The Flyers have many fewer questions now than when this season’s first training camp started. That’s because the team flourished once it adapted to new coach Alain Vigneault’s system.
It also didn’t hurt that newcomers like Matt Niskanen, Kevin Hayes, and Justin Braun blended into the lineup seamlessly, and goalie Carter Hart, in his first full NHL season, was playing up to expectations when the season was halted March 12 because of the coronavirus outbreak.
And, now, as Training Camp II is scheduled to start Monday, the Flyers, one of the league’s top surprises in the regular season, are viewed as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
At camp, teams will be trying to get into a quick rhythm. Unlike normal training camps in September, teams won’t have six months’ worth of games to prepare for the playoffs. This camp will be immediately followed by a 24-team tournament that will eventually produce a champion.
Be ready or be eliminated.
Players need to quickly find their legs and timing as they prepare for a restart to the oddest season in NHL history.
When play (hopefully) resumes, the Flyers will start with a challenging round-robin tournament in which they will face Boston, Tampa Bay, and Washington. The tournament will determine the Eastern Conference’s top four seeds and will also serve as a much-needed tuneup for the 16-team Stanley Cup playoffs, which could end as late as Oct. 4 -- or the same date that the Flyers’ season started in Prague in 2019.
Yes, it’s been a bizarre year.
In any event, here are 10 questions facing the Flyers as they get ready for camp, which will be held in Voorhees and closed to the public:
1. Where will left winger James van Riemsdyk play?
Van Riemsdyk has recovered from a broken finger and could be on the Flyers’ second or third line. Since he played on an effective third line (primarily with Derek Grant and Tyler Pitlick) during the bulk of the Flyers’ nine-game winning streak late in the regular season, that seems to be his likely spot.
2. Will rookie Joel Farabee come out of the lineup?
Farabee, 20, has had an impressive rookie season and has been an energy creator, but he may be the odd man out -- at least at the beginning of the tournament. Farabee had been playing as the No. 2 left winger when the season was stopped, but with van Riemsdyk now healthy, the Flyers have five left wingers for four spots.
3. How will Carter Hart be used in the round-robin tournament?
In theory, the higher the Flyers finish in the mini-tournament, the better their seeding -- and that could potentially give them more favorable playoff matchups.
Vigneault has to weigh using Hart in all three games ... or trying to keep Brian Elliott sharp because he will be needed down the road.
Teams will play at least one exhibition, so Vigneault might divide the goaltending duties in that game (or games) to give both players a chance to wipe away the rust.
It wouldn’t be surprising if he started Hart in every round-robin game until the Flyers lost. Hart, who turns 22 on Aug. 13, was peaking (remember?) when the season was stopped, going 9-2 with a .934 save percentage in his last 11 games since returning from a lower-abdominal injury.
4. Will Scott Laughton move up or down in the lineup?
Laughton was the third-line left winger when the season was paused, but he had been No. 2 in four earlier games during the Flyers’ nine-game winning streak. During the nine games, he had nine points and was plus-11, so if van Riemsdyk goes back to being the No. 3 left wing, my guess is that Laughton moves to No. 2.
The versatile Laughton could also drop to the fourth-line center spot, but that would knock Nate Thompson out of the lineup, and the Flyers like his experience, his penalty killing, and his excellence on faceoffs.
5. After not playing for nearly five months, can the Flyers regain the momentum they had built when the season was stopped?
With a veteran coach and a strong group of veteran leaders, the Flyers will not be complacent. They know the teams that are quickest to regain their mojo will probably still be playing playoff games in September and, perhaps, October (October!).
Once the Flyers got acclimated to Vigneault’s system -- it took about six weeks -- they began to roll. They were focused and playing with a playoff-type urgency when the games were halted.
Look for that to continue.
6. How is the team’s health?
As far as we know, very good. General manager Chuck Fletcher has been elusive during the break and has declined giving updates on Nolan Patrick (migraine disorder), but we know van Riemsdyk (fractured right index finger), defenseman Phil Myers (right kneecap fracture), and Thompson (sprained left knee) have all recovered from injuries and are ready to go.
7. How did the Flyers fare against the three teams they will face in the round-robin tournament?
The Flyers went a combined 5-3-1 against Boston, Tampa, and Washington, which was the best record among the four teams in games against one another this season. They had a .611 points percentage against those opponents, followed by the Capitals (.600), Lightning (.563), and the Bruins (.500).
8. What were the Flyers’ strengths and weaknesses when we last saw them play?
Strengths: Balanced scoring, a superb penalty kill (86% over the last 14 games) and power play (30.6% over the last 12 games), and top-flight defensive work and goaltending. In their last 10 games, the Flyers went 9-1 and outscored their opponents, 39-19.
Weakness: The power play, which had been blistering, was 0-for-8 over the last three games, but that is nitpicking. Truth be told, the Flyers were clicking on all cylinders, which is why it stung when the season was stopped.
9. In the past, how have Vigneault’s teams done in the Stanley Cup playoffs?
Vigneault, in his first year as the Flyers’ coach, has a 68-71 playoff coaching record, and his inaugural seasons have been rather successful. In his first seasons in Montreal and Vancouver, he took unproven teams to the second round. After that first season in Vancouver, he won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year in 2006-07.
More recently, he directed the New York Rangers to the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals in his initial season on Broadway.
If Vigneault wins his first Cup this season, he may start a new trend: martini spraying in the locker room.
10. What is the Flyers’ best chance to win their first Stanley Cup since 1975?
Well, it wouldn’t hurt if someone else knocked out Boston and Tampa and gave the Flyers a much easier path to the conference finals.
That said, even if the Flyers end up facing one or both of those teams, the games will be highly competitive, and the X-factor will be Hart and whether he’s ready to handle the pressure of his first Stanley Cup playoffs. Based on how he’s performed for Team Canada in the World Juniors, the unflappable Hart likes challenges, likes big stages.
When the season was paused., Hart was playing his best hockey. Ditto the team. All four lines were contributing, and the defense was in sync. So were the special teams.
From here, the Flyers have a perfect blend of young, on-the-rise players (Hart, Travis Konecny, Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, etc.) and proven veterans such as Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Niskanen, van Riemsdyk, and Hayes. It’s a combination that should make them a dangerous opponent this summer.
They don’t have to be as captivating and entertaining as Hamilton to make a long playoff run. They do need to be executing with precision, showing poise when things go wrong, and playing as a team -- as they were just before the season was halted -- to bring home their first Cup since Gerald Ford was in the White House.