The Flyers’ training camp, which will start at 8:30 Friday morning in Voorhees, is a chance for players to blend together and adapt to new coach Alain Vigneault’s system.
And it’s a chance for Vigneault, the 12th-winningest coach in NHL history, to learn more about his players and how to put them in the best position to have a successful season.
There is an air of optimism because of Vigneault’s presence and his upbeat nature, though it remains to be seen whether the organization made enough off-season moves, especially offensively, to get back into the playoffs.
“He’s been able to go to teams and make them better quickly and keep them at a high level for a long period of time, and that’s hard to do,” general manager Chuck Fletcher said. “He’s a guy who knows how to win.”
Vigneault’s teams have played uptempo.
“The system has to be effective for the talent base you have,” Vigneault said from his Skate Zone office last week. “… I’m looking at some of the kids we have, and they seem to be on the cusp of playing in the NHL. There’s a real solid mix of offensive skill, of defensive puck mobility, and there seems to be good hockey sense, which is something we need at both ends.”
Vigneault inherits a team that has a nice blend of veterans and youth, a team whose defense, which struggled mightily last season and will have a vastly different look in 2019-20, needs to make major strides if the Flyers are going to make the playoffs for just the fourth time in the last eight years.
In the summer, Vigneault met with his assistants and the AHL Phantoms’ coaches, including the analytical Scott Gordon, who replaced Dave Hakstol with the Flyers last December and was the interim coach for the last 51 games (25-22-4).
“We brainstormed for a whole week, and I’ve been doing this for 17 years and it was one of my best brain sessions I’ve had,” Vigneault said. “Everyone was involved. There was no such thing as a bad idea. It really got us thinking about what seems to be having success and how we can get this group on the same page quickly so that we have a good start.”
The first three days of camp will stress the nuances of Vigneault’s system. “And we have four games in six nights right after that,” he said. “We’re going to have 40 guys around at that time, and we can get an assessment of those guys during game situations.”
The St. Louis Blues won their first Stanley Cup last season with a big, heavy team that relied on defense, goaltending, and a physical style. Before last season, “the league was totally trending toward skill, speed, pace with the puck,” Vigneault said. “… I think the Blues sort of proved that the size dimension, with skill in that hard two-month [playoff] battle, can be effective.”
Will the Flyers model themselves after the Blues?
Well, maybe to the extent that they will focus on defense and goaltending, but they don’t have the size to match St. Louis’ physical style.
“We have some questions, and training camp is going to answer those questions,” said Vigneault, whose team will open its exhibition schedule Monday against the Islanders at the Wells Fargo Center.
Training camp will decide whether Carter Hart, coming off an impressive 31-game rookie season, or Brian Elliott is the No. 1 goalie, whether Phil Myers can beat out Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg for the sixth defensive spot, whether a promising youngster such as Morgan Frost, Joel Farabee or Isaac Ratcliffe can earn a roster spot. The last three players are among numerous candidates for the third-line right-wing spot.
In the offseason, Fletcher acquired veteran defensemen Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, and he signed second-line center Kevin Hayes. That gives the Flyers more strength down the middle, led by Sean Couturier (33 goals, 76 points), Hayes (19 goals, 54 points), and Nolan Patrick (13 goals, 31 points), who should get better matchups on the third line.
“I feel good about the group,” Vigneault said. “I like the skill set. I like the experience, and I like the youth that’s pushing up. I like the internal competition that’s going to be everywhere, from the goaltending to the Ds, and up front, we have some young players that should be pushing at the door to try to knock it in and find their way to contributing in the NHL.”
Vigneault felt even better when Ivan Provorov, the team’s top defenseman, agreed to a six-year contract Thursday night with an average annual cap hit of $6.75 million. Now the Flyers hope to sign gifted right winger Travis Konecny, another restricted free agent, and start the Vigneault era with a full deck.