Flyers season preview: Which team will we see?

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Flyers season preview: Which team will we see?

So which Flyers crew shows up Wednesday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs?

Will it be the one that has the potential to do some damage in the realigned Eastern Conference with newcomers Vinny Lecavalier, Mark Streit and Ray Emery?

Or will it be the one that lost five of seven preseason games and held a lead for less than 14 minutes?

Will it be a team that protects the slot or one that invite chaos in front of its goalies?

Most of all, will this look like an extension of last spring’s Flyers squad that won six of its final seven games and realizes a hot start is absolutely necessary, or will it be a carbon copy of last January's club that started off losing six of its first eight and never recovered?

For Peter Laviolette’s sake, this club needs to be decisively settled into a positive rhythm from the get-go.

“No question we want to get off to a good start,” Laviolette said. “When you put yourself behind the 8-ball, you are burying yourself and you have to dig out of a hole and that becomes difficult. … For us, it remains get off on the right foot, win hockey games, put yourself in position.”

A quick start would prove the preseason was a mirage forged out of the team having just one exhibition with a full, healthy roster.

“You want to have a great start,” Scott Hartnell said. “That is what everyone focuses on. Not just the first game, but the first five to 10 games. You want to get wins, get hot early, get a couple points, get the confidence going in the first part of the season.

“When you are winning games, points are gonna come. … We have to hit Wednesday running and have a quick start. It’s not going to be easy this year.”

Unlike the lockout restart, Hartnell is in shape, looking to turn the clock back two years ago when he had a career season with 37 goals and 67 points.

Thanks to a full-scale realignment, it will more difficult this season. Not just in the East overall, but in the new Metropolitan Division, which is the “old” Atlantic plus Carolina, Washington and Columbus.

That can be daunting for a club that failed to make the playoffs during the lockout-shortened season.

“I’m ready,” 15-year veteran defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. “I feel like I’ve been off a really long time. Too long. To have a year like that last year, sometimes, it’s good to settle down and see what we did wrong together -- everybody. Coaches, players, management, everybody.

“I hate to say it was good that we didn’t make the playoffs, but at least now everybody realizes we have to work even harder and make better decisions. Sometimes, you need [as a team] to go down to come back up again.”

So much is riding on team chemistry -- offensively and defensively -- for a club that seemed to lack both in exhibition play.

Streit was signed to move the puck efficiently and yet he struggled in the preseason, as did young Erik Gustafsson, who looked nervous in his own end.

Only Timonen and partner Braydon Coburn seemed relaxed.

You can’t emphasize enough how important it is for the Flyers to settle down in front of Emery and Steve Mason. A strong defense at the season’s start will allow the offense to catch up. 

“Defense is important everywhere,” Lecavalier said. “You got to be sharp defensively. In practices we do a lot of offense, which is very refreshing. You’re feeling good in the offensive zone.

“Protecting that puck, the difference from last year to this year for me is getting that puck in the offensive zone and keeping it. Not just being a one opportunity and you’re out. Cycle and do things like that.”

Emery figures to be No. 1 in goal. Whether he stays remains to be seen. Neither he nor Mason were sharp in exhibitions amid the chaos in front of them.

“It’s healthy to have competition,” club chairman Ed Snider said. “It’s great. These [players] both know each other, like each other. It’s not any negative type of competition. It works out well for us.”

Lecavalier will center Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds. The top line remains intact with Claude Giroux centering Hartnell and Jakub Voracek.

“Just play simple,” Voracek said. “Take care of the puck in our zone. Everything will come if you’re skating. Lanes open up.”

Lecavalier developed some chemistry in camp with Schenn and Simmonds.

“It’s all about feeling comfortable with the guys you play with and I feel comfortable,” Lecavalier said. “I played with everybody last year. So many [lines] I can’t remember.

“It changed one period to the next. Guy Boucher changed lines constantly. I didn’t have anyone consistently with me for the last few years except Teddy Purcell.”

Laviolette was encouraged with Lecavalier in exhibitions.

“He looks like he is in terrific shape,” Laviolette said. “He had Tampa Bay going in the right direction and then the injuries hit the club and hit him. He seems 100 percent healthy and motivated. He’s in shape, and he’s a talented guy.

“I still go back to the first couple times we played Tampa Bay last year. I was so impressed with the way he played the game. His competitiveness. The fact that he fought a couple of our guys. The way he was playing offensively.”

If Lecavalier ignites the offense, there should be a trickle-down effect. Voracek and Giroux were pretty much the only offense last season.

“We have a good balance of players here,” Laviolette said. “We have guys who can score and put up points. What teams do in the summer doesn’t matter as much as what they can build together as a group. The confidence they put into each other and play hockey games.

“Whether they are scoring or playing defense, winning is the name of the game. I think teams build that. That’s not put together in a summer. That doesn’t build a successful team or a championship team. It will come from the guys in this room … the identity and brand we bring on a consistent basis, that will be the difference between winning and losing.” 

Giroux seems recovered from a right hand injury via a freakish golf accident in August. He led the club with 48 points -- two more than Voracek, who led the team with 22 goals.

Giroux hopes his year carries over into something far more.

“I was playing with a lot of confidence,” Giroux said. “Any player who is playing with a lot of confidence can be a dangerous player. It’s about finding yourself and your game. You go on the ice and know what to do.

“It’s something I want to do, become a dangerous player offensively and defensively.  Jags [Jaromir Jagr] told me if I was going to be one of the best, I would have to also be the hardest working guy out there. I have had that on my mind [all offseason].”

With the Eagles in the tank, all eyes in South Philly shift to the Flyers this month.

General manager Paul Holmgren is a bit on edge as well.

“We need to be better,” Holmgren said. “The players know that. I am sure the coaches laid it out to them that it’s got to be better. I've addressed a couple individuals. In the last couple days, I think the players that we have realized it and picked it up a couple notches in practice.”

Future Flyers Report: How will NHL trade deadline affect Phantoms?

Future Flyers Report: How will NHL trade deadline affect Phantoms?

Before this week begins, it's time for our weekly check-in on the Flyers’ prospects playing in the AHL, overseas and at the junior and college levels.

In this week’s report, we take a look at what impact Wednesday’s NHL trade deadline could have on the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and their push toward a run at the 2017 Calder Cup.

State of the Phantoms
With Flyers general manager Ron Hextall declaring last Friday that he will not be a buyer Wednesday, it is safe to say the orange and black will be open to selling off pieces, which could have a direct impact on the Phantoms’ push toward a run at the Calder Cup.

Lehigh Valley (34-17-3) sits in third place in the Atlantic Division and East with 71 points. If the playoffs began today, the Phantoms would be the 3-seed in the Atlantic Division bracket and face the Providence Bruins, who would be the 2-seed, in the division semifinals round.

The Phantoms have 22 games left and barring a complete meltdown down the stretch, they appear set to make a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09 when they were still in Philadelphia. It would be their first postseason appearance in Lehigh Valley in their third season in there. They never made the playoffs in five years in Adirondack, New York.

Behind the turnaround
There is no shortage of kids that have played a factor in Lehigh Valley already reaching its win total from last season, but Hextall made it a point last summer to make the Phantoms competitive again. He wants the Flyers’ AHL affiliate to win because building a winning culture on the farm helps prospects develop in a positive environment. So far, so good.

The addition of AHL veterans T.J. Brennan, Greg Carey, Will O’Neil and Andy Miele have bolstered the Phantoms turn into one of the league’s top teams. Then there is Chris Conner and Colin McDonald, two vets who were there last season, fitting well into the equation.

Brennan leads AHL defensemen with 17 goals and 45 points and is eighth among all AHL players, while O'Neil has added 29 points to the blue line. Carey leads the Phantoms with 25 goals, Miele leads the way in the assist department with 34, while Conner (44) and McDonald (34) have combined for 78 points. Veterans are key in the turnaround.

The kids are all right … too
Make no mistake: veterans are not the only reasons behind the Phantoms' turnaround. Lehigh Valley is also benefitting from prospects growing and an influx of first-year pros. Sam Morin is coming along nicely. Robert Hagg has taken perhaps the biggest leap in his development in the organization. Anthony Stolarz is knocking on the NHL's door. Adding 22-year-old Scott Laughton -- and his 109 NHL games -- into the mix also doesn't hurt. Jordan Weal, who is currently with the Flyers, had a major impact, too, with the Phantoms.

The Phantoms also are receiving contributions from five AHL rookies, too. Forwards Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Radel Fazleev have performed well in bottom-six roles. Defensemen Travis Sanheim and Reece Willcox, too, are contributing. And then there is goalie Alex Lyon, whose 21 wins is tied for third among qualified AHL goaltenders.

Sanheim has become more comfortable and more consistent in both the offensive and defensive zones with each game. He's third among Phantoms defensemen with 26 points, and second behind Brennan with eight goals. It wasn't a great week for him last week -- pointless in two games with a minus-4 rating -- but his addition to the blue line has helped.

Head coach Scott Gordon has done an excellent job splitting up the net with Stolarz and Lyon, though the latter has started more games because the former had a brief stint in the NHL. Lyon betted on himself with a one-year contract and the Yale product has proved he's a legitimate prospect with the potential of being a future NHL goalie.

Lyon has a .909 save percentage and a 2.72 goals-against average -- nothing spectacular, but respectable numbers for a first-year professional carrying the load, at times, in the AHL. He has struggled a bit over his last four games, with a 3.77 goals-against average and .858 save percentage during the span, but the overall product has been promising.

A combination of strong, young goaltending, prospects developing and adding five first-year pros have factored into the jump in Lehigh Valley, too. Next season, some of the kids are expected to make the jump to the NHL, but more youngblood will be added.

Deadline impact on Phantoms
Which brings us to what impact Wednesday's NHL trade deadline will have on the Phantoms' playoff push. It all depends on the route Hextall decides to go with the Flyers. The Flyers have four expiring contracts that could be attractive to contending teams. As we discussed Sunday, defensemen Mark Streit and Michael Del Zotto and goalies Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth all are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents on July 1.

Because of the expansion draft this summer, there is a belief in the hockey world that rentals will be in high demand at the trade deadline. Streit and Del Zotto don't figure much into the Flyers' future plans and just one of Mason or Neuvirth will return next season, if at all. There is both immediate and long-term incentive to trading at least two of the four.

For one, moving an expiring contract that doesn't factor into the Flyers' future plans makes sense in all realms of thought. While this year's draft class is not expected to be deep, getting a draft pick -- or multiple draft picks -- for a free-agent-to-be is just smart. The Flyers already have nine draft picks this year and potentially 10 depending on the conditions of the Petr Straka trade with the New Jersey Devils. More can only help.

Secondly, subtracting a body on the blue line or in net could open up a spot for a kid that's expected to be here next season to gain valuable NHL experience the rest of this season. Two Phantoms defensemen come to immediate mind: Hagg and Morin. With Stolarz's cup of coffee when Neuvirth was injured, there is no reason to believe he could not serve as a legitimate backup to either Mason or Neuvirth and get more NHL game experience, too.

We don't know what Hextall will do Wednesday, but there are a few scenarios that could impact the Phantoms and their playoff push. Because of AHL playoff eligibility rules, don't expect the Flyers to call up any Phantoms before the 3 p.m. deadline Wednesday. That doesn't mean, however, that what the Flyers do at the deadline will not have an impact on the Phantoms. Let's take a quick glimpse at some scenarios that could affect Lehigh Valley.

• Flyers trade either Streit or Del Zotto

• Flyers trade both Streit or Del Zotto

• Flyers trade one of Mason and Neuvirth without getting a goalie back

• Combination of trading Mason/Neuvirth and Streit and/or Del Zotto

Since the Flyers have eight defensemen, trading one blueliner does not necessarily mean Hextall will call up a prospect from Lehigh Valley. If the Flyers unload both Streit and Del Zotto without getting a D-man back, Hextall would likely bring up either Hagg or Morin because the Flyers like to carry at least one extra defenseman and would have an opening.

Trading Mason or Neuvirth without seeing a goalie under contract for next season back would have a direct impact on the Phantoms because it would mean Stolarz would be called up to the Flyers to serve as the backup. The Flyers currently do not have a goalie to expose for the expansion draft with both Mason and Neuvirth not under contract beyond this season, which makes trading one of them a little more complicated. If Hextall were to trade one, it would be a safe bet to see a goalie come back whom they could expose.

With all that in mind, there is a realistic chance the Phantoms could see one of their defensemen make the jump to the NHL. If that were to happen, Willcox would be the big winner in Lehigh Valley. Willcox is often the odd man out with the Phantoms, so he would receive more playing time if the Flyers were to call up a defenseman. If a goalie goes and the Flyers call up Stolarz, it would mean the Phantoms' net belongs solely to Lyon. Whatever happens Wednesday in the NHL also will have an effect in the AHL, too.

Quick hits
• The Phantoms are going outdoors next season for the second time. Lehigh Valley will face the Hershey Bears at Hersheypark Stadium on Jan. 20, 2018, in the 2018 Outdoor Classic.

German Rubtsov returned to Chicoutimi's lineup after missing a few games injured. He picked up an assist in two games last week. He now has 19 points in 13 QMJHL games.

Pascal Laberge added a goal and an assist last week for Victoriaville. He has four points in his last three games, and seven points in his last seven games.

• Everett's Carter Hart stopped 86 of 91 shots he saw last week in two starts for the Silvertips. On Sunday, he was pulled after letting in three goals on 12 shots in a 6-1 loss to Seattle.

Anthony Salinitri added two goals and an assist in four games last week for Sarnia.

• A goal and two assists for Clarkson defenseman Terrance Amorosa last week.

Felix Sandstrom had a bounce-back week for Brynäs IF, starting two games and appearing in three. Sandstrom allowed three goals on 45 shots.

• Two more goals and two more assists for Brynäs' Oskar Lindblom last week.

Best of NHL: Sergei Bobrovsky ties career high with 32nd win as Blue Jackets top Rangers

Best of NHL: Sergei Bobrovsky ties career high with 32nd win as Blue Jackets top Rangers

NEW YORK -- Cam Atkinson and Alexander Wennberg each scored twice to lead the Columbus Blue Jackets to a 5-2 victory over the New York Rangers on Sunday.

Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 28 shots to tie his career high with his 32nd win. Josh Anderson also scored and Oliver Bjorkstrand had two assists to help the Blue Jackets win for the fourth time in five games.

Columbus won for the second time in two days after its bye week and moved past the Rangers into third place in the Metropolitan Division.

The Blue Jackets won three of five in the season series -- including both games at Madison Square Garden -- after losing seven straight meetings coming in.

Rick Nash scored a tying goal for the Rangers early in the first period. Jesper Fast scored in the final second, and Henrik Lundqvist finished with 26 saves (see full recap).

Surging Blackhawks beat Blues on late Anisimov goal
CHICAGO -- Artem Anisimov scored with 5:20 left in the third period to lift the Chicago Blackhawks over the St. Louis Blues 4-2 on Sunday night for their fourth straight win and ninth in their last 10.

Anisimov beat Jake Allen on the glove side from the right edge of the crease for his 22nd goal after taking a pinpoint cross-ice pass from linemate Artemi Panarin. Tanner Kero added an empty-netter with 2.6 seconds left.

Patrick Kane assisted on Anisimov's winner and scored a power-play goal. Jonathan Toews also had a goal and an assist for surging Chicago, which pulled one point behind first-place Minnesota in the Central Division and Western Conference.

Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith had an assist for his 500th NHL point.

Magnus Paajarvi and Alex Pietrangelo scored for the Blues, who played their first game following their bye week and lost their third straight (see full recap).

Gaudreau's 2 goals helps Flames down Hurricanes
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Johnny Gaudreau had two goals and an assist to help the Calgary Flames beat the Carolina Hurricanes 3-1 on Sunday.

Micheal Ferland also scored for the Flames. They have earned at least one point in six straight games, going 5-0-1 in that stretch to move into playoff position in the Western Conference.

Victor Rask scored on the power play for Carolina. The Hurricanes have lost six of seven to fall into last place in the Metropolitan Division.

Brian Elliott made 34 saves for the Flames, with his best coming with roughly 15 minutes to play when he stopped Jeff Skinner from point-blank range.

Eddie Lack finished with 21 saves. He made his second straight start for Carolina (see full recap).

Turris, Anderson lead Senators past Panthers
SUNRISE, Fla. -- Kyle Turris scored the tiebreaking goal in the second period and Craig Anderson stopped 37 shots to lift the Ottawa Senators over the Florida Panthers 2-1 on Sunday night.

Zack Smith had an early short-handed goal for the Senators, who have won four of six.

Jonathan Marchessault scored for Florida, and James Reimer made 31 saves. The Panthers have lost three straight after sweeping a five-game road trip, and dropped their last four home games overall.

Turris put Ottawa ahead when his wrist shot went over Reimer's glove at 9:58 of the second for his 21st goal of the season.

The Senators took a 1-0 lead on a short-handed goal by Smith. Reimer blocked a shot from Erik Karlsson, but Smith grabbed the rebound and poked in the puck at 6:28 of the first. Smith has 12 career short-handed goals (see full recap).