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Flyers preview: Youth holds the key

Posted by Eric Fisher On October 3

The Flyers haven’t won a playoff series in six years. The development of younger players holds the key to whether that streak ends.

The Flyers’ veterans are what they are. We have a good idea of what to expect from Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds and Andrew MacDonald. What is less certain is the continued development of defensemen forward Travis Konecny and defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov, as well as to see if second-year players such as Nolan Patrick, Oskar Lindblom or Travis Sanheim take a big step up.

Goalie, of course, is a question mark for the Flyers. If Brian Elliott can stay healthy and they can find a reliable – and healthy – backup, the Flyers could finally advance to the second round of the playoffs. Or could they go even further?

GOALIE

The Flyers are relying on Brian Elliott in net. They don’t have much choice.

The often-injured Michal Neuvirth, who had surgery on both hips last spring, injured his groin during preseason and will start the regular season on injured reserve. Unfortunately, the most reliable thing about Neuvirth is that he will suffer an injury. Alex Lyon, who played in 11 games for the Flyers last season, also is sidelined by an injury.

The Flyers could have kept Carter Hart, their goalie of the future, as the backup, but playing regularly with the Phantoms is probably better for Hart’s development. Anthony Stolarz will be the backup as the season begins, but Calvin Pickard, claimed off waivers on Tuesday from the Maple Leafs, could become the primary backup to Elliott.

Elliott had core-muscle surgery last year and had a procedure on his hip during the summer. Questions about his durability are why it’s so important the Flyers have a reliable backup.

The Flyers might not win many extra games because of their goaltending, but there is a danger they could lose games because of their goaltending, particularly if Elliott sustains a serious injury. If Elliott is sidelined and Hart is playing well at midseason, the future could arrive in net earlier than expected.

DEFENSE

With goaltending a question mark, it’s important that the defense play well. The issue for the Flyers is that many of their young defensemen are still developing.

Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere (left) need to be the stars on the blue line. Gostisbehere rebounded last season after a rough sophomore year. His 33 points on the power play led all NHL defensemen, and his 65 points (13 goals, 52 assists) ranked fourth on the Flyers. Equally as important, Gostisbehere’s game in his own end improved dramatically, so he was no longer a liability in the defensive zone.

Provorov, who is only 21, plays with the poise of a veteran. Although he isn’t as flashy as Gostisbehere, Provorov had more goals (17), with 15 of them coming at even strength. If Provorov cracks the 20-goal mark, which is certainly attainable, he will begin to get recognition for being one of the NHL’s best young defensemen.

Provorov and Gostisbehere need to be the leaders on defense. The hope is that veterans Andrew MacDonald, Radko Gudas and Christian Folin (Gudas and Folin are only a few years older than Gostisbehere) are steady, while Robert Hagg and Travis Sanheim step up and establish themselves as solid contributors for this season and beyond. Hagg had a solid season before, inexplicably, being benched near the end of the season. Sanheim is terrific pushing the puck into the offensive zone, but needs to reduce mistakes in the defensive zone.

The development of the young defensemen is one of the keys to the Flyers’ season.

CENTER

The Flyers are deep down the middle.They are deep enough that captain Claude Giroux seems likely to remain on left wing, where he accumulated a team-high 102 points (34 goals, 68 assists) last season. Sean Couturier, who had a breakout year with career highs in goals (31), assits (45) and points (76), centers the top line. Couturier had a plus-minus rating of plus-34, which is why he was a Selke Award finalists.

Nolan Patrick demonstrated signs of his potential during the second half of last season, finishing his rookie year with 13 goals. Don’t be surprised if Patrick, who just turned 20 last month, scores 20 goals this season.

The third center is a bit of surprise. Mikhail Vorobyev, 21, played his way onto the team with a terrific preseason. He appears to be a keeper rather than a preseason flash in the pan, but only time will tell.

The fourth-line center could be veteran Jori Lehtera, That’s not an exciting choice for fans, but, with Patrick and Vorobyev being so young, it doesn’t hurt to have a veteran center other than Couturier to take defensive draws. Another option at center on the fourth line is Scott Laughton, although he found some success on the wing late last season and in the playoffs.

FORWARD

The biggest addition to the Flyers is left wing James van Riemsdyk. He returns to the Flyers as an established goal scorer. JVR isn’t better than average at 5-on-5 in his own zone, but he should provide a boost on offense. It will be interesting to see if head coach Dave Hakstol uses JVR and Wayne Simmonds together on the power play’s first unit or separates them to create more balance.

Simmonds is coming off a difficult year in which injuries hindered his play. He seemed to regress in the defensive zone last season. It’s possible that Simmonds and van Riemsdyk could be on the same line, but that would require that the center be extremely conscientious about being responsible at the defensive end.

Giroux and Konecny, yet another 21-year-old, are the likely forwards on the top line. Konecny (24 goals, 23 assists) needs to develop more consistency and cut down on his turnovers in order to become a more valuable player.

Jakub Voracek (20 goals, 65 assists), left, is likely going to rack up a ton of assists. But Voracek’s level of play didn’t quite match his numbers last season. He seemed to make mistakes at crucial moments. The Flyers hope that Voracek can avoid those mistakes while playing on the second line, likely with Patrick and van Riemsdyk.

One player who may be in line to make a major improvement is left wing Oskar Lindblom. After being called up last season, Lindblom played fine, but had trouble finding the net. During the preseason, Lindblom was effective along the boards and displayed a little bit of a scorer’s touch. He could make a significant contribution on the second or third line.

Versatile left wing Michael Raffl could play on any line from first to fourth – and probably will. Teaming him with Laughton and Lehtera, or possibly Jordan Weal, on the fourth line is a possibility, but he also could join Simmonds and Vorobyev on the third line or Patrick and Voracek on the second line.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The power play and penalty-killing units could hold the key to the Flyers’ success. The power play ranked 15th overall (20.7 percent). With van Riemsdyk added to the fold and with Patrick displaying effectiveness around the net when Simmonds was injured, that ranking should improve.

It’s less certain that the penalty killing will improve. They ranked 29th (75.8 percent) in the NHL, which isn’t good enough for a contending team. They need to improve in all aspects of penalty killing. They must be in better position, clear the puck when they have an opportunity and get better goaltending. Special teams are particularly important during the playoffs, when goals are often scarcer.

HEAD COACH

Is this really Dave Hakstol’s fourth year as head coach? There certainly will be pressure on Hakstol to win a playoff series this season, but, barring a disastrous season, his job probably doesn’t depend on it. Hakstol will likely be back for the final year of his current contract, but his job will certainly be on the line next season if the Flyers don’t win a playoff series this year.

Hakstol has taken a consistent, steady-as-she-goes attitude behind the bench. If the younger players develop and continue to get better, it will bode well for Hakstol’s future as Flyers coach.

OUTLOOK

Aside from adding van Riemsdyk, the Flyers didn’t make many personnel changes. They are relying heavily on the development of young players. Provorov, Konecny and Vorobyev are 21 years old. Sanheim and Lindblom are 22. Patrick is 20. If all of those players get better with a year of experience, the Flyers could be a significantly better club when the playoffs begin than they were last spring during their first-round series with the Penguins.

There appears to be much more quality depth at forward. With van Riemsdyk and Simmonds, the power play could be much more dangerous.

The question marks are on defense and in goal. If both of those questions are answered affirmatively, the penalty killing should be much better. On the other hand, if Elliott is unsteady or hindered by injuries, the penalty killing could sink the Flyers’ playoff hopes.

I’m concerned about the goaltending and the defense. I’m confident that Provorov and Gostisbehere will continue to climb the development ladder toward the upper echelon of defensemen. My concern is that the veterans – MacDonald, Gudas and Folin – won’t be as steady and reliable as the Flyers need them to be. Even so, I’m still picking the Flyers to finish fourth in the Metropolitan Division. Unfortunately, that would mean they have to knock off a division winner in the first round. With the development of their young players, and possibly with Carter Hart in goal, I’m picking the Flyers to advance to the second round for the first time since 2012.

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