Even though the Flyers again look like a "bubble" team as far as whether they will make the playoffs, this season feels different.
The building process, which started with rookies Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny in the lineup last season, will continue in earnest in 2017-18. As many as five rookies, headed by highly touted center Nolan Patrick, could make the team, and the pipeline after them is just as deep.
In fact, many national publications rank the Flyers' farm system as No. 1 in the NHL.
So while the Flyers will be hard-pressed just to earn a playoff spot this season, this feels like the start of something positive.
Back in their heyday, making the playoffs was a given for the Orange and Black. It was Stanley Cup or bust.
There are no guarantees, of course, but the seeds have been planted for that to be the case in a few years.
"I'm happy with where we are," Ron Hextall, who is starting his fourth year as the team's general manager, said in an interview from his Voorhees office a few days ago. "Three years ago, we set out to improve our farm system and prospect line and kind of build something that we can sustain."
The Flyers are coming off an uninspiring season in which they went 39-33-10 and missed the playoffs for the second time in three years on Hextall's watch. Their AHL farm team in Lehigh Valley, however, had an impressive 101-point season.
"We're disappointed certainly in last year in our big club," Hextall said. "Certainly we did some good things in Lehigh and so did our prospects around the world. It's kind of three parts for us. You've got the Flyers, you've got the Phantoms, and we watch our kids around the world — and we had a lot of progress with our kids around the world. In terms of our youth, our prospects, our picks, we're happy with where we're at."
Hextall's plan is coming into focus.
"When I was named GM three years ago, it was like, 'OK, we're going to build our farm system, we're going to be more competitive at the American League level, we're going to try to acquire draft picks,' " Hextall said. "And then we need to make hay with the draft picks. Last year was probably the start of it with Provy and Travis. This year there is going to be more, and the next year is probably going to be even more. That's what we planned all along.
"….Again, a lot of it still has to play out. But I think last year was kind of the front end of our vision."
Some (not Hextall) view this as a rebuilding season because two rookies figure to be on defense — Sam Morin and Robert Hagg are the favorites — and rookie forwards Patrick and Oskar Lindblom could work their way into the top six. The defense could have four players who have played less than two full seasons.
"You're not rebuilding when you're competitive," Hextall said in a firm tone. "A rebuild, to me, is when you go to the bottom and you pick high, high, high – and essentially, you're not trying that hard to win. That's not in our DNA. We want to win. We want to win as many games as possible. We're not going to go to the bottom of the league and pick first overall for four or five years. That's no way to build culture. Our vision was to stay competitive, and build, and get younger — and that's exactly what we're doing."
A year ago, the Flyers were fairly competitive and they got the No. 2 overall pick because they got lucky in the draft lottery.
"That's not one of those things you can't script, right?" said a smiling Hextall.
Hextall, whose team will start rookie camp Sept. 11 and veteran camp Sept. 15, said he felt blessed to move from No. 13 to No. 2 in the draft. The odds of that happening were a little over 2 percent.
"But we also feel we did what was right — trying to win, trying to make the playoffs. And you know what, we got a reward for it," he said. "A part of me says that was just. If you try to finish at the bottom and trade everyone at the deadline, that bothers me. How do you think the players feel? How would you like to be a player going into an 82-game season knowing the team is rebuilding so basically has no expectations to win. Think about that. That's not in our DNA."
It has recently been in the 76ers' DNA — and, at one time, in the Penguins'.
"I'm not speaking about any team. I'm just talking about us," Hextall said. "Everybody talks about us and this rebuild. We can build without being uncompetitive. If you lose your culture, I'll tell you what, it takes you a long time to get it back. People don't understand the importance of culture. It is absolutely critical. It's critical that your players know you expect to win."
Hextall was asked about the team's 2017-18 expectations following a flat, 88-point season.
"I can sit here and tell you 85 points, 105 points, but it really doesn't mean anything," he said. "What's [important] is when our team starts the season and we go do it. Do we expect to make the playoffs? Of course we expect to make the playoffs. We were close enough last year" — the Flyers finished seven points behind the last qualifier, Toronto — "that you can circle a few games where you say, 'If we would have won these games, we're in the playoffs.' I'm comfortable saying we expect to make the playoffs because our team on paper is good enough to make the playoffs. That's not an unfair expectation. But, again, it's all about what happens on the ice."
A year ago, the Flyers finished tied for 20th in goals scored and tied for 19th in goals allowed. In the offseason, they dealt dependable Brayden Schenn (25 goals) to St. Louis, and they made a lateral goaltending move by replacing Steve Mason with Brian Elliott.
Clearly, Hextall is looking for the rookies and second-year players to step up, and for Claude Giroux (14 goals, 58 points) to reestablish himself as one of the game's elite players. He believes the Flyers are deeper this year, and that will mean opponents won't be able to focus so much attention on shutting down Giroux.
Hextall expects improvement in "every facet of our team….We've got Jordan Weal and Val Filppula for a full year. Hopefully a couple of our young guys will make an impact, and we expect our young guys on the back end — assuming they make this team— to make an impact."
"Don't forget: Our young players aren't 18- and 19-year-olds. Our young players are seasoned. That's why I'm comfortable not signing veterans right now because those guys are seasoned. They've gotten time in the American League. A guy like Lindblom played at a high level [he finished second in the Swedish Hockey League with 22 goals]. … Cole Bardreau played in the American League. So did Travis Sanheim, Sam Morin, Robert Hagg. These guys, they're not young players coming out of college or junior who have no pro experience and we're not sure what they're going to give us. When you watch a kid in the American League it's much easier to project what he's going to do in the National League versus someone from college or the junior level."
Hextall is oozing with optimism about the future and it's justified. But the rebuilding — uh, building— will produce a masterpiece only if one of the promising goalie prospects such as Carter Hart or Felix Sandstrom (or perhaps even Anthony Stolarz or Alex Lyon) blossoms into a top-notch performer down the road.