Although he's not happy with his team's early playoff exit, club president Paul Holmgren thinks the Flyers are on track to be a Stanley Cup contender, and he made it clear in an interview Tuesday that he is on board with any offseason decision made by his general manager, Ron Hextall.
Holmgren said Hextall will have "free rein" to sign free agents if he thinks they will bolster the team.
The salary cap is expected to climb from $75 million to the $80 million range this summer. If it does, the Flyers could have around $25.5 million of available space if they buy out forward Jori Lehtera.
They still have to sign some of their own players, but they should have plenty left over to make a bid for a marquee free-agent like Islanders center John Tavares or Washington defenseman John Carlson or San Jose left winger Evander Kane — if Hextall has that desire. (Keep in mind that Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny will be due big raises after next season.)
Hextall has been the general manager for four years, and "the team continues to show development," Holmgren said. "Is there a point in time where he looks to add? His job is look at what's available at whatever time. And if he thinks it's a deal that's in the best interest of the organization moving forward, then his job is to act on it."
This is the first time in his tenure that Hextall will have significant cap room.
"Ron has the flexibility to do whatever he wants with his cap space and his roster," Holmgren said when asked about the possibilities of signing a free agent. "If that's the decision he wants to make moving forward, he's got free rein to do that. I think Ron continues to do what's right for the organization."
As for the season, the Flyers were eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games, and they were outscored by a 25-6 margin in their four losses in the conference quarterfinals. In the series, the Flyers were 2-1 in Pittsburgh and 0-3 at the Wells Fargo Center.
It was fitting, because their regular season, which produced 98 points and a third-place finish in the tough Metropolitan Division, was topsy-turvy. It was a season that included a 10-game losing skid and lots of up-and-down streaks, but it also featured strong play over the last four months. The Flyers were tied for the NHL's fifth-best record from Dec. 4 until the end of the season.
"There were certainly some high points and certainly some low points," said Holmgren, whose club made a 10-point improvement over last season. "To make a push and get close to 100 points, I think we're a team that's on the upswing. We had some good growth from some players this year. I think some of our young players blossomed and it gives us some things to look forward to as they continue to get better and better."
Asked to grade the team's overall season, Holmgren said "it's incomplete. We need to continue to get better because our goal is to win a Stanley Cup."
The Flyers, who haven't won a Cup since 1975, have numerous prospects who are getting closer to the NHL, including defensemen Samuel Morin and Phil Myers, wingers Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Carsen Twarynski, centers Mike Vecchione and Morgan Frost, and goalie Carter Hart.
"The timetable on when and if they make an impact with the Flyers usually lies with them," Holmgren said. "We're excited about the number of good young players we have in our organization."
Realistically, Hart is two years away and will start next season with the AHL's Phantoms.
"I don't think it would make sense to think about him playing any time soon with the Flyers," Holmgren said.
Down the road, Hart could be the centerpiece of the Flyers' playoff hopes.
"We're excited. You look at what he's doing, you look at what he's done in the Canadian juniors the last few years, and what he's done on the World Championship stage for Team Canada in the world junior tournament," Holmgren said. "We are excited, but you just have to be careful in terms of [when they're] playing in the NHL. I think the coaches and certainly Ron are aware of that. The excitement of having all these young players coming into the organization is great. Sooner or later, they're going to be playing for the Flyers, but we can't count on it happening overnight."
On the subject of attendance, Holmgren was asked why there were more than 1,000 empty seats for each of their three home playoff games. The Flyers said the games were sellouts.
Holmgren said the seats were sold by the Flyers to brokers, who apparently couldn't sell the tickets.
There were blocks of empty seats behind the nets. Holmgren said the Flyers need to "move the seats around" that they sell to brokers and "position them differently," so large blocks of seats aren't empty.
"It doesn't look good when you see rows of empty seats in the playoffs," he said.
Said Holmgren: "Our fans are great. They show up in tremendous numbers, and as we continue to improve our product we expect our fans will continue to be there and support us because that's what Flyers fans do."
Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds was named one of three finalists Tuesday for the NHL's Mark Messier Leadership Award. Winnipeg's Blake Wheeler and Vegas' Deryk Engelland are the other finalists for the award, which is presented for leadership and helping the community grow the sport.