Younger, faster ... but will they score?
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.”
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.