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.”

End to End: Expectations for Scott Laughton in 2017-18

End to End: Expectations for Scott Laughton in 2017-18

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 reporters John Boruk, Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone.

The topic: What are your expectations for Scott Laughton?

Boruk
Ron Hextall certainly raised a few eyebrows when Laughton was one of seven forwards the Flyers protected in the Vegas expansion draft despite playing just two NHL games last season. Struggling to find his place with the Flyers during Year 1 of the Dave Hakstol era, Laughton spent 2016-17 in Lehigh Valley refining his game, his mental approach and learning how to contribute without necessarily putting up numbers.

At the NHL draft in Chicago, Hextall said, “This kid took a step in terms of his dedication, his attachment to the game, his passion for the game, the way he plays the game. … Last year I think he figured it out.” Translation: He developed more into the type of defensive-minded player required on a Hextall-constructed team. A couple of weeks later, the Flyers and Laughton agreed on a two-year contract worth $1.925 million.

I think Laughton will have a strong training camp and will begin the season sliding into the fourth-line center role left by Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (selected by Vegas). Laughton should also pick up some of Bellemare’s penalty-killing role, an area he worked on and improved during his time with the Phantoms. If Laughton can chip in with 15-20 points playing primarily on the Flyers' checking line, he’ll prove to be a nice upgrade over Bellemare.

Dougherty
We can connect the dots. The Flyers expect Laughton to make the team when training camp breaks in October. Hextall protected Laughton over Bellemare in the expansion draft.

Makes sense, right? Protect the 23-year-old over the 32-year-old. Easy decision. Hextall didn't draft Laughton, but by protecting him, it shows they still believe in Laughton. Earlier this summer, Hextall said Laughton grew up a lot in Lehigh Valley last season.

Laughton signed a two-year contract extension earlier this month. He is no longer waiver exempt. That's important to note. They no longer have the option to send him to the AHL without subjecting him to waivers first. I don't see any scenario he passes through.

So, Laughton will be with the Flyers on Oct. 4 in San Jose. Has to be. The Flyers respected Bellemare way too much to protect Laughton in the expansion draft and then risk losing the Oakville, Ontario, native on waivers. The question is will he be a regular?

The Flyers lost the dynamic duo of Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde this summer. All three spots on the fourth line are open for business. Laughton will be in consideration.

We can count seven players competing for three spots in the lineup: Laughton, Dale Weise, Jori Lehtera, Mike Vecchione, Michael Raffl, Valtteri Filppula and Taylor Leier. I expect Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom to have top-nine roles. Filppula probably also has a top-nine role as well, but he's also a candidate for the fourth line.

That means six players for three spots. Then there will be one or two extra forwards. The other guy isn't here. Laughton will be here. In what capacity, I just don't know.

Hall
Following 2015-16, Laughton's first full NHL season in which he played mainly on the third line, the 2012 first-round pick said he had goals of being a top-six forward.

I think that's where he could actually show his true colors, but wouldn't everyone love top-six minutes?

Of course, but more often than not, you have to earn them and Laughton has not shown enough to climb the ladder with the Flyers. So what does he have to do? Be ready to capitalize on a fourth-line job, a role with not as much glamor and more dirty work in shorter minutes. He first needs to prove he can be such a player, especially now given the Flyers have an overcrowded group of forwards.

If Laughton can find his niche there, then maybe he sees more opportunity. The Flyers are smart, though, to not totally give up on Laughton. Think about it? He's only 23 years old and has had some bad luck with injuries to go along with just 109 games on his NHL résumé. He needs more time — and with it, he could turn out to be a nice scoring threat in a depth position, something the Flyers have needed.

Considering he was protected in the expansion draft and is now on a new two-year deal, it's likely Laughton makes the roster out of training camp. As for playing time, he'll have to earn it and then keep it if he does.

Paone
This upcoming Flyers training camp, in so many ways, is about opportunity. It will be abound for Patrick, Lindblom and the rest of the team's prospects … including Laughton.

It feels weird to still call Laughton a prospect, but he still just turned 23 in May and he spent basically all of last season reinventing himself in the AHL so he can become a better NHL player than he was before, no matter what the role may be.

That year of hard work last season obviously left an impression on Hextall and the Flyers' brass, who ultimately decided to protect Laughton from Vegas in the expansion draft despite the fact he played just two NHL games last season and has just 27 points in his NHL career. He impressed them so much so that he even got that two-year extension a few weeks ago.

So what does the immediate future hold for Laughton? Well, there is now a renewed sense of trust there that didn't exist before between player and organization. If there wasn't, the Flyers wouldn't have protected him and handed him that extension.

That makes me believe the organization prefers a defensively rounded Laughton in a bottom-six NHL role and that's where I believe he'll start the season. From there, it's up to him where things go and how he uses that year in the AHL to prove he really is a better NHL player. I see him starting on the fourth line and being a guy who could be a candidate to move up the lineup if the situation calls for it. The Flyers will need a solid defensive game from Laughton and if he can chip in points-wise, too, that's even better, obviously.

But Laughton now has something many thought he might not get again in Philadelphia — an opportunity. It's up to him on how he takes advantage of it.  

End to End: The state of Claude Giroux

End to End: The state of Claude Giroux

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 reporters John Boruk, Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone.

The topic: The state of Flyers captain Claude Giroux.

Boruk
The state of Giroux is more of a state of mind at this point of his career. There was one very revealing quote that surfaced following his breakout day when he said, “Your mind wants to do something but your body doesn’t do it, it’s frustrating.” That tells me the dynamic part of his game that we came to expect and admire for much of his career is perhaps no longer there, and he’s searching for a way to reinvent himself. He still has a big-time slap shot, terrific vision and an unbelievable set of hands.
 
The bigger worry here is that Giroux, who turns 30 in January, hasn’t performed as a No. 1 center (despite being paid like one) at even strength for the past three seasons, where he’s ranked 81st, 60th and a mind-blowing 189th last season in even-strength points. It’s an accumulation of facing the top lines and defense pairings every single game, and eventually, it takes a toll.

If this trend continues, I would give thought to moving him back to wing where he started his Flyers career during the Mike Richards-Jeff Carter era. I agree to some extent with Jeremy Roenick’s assertion that he lets too much get into his head, and that probably includes all facets of life, even off the ice. Giroux needs to come to camp like a finely-tuned Ferrari, and if he can start strong, it will go a long way toward a rebound season.  

Dougherty
The numbers tell a cautionary tale. Since the 2014-15 campaign, Giroux’s goal, assist and point totals have been in a consistent decline. What makes that season important?

That was when his eight-year, $66.2 million contract extension began. Giroux’s decline over the last three seasons should concern the Flyers. He’s not the same player he was in 2013-14. But I don’t believe he’s the player he was in 2016-17, either. I think there’s a happy medium here, and I expect Giroux to have a much better season in 2017-18.

It’s two-fold as to why I believe so. One, Giroux's confidence was rocked last season after undergoing hip and abdominal surgery last summer. Was he fully healthy all season? He’ll never say, but toward the end of the year, I thought he was much better. I think with a full summer of training and added motivation, Giroux will come in with a chip on his shoulder.

More importantly, there will be less pressure on Giroux to carry the workload because the talent level at forward will be deeper. I expect Nolan Patrick to be a Flyer. I also expect Oskar Lindblom to be here too. Then there is Jordan Weal and Travis Konecny. Weal will be here all season, and I expect Konecny to make a big jump in Year 2. Those four should lessen the demand placed on Giroux.

We may never see Giroux reach 70 points again. But with expected scoring depth incoming, the Flyers can live with Giroux in the 60-65-point range, which I think he’ll be in. The contract could be a cap problem in a few seasons, but I don’t think the Flyers are there yet.

Hall
Giroux's right — he's his toughest critic, which can be a blessing and a curse.

Any organization wants a driven player. With Giroux, it's not so much about what outsiders think, but it's his own expectations. So when he struggles, he sort of creates his own pressure because he expects a lot of himself — just like the fans and media expect a lot from him.

What I expect this season is an ultra-motivated Giroux, maybe the most fueled we've ever seen him. It didn't look or sound like Giroux was healthy last season, which only added to his frustration when he didn't perform. A summer full of recouping and training — he's pretty excited about both — should help Giroux's chances of rebounding.

I don't think he'll ever put up 80-plus points again, but that doesn't mean he can't be productive — say 20 goals and close to 50 assists? Giroux needs a supporting cast, not all the weight on his shoulders, because it has a negative affect on the captain.

The supporting cast should be better in 2017-18, and so should Giroux.

Paone
Is Giroux still an upper-echelon, high-level NHL player? Absolutely he is. The skill is still there and the guy isn't a former Hart Trophy finalist and four-time All-Star by accident. But after last season's woeful campaign where the captain, in many ways the sparkplug of the Flyers' offense and arguably the team's most important player, struggled mightily, it's more than fair to question just which echelon and level he is on these days, especially as he enters his age 29-30 season.

In so many ways, as Giroux goes, so does the Flyers' offense. And it's been that way for the last several years as he is still the main guy other teams gameplan for when preparing to play the Flyers. But the decline in production has been steady over the last few years and the Flyers' offense has suffered because of that.

In 2014-15, Giroux posted 73 points (25 goals, 48 assists) and the Flyers averaged 2.59 goals per game. In 2015-16, Giroux put up 67 points (22 goals and 45 assists) and the Flyers averaged 2.57 goals per game. Last season, the captain notched 58 points (14 goals and 44 assists) and the Flyers averaged 2.59 goals per game again. All of those goal-per-game numbers the last three seasons were in the bottom half of the league's numbers. Compare all that to 2013-14 when Giroux, a Hart finalist that year, posted 86 points (career-high-tying 28 goals and 58 assists) and the Flyers tallied 2.84 goals per contest, seventh in the league.

That Giroux may not be there any more. It's a legitimate question with the the decline shown over the last several seasons. That's why this season is all about answering questions for Giroux. And he couldn't answer those questions for the better part of last season as that hip surgery turned his hockey world upside down. He couldn't get a full summer of training in and then jumped right into the World Cup of Hockey, where he took this hit from Joe Pavelski in an exhibition. That's an injury that lingers, especially for a hockey player, and Giroux was basically stuck in mud the for most of the year as he tried to get his motor going. The quote John mentioned above from breakout day is so telling with that. Shayne Gostisbehere knows the feeling. But much like Gostisbehere, Giroux started to turn it on more and more and showed flashes of his more productive self as the season wound down.

Giroux is a guy who takes his play to heart and he can be very hard on himself. The way you see him break his stick over the bench every so often is proof of that. He expects so much more out of himself than he gave last season.

But now healthy, with a full offseason of training and a year's worth of motivation under his belt, I expect him to be much better and much more productive. The Giroux of five years ago? No, probably not. But with another year of young talent surrounding him and a healthy slate, I really don't feel there's a reason Giroux can't be a top-line threat again and I even look for him to be reckoned with as the season gets underway. But he's the guy who will provide the answers that both he and Flyers fans have been looking for.