The good news is that the rebuilt defense looks much improved and has developed quick chemistry during the Flyers’ training camp.
The better news is that goaltender Carter Hart, coming off an awful season, looked sharp and confident in his two preseason appearances.
The concerning news is that the Flyers’ penalty kill has continued to struggle, and injuries to center Kevin Hayes and promising right winger Wade Allison have disrupted an offense that looks like it will huff and puff to score goals.
The Flyers are down to 24 healthy players, and more cuts are coming. Teams usually carry 22 or 23 players, but the Flyers may start the season with just 20.
They open next Friday against visiting Vancouver.
Barring a trade or a waiver-wire pickup, here is how the lineup looks based on recent practices.
Line 1: Sean Couturier centering Claude Giroux and Travis Konecny.
Comment: This was the only unit left intact during camp. Increased production from last season is a must.
Line 2: Derick Brassard centering Joel Farabee and Cam Atkinson.
Comment: Call them the FAB line, and the Flyers will need Brassard, who has had a good camp, to step up, particularly from an offensive standpoint, until second-line center Hayes returns.
Line 3: Scott Laughton centering Oskar Lindblom and James van Riemsdyk.
Comment: Laughton, one of the Flyers’ most versatile players, was hit hard by the coronavirus last season and is now healthy.
Line 4: Nate Thompson centering Garrett Wilson and Nic Aube-Kubel.
Comment: Nothing fancy is expected from this group. Solid defense and gritty play will be their MO. Wilson and Jackson Cates rotated at left wing Thursday, but Wilson was in the lineup in Friday’s preseason game in Washington.
The 6-foot-3, 218-pound Wilson, 30, has NHL experience (84 games) but has spent most of his career in the AHL. He has been “one of the best players, day in and day out, [in camp],” general manger Chuck Fletcher said.
Cates (6-0, 204), 24, was a college free-agent signee in April. Fletcher called him a “dependable player who right now fits in our bottom six. What you ask of those players is to be responsible and to manage the puck and to work hard. Typically, you need to kill penalties in that role, and he does all that well.”
More defense than offense?
The Flyers finished 15th in the NHL by scoring 2.86 goals per game last season. They added Atkinson in a deal for Jake Voráček, and are hoping for bounce-back seasons from Hayes (12 goals) and Konecny (11). They were also counting on Allison to emerge, but his high-ankle sprain will sideline him for an indefinite period. Hayes (abdominal surgery) will probably miss about 10 games.
Right now, scoring looks like a potential problem.
“I think the talent is there to score, but you never know how long it will take to click,” Fletcher said.
On the other hand, the defense looks much improved from last season, when it allowed a league-worst 3.52 goals per game.
Fletcher blames a lot of last year’s defensive dysfunction on the forwards.
“That was the root of our problems,” he said.
The back end is expected to look like this:
Defense: Ivan Provorov and Ryan Ellis; Travis Sanheim and Rasmus Ristolainen; and Keith Yandle and Justin Braun.
Comment: The play of this veteran group has been one of the most promising aspects of training camp. Like Matt Niskanen did two years ago, Ellis seems to have a calming effect on the team, and Ristolainen’s physicality has been a welcome addition.
Defensemen Cam York and Nick Seeler are still in camp. The ultra-promising York is expected to be sent to Lehigh Valley, and Seeler, a veteran, could end up there as well.
When the season starts, Fletcher said the roster may include just six defensemen and 20 players, a move that would add some cap space. The Flyers play at home for their first four games, so they could get away with carrying just 20 players during that time frame, with Allentown (the Phantoms’ home) not far away in case a player needs to be recalled.
Goalies: Carter Hart and Martin Jones.
Comment: Hart, who sat out Friday’s game with minor bumps and bruises, has had an excellent camp, compiling a 1.20 goals-against average and .953 save percentage over two preseason games. Jones, after a shaky debut, has been solid,too. Felix Sandström is still in camp but is expected to soon join the Phantoms.
Special teams have been a mixed bag over the first five preseason games. The penalty kill, which finished next to last in the NHL last season, was successful on just 10 of 17 attempts (58.8%) entering Friday. The power play numbers — 4-for-20, 20% — aren’t bad, and the unit has had solid puck movement and has created lots of chances.
Fletcher isn’t overly concerned by the PK’s struggles.
“The penalty kill has been interesting; it’s such a small sample size, and the personnel has been moving around,” Fletcher said. “We should be better on the penalty kill because we brought in players who historically have been good killers. It may take time for that chemistry, and to find the right pairs up front and the right defensive pairings.”
Overall, Fletcher is pleased with camp, saying he likes the energy and focus, and “where the guys are physically.”
“It feels like two years ago,” he said. “Guys are buying in. Everyone’s communicating and on the same page so far. ... But there’s a lot of work left to go. ”