Buckle up. The NHL season is coming at you. Fast.
The Flyers will begin the on-ice portion of their shortened training camp Monday at their Voorhees training facility. Nine days later, the 56-game season will start.
There won’t be much time for NHL coaches to make lineup decisions in camp, causing more experimentation in the season’s first month. For the Flyers, coming off an impressive 41-21-7 season in which they earned their first playoff series victory since 2012, that will be especially evident on defense.
Here are five burning questions Flyers coaches will try to answer during camp:
This is the most important question in camp. And positive vibes are emanating.
Patrick missed all last season because of a migraine disorder, but he has been skating during informal workouts in Voorhees and, from all accounts, looking good and sleeping better. If healthy, he is penciled in as the third-line center and he will get more favorable matchups than when he was on the second line (before Kevin Hayes’ arrival) two seasons ago.
Lindblom was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer last December and, after grueling chemotherapy treatments, returned and played in the final two playoff games. He has been given a clean bill of health, and the Flyers are hoping he returns to the form he displayed early last season, when he shared the team lead with 11 goals before his diagnosis.
Adding a free-agent sniper such as Mike Hoffman would have helped, but GM Chuck Fletcher bypassed the winger, who signed a tryout contract with St. Louis and is expected to stay there.
Patrick and Lindblom could help the power play, and newcomer Erik Gustafsson might get time on the second unit.
It will be interesting to see if Michel Therrien, the power-play coach, juggles the units or makes some strategic changes that make the Flyers less predictable. The power play was much improved in the regular season, going from tied for 22nd in the NHL the previous year (17.1%) to 14th (20.8%). But it was awful in the postseason (4-for-52, 7.7%), including 0-for-13 against the Islanders, with just 11 shots on goal — and that was a big reason they lost that conference semifinal in seven games.
Teams can carry 23 players and, because of COVID-19, have a taxi squad that includes four to six players. The Flyers will probably carry 29 players, and they will practice and travel with the team.
Morgan Frost, Samuel Morin, Connor Bunnaman, Linus Sandin, Carsen Twarynski, Tanner Laczynski, Wade Allison, and Mark Friedman are among the players fighting for roster and taxi-squad spots. Morin is intriguing as he tries to make the switch from defenseman to left winger. Alex Lyon appears to be set as the No. 3 goalie and figures to be on the taxi squad. Each team must carry three goalies.
Phil Myers makes the most sense to fill the spot vacated by Matt Niskanen’s retirement. Myers is right-handed, he showed last season he could play against big-time forwards, and he has the size (6-foot-5, 215 pounds) to hand out punishment.
If the second-pairing defenders remain together, that would make Erik Gustafsson and Justin Braun the only defensemen who could be paired with Provorov if Vigneault decided he wants a right-side defender on that unit. (Gustafsson is left-handed, but he has played primarily the right side over the last three seasons.) If Vigneault decides he doesn’t mind having two lefties together, that would make Sanheim a candidate to be paired with Provorov.
A shortened camp works against any prospects’ cracking the lineup unless there are injuries. The Flyers will have an advantage over a lot of teams because they didn’t make many offseason changes, so they can go with familiar lines and pairings because they already have chemistry.
It should be noted, however, that lines and pairings figure to be more fluid than usual in the season’s first month. With a shortened camp, there won’t be as much time to experiment with combinations. To some extent, the early part of the season will be used for that.
When all the dust settles, this could be the Flyers’ lineup:
Line 1: Sean Couturier centering Claude Giroux and Travis Konecny.
Line 2: Hayes centering Lindblom and Jake Voracek.
Line 3: Patrick centering James van Riemsdyk and Joel Farabee.
Line 4: Scott Laughton centering Michael Raffl and Nic Aube-Kubel.
If Patrick is healthy and blossoms, center would clearly be the Flyers’ strength. They also have versatility because Giroux can shift from left wing to center if needed. The Flyers were seventh in the NHL in goals per game (3.29) last season, and that was without Patrick for the entire year and without Lindblom for 39 of the 69 games. And keep an eye on Farabee; he showed lots of promise as a rookie and could blossom.
Defense 1: Provorov and Myers.
Defense 2: Sanheim and Gustafsson.
Defense 3: Shayne Gostisbehere or Robert Hagg and Braun.
The defense, which was tied for No. 7 (with Stanley Cup-champion Tampa Bay) in the NHL as it allowed 2.77 goals per game last season, will probably take a step backward because of Niskanen’s retirement. That said, Fletcher should have enough cap space to add a veteran defenseman at the April 12 trade deadline, if needed.
It’ll be interesting to see how Gostisbehere, 27, looks now that he is healthy. Can he regain the form that produced 65 points in 2017-18 and made him an ultra-dangerous player on the power play?
Any defensive shortcomings that arise because of Niskanen’s departure could be offset by goalie Carter Hart. With a year of experience behind him, he figures to cover up defensive mistakes even better than last season.
Goalie 1: Hart.
Goalie 2: Brian Elliott.
In his first full NHL season, Hart did not disappoint. He was good in the regular season and even better in the playoffs. He has the reflexes, composure, and talent to be among the league’s elite — and when is the last time you could say that about a Flyers goaltender?
Elliott is a very capable backup, and, with a condensed schedule, he figures to get at least 15 of the 56 starts. That would give Hart 73% and Elliott 27% of the games.