Bill Meltzer: Meltzer’s Musings: Flyers Tumble Again, Schultz and Flyers Blueline Dilemma

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FLYERS TUMBLE AGAIN IN ROAD TRIP FINALE, DROP 5-2 DECISION TO NEW JERSEY

The pre-Christmas portion of the Flyers’ eight-game road was exactly what the team needed at the time: three games, three quality wins. Ever since then, it has all been downhill as the team went 0-4-1.

On Saturday night in Newark, the trip came to an end with the Flyers fifth consecutive loss.

Playing a New Jersey Devils teams with major problems of its own, the Flyers got blown out by a 5-2 count.

For those witnessed the game, the only thing memorable about it was living legend Jaromir Jagr becoming the oldest player in NHL history to score a hat trick. Jagr, whose last hat trick came against the Flyers as a member of the New York Rangers in 2006, broke a record previously held by Gordie Howe. With his seventh, eighth and ninth goals of the season and career goals 712, 713 and 714, he moved within three goals of tying Phil Esposito (717 goals) for fifth on the League’s all-time list, and within 18 points of tying Ron Francis (1,798 points) for fourth in League history.

In addition to the three Jagr tallies, the Devils got a goal and two assists from Scott Gomez and a power play goal from longtime Flyer-killer Patrik Elias. Cory Schneider went long stretches without seeing any shots — as did the Flyers’ goaltenders — but stopped 18 of 20 shots to earn the win.

Trailing 5-0, the Flyers got a late second period goal by Andrew MacDonald and an early third period power play goal by Vincent Lecavalier to trim the deficit to three goals. They got no closer.

Jakub Voracek, who has just two points (one goal, one assist) in the five games since the Christmas break despite generating a healthy number of chances, assisted on the MacDonald goal. With 48 points on the season, Voracek holds a two-point lead on Dallas Stars’ center Tyler Seguin in the Art Ross Trophy race. Additionally, Voracek’s 33 assists on the season lead Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby by one for the NHL lead.

Ray Emery started the game in goal for the Flyers, getting pulled after allowing three goals on 10 shots in the first period. The Philadelphia backup looked as ineffective as the rest of the team but defensive miscues were the main reason that Philly was out of the game by the first intermission. Jagr’s second goal of the first period, which came in the final four seconds of the period, was a savable shot that needed to be stopped.

Steve Mason, who had played pretty well in the Flyers’ 2-1 loss in Carolina on Friday, was brought in the game for the second period. He fared no better than Emery, as the Devils scored on two of their first four shots. Mason wound up only seeing eight shots in 40 minutes, stopping six.

Gomez’s goal was scored on a 3-on-2 counterrush, using MacDonald as a partial screen on a left circle shot that beat Mason to the blocker side. Jagr’s third goal of the game was scored from the doorstep as he outmuscled Nicklas Grossmann near the net and got inside stick position to tap home a centering pass from Gomez.

The Flyers played without Claude Giroux (skate cut to lower left leg) and Scott Laughton (lower-body injury). Giroux attempted to dress for warmups but did not feel ready to play. As a result, the Flyers’ captain had a streak of playing 168 consecutive regular season games snapped. This was just the sixth regular season game Giroux has missed since the start of the 2009-10 season.

Giroux remains day-to-day and could play on Tuesday. Likewise, Laughton’s injury is not expected to be long term.

With Giroux and Laughton out of the lineup, the Flyers dressed seven defensemen and shuffled line combinations throughout the game. Luke Schenn re-entered the lineup, as did forward Zac Rinaldo.

Rinaldo made his presence felt early, fighting Jordin Tootoo. Later in the first period, Rinaldo took an offensive zone elbowing penalty against Gomez.

The Flyers and Devils engaged in three additional fights during the game. Michael Raffl thrashed New Jersey’s Tim Sestito one shift after the Rinaldo-Tootoo fight. Wayne Simmonds lost a second period fight with Mark Fraser. Rinaldo fought Sestito in the third period.

Truthfully, there is no positive way to spin the 3-4-1 outcome of the trip. The best one can say is Lecavalier scored five goals and Giroux’s skate-cut injury in the Carolina game could have been much worse had he not been wearing a kevlar sock.

Beyond that, but there are no silver linings to a trip that was crucial to the team setting itself up to be in the hunt for the playoffs in the second half of the season.

Not when the final five games of the trip were marked by regulation losses to Arizona, Carolina and New Jersey. Not when the Flyers’ dug themselves multi-goal deficits against two of the three lowest-scoring teams in the NHL. Not when the offense was subpar, the goaltending was uninspiring, the defense was mistake-prone and the penalty killing was atrocious over the final five games of the trip.

The Flyers will have an off-day on Sunday and resume practice at the Skate Zone in Voorhees, NJ, on Monday. They return to the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday to play the Ottawa Senators.

********** SCHULTZ AND THE FLYERS BLUELINE DILEMMA

According to a recent Daily News report, the Flyers and the agent for defenseman Nick Schultz will meet soon to begin discussions on a contract extension for the 32-year-old defenseman.

Schultz, whose career appeared to be on a premature downslide the last few seasons in Edmonton and Columbus, signed a one-year, $1.25 million contract with the Flyers during the offseason. He has rewarded the Flyers by rediscovering the form that made him a mainstay on the Minnesota Wild blueline (he remains the franchise leader in games played).

Schultz has become an every-game starter for the Flyers. He pulls down an average of nearly 19 minutes of ice time per game. The veteran leads the club in blocked shots, has posted a plus-seven rating while showing the underrated mobility that quietly made him a valuable if oft-overlooked player on unheralded Minnesota teams. The only Schultz doesn’t — and won’t — do is contribute many points. He keeps things simple and safe.

Here’s the problem: the nature of the market place for veteran defensemen. While Schultz supposedly cares more about term than salary and would prefer to stay put than relocate his family again, no player is wise to give up too much salary in this business.

What would the unrestricted free agent market place bear for Schultz? If he were to go to market as a UFA, he is going to command — at bare minimum — at least what Deryk Engelland got from Calgary ($2.92 million per season over a three-year term) last summer.

There is no doubt that some NHL team is going to be willing to pony up something in the $3 million cap hit range for Schultz as long as he stays healthy the rest of this season. It doesn’t matter if it’s an “overpayment” — pretty much all established NHL defensemen wind up overpaid by the time their UFA years come around, and it filters up and up annually to the point where players with third-pairing skill sets routinely command salaries north of $3 million leaguewide.

The primary exceptions to that rule are players in the situation such as the one Schultz was in last summer where the player’s stock had crashed and he had to take a one-year deal at a discount to prove himself again. If the player does so successfully, his salary is likely to balloon again in his next deal. Schultz is also still young enough to command at least a two-year deal and a team might even dangle a third year as the clinching incentive to sign.

There is a growing sentiment that the Flyers should be in seller mode with their defensemen: Schultz, Braydon Coburn, Nicklas Grossmann and Luke Schenn being the most common names mentioned.

Such is the insatiable desire for established defensemen around the NHL — coupled with the way teams horde their own — that the Flyers could probably collect some draft pick assets (not prospects of any significance, however) if they pared down the veterans on their defense.

My question is this: What would the Flyers do for replacements that represent upgrades at equal or more reasonable cap hits?

Forget the UFA market. The higher-profile names are usually either re-signed to pre-emptive multi-year extensions by their current teams or command massive overpayment on the open market. Usually, the best buys on the UFA market are the Schultz reclamation project types, not the bigger names who get the massive cap hits and long-term deals.

Forget the trade market. It is very rare to pull off a deal akin to the 2007 Alexei Zhitnik for Braydon Coburn deal — a team desperate to make the playoffs dealing an up-and-coming prospect who is NHL ready for an aging veteran. There is no latter day Mark Recchi for Eric Desjardins and John LeClair (and Gilbert Dionne) trade for the Flyers to make.

Even if the Flyers go with youth next season — Samuel Morin stands a good shot at being with the NHL club next year, while it remains to be seen what happens with Shayne Gostisbehere’s ACL rehab and the second half of Robert Hägg’s thus-far uneven rookie AHL year — these players will need to be nurtured slowly and will need veteran partners.

Sure, the Flyers can deal Schultz as a rental and then either re-sign him in July at market cost or else look for a different bargain signing who can do next season what Schultz has done this year. Sure, they can deal non-UFA vets such as Coburn or Grossmann but who replaces those playersn next season and at what cap/trade cost relative to whatever assets would come back Philly’s way in the trade?

These are not simple issues to resolve. That is why general manager Ron Hextall has not pulled the trigger on any moves yet this season and why his hands may be tied for awhile to come. It’s not pretty, but it is reality.

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