Philadelphia Flyers

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.”

Flyers GM Ron Hextall: 'We have a tough roster to crack right now, which is good'

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Flyers GM Ron Hextall: 'We have a tough roster to crack right now, which is good'

VOORHEES, N.J. — With 26 players still competing to make the Flyers' 23-man opening day roster, the competition over the final few spots is heating up.

"We have a tough roster to crack right now, which is good for us," Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said Saturday after practice.

The Flyers already trimmed 18 players from their roster Thursday, but the most difficult decisions lie ahead. The tightest battle appears to be developing at defenseman, where Brandon Manning and rookies Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg are all vying for two spots. Travis Sanheim is still in the mix, but will likely start the season at Lehigh Valley.

So far, there is no clear winner in sight.

"We're going to monitor the situation as we go along here," Hextall said. "We'll see what we have with injuries and whatnot, and we'll make decisions at the appropriate time."

"They've all played well. They're all here for a reason still. We could've sent one of them down if they didn't deserve to be here, but at this point, they all deserve to be here."

Both Morin and Hagg have impressed this training camp and preseason. Manning has experience but is also working his way back from offseason back surgery — though Hextall does not sound concerned.

"There's nothing that tells me or certain information that I have from our staff that he's not ready to go," Hextall said, "so as far I'm concerned, he's 100 percent ready to go."

Some cuts will be easier than others. As expected, Alex Lyon was demoted to Lehigh Valley on Saturday.

Between Lyon and one of the blueliners, the roster will eventually get down to 25. That means two forwards will eventually wind up out of the equation, and the three players on the fringe fighting over that one spot are running out of time.

"We have four (preseason games) left," Hextall said. "Our big guys have to play, so we're getting ready for the season now. There's still players in the mix, but you get down as quick as you can and go from there."

Hextall acknowledged spots are "hard to come by" for prospects such Mike Vecchione, who has only appeared in two preseason games thus far. However, the Flyers are not viewing a demotion as a disappointment for any of their young talent.

"We'll see what Vechs, what he does," Hextall said, "and if he has to start out down below, or a couple other guys have to start out down below, that's the way it is."

In addition to the 18 cuts the Flyers made, two players will wind up on injured reserve to begin the season. Winger Colin McDonald and center Cole Bardreau are finished for the remainder of camp and preseason.

Bardreau is out for three-to-four weeks with an upper-body injury. McDonald is down for an undisclosed number of weeks with a lower-body injury.

Barring any additional major injuries, the Flyers intend to carry a full 23-man roster in the regular season, which is set to open Oct. 4 at San Jose.

"You plan certain things in injuries and performance," Hextall said. "You have to adjust on the fly."

"Right now, I'd say we plan 23, but see who gets injured — if a guy is injured, how long is he gonna be — all that kind of stuff. We'll adjust as we go along here, but right now, I'd say we plan on 23."

Roster cuts
The Flyers on Saturday continued to trim their roster. Forwards Greg Carey, Corban Knight and Phil Varone and defensemen Mark Alt, T.J. Brennan and Will O'Neill were assigned to Lehigh Valley after clearing waivers as well as Lyon.

Rating 5 changes the NHL made to its rulebook

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Rating 5 changes the NHL made to its rulebook

If you have witnessed preseason hockey this past week, you are well aware that the NHL is buckling down on its rulebook and even revising it. An excess of penalties and power plays have occurred as a result of these changes. Are they good for the game? I examine each of the five new rules or changes to the existing rulebook. 

Rule 78.7 (b) — A coach's challenge on an offside play — If the result of the challenge is that the play was “onside,” the goal shall count and the team that issued the challenge shall be assessed a minor penalty for delaying the game.

In 2015, the NHL granted each coach a challenge they could utilize in the event of overturning an incorrect call on the ice. If the challenge failed and the original call stood, then the challenging coach would forfeit the team’s timeout. Starting this season, a failed challenge on an onsides call in which there’s a goal will result in a two-minute minor penalty.   

By doing so, the NHL instituted a method to help maintain the game’s integrity in the event of a missed call by a linesman, as many coaches hold onto their challenge at a critical juncture — typically during the third period. Now with a two-minute penalty, it’s a way of reversing course without actually taking away the challenge. It's as if the league is saying we want you to have a challenge, but not really. The league is now discouraging teams from using it. As we’ve seen over the past few years, offsides calls can be measured in millimeters — that’s how arbitrary it’s become. But to penalize an entire team for a coaching staff’s misjudgment is excessive, and as we’ll see this season, it will sway the outcomes of a few games. Forfeiting a timeout for losing a challenge is acceptable, but killing a two-minute power play? Absurd, and for that I give it …

Two thumbs down   

Rule 61.1 — Slashing — Any forceful or powerful chop with the stick on an opponent’s body, the opponent’s stick, or on or near the opponent’s hands that, in the judgment of the referee is not an attempt to play the puck, shall be penalized as slashing.

Flyers fans can call out Sidney Crosby for emphasizing this rule, which is not a rule change but simply the enforcement of an existing rule. Crosby violated this in the worst way when he performed a machete slice over the hands of Senators defenseman Mark Methot late in the season. The result was a broken finger, nearly severed from the tip and the loss of one of Ottawa’s top defensemen for weeks. Watch the video and you can hear Methot scream in pain as Crosby took his whack.

In the preseason, we have seen more slashing than department store prices during Black Friday. It’s out of control, not the slashing itself, but the slashing calls. As the rule states, it’s a "forceful or powerful chop," which usually requires a two-handed grip. However, the referees have resorted to blowing the whistle for a one-handed love tap. As Shayne Gostisbehere said Wednesday, “When they blow the whistle and everyone’s like, ‘What just happened?’ That’s not a penalty.”  

I suspect come October when the regular season begins, the officials will ease up on their slashing calls, but it definitely creates a gray area, much like the interference call. Over the course of the season, some refs will whistle everything, while others will let stuff go. If it protects the league from injury, especially serious injury in cases like Methot and even Johnny Gaudreau, it can be beneficial, but I see some inconsistency from game-to-game and for that I give it ...

One thumb up ... my good, non-slashed thumb

Rule 76.4 — Faceoff positioning and procedure — The players taking part shall take their position so that they will stand squarely facing their opponent’s end of the rink and clear of the ice markings (where applicable).

Like the slashing penalty previously discussed, this is another enforcement of an existing rule. In other words, the league wants to cut down on cheating during faceoffs. You know when players began cheating on faceoffs? Since the inception of the faceoff. In fact, I can recall producing a three-minute story when I was working at a Nashville TV station on how players gain advantages and bend the rules on faceoffs. Three minutes. On cheating! 

Now, those L-shaped lines are no longer suggestions or recommendations, but strict guidelines of where the players should stand prior to a faceoff. If a team is caught twice during the same faceoff (and it doesn’t have to be the same player), the result is a two-minute minor penalty. The Islanders' Josh Ho-Sang was a guilty offender twice during Wednesday’s game in Allentown and the Flyers benefited with a power play in each instance. The league’s explanation states they want to protect players from banging heads, and more importantly, protect the linesman dropping the puck. 

Like the slashing penalty, I’m curious to see which linesmen strictly enforce this rule and which ones will be a little laxer. This is another one of those penalties (like the challenge call) that you certainly don’t want to impact the outcome of a game. The league has good intentions for enforcing Rule 76.4, but will they have consistent enforcement? And for that I give it …

One thumb up

Rule 87.1 — No timeout shall be granted to the defensive team following an icing.

Once again, here’s another example of a moment when a coach would intervene during a critical point of a hockey game (usually late during the third period). An attacking team is applying pressure in the offensive zone of a close game and the defensive team, obviously gassed, flips the puck out of the zone for an icing. That coach proceeds to call a timeout to allow his team to catch its breath and grab some water before the ensuing faceoff.

My take on the new rule: Love it! This rule should have been implemented years ago. You can penalize a team for icing without actually calling a penalty. Allowing a timeout does exactly the opposite and circumvents any drawbacks of icing. By forcing a tired group of guys to line up and take a faceoff right away is precisely the way it should be handled, and for that, I give this new rule …

Two big thumbs up

Eliminating Rule 80.4 — Numerical advantage on faceoffs — When a team on the power play high sticks the puck, the ensuing faceoff will be conducted at one of the two faceoff spots in their defending zone.

This is the abridged version of the rule that was roughly half a page long. Playing the puck with a high stick is instinctual and when the game is played at warp speed, a player’s natural inclination is to raise their stick in an attempt to knock the puck out of the air. When a player is guilty of a high stick, the whistle is blown and a faceoff occurs. Now that this rule has been eliminated entirely from the rulebook, the ensuing faceoff will take place in the zone in which the infraction was committed.

No team should be given a territorial advantage as a result of a high stick. I’m surprised it’s taken this long to acknowledge the absurdity of Rule 80.4, and for finally acknowledging this, I give the elimination of this rule …

Two thumbs up