Want to make an NHL player bristle? Just follow these easy steps:
(a) stand a foot away from him;
(b) remind him his team missed the playoffs last season;
(c) ask him if his team is rebuilding.
The experiment works like a charm on Philadelphia Flyers right winger Wayne Simmonds between training sessions at BioSteel's 2015 hockey camp, where players from all over the league – and other leagues – gather to compete, hone their skills and rehabilitate. Reminded of the Flyers' sixth-place finish in the Metropolitan division, and asked whether a new coach and large shipment of elite young defense prospects signifies a rebuild, Simmonds shakes his head so fast you can practically see the sweat fly.
"No," he said, recoiling slightly, brow furrowed. "We're a good team right now."
Simmonds says the only thing that kept his Flyers out of the big dance in 2014-15 was a tendency to play to their opponents' levels, holding their own against Cup contenders but struggling against teams equal to or below them in the standings. The stats confirm Simmonds' theory. Philly went 14-15-8 (.486) against teams that missed the playoffs and 19-16-10 (.533) against playoff teams last season. The discrepancy was even more pronounced in the Flyers' division, where they went 3-8-3 (.321) against the non-playoff Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets versus 9-5-2 (.625) against the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals.
The inability to shake off those bottom dwellers ultimately ruined the Flyers' season. It got coach Craig Berube fired, and it yielded the franchise's highest draft pick since James van Riemdsyk in 2007. The Flyers nabbed coveted Ivan Provorov seventh overall this past June, getting a defenseman in round 1 for the third straight year. Provorov will join quite the promising stable of blueline prospects, including fellow first-rounders Travis Sanheim and Samuel Morin, plus the promising Shayne Gostisbehere and Robert Hagg. Blend that injection of new blood with a relatively new GM in Ron Hextall and a fresh coaching hire in Dave Hakstol and it sure looks like this team is rebuilding.
Good luck convincing Simmonds of that, though. He's certain his Flyers will return to the post-season immediately.
Simmonds, 26, enters his second season as one of the team's alternate captains and takes it upon himself to become a better leader as the Flyers continue breaking in young forwards Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, Scott Laughton, Nick Cousins and, soon enough, Travis Konecny.
"I think they saw how hard I work, how much I love the boys and how much we work together," Simmonds said of being awarded the 'A.' "And that’s something I’m trying to build on, my leadership, trying to get better as the years go on.”
Simmonds is optimistic Hakstol will change the Flyers' fortunes, too. The two met for coffee to get to know each other this summer, and Simmonds says he couldn't be happier to start the season after that encounter. Hakstol has never coached a minute of NHL hockey. He's the first college bench boss to make the direct jump since Herb Brooks in 1987. But Hakstol had a long, fruitful run with the University of North Dakota, including a berth in the 2005 Frozen Four final. He coached Jonathan Toews, T.J. Oshie, Travis Zajac and Drew Stafford, among many other eventual NHLers. Hakstol won't be intimidated.
Still, will that be enough to get the Flyers back into the post-season? The Metro Division looks like the East's answer to the Central. The Islanders, Rangers and Capitals are juggernauts. The Penguins and Blue Jackets are improved. The Flyers' biggest off-season additions are Coyotes castoff Sam Gagner and veteran KHL import Evgeni Medvedev. Not exactly Phil Kessel or Brandon Saad or Justin Williams. It appears Philadelphia will have to make any significant gains from within.
That might mean Simmonds becoming a 30-goal scorer. He's produced 28, 29 and 28 goals in his past three non-lockout seasons, emerging as one of the game's better power forwards. For all the love Milan Lucic gets, combining pugilism with offense, has Simmonds not been better at that job for a while now? He also would've hit the 30-goal mark had a broken tibia not cost him the final seven games of 2014-15. He took a month off to heal to start this off-season and enjoyed hosting his annual charity tournament, Wayne's Road Hockey Warriors, but now he's healthy and back on the ice, working toward a new career-high goal total.
"Obviously, the benchmark is 30 for me," he said. "I’ve gotten close a couple times. I haven’t gotten it, but as long as we’re winning games and we’re making the playoffs, I really don’t care how many goals I get, to tell you the truth.”
The Flyers should care, however. Someone has to score if this team wants back in the post-season so soon. But it's nice to know Simmonds has so much confidence in the rest of his team. Any good leader should.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin