Younger, faster ... but will they score?

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - By Rob Par­ent rpar­ent @21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com @Reluc­tan­tSE on Twit­ter

They have a “core group” rapidly leav­ing their younger days be­hind.

They have a more mo­bile and deeper de­fense, and a pair of vet­eran goalies to share the load.

They have a sup­pos­edly solid set of skill for­wards who had to work hard late last sea­son to rise from near the bot­tom of the league scor­ing rank­ings.

So the Fly­ers start anew Fri­day night in Los An­ge­les, un­de­ni­ably far from per­fect but per­haps a lit­tle more en­ter­tain­ing than last year’s late achiev­ers, who by sea­son’s end had man­aged all of 211 goals. They had moved from near the bot­tom af­ter the first cou­ple of months to 22nd in the league by sea­son’s end.

Still, is that any place for a play­off team to be?

On the ice and in the up­stairs of­fices, the re­booted Fly­ers seem cer­tain they won’t have to en­ter­tain that ques­tion about be­ing scor­ing chal­lenged this time around.

“I think part of it is we have be­lief in our­selves,” gen­eral man­ager Ron Hex­tall said. “With that be­lief, it can’t be, ‘OK, we’re go­ing to get it done this year.’ We be­lieve, but we have to put the work in. It’s al­ways a thing that’s a lit­tle dan­ger­ous, we don’t make the play­offs two years ago, we make it last year and there’s al­ways a lit­tle think­ing like, ‘We’re go­ing to make the play­offs (again).’

“Well, we can’t view it like that. We have to MAKE the play­offs. We have a lot of work to do.”

In his off­sea­son tweak­ing pro­gram, Hex­tall stuck to the ba­sics of salary cap re­spon­si­bil­ity while adding grinders Dale Weise and Boyd Gor­don to his lower lines. It was the leap of faith he took dur­ing train­ing camp that has in­spired hope as well as sur­prise.

The ad­di­tions of 19-yearold ju­nior grads Ivan Provorov on de­fense and Travis Konecny on left wing might seem a bit risky, es­pe­cially for a GM that doesn’t of­ten push a teenaged per­son­nel agenda. But it’s a risk well worth tak­ing if that 211 num­ber is to be greatly in­creased.

“When you have two 19-year-olds mak­ing the team like that, with the way that Hexy thinks, it’s a sign that they are do­ing some­thing right,” said Jake Vo­racek, who will start the sea­son as Konecny’s line­mate on the sec­ond line, along with cen­ter Sean Cou­turier. “They give you a lot of speed up front and a lot of poise on the blue line.

“We’ve got more speed (now). And ev­ery­body is one year older than last year, with more ex­pe­ri­ence and more games un­der their belt.”

Look­ing at Konecny, Vo­racek added, “That guy is a ma­chine. He skates all the time. It’s real im­por­tant to have that guy on the line.”

The Fly­ers have been look­ing to form two solid scor­ing lines for some time now, and are prob­a­bly closer now than they have been in for sev­eral sea­sons.

Claude Giroux is back for a ninth sea­son as the top-line cen­ter, and will have Michael Raffl on his left side while Bray­den Schenn serves a three­game sus­pen­sion. But by the time they ar­rive for a home opener against Ana­heim Aug. 20, it’ll likely be Giroux be­tween Schenn and Wayne Sim­monds for a line that of­fers skill and punch.

If Konecny con­nects with Vo­racek and Cou­turier, Raffl would then go to ei­ther the third line with Pierre-Edouard Belle­mare cen­ter­ing and Nick Cousins, or to a crowded check­ing-line crew.

Gor­don will be a main­stay in the mid­dle there, with ei­ther Raffl or Weise, KHL free agent Ro­man Lyu­bi­mov, Chris Van­deVelde and Matt Read all fight­ing for play­ing time.

De­fen­sively, the loss of Michael Del Zotto for a month or more re­ally hurts, and a six-game sus­pen­sion to Radko Gu­das for act­ing like Radko Gu­das didn’t help, ei­ther.

But 38-year-old Mark Streit, who had an ab­bre­vi­ated train­ing camp due to the World Cup, thrived with the young and sweet­skat­ing Provorov in a cou­ple of pre­sea­son looks. Shayne Gostis­be­here anchors a sec­ond set with re­ju­ve­nated An­drew MacDon­ald, and an ap­par­ently healthy Bran­don Man­ning and Nick Schultz are a vi­able third pair for the time be­ing.

Though a start­ing goalie isn’t some­thing that was dis­cussed in re­cent days, both Steve Ma­son and Michal Neu­virth will get their fair share of play­ing time while both will be mo­ti­vated in a con­tract year. In re­cent prac­tice games, both looked sharp, too, but Neu­virth more or less made a case in last sea­son’s play­off loss to the Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals that if he can some­how find a way to stay healthy, he might be a step ahead in play­ing goalie hero.

For ei­ther goalie to have the chance to make a dif­fer­ence in the post­sea­son for the Fly­ers, how­ever, they know they can’t come out of the sea­son gate and promptly dig a stand­ings hole like the one they had to climb out of last sea­son.

Or those they didn’t climb out of in two of the three prior bad-start sea­sons.

“I think we showed a lot of char­ac­ter by mak­ing the play­offs (last sea­son),” Giroux said. “I think we learned that we have to have a good start and I think that’s pretty much the same story this year.”

“Whether or not we can say we are ahead of last year is for oth­ers to judge,” sec­ond-year coach Dave Hak­stol added. “We’ve tweaked a cou­ple of things but we’ve stayed with the ma­jor­ity of our ba­sic sys­tems. We’ve been able to add to it, able to add de­tail to what we are do­ing. And I feel like our readi­ness is at a good level.”

The mem­ory of what Neu­virth did to give the Fly­ers a late chance against the Caps shouldn’t be for­got­ten go­ing into this new campaign. Re­plac­ing Ma­son af­ter the club fell into a three-game hole, Neu­virth over­saw back-to-back vic­to­ries, only to fall 1-0 in Game 6 with his frus­trated team­mates go­ing of­fen­sively clue­less again. The Caps scored just two goals in those last three games com­bined. But it is up to the Fly­ers this sea­son to build them­selves into a team ca­pa­ble of win­ning in the play­offs when their goalie is giv­ing them such stand­out per­for­mances.

“For sure, we got a taste of it last sea­son,” Streit said. “We played a pretty good se­ries against Wash­ing­ton, but it was not good enough. So you go home and watch some of the play­off hockey and see teams go­ing all the way and it sucks. So you go back to work in the sum­mer and get to work on the new sea­son. Now we are here.”

FRANK FRANKLIN II — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Fly­ers goalie Michal Neu­virth, right, makes a save while rookie team­mate Travis Konecny (63) and New York Ranger Bran­don Pirri close in for a re­bound dur­ing a re­cent pre­sea­son game. If Neu­virth, who was out­stand­ing against the Cap­i­tals in a half-se­ries of work last April, can stay healthy this sea­son, he stands to be the club’s No. 1 goalie.

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