Last year at this time, Robert Hagg was one of a few surprising story lines. Projected by many to be returned to the Phantoms in favor of higher touted D-men like smooth-skating Travis Sanheim and big, earth-shattering basher Sam Morin, he instead beat out Morin to make the opening night squad.
Sanheim quickly came up. Morin fell victim to several smaller injuries and then a season-ending one. Relied on quickly, Hagg plugged away with a steady, solid game filled with big hits and devoid of big gaps, moved up and down the pairings, built a bank of trust before struggling at season's end.
This summer though has been different. And he's the first to admit it. "There are some things I still need to work on," he said just this week, listing jumping into plays, being more active with the puck and the most mentioned of them all — gaps between him and the puck carrier.
"It's such a big timing thing," said Hagg. "You can practice it, but game situations it's completely different."
Still, Hagg is an established veteran a year later, one of five Flyers from last year's playoff team who fit that description: Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov, Andrew MacDonald and Radko Gudas. Even Sanheim, with his own trials and tribulations last year, now has 49 NHL games under his belt, and a long trying playoff run with the Phantoms too. After allowing Brandon Manning to walk via free agency, the Flyers also added free-agent depth guy Christian Folin.
Phillippe Myers, who played so well in Lehigh Valley last season and began this camp looking every bit the Wow player the Flyers hope he becomes, supplies even more depth. The question, for a team that allowed 236 goals last year, is whether that depth translates into a stingier effort.
Here's a quick rundown of the defense:
Shayne Gostisbehere: The defenseman known for spectacular rushes and booming slapshots showed he can play a little D last year, especially when paired with Ivan Provorov. Looks like the Flyers will start with those two as a pair. The success of the others will determine how long they remain that way.
Ivan Provorov: Even before the season ended with him playing with one arm hanging off, Provorov hit and battled through a wall halfway through the season. Less time for his notorious and highly secretive training regime, and a slight alteration to it "because I've matured a year" may actually keep him at his peak all the way through.
Andrew MacDonald: If Radko Gudas wasn't his teammate, this now 32-year-old would be the Flyers most argued-over player. You either focus on all the things he does right or those sometimes glaring ones that end up in the back of the net. Either way, his status as a leaned-upon defenseman will lessen as players gain more experience. And that may win him and his suddenly cap-appropriate deal ($5 million this year and next) more fans.
Radko Gudas: Here's a stunning admission from the one of the NHL's most disciplined players: Sometimes when he's practicing on the ice, he has "Itsy Bitsy Spider" stuck playing in his head. Now in his seventh season, the 28-year-old father of two toddlers knows he's under the microscope after his 10-game suspension led to a tentative dip in play last season. "For me, it's always about finding the line between right and wrong," he said. "Finding this line would be the best thing that could happen for me and my teammates.
Travis Sanheim: As a rookie Sanheim averaged 15:35 of ice time in 49 games. With the up-and-down experience of last year, and that long playoff run with the Phantoms, that is likely to be closer to 20 minutes this season. Given his production at every level prior to the NHL, he will likely improve upon his 10-point production of a year ago as well.
Christian Folin: Signed to a 1-year $800,000 deal over the summer, the 27-year-old free agent from The University of Massachusetts-Lowell played in 65 games for the Los Angeles Kings last season, posting 13 points. He could step into top 6 role if Gudas can't find that line between right and wrong.
Mark Friedman: Few expect Friedman to be on the ice next Thursday in Las Vegas. But few expected the 22-year-old former Bowling Green star to still be in camp. He's fast enough to stick someday though, and he has grown as a defender from this ptime last season. "He's done all the things that we've asked him and he's gotten a little better throughout camp," Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said.