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Flyers preview: Future has arrived

Posted by Eric Fisher On October 13

Ed Snider, the founder of the franchise who died in April, detested rebuilding.

Retooling or reloading? Maybe.

Rebuilding? Out of the question.

As the Flyers celebrate the 50th anniversary of the franchise, though, there is definitely a changing of the guard going on, particularly on the blue line.

Brandon Manning has been with the Flyers longer than any other of their current defensemen. If we only count full seasons, veteran Mark Streit, with three years under his belt, has been with the Flyers for the longest period of time.

Shayne Gostisbehere returns for his second season – and his first full season – with the Flyers. Ivan Provorov, selected 7th overall by the Flyers in the 2015 NHL Draft, joins the defensive corps.

Provorov is joined on the roster by forward Travis Konecny, drafted 24th overall in 2015. These two 19-year-olds clearly illustrate that the Flyers are turning over their roster. With a number of contracts expiring after this season, the Flyers’ roster could turn over some more next season.

Does this mean the Flyers are rebuilding? That depends on your definition of rebuilding.

Rebuilding teams aren’t expected to make the playoffs. After surprising some observers by qualifying for the playoffs last season, the Flyers are expected to make the playoffs this season.

The following is a preview of the 2016-17 Flyers season – with one eye toward the future.

GOALIES

Present: The Flyers have a solid tandem in Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth. The two 28-year-olds, born six days apart, are expected to share the load this season. Mason played more games last season, but Neuvirth, who had a better record (18-8-4) and goals-against average (2.27) during the regular season, replaced Mason (23-19-10, 2.51 ERA) during the playoff series against the Capitals. This is the first year in many seasons that the Flyers don’t have a question mark regarding their goaltending, although it would be nice to see Mason or Neuvirth play well enough to be declared the clear No. 1 goalie.

Future: Both Mason and Neuvirth will be unrestricted free agents after this season. With teams only allowed to protect one goalie during the expansion draft, the Flyers may try to decide whether Mason or Neuvirth is their top goalie, and then trade the other one rather than risk losing one of them in the expansion draft. The Flyers have young goalies in the system, including Anthony Stolarz and Alex Lyon with the Phantoms, and 2016 draft pick Carter Hart, the first goalie chosen (48th overall) during this year’s draft.

DEFENSE

Present: The Flyers have a nice blend of older defensemen, such as Streit (38) and Nick Schultz (34), middle-aged (in NHL years) defensemen in Andrew MacDonald (30), Radko Gudas (26), Michael Del Zotto and Manning (26), and young defensemen in Gostisbehere (23) and Provorov (19).

Del Zotto starts the season on the Long-term Injured Reserve list with a “lower body” injury. Gudas starts the season with a 6-game suspension for a late hit on Bruins rookie Austin Czarnik on Saturday during the Flyers’ final preseason game.

Flyers-StreitStreit (left), Schultz and Manning are known commodities. Streit is a good point man on the power play, but he’s become a liability in his own zone. Schultz doesn’t give a team much offense, but he’s dependable in his own zone. Manning is a third pair or extra defenseman. MacDonald, who handled a demotion to the Phantoms last season as well as it could be handled, was steady upon returning to the Flyers for the final third of the season and was a consistent and steady presence during the preseason.

The unknowns are Gostisbehere and Provorov. Can Gostisbehere improve upon last season, when he registered 46 points in 64 games and was a Calder Cup finalist? Keep an eye on whether Gostisbehere can increase his production while improving in the defensive zone. We don’t know how Provorov will respond to the pressure of being in the NHL. If he looks like he belongs right away, that will be a positive sign for the Flyers.

The two missing defensemen at the start of the season, Gudas and Del Zotto, are wild cards. Gudas must learn how to play a physical style without taking cheap shots. He has been suspended twice, so the NHL will keep a close eye on him. He won’t receive the benefit of the doubt many more times. Del Zotto must overcome his injury problems. Once he’s healthy, he needs to demonstrate that he can be disciplined in the defensive zone without taking away his willingness to jump up into the play.

Future: The turnover on the Flyers defense has barely begun. Streit, Schultz and Del Zotto are all unrestricted free agents after this season. That makes them all trade bait at the trade deadline. If he can stay healthy, Del Zotto is the most likely of this trio to stick around, although the Flyers need to free up enough cap space to re-sign Gostisbehere, who will be a restricted free agent after this season. Schultz could return at the right price. Streit will likely be moving on. Former first-round picks Travis Sanheim and Samuel Morin are candidates to fill any openings next season, as are former second-round pick Robert Hagg and free-agent signee Philippe Myers, a 19-year-old who looks like a steal.

CENTER

Present: The Flyers have a glut of centers. Captain Claude Giroux (22 goals, team-high 45 assists, team-high 67 points) centers the top line. He also is a fine defensive player, which is why he also kills penalties.

The often-underrated Sean Couturier, who is still just 23 years old, was limited to 63 games by injuries last season. Remarkably, he was plus-8 while scoring just 11 goals. The Flyers need Couturier to increase his goals total without losing his effectiveness at the defensive end. It appears that Couturier will begin the season centering Jakub Voracek and Konecny, and that line will definitely be counted upon to produce goals.

The Flyers have several options to center the third line. Nick Cousins, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Michael Raffl are possibilities to center the third line, although Raffl will likely start the season on the top line in place of Brayden Schenn, who is serving a three-game suspension for a hit on the Capitals’ T.J. Oshie during the playoffs. Bellemare made a good showing for the surprising Team Europe entry at the World Cup of Hockey. Cousins has clearly passed Scott Laughton, who will start the season on injured reserve, on the Flyers’ organizational depth chart. With both players in line to become restricted free agents after this season, it will be interesting to see if the Flyers try to re-sign both of them.

The fourth-line center is Boyd Gordon. Signed during the offseason, Gordon’s primary task is to improve the Flyers’ penalty-killing. As a right-handed draw, Gordon will take many of the face-offs in the right side of the Flyers’ defensive zone during penalty kills. That should give Giroux more of a break by cutting down his time on the penalty kill, keeping him fresher for the power play and five-on-five play.

Future: You’re looking at it, at least for the next few years. Unless the Flyers trade one of them, Giroux and Couturier are probably the team’s top two centers for at least the next three to four years. Couturier signed a five-year contract during the offseason. Konecny is a natural center, so he could possibly supplant Couturier, who would become a terrific third-line center. Cousins could also become the third-line center. Bellemare, 31, and Gordon, 32, are unrestricted free agents after this season. The Flyers may try to bring them back next season, but they’re probably not part of the long-term future.

WING

Simmonds and Brayden Schenn, who signed a four-year contract during the offseason, are slated to play next to Giroux on the top line. Simmonds led the Flyers last season with 32 goals. Schenn was second with 26.

Flyers-VoracekVoracek (left), who only scored 11 goals last season, could help the Flyers tremendous by doubling his goal total. Playing with bigger players such as Voracek and Couturier should help the relatively small Konecny (5-foot-9, 170 pounds) to play to his strengths rather than banging around in the corners and protecting the puck along the boards.

Raffl is a versatile forward who can play with the top line or a checking line. Cousins is a third-line player right now, although he has been selected to fill Schenn’s role with the top player unit during Schenn’s suspension. Matt Read is looking for a bounce-back year after two straight sub-par seasons. But Read will likely be playing on the third line, so he may not have many opportunities to score.

Dale Weise, who scored 14 goals with the Canadiens last season before being traded to the Blackhawks, is a physical player with the ability to score. A wild card is Roman Lyubimov (6-2, 207), a Russian who could be a regular on the third or fourth line. Chris VandeVelde , who scored two goals last season, needs to prove that his nine-goal output during the 2014-15 season wasn’t an aberration, but he might have difficulty cracking the lineup. If the Flyers have trouble generating goals from their bottom two lines, Jordan Weal, who had a good preseason, could be called up.

Future: Unlike on defense, the Flyers don’t have a lot of hot prospects close to reaching the NHL. On the other hand, they don’t have a lot of room on the roster. The Flyers have six wings signed for at least two years. Of those players, only Read is older than 28. If injuries create a need, veteran Colin McDonald, 32, and Petr Straka, 24, are the most likely wings to be called up (besides Weal). Tyler Leier and Nicolas Aube-Kubel might not be too many years away from joining the Flyers, but nobody besides Konecny and Weal were seriously pushing for playing time this season. An increase in scoring is going to have to come from the forwards currently on the roster.

HEAD COACH

This is the second season for Dave Hakstol, the second-most famous import from North Dakota. The players should be used to his system, so there should be fewer adjustments this season.

Future: You never say never in the NHL, where coaches have short shelf lives, but, barring a disaster, Hakstol probably has at least two more years before his seat gets hot.

OUTLOOK

The Flyers should get more production this season from Voracek and Couturier. If Weise and Read can provide scoring depth from the lower lines, it should provide the Flyers with a tremendous boost. Gordon is a key addition to the penalty kill, which could make the Flyers’ record much better if it improves 5 percent.

The key, though, may be how fast Provorov and Konecny grow up as teenagers in the NHL. If they can play well as rookies, and the dynamic Gostisbehere can avoid a sophomore jinx, the Flyers could be a significantly improved team.

There are still too many question marks regarding scoring and the defense, but the solid goalie tandem of Mason and Neuvirth gives the Flyers the potential of winning a round in the playoffs if the team in front of the goalies operates as a solid unit. Prediction: Let’s be optimistic: The Flyers will finish third in the Metropolitan Division and win a playoff series.

 

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