The off season is a long way off for the Philadelphia Flyers, but it’s never too early to see how this team can improve. One way is to start looking for Steve Downie’s replacement.
Early on in Downie’s second go-round with the Flyers, he looked like the missing piece on the Sean Couturier line. His moderate offensive skills helped make the third line one of the most dangerous two-way trios in the league. For a time, the third unit was the Flyers’ most productive line but as the season waned, so did Downie’s production and usefulness.
Downie, 26, is a competent two-way forward but a little rough around the edges. His tenacity can spark the team, but it can get the better of him. This often results in dumb penalties that can hinder the flow of the game. Head coach Craig Berube has also stressed that speed is important in today’s game, and Downie is not the most graceful skater.
The Fourth Period reported that the Flyers have not begun negotiating Downie’s contract, which expires at the end of this season. The Ottawa Sun also reported that Downie was also being shopped at the trade deadline. If these reports are true, then Downie is almost certainly on his way out of Philadelphia.
One way the Flyers can improve is through free agency. Below are two right wingers who will be unrestricted free agents when the 2013-14 season concludes and who I believe could be good fits for the Flyers. Each player’s highest cap hit is $3 million.
Stempniak, 31, has bounced around the league for a few years. Since his NHL debut in 2005-06, he has played for the St. Louis Blues, Toronto Maple Leafs, Phoenix Coyotes, Calgary Flames and Pittsburgh Penguins. Stempniak is about Matt Read’s size – 5’11″ 196 lbs – and averages between 30 and 40 points a year. He possesses some great skating ability and can play either left or right wing.
Stempniak’s split between offensive and defensive zone starts have been almost even during the past few seasons. His defensive zone starts have hovered around the low 30s while his offensive zone starts are in the higher 20s.
One big red flag about Stempniak is his positioning away from the puck. Hockey News listed one of his flaws as: ‘doesn’t have a lot of refinement in his play without the puck. Is somewhat undersized, which hinders his ability to win puck battles consistently.’ Maybe Berube can change that, but at the age of 31, I do not know the likelihood of that happening. Still, Stempniak’s scoring ability on the third line is something to consider.
Kulemin is the most intriguing free-agent target. Despite his size, 6’1″ 225 lbs, he is a mobile skater who can score. According to Hockey News, he possesses ‘a keen sense of anticipation, ‘smart and physically strong, he can play either wing position.’ Although he is prone to scoring funks, it is not his priority on the Toronto Maple Leafs. During the past two seasons, Kulemin has started close to 40 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone. This season, his 40.7 percentage ranks near the top of the team.
His best season was 2010-11 when he scored 30 goals and totaled 57 points. Since then he has yet to crack the 30-point plateau.
While his steep drop in production is concerning, playing with Read and Couturier could help spark his offensive potential.
The Flyers may not even have to go outside the organization to replace Downie. Raffl had a rough start to his NHL career, but he has made a great transition to the North American game. Raffl has also shined on every assignment coach Berube has given him. He also has played on the penalty killing unit, which shows how much Berube trusts his defensive game.