Philadelphia Flyers

Flyers can still win with Claude Giroux, but youth is up against clock

Flyers can still win with Claude Giroux, but youth is up against clock

Ron Hextall sat at the press conference table and made his edict.

The kids are coming.

"Our young players, they've done enough," the general manager said Thursday at Flyers Skate Zone. "We'll continue to monitor some of them through the playoffs, but our young players are going to get a long look. We don't plan on going out and signing veterans on the back end. Our kids, it's time to give them a shot, and we're going to do that."

Those words should be momentous to Claude Giroux.

As the Flyers' captain heads into the offseason with a career low in goals for a full season and a third straight drop-off in points, many are pondering not only Giroux's future in orange and black, but also the club's future with him as its maestro.

The Flyers are now watching the playoffs for the third time in the last five seasons, while their core continues to climb the ladder in age. This group of Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier has not won a postseason series since 2011-12.

It's clear time is ticking and the Flyers need more than what's here. Hextall won't make some sexy signing or big trade -- no outside ammunition because he's staying true to his mantra of building through the draft and the organization's youth.

"We're not going to put roadblocks in place where two years from now, we want to be able to sign Player X and we can't do it where Player X is a better fit than the guy we would have signed July 1 this year," Hextall said. "I think most of our moves at this point right now are going to come internally."

Which means Giroux's success and much of his legacy will be heavily reliant on how fast these prospects blossom into NHL difference-makers.

Yeah, no pressure, youngsters.

"I really think that we're not far off," Giroux said Tuesday.

The kids will dictate that.

Giroux can still win here. He's not getting traded. The plan is for the prospects to meet the core, and who says they can't?

There is a lot to like with the reinforcements on the horizon, players to augment the core and Giroux into his 30s. Travis Konecny and Jordan Weal are already here. Konecny, 20, has a full NHL season under his belt and we all know of the playmaking potential. Weal, who turns 25 on Saturday, showed his scoring ability with eight goals and four assists in 23 games as the Flyers went 6-2-0 when he lit the lamp. Oskar Lindblom, a 20-year-old wing prospect drafted in 2014, is looking more and more ready, putting up 60 points (25 goals, 35 assists) in 65 SHL games this season, including the playoffs.

"Oskar, he's had a great year," Hextall said. "He's in a really good league. He's a good hockey player. He's come a long way since his draft year. The Swedish Elite League is a very good league and he's done a good job.

"I hope he's here in September fighting for a spot along with a number of other guys."

And the area most plentiful for opportunity is on the blue line. We all know the names: Sam Morin, Robert Hagg, Travis Sanheim, Philippe Myers, just to name a few. A younger, faster, more versatile defense can only help as it gains experience. One of the biggest discrepancies from this season to last was the Flyers' allowing 2.82 goals per game compared to 2.56 in 2015-16.

Two spots have already opened up on the 2017-18 defense.

Yes, more youth will be surrounding Giroux and company as Hextall's prudence finally gives way to such.

"It's got to all happen together," Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said Thursday. "It's one of those things that as a group, the challenge of 82 games of consistency is in front of us. You have to have both the young guys in the lineup stepping up and adding that energy and that ability and some of that youthful enthusiasm, and that has to work in conjunction with your veterans that really, as a group and as a core, are entering into prime years.

"The strength of that core group is what ultimately will drive our team. I believe the two can happen in conjunction with each other. We've got to go out and do that job."

Obviously, none of this means everything will magically change in the Flyers' favor next season. A touted prospect doesn't translate to immediate success and a better team. The Flyers aren't jumping into Stanley Cup contention overnight.

Remember this, though: Giroux is only 29 years old. Never one to admit injury, it was evident Giroux was not himself during the 2016-17 season, whether it was lingering effects from his hip and abdominal surgeries or a separate issue.

"When you try to do something and you can't do it; your mind wants to do something but your body doesn't do it, it's frustrating," he said.

What couldn't he do?

"I think just a little bit of everything," Giroux said. "Like I said, it's frustrating. But you've got to keep working on your game, get stronger and faster. I'm very excited to have a whole summer to work out and really do what I want to do."

Giroux fuels on motivation. This past season might push him more than ever.

"I don't think G had a great year," Hextall said. "He's not on the decline. I know this: I'll be shocked next year if you guys don't ask me in January, 'Well, how has G turned this around?' He's a very driven athlete, he's very driven. I know he's going to train hard this year. We're going to make some minor tweaks in how he trains. He trains hard."

As Giroux trains, the Flyers will start to change, too.

"Two years ago, we were the 29th-oldest team in the league," Hextall said. "It depends on how you crunch the numbers. Last year, we were 17th. This year, I think we were 12th and next year I would project us to go into single digits. That matters, being young."

It matters greatly to Giroux. How fast the youth grows up will matter most.

Forcing the Flyers' hand? Travis Sanheim's chances at roster spot grow in preseason loss

Forcing the Flyers' hand? Travis Sanheim's chances at roster spot grow in preseason loss

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NEW YORK — Is starting the season with three rookie defensemen asking too much?

Travis Sanheim might be making it possible.

“We got another good night of information," Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said Monday after a 3-2 overtime preseason loss to the Rangers (see observations). "Those two young guys (Sanheim and Robert Hagg) played pretty well — Sanheim had a real impact on the hockey game tonight. We’re going to let these guys make those decisions.”

If the brain trust of Hakstol and Ron Hextall was expecting two of their three rookie defensemen to separate themselves during the preseason test run, well that hasn’t quite happened, as the 21-year-old Sanheim has displayed an offensive element that would give the Flyers a much-needed weapon from the blue line. Sanheim’s NHL-caliber slap shot, coupled with his mobility and ability to read plays in the offensive zone have set him apart from fellow rookies Hagg and Sam Morin.

“I’m slowly starting to build my game, get a lot more confidence and get comfortable playing with the guys around me,” Sanheim said. "I’m getting more comfortable with the team, systems, and players around me. It’s been good so far. Obviously, we wanted a different outcome tonight, but I like where my game’s at.” 

If it wasn’t for Sanheim, the Flyers would have been shut out in each of their last two games, as he’s provided their only offense in overtime losses to the Bruins and Rangers. A week ago, it appeared all signs were pointing to Lehigh Valley and another year of AHL seasoning, but that’s when Hakstol noticed a change in Sanheim.

“I learned more about him five to six days ago,” Hakstol said. “He didn’t have a great night (preseason opener against Islanders). Sometimes you learn as much about a player and where he’s at coming off a night like that. It didn’t shake him. He came back and had a great practice the next day and he carried that into the next game. To me, that showed maturity on his part.”

Sanheim has continued to rise up the charts coming off a strong performance against the Islanders in Allentown, Pennsylvania, last Wednesday, and he’s rolled that over into the past two games, playing mostly with NHL regulars. What’s even more impressive is that Sanheim is having a tremendous offensive outburst despite seeing very little time on the team’s power play, as he logged just 36 seconds with the man advantage, a unit that came up empty once again and is now 0 for 14 over its last two games.

Still, captain Claude Giroux can’t see any reason why three rookie defensemen can’t make this team out of camp.

“You’ve seen them play. They can play,” Giroux said. “We have a lot of young D that are ready to play in the NHL, and they’re competing right now for a spot. For us, it’s fun to see because every day they’re doing stuff and it’s pretty amazing. It’s a long season — whoever’s hot, whoever’s playing good will have the opportunity to play.”

With Morin receiving his first night off from preseason action, Hakstol had Sanheim paired with Radko Gudas, while Hagg was working with Flyers top defenseman Ivan Provorov. Outside of a slow start and an unfortunate bounce on the Rangers' second goal, Hagg continued his steady play.

“I thought he didn’t have the cleanest start to a hockey game, but to his credit, he worked his way into the game,” Hakstol said. “The goal against — there’s a couple of things that happened before that that led to that play, but he had a hard-working night.”

You can be my wingman
Giroux’s much-anticipated left wing audition could be described as a good first night and worthy of a callback, whether that comes Tuesday night against the Rangers or Thursday against the Bruins.

Unofficially, the top line of Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek saw 15 shifts together at even strength, and then chemistry appeared to grow as the game progressed.

“It was good," Giroux said. "As the game went on, I started to feel more comfortable. We had a lot of chances, just some mistakes that you don’t see during the season, like a 2-on-0 with Jake, usually our chemistry is better than that. As the game went on, our chemistry got better and we were able to find each other a little bit more."

Giroux and Voracek had a prime scoring opportunity in the opening period, but Giroux’s shot from the right side went just wide of the net. Combined, the Flyers' top line finished the night with a minus-2 rating and six shots while winning 67 percent of its faceoffs.

“Maybe there was a tendency to make one more pass instead of putting it on net and stopping at the net and looking for one of those greasy goals,” Hakstol said. “But overall, there’s some good things there. There were enough positives to see if it can grow.”

Nolan's night
The No. 2 pick continues to settle into his role as the Flyers' No. 2 center. Once again, Nolan Patrick centered a line that included Jordan Weal and Wayne Simmonds. Patrick’s defense has been a steady component of his game since camp began, and now the rookie is sprinkling in some offense. Patrick contributed the primary assist on Sanheim’s first goal, which came during 4-on-4 play in the first period.

“Those are the kind of things he can do,” Hakstol said. “That’s hockey sense. That’s knowing what’s around him and being a step ahead. He’s building. As the speed of the games go up, there’s always more to learn. I think over the last week, he’s done a little more offensively. Each and every night he’s impacted the game offensively in our last three games, and that’s been a real positive.”

Flyers-Rangers preseason observations: Travis Sanheim's push to make team heats up

Flyers-Rangers preseason observations: Travis Sanheim's push to make team heats up

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NEW YORK — Dave Hakstol conducted some garden variety experimentation Monday night against the Rangers, by moving Claude Giroux to left wing for the first time in his Flyers career.

"It's definitely a change but you know I'm just trying to be in good position and make the right play," Giroux said. "Slowly, I'm feeling more comfortable."
 
The line combination of Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek failed to generate a point, but it was the play of rookie Travis Sanheim that took center stage off Broadway.

Sanheim notched a pair of goals, but the Flyers fell, 3-2, in overtime at Madison Square Garden. Ryan McDonagh scored the game-winner for New York in the 3-on-3 OT.

"It's really high right now," Sanheim said of his confidence. "Obviously, I don't want it to get too high. I just have to try and keep an even-keel here and finish up strong."

Sanheim has now scored the Flyers' last three goals of the preseason.

• For the fourth time in five preseason games, the Flyers went to overtime. The Rangers finished the job Monday, as the captain McDonagh collected his own rebound and pushed the puck past Michal Neuvirth for the game-winner with 1:09 remaining in OT.

• New York scored on its first shot on net, when Rick Nash deflected McDonagh's shot from the point to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead just 3:16 into the game.

• Sanheim tallied his first just 2:23 after the Rangers' first goal. The defenseman ripped a rocket past Henrik Lundqvist from the top of the left circle. It was his team-leading second of the preseason with assists from Jordan Weal and Nolan Patrick, who picked up his second assist in four preseason games.

• Sanheim added his second goal in the final moments of the second period, when he pinched behind the Rangers' defense and corralled Radko Gudas' shot from the point and backhanded it past Lundqvist with four seconds remaining in the period.

"I'm just trying to play my game,” Sanheim said. “All along I play that offensive side. I'm just trying to keep it simple defensively and trying to make smart plays and make good reads to get in the play and it's been working so far."

Sanheim has continued to make significant strides and show improvement throughout the preseason, and his offensive upside has to give Hakstol some serious consideration to how he wants his defense to look when the regular season begins (see story). There have been few lapses defensively since the preseason opener against the New York Islanders.

• The Rangers tied the game at 2-2 when Neuvirth knocked away Mika Zibanejad’s wrist shot with his blocker, but the rebound hit Robert Hagg, deflected off Neuvirth and just over the line for a goal.

• The Flyers' power play continues to work out the kinks. The team worked on the PP structure for the first time over the weekend. That unit is now 0 for 14 over the last two games. The Flyers finished Monday’s game 0 for 5.

• Scott Laughton continues to be a valuable asset on the Flyers' penalty kill. Laughton broke up several passes on the Rangers' early power play of the second period.  
  
• Gudas fell to the ice late in the first period and then appeared to be holding his hand in obvious pain. Gudas didn’t miss any time and made a pronounced statement in the third period when he unloaded an open-ice hit on Rangers center Filip Chytil. Mats Zuccarello rushed to Chytil’s defense, which resulted in a two-minute unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a Flyers power play.

• The two teams will continue their preseason home-and-home series Tuesday night at the Wells Fargo Center as Brian Elliott is expected to play the entire game in net. Elliott turned aside all 18 shots in two periods of action last Thursday in Boston.

Lines, pairing and scratches:

Forwards
Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Jordan Weal-Nolan Patrick-Wayne Simmonds
Jori Lehtera-Valtteri Filppula-Travis Konecny
Michael Raffl-Scott Laughton-Matt Read

Defensemen
Ivan Provorov-Robert Hagg
Brandon Manning-Shayne Gostisbehere
Travis Sanheim-Radko Gudas

Goalies
Michal Neuvirth
Brian Elliott

Scratches: Sam Morin, Taylor Leier, Mike Vecchione, Dale Weise, Oskar Lindblom