Flyers key questions: Who plays center? Which Carter Hart will show up?
The Flyers enter training camp with a revamped roster, making the exhibition games more important than usual as they try to build chemistry and round out the roster.
With training camp underway after a dizzying and bold offseason in which Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher changed half his defense, optimism is high.
The Flyers, after all, bear little resemblance to last season’s team.
And that’s a good thing. No one wants a repeat of a season in which the Flyers didn’t have an identity and missed the playoffs for the fifth time in the last nine years.
Change has brought hope as the Flyers incorporate their newcomers into the lineup and get ready for the Oct. 15 opener against Vancouver.
Thursday marked the first time fans were allowed at camp in two years, and their presence should give the team — and the sessions — more energy.
So should the fact that the Flyers have several newcomers, including three defensemen, who are trying to get the team back to the playoffs. Camp will give those new defenders — Ryan Ellis, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Keith Yandle — a chance to get acclimated with their new partners.
» READ MORE: Projecting the Flyers' roster: Injuries to Kevin Hayes, Wade Allison open up spots as training camp begins
The Flyers will play six exhibitions during camp, starting Tuesday against the Islanders at the Wells Fargo Center. They will play the Isles, Boston, and Washington, and those games will be more important than usual as the Flyers try to build some chemistry their new lines and pairings.
The preseason games will play a major role in determining who replaces Kevin Hayes (abdominal surgery, sidelined six-to-eight weeks) as the second-line center. They will also help determine if Morgan Frost is ready for The Show, as well as if the new defensive pairings are compatible. Finally, the games will give a glimpse as to whether goaltender Carter Hart will take some much-needed momentum into the regular season.
Here are five questions which should be answered in camp, particularly in those preseason games.
1. Who will be the second-, third- and fourth-line centers?
Center Sean Couturier will anchor the first line, but Hayes’ injury leaves an opening at 2C and scrambles the plans on other lines.
Veteran Derick Brassard, whose signing has become magnified because of Hayes’ injury, had been penciled in at 3C. Now he could move up to Hayes’ spot. Versatile left wingers Claude Giroux and Scott Laughton could also be shifted back to center, a natural position for both.
Giroux and Laughton are more effective at wing, however. It would not be surprising to see Brassard handling 2C for a while, with rookie Morgan Frost winning the spot as the third-line center, and veteran Nate Thompson landing at 4C. If Tanner Laczynski, 24, beats out the soon-to-be-37-year-old Thompson in camp, it could give the Flyers two rookies down the middle.
Hayes plays in all situations, so he will be greatly missed, but the good news is that his misfortune will probably give the multitalented Frost NHL playing time that he otherwise may not have received this early in the season.
2. What players will improve a putrid penalty kill?
Well, centers Brassard and Thompson are veteran penalty killers, which is another reason they are expected to be in the lineup. Cam Atkinson is also experienced in the art of the penalty kill, and those forwards should upgrade a unit that finished next-to-last in the NHL last season.
The new defensemen, especially Ellis, should also bolster the PK, which was successful just 73.1% of the time in 2021.
3. Which rookies will make the team?
Right winger Wade Allison had the best chance before he severely sprained his right ankle in rookie camp. Fact is, it would have been a major surprise if he wasn’t on the team. Now Frost fits that description. Frost, 22, an AHL All-Star two seasons ago, will be given every chance to win a regular spot in the lineup. Based on his strong rookie camp, his surgically repaired shoulder looks fine and he seems NHL ready.
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Laczynski and defenseman Cam York will also get lots of attention. Of the two, Laczynski, a former Ohio State Buckeye star who is returning from hip surgery, has the best chance to land a spot.
York appeared ticketed for the NHL until Yandle was signed in late July, and it is likely the rookie starts the year with Lehigh Valley.
Then again, with a dynamic camp, York could make the decision difficult for the Flyers’ brass.
4. Will Hart find his groove in the exhibition games and carry it into the season?
That’s the hope. A year ago, Hart finished the season with a 3.67 GAA and .877 save percentage as opponents feasted on high shots to his glove side. There were some encouraging moments, however, as Hart played his best hockey in April (2.31, .910 in five games) before his season ended because of an MCL sprain in his left knee, forcing him to miss the final 13 games.
From a mental standpoint, it’s important Hart regains his mojo in the preseason games and gets back to his old confident self (see 2019-20).
Based on his body language and reaction time, that confidence was noticeably missing last season. Defensive breakdowns in front of him also contributed to his woes.
5. Where will the newly acquired Atkinson fit best?
If Atkinson regains his form, he gives the Flyers a player with a much-needed shoot-first mentality. The small but dynamic right winger would seem to fit well on the top line with playmakers Giroux and Couturier. But he also would be a great fit with Hayes, his former Boston College teammate, at some point. When Hayes returns in November, look for Atkinson to be on his right side.
» READ MORE: ‘Shoot-first’ winger Cam Atkinson ready to shoot his shot with the Flyers
Before then, Atkinson and Travis Konecny should compete for the right-wing spot on the top line. Atkinson is motivated to show he can be a key piece on his new team. Konecny is motivated, too, because he is trying to bounce back from a rare subpar season in which he managed just 11 goals and wasn’t as much of the chirping pest as in the past.
In previous seasons, the more Konecny chirped, the more the Flyers seemed to feed off his energy. They need the player they call “TK” to go back to filling the net and getting opponents off their game with his Ken Linseman-like antics.