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.”

A healthy Nolan Patrick to Flyers? 'He won't let anybody down,' Brandon GM says

A healthy Nolan Patrick to Flyers? 'He won't let anybody down,' Brandon GM says

As he met with general manager Grant Armstrong, Nolan Patrick had just finished an injury-marred junior season.

The 18-year-old missed the WHL playoffs and was limited to 33 games because of two separate injuries. He underwent sports hernia surgery the offseason prior, a major impediment to his summer training. He never quite "caught up to the year," as Armstrong put it.

"I don't think he really ever got himself into a situation where he was 100 percent," the Brandon Wheat Kings GM said in a phone interview last week with CSNPhilly.com.

But none of that was about to crack Patrick's confidence.

"When we had our exit meetings, he told me he was going to play in the NHL," Armstrong said. "I wished him the best of luck and I expect that's where he'll be next year."

Where he could be is Philadelphia sporting Flyers orange. Patrick and Nico Hischier are the consensus top two picks for the June 23-24 NHL entry draft. The Flyers, of course, thanks to a stroke of good luck, will be happily sitting at No. 2 overall. The Devils will make Ron Hextall's decision much easier when they pick at No. 1.

The Canadian Patrick and Swiss-born Hischier are both centers. Coming into the season, Patrick was viewed as the draft's top dog, but his health and Hischier's rise have tightened the race.

Will the injuries cause apprehension?

"I think there's no concern at all," Armstrong said. "Injuries are a part of the game and I don't see it being an issue for Nolan at all. He trains well, he works hard at it and rehabs properly. I don't see it being an issue and currently, I think he's at 100 percent."

Despite the hampered summer and shortened season, Patrick showed why he's so heralded, compiling 46 points in 33 games for the Wheat Kings, his third year with the junior club. He scored 20 goals and collected 26 assists. Why that might not be mind-blowing is because Patrick had 102 points in 2015-16 on 41 goals and 61 assists for an astounding plus-51 rating. He went on to record 30 points (13 goals, 17 assists) in 21 playoff games, leading Brandon to its first WHL title in 20 years alongside current Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov.

Similar to Provorov, Patrick's hockey smarts belie his age.

"His presence on the ice, he just thinks the game, he puts himself in positions to be successful all the time," Armstrong said. "He's almost above the ice in his thinking aspect. He sees the game so well, he's a student of the game, he understands and puts himself in positions of success. That hasn't changed, it's only getting better for him.

"He's a difference-maker."

Armstrong joined the Wheat Kings last summer but had scouted and seen plenty of Patrick as Armstrong worked the previous four seasons for the WHL's Victoria Royals.

"He's a very elite player with a tremendous hockey sense," Armstrong said. "I think that's his biggest attribute is he thinks the game so well, he thinks it ahead of what's really happening on the ice a lot of the times. He's a player that's really starting to come into his own. 

"This next season will be a real opportunity for him to showcase his elite hockey sense and his athleticism and all the things that combine to make him a great player."

It appears Patrick, who has great size at 6-foot-3, 198 pounds, is ready to showcase those traits at the NHL level. His future club will ultimately decide that in training camp.

"We would like to think we know that, but until the kid comes in and shows you what he can do," Hextall said earlier this month. "You make an educated judgment and then you go from there. A player has to come in and prove that he's ready and at this age not many are, so we'll wait and see which way [the player] goes from there."

Armstrong said there's constant communication between Brandon and NHL teams throughout a season and that it escalates this time of year as the draft nears.

What about with the Flyers?

"The Flyers are a great organization and obviously we have ties to their GM," Armstrong said. "It's a good fit and they know what's going on.

"They're dialed into what's going on and they have all kinds of ways to communicate with people."

While Patrick may not jump off the charts with Connor McDavid-like scoring ability, he prides himself on being complete. Armstrong said Patrick models his game after Kings center Anze Kopitar, a two-time Stanley Cup champion and 2015-16 Selke Trophy winner as the NHL's top defensive forward.

It's the do-it-all mentality Armstrong believes was special, night in and night out.

"Just the way he makes small plays in a game that would set up a teammate," he said. "He plays a 200-foot game, he's coming back hard and supporting the D in the defensive zone. Switching to offense, he's quick and he does things that make him such a great player.

"I think everybody thinks that a No. 1 or 2 centerman is going to be completely focused on the offensive side, but no, he's very committed to the defensive side of the puck — I think that's one thing that's a little bit misunderstood about him. He's got such an ability to play in any situation — killing penalties, late in the game, taking big faceoffs, that's his game."

Armstrong extolled Patrick for making everyone around him better on the Wheat Kings.

If that's with the Flyers next, Armstrong believes you won't be disappointed.

"I think they just have to be patient and allow the player to grow. He won't let anybody down," Armstrong said. "I just think he's an elite talent with an elite sense for the game. At some point, he'll be a great two-way centerman in the league. He'll put up offensive numbers. They won't be in the elite category, but he'll be a guy that'll chip away at his game, he'll produce. You just have to take your time and be patient."

End to End: Is it really a 2-player race atop the NHL draft?

End to End: Is it really a 2-player race atop the NHL draft?

Throughout the offseason, we'll ask questions about the Flyers to our resident hockey analysts and see what they have to say.
 
Going End to End today are CSNPhilly.com producers/reporters Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone.
 
The topic: Is it really a two-player race atop the NHL draft?
 
Dougherty
Maybe it's because the Flyers have the No. 2 pick and we tend to put the top prospects under an unfair microscope in years that do not include bona fide picks atop the draft.
 
Maybe it is as simple as whoever the New Jersey Devils do not draft.
 
Maybe we're overthinking this. Maybe we're not.
 
These are the questions that Flyers general manager Ron Hextall and his staff are asking themselves in the weeks leading up to the June 23-24 NHL entry draft in Chicago.
 
It appears to be a two-player draft, or at least that is what we've talked ourselves into. All the chatter has been around Brandon center Nolan Patrick and Halifax center Nico Hischier.
 
"I would say it's pretty accurate," Devils director of amateur scouting Paul Castron recently told the team's website. "They're both excellent players. … I think the media maybe has it that way, but I think there are other players that could come into play as well."
 
I am on the record saying the Flyers should get an immediate impact player at No. 2 in either Patrick or Hischier, unlike the last time they picked in this slot in 2007.
 
So, I believe the Flyers will be coming away from Chicago with either Patrick or Hischier, but I also don't believe it is as much of a slam dunk as we've made it out.
 
By many accounts, it is not a projected deep draft class. ESPN's Corey Pronman recently told TSN Radio 1040 he doesn't believe the two are "completely clear of the pack."
 
"The last time we had a draft like this — say 2012," Pronman said. "I think many scouts had Alex Galchenyuk, Filip Forsberg, Ryan Murray, Griffin Reinhart, Morgan Rielly … it all depended on which teams were picking where. I think this is another one of those years.
 
"I do think Hischier and Patrick are the likely No. 1 and 2, but if somebody else snuck into there, I wouldn't really be surprised."
 
There also doesn't appear much separation between Patrick and Hischier themselves. Hischier has been trending up, while questions remain about Patrick's durability.
 
While both the Devils and Flyers have publicly downplayed injury concerns about Patrick, we don't know what goes on behind closed doors. If New Jersey decides to draft Hischier with No. 1, I could see a scenario in which the Flyers opt to go another route than Patrick.
 
In early May, Hextall said with "any young player who has had injuries, you do background checks." What if the Flyers find something in those background checks they don't like?
 
Therefore, I don't think we're overthinking it too much to take a look at other top prospects in this class, such as Windsor center Gabriel Vilardi, Portland center Cody Glass or Owen Sound center Nick Suzuki. Because I do think there is a legitimate possibility the No. 2 pick could be someone other than Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier.

Hall
The Flyers, in an overly advantageous position, should not get cute here. 

Depth at center is so vital to any organization. The Flyers have been lacking just that and it has shown the past three seasons.

With this draft, a high-end center is falling into their lap at the No. 2 pick. From all indications, Patrick and Hischier are at the head of the class.

Sure, the Flyers should do their homework, and they will. They'll be thorough in their scouting and preparation leading up to June 23.

To me, though, this is pretty simple. The Flyers' decision will essentially be made by the Devils' choice at No. 1 — and that's the odd convenience of the second overall selection.

Unless Hischier goes to New Jersey and alarms sound on Patrick's health, the Flyers need to make the obvious call and add one of these two centers.

Paone
Let's break this question down into simplest terms.

Could the Flyers take someone other than Patrick or Hischier at No. 2 come June 23 in Chicago? Of course, they could.

As Tom mentioned above, Vilardi, Glass and Suzuki are all up there at the head of this class with the projected top two, though seen by many as a slight level down from Patrick and Hischier.

A lot of times, decisions like these come down to team preference of a certain player. But don't expect Hextall to make that preference known until he steps to the podium to announce the Flyers' pick on draft night.

But could and should are two very different questions.

Should the Flyers take someone other than Patrick or Hischier at No. 2?

Nope.

Let's be honest, the Flyers fell backward into this No. 2 pick. And with that, they have the chance to select a potential stalwart forward with a strong knack for putting the puck in the net, which both Patrick and Hischier possess. And each should be able to show that off in the NHL sooner rather than later. Remember this: The Flyers' "Big 4" of Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux scored 90 of the Flyers' 212 goals last season. That accounts for 42.5 percent. Immediate scoring help is needed and both Patrick and Hischier should have the ability to bring that to the table.

Yes, the questions about Patrick's durability are legitimate. And yes, Hischier is trending even further upward.

But, to me, this goes back again to simplest terms.

The Flyers should pick whomever New Jersey doesn't out of Patrick and Hischier.