Philadelphia Flyers

In more ways than one, Flyers' young defense has unprecedented look

In more ways than one, Flyers' young defense has unprecedented look

As football season begins Thursday night, it’s a welcomed sign that hockey is right around the corner. The Flyers open rookie camp Monday and training camp next Friday. There is a hockey game at the Wells Fargo Center next Wednesday, when the Flyers host the New York Islanders in a rookie game. Winter is coming, and after a long summer of Phillies baseball, we’ll take it.

Although the Flyers have missed the playoffs three of the last five seasons, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about their prospects in 2017-18. Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom are the festival’s headliners, but the lineup is stacked with motives to tune in. We’re entering the enjoyable phase of the Flyers’ recharge, in which general manager Ron Hextall will begin injecting young blood into the roster, more so than we’ve seen in the past two seasons with Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny.

No longer will the majority of the buzz reside on the farm system while we ponder why Chris VandeVelde draws into the lineup every night. So long as the Hextall regime is in charge, it’ll be important to pay continued attention to prospects because it’s how he builds his program. Draft and develop will be a staple here for a long time.

The Flyers are entering a youth movement, and Hextall during the offseason made it a point to not block any of his kids from earning a spot in the lineup. There is a bevy of candidates to snag the open forward slots, and as we sit today, two spots on the blue line are up for grabs. Assuming all goes as expected, they’ll be rookies.

For the first time since 2008-09, the Flyers will have four defensemen that are 24 years old or younger with no more than two years of experience going into the campaign. Eight years ago, the Flyers finished with four blueliners 24 or under playing more than 25 games, with two of them in their third NHL season and the other two being rookies.

Braydon Coburn was 23 and in his third year. Matt Carle was 24, acquired from Tampa just 12 games into the season and in his third year. Ryan Parent was 21 and played in 31 games in his first season. Luca Sbisa played in 39 games as a 19-year-old. But that team also had 13 total defensemen play that year with plenty of veteran leadership.

This season will be different, however. The Flyers enter 2017-18 in an unprecedented situation, as they’ll have a young, largely inexperienced defensive group with four defensemen either in their first, second or third seasons.

But that doesn’t mean that the blue line will be a weakness. Instead, it should be a strength.

Gostisbehere is entering his third season, and Provorov his second. At least two of Robert Hagg, Sam Morin, Phil Myers and Travis Sanheim will be here, and there is the slimmest of possibilities a third rookie will break camp with the Flyers. Radko Gudas and Brandon Manning are both 27 and Andrew MacDonald will be 31 on Thursday.

Any way we carve it, the Flyers’ defensive corps will have its growing pains this season. We can’t expect a band of first, second and third-year players to go through an 82-game schedule without learning moments, and we can’t look at Provorov as an exception. His rookie season didn’t go without miscues, though they were limited.

As we wait for the chips to fall in camp, the early bet is on Hagg and Morin cracking the roster this season with Myers and Sanheim beginning the season in Lehigh Valley. Both Hagg and Morin made their NHL debuts last April, and while it was an extremely small sample size, both looked as if they belonged. It would be a surprise if both 2013 draft picks don’t make the trip out west with the Flyers on Oct. 4. It’s safe to say at least one of them will be a Flyer this season depending on Myers and Sanheim’s readiness.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Myers and Sanheim beat out both Hagg and Morin, but it’s plausible one of them steals a spot from either Hagg or Morin. Hagg made tremendous strides in his third full season in the AHL last year, which led to Flyers assistant GM Chris Pryor saying in January he believes Hagg is “just about NHL ready.”

With Gostisbehere, Provorov and two of the four prospects in the fold, the Flyers’ defense will feature youth, puck moving and a steady two-way mix. Gostisbehere endured adversity in his second season, but as he regained his confidence from offseason hip/abdominal surgery, he flashed signs of the player he was in 2015-16.

Many expect Provorov to make a huge jump in his second season. Whether head coach Dave Hakstol continues to pair him with MacDonald is something that will be decided in the preseason, but it’s possible Hakstol decides to pair MacDonald with one of the rookies.

The inexperience will show at times this season, but it’s largely a group that should garner excitement and improved overall play than in years past. The puck should be out of the zone quicker with crisper passes, and it’ll be a bigger group than recent years. The added size will be welcomed. Of the four prospects in the mix, Hagg is the shortest at 6-foot-2, which, still, is decent size. Sanheim is 6-4, Myers is 6-5 and Morin is 6-6.

Gone are the days when the Flyers’ defense would feature Luke Schenn, Nick Schultz, Nicklas Grossmann, and other defensemen that no longer jell well with today’s game. Beginning this season, we’ll finally see what Hextall began to build when he took over in 2014. The blue line will be young, it’ll be inexperienced, and we haven’t really seen anything like this in Philly in quite some time, if ever at all, but it should be fun to track.

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