VOORHEES, N.J. — On Friday, the Flyers and the other 30 teams across the NHL opened training camp in their pursuit of dethroning the Pittsburgh Penguins, the first back-to-back Stanley Cup champions since 1998.
Every season comes with an entirely new set of questions that need to be answered. For the Flyers, some are obvious ones: Will Claude Giroux regain his form, which rookies will make the opening night roster and who will be the No. 1 in net? Ultimately, how will the pieces come together for the season opener in San Jose come Oct. 4?
Assuming everyone starts the season healthy, here are five more questions worth exploring:
1. Does Valtteri Filppula start the season at center?
If the answer to this question is yes, then Jori Lehtera would be forced to make the unfamiliar move to wing. And where would that leave Nolan Patrick with Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Filppula as your three primary centers?
As you recall, the line of Filppula along with Jordan Weal at left wing and Wayne Simmonds at right wing provided some spark at the end of last season with Weal scoring a goal in four straight games and a point in six of his last seven. Does that late chemistry keep that line together to start this season? Probably not. Center is Filppula’s natural position and he’s reliable taking draws, where he’s been above 50 percent almost every season throughout his 12-year career.
He’s also defensively responsible, and during his brief time in Philadelphia last season, he rarely looked out of position. The 33-year-old Filppula is also versatile enough to play left wing as he’s proven during his time in Detroit and Tampa Bay. I think Dave Hakstol ultimately will utilize Filppula at both positions throughout the preseason to see what combinations work best. While I don’t see him reaching the 20-goal mark, which he hasn’t done since 2013-14, he’s more of an ideal third-line player since he plays a smart, responsible game.
2. Who are your top two left wings?
Piggybacking off the previous question surrounding Filppula and Lehtera, left wing appears to be the one position that is wide open to competition. I see Travis Konecny, Weal and Oskar Lindblom as three talented, skilled left wingers who will battle it out to play in the Flyers' top six. Weal’s emergence at the end of last season coupled with Lindblom’s potential scoring ability make this scenario rather interesting.
While Weal is certainly capable of playing on a fourth line, that would seem to undermine what type of contributor he could be and why the Flyers elected to re-sign him.
It’s believed Konecny will have a shot at starting the season with Giroux on the team’s top line with Jakub Voracek flanked on the right side. However, Konecny found himself in Hakstol’s doghouse toward the end of last season, when he averaged around 10 minutes over his final 10 games. He knows he needs to sharpen his two-way game.
Lindblom, who was paired with Giroux on Day 1 of camp, is a special player and the coaches have raved about him leading up to training camp, but he’s an unproven commodity. Essentially, you have three players (Weal, Konecny and Lindblom) battling for prime minutes on the Flyers' top two lines.
3. Can you trust the rookies together as the third defensive pairing?
This is the question that needs to be answered with certainty by the time the puck drops in San Jose.
How nice would it have been to ease into the season with a string of home games to acclimate the young guys on defense regardless of if it’s Sam Morin, Robert Hagg or Travis Sanheim? Unfortunately, the Flyers don’t have that luxury. Instead, they begin the season with four straight on the road, which obviously gives their opponent last change. While expectations run high with this group of prospects, it’s natural to think there will be a few bumps in the road.
Considering Shayne Gostisbehere started 68 percent of his faceoff shifts on the offensive side of center ice (league high for defensemen), rarely is "Ghost" called upon to begin a shift in the defensive zone. When the Flyers face bigger teams like the Sharks, Kings and Ducks, Hakstol will have to be wise when and where he employs his defensive pairings. One mark of a quality playoff team is one that has reliable defensemen capable of protecting a one-goal lead in the final minutes of a game, especially on the road. Ivan Provorov is only one guy, which is why the Flyers need a second pairing that Hakstol can trust as much as his first one. Perhaps the head coach finds a way to split up the two rookies to maintain some balance of skill, size and experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if one rookie is a healthy scratch to start the season in favor of the more experienced Brandon Manning.
4. Is the loss of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare a big deal?
Bellemare was left unprotected this summer on the Flyers' expansion list that included Weal, Matt Read and Michael Raffl, to name a few. While Bellemare was not a contributor on the scoresheet in terms of points, he knew exactly what his role was with the Flyers and accepted it. He earned his way onto the Flyers coming out of training camp in 2014 and proceeded to play 237 out of a possible 246 games, mostly as a fourth-line center.
Bellemare can be credited for doing a little bit of everything. He delivered hits, blocked shots, killed penalties effectively and won key faceoffs, even if his overall numbers were below 50 percent. He was not your typical fourth-liner, averaging over 13 minutes in his three seasons in Philadelphia, and would you believe Bellemare actually finished last season in the top 50 in voting for the Selke trophy as the NHL’s top defensive forward?
The Vegas Golden Knights saw the value in Bellemare and snatched him up at a cap value of just less than $1.5 million for the next two seasons. While in the Flyers' grand scheme losing Bellemare won’t prove to be much of a setback, it does create a void for the upcoming season. There are several contenders the Flyers will be considering to plug the gap, and right now I would lean toward Scott Laughton, who the coaching staff raved about for adopting more of a two-way game last season with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Interestingly, general manager Ron Hextall elected to protect the 23-year-old Laughton over the 32-year-old Bellemare during the expansion draft because of the youth factor.
5. Can the Flyers create balance within their power play?
As the longest-tenured assistant coach on the Flyers' staff, Joe Mullen was replaced this past offseason with Kris Knoblauch. Knoblach's primary duties will be handling the power-play responsibilities. It was the Flyers' power play that propelled them to the top of the standings during their 10-game winning streak. Following the stretch, they struggled mightily, falling from No. 1 in the league to middle of the pack by season’s end as the Flyers' top unit was relied upon to perform most of the heavy lifting. It accounted for a whopping 83 percent of the team’s power-play goals.
Only nine of the 54 goals tallied on the man advantage were scored by someone other than Giroux, Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, Voracek or Gostisbehere. There has to be a little more balance here if the Flyers want to finish in the top 10 again. Who will provide that element of skill on the second unit? Lindblom instantly comes to mind as the coaching staff has raved about his quick release and impressive skill set. Patrick could be a good fit if he indeed makes the team, as well as Lehtera with his vision and hockey sense. It’s a two-fold process: How will Knoblauch’s setup and design incorporate the strengths of the Flyers' roster, and how will the two units be assembled so they’re both power-play threats?