t forget the leaps forwards Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier took in 2015-16.
With player development being such a huge focus, that’s why it was such a coup for Hextall to land Hakstol, who had an extraordinary track record of developing talent while at the University of North Dakota (Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise, T.J. Oshie, etc.)
As the Flyers’ young players continue to emerge, develop and earn trust, they’ll lessen the burden to constantly produce that currently sits on the shoulders of Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek and Wayne Simmonds.
And with that youthful influx will come more athleticism and speed to keep up with teams like the Penguins and Sharks, both of whom skated circles around foes en route to their Cup Final collision.
Long gone are the days of burly players imposing their will, especially on the blue line. Penguins owner Mario Lemieux even said Sunday evening after Game 6 that he feels speed will continue to be the future of the game.
As far as the Flyers' adding a big-name piece the likes of Kessel is concerned, Hextall has pushed all the right buttons so far during this retooling. There’s no reason yet to doubt he’ll know when the time is right to pull the trigger on a big trade or free-agent signing.
It’s no secret the Flyers could really use a big winger who’s also a scoring threat. Los Angeles’ Milan Lucic and the New York Islanders’ Kyle Okposo both are unrestricted free agents come July 1 and both fit the mold. And until something actually happens, trade rumors are just that — rumors.
If Hextall feels either avenue is the right move, he’ll do it. Much like the Penguins did, complementary veteran pieces will need to be added at some point as well. But with the way he’s had his finger on the pulse of the team, you have to trust Hextall will continue pushing the right buttons.
How much longer the right buttons have to pushed before the Flyers are a legitimate Stanley Cup threat again remains to be seen. Timetables are never etched in stone for a reason. But the Penguins have marked the X on the treasure map, and, if for nothing else, the Flyers have planted the right foundation to get there.
In the meantime, let’s enjoy the new coating of gas this Penguins Stanley Cup win will inevitably throw on to the fire that is the rivalry with the Flyers.
It’s always more fun when that flame burns bigger and brighter.