Two days ago, the Philadelphia Flyers announced that they had signed forward James van Riemsdyk to a six-year contract extension that would keep the budding superstar in the City of Brotherly Love through the 2017-18 season.
The contract extension was one of a series of moves this offseason that made it clear that the Flyers are investing in a bright future, even at the expense of immediate success.
With van Riemsdyk the only player, besides Ilya Bryzgalov, locked up through 2017-18 season, one cannot help but speculate on the other players in the system that should be a part of the Flyers’ long-term plans.
Six other current players are crucial to them team’s success in the next six years, and beyond.
Player: Sean Couturier
Age in 2017-18: 25
The Back Story: Normally, when a team drafts a player as a “steal,” they simply get lucky that their guy lasted long enough to be picked. For the Flyers, their supposed first-round “steal” at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft came at the expense of their top scorer, Jeff Carter.
When a team loses its best scorer and labels you a “could-be No. 1 pick,” you’ve got plenty to prove throughout your development.
That’s the hot seat in which Sean Couturier has found himself.
Couturier may not be NHL ready for a few years (former No. 2 pick James van Riemsdyk didn’t play in the NHL until more than two years after the Flyers selected him), but the front office undoubtedly has big plans for the 6’4 center who will likely top out at over 200 pounds.
Where he fits in: In 2013-14, two years into Couturier’s development, Flyers center Danny Briere will be entering the tail end of his contract at age 36. While Briere may still be a capable player, his eventual decline will be less traumatic for Flyers fans if it coincides with the rise of Couturier.
Couturier’s skill set differs from Briere’s; he is more adept in the defensive aspects of the game, while Briere is primarily an offensive contributor. But the timing of Couturier’s development will make him a natural replacement on the Flyers’ top lines.
The abundance of NHL-caliber centers in the Flyers system may force Couturier to move to the wing, but there is no doubt that the Flyers will be interested in the Drummondville native’s services for years to come.
Player: Erik Gustafsson
Age in 2017-18: 29
The Back Story: Erik Gustafsson is a native Swede who played college hockey at Northern Michigan University. He was undrafted, but after earning consecutive Central Collegiate Hockey Association awards as the league’s Best Offensive Defenseman, the Flyers took notice and brought him into the farm system.
Since his arrival in Adirondack, Gustafsson has become a hot topic of conversation for Flyers fans, particularly with this season’s sixth defensive position up for grabs. He has contributed 56 points in 77 games with the Phantoms and played three games in the NHL last season.
Where he fits in: Even if Gustafsson doesn’t make this year’s roster, the pint-sized puck-mover is destined for the NHL, and he has a picture-perfect mentor waiting for him in the pros. Gustafsson’s size, statistics and scouting report all sound extraordinarily like Kimmo Timonen, and with Timonen coming into 2011-12 as a 36-year-old, Gustafsson will soon be the natural replacement as Timonen enters the last two years of his contract and his final seasons in the NHL.
Gustafsson has the potential to be defensively reliable and a quick puck-mover, attributes that make up for his 5’10, 180 pound frame. Most teams might hesitate to invest in such a small defenseman, but the Flyers have seen first-hand how smaller players with the right attitude and reliable instincts can round out the defensive corps.
With a 29 year-old Gustafsson feeding the puck to experienced forwards out of the defensive zone, and on the power play, the 2017-18 Flyers will be lighting the lamp quite frequently.
Player: Braydon Coburn
Age in 2017-18: 32
The Back Story: Coburn’s career with the Flyers began with a trade that still makes Flyers fans shake their heads and laugh. The team traded washed-up defenseman Alexei Zhitnik to the Atlanta Thrashers for Coburn—a trade that is a pretty good summary of the reasons why the Thrashers no longer exist.
Coburn contributed 36 points in the following season, impressive numbers for a player whose primary responsibilities are on the defensive end of the ice. Since then, Coburn has not played in fewer than 80 games and is +16 on the ice.
Where he fits in: If Gustafsson is the small puck mover, Coburn is the 6’5" shot blocker who clears the crease for Bryzgalov. Should the Flyers extend Coburn before the end of this season, his contributions in the next six years will not come in the form of goals created, but in the form of goals prevented.
His development has had its ups and downs, but Coburn appears to be on track to become one of the most reliable blue line presences in hockey. With Chris Pronger a few years from retirement, and Coburn the tallest player on the roster in Pronger’s absence, his size and stability will anchor the Flyers defense for many years.
Coburn may never repeat his 36 point performance of 2007-08, but he doesn’t have to. Simply keeping his cool in his own zone will make the Flyers a contender for years to come.
Player: Brayden Schenn
Age in 2017-18: 26
The Back Story: Despite never having played a game for the Orange and Black, Schenn needs no introduction; faithful Flyers fans are already familiar with the enormous potential that Paul Holmgren pried away from the Los Angeles Kings.
To summarize for the less faithful: No. 1 prospect, comparable to Richards and Toews, vision, wrist shot, puck handling, World Junior Most Valuable Player, and according to Bleacher Report’s own Sam Rucky, future Calder Trophy winner.
The key piece in the Schenn trade, Mike Richards, was signed through the 2019-20 season, so it’s safe to say that Paul Holmgren is interested in a long-term relationship with his new crown jewel.
Where he fits in: Schenn’s upside is so high that even living up to a fraction of his expectations will make him one of the most valuable players on the Flyers roster for years to come.
Schenn will be a part of the Flyers great depth at center and can be expected to contribute offensively, starting as soon as this season. By the time Schenn is a 26-year-old with his share of NHL seasons under his belt, he will be showing up on the score sheet nightly and the stands in Philadelphia will be filled with orange and white No. 10 jerseys. Except these jerseys will no longer say “LeClair” on the back.
In the next six years, Schenn will undoubtedly require a big payday to stay in Philly. But his contributions to the team on offense, defense and in the locker room mean that the front office will do whatever it takes to lock him up long-term.
Player: Andrej Meszaros
Age in 2017-18: 32
The Back Story: After three promising years in Ottawa, Meszaros appeared to lose his mojo in Tampa Bay, topping out at 17 points in 81 games in 2009-10. He appears revitalized in Philadelphia, putting up 32 points last season.
Meszaros is a rare breed of defenseman who manages to be a force on all parts of the ice. His offensive contributions are timely and consistent, and at 223 pounds, opposing forwards can never get comfortable in Meszaros’s territory.
Meszaros is a hitter, a shot blocker, and a clutch goal scorer. And given that he turns 26 after the start of this season, his brightest years are still ahead of him.
Where he fits in: With fun-sized Gustafsson as a puck mover and giant Coburn as a defensive presence, the 2017-18 Flyers will have a three-headed monster if Meszaros is playing both ends of the ice.
The Slovak would round out the defensive corps and be one of the most feared veteran leaders in the league. Meszaros’s flexible style of play would mesh well with that of Couturier, Schenn and Claude Giroux, allowing the forwards and defenseman to smoothly rotate their positions without finding themselves out of position.
Most importantly, Meszaros would be a force on the point during power plays, using his stifling slapshot to get pucks on net.
He is currently signed through 2014-15, but at his current pace, the Flyers will want to invest in Meszaros well beyond that season.
Player: Claude Giroux
Age in 2017-18: 29
The Back Story: With the departure of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, many Flyers fans consider Claude Giroux to be the face of the Flyers offense. Giroux is undersized but plays a game that has garnered comparisons to another former Flyer, Peter Forsberg.
Giroux’s coming-out party occurred in the 2009-10 playoffs, when he finished at nearly a point-per-game pace. The following season, Giroux netted 25 goals and 76 points.
Now that Giroux is likely to see more time on offense, and on the power play, in the absence of Richards and Carter, his offensive production will go up. He is expected to contribute on the penalty kill as well, and is fast becoming one of the top two-way forwards in the league.
Where he fits in: Giroux’s long-term role with Philadelphia will see him as one of the top offensive weapons, likely setting up his more trigger-happy linemates for years to come.
Giroux is also a player with integrity and a reputation for being a positive influence in the locker room. With Pronger, Timonen and Briere seeing their time in Philly end before 2017-18, Giroux is a likely candidate for a letter on the jersey.
Coach Peter Laviolette appears to believe that Giroux is the centerpiece of his team for years to come, and GM Paul Holmgren signed him to an extension that will take him through 2014, when he becomes a restricted free agent. There is little doubt that by that time, the Flyers will have made Giroux their franchise player, perhaps for the entirety of his career.