The Flyers are already at the halfway point of the preseason schedule; four games left after playing four games in four nights. While September wins and losses are not of primary importance, it is nevertheless a positive that the team has started out 3-1-0 with a variety of different game-night rosters.
Now that that grueling segment of the preseason is over, a slew of roster cuts are forthcoming. Through Wednesday, the only roster cuts have been the four 2017-drafted prospects who were returned to their respective Ontario Hockey League teams for more seasoning.Â
On the back half of the schedule, there will be fewer and fewer veteran players left in camp who are bound to be assigned to AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Dave Hakstol and his staff will start focusing on specific roster decisions and potential opening night line combinations and defense pairs. The final preseason game on Sept. 29 in Boston will be treated like a dress rehearsal for a regular season road game.Â
With that in mind, here are five things that we’ve learned to up to this point in camp:
1. MULTIPLE CONTENDERS FOR 3C-4C
One of the main focuses coming into camp was the battle for the vacant third-line center role that was occupied last season by Valtteri Filppula (now with the New York Islanders). Thus far, a variety of candidates have stepped up in camp: veterans and young players alike.
Jordan Weal, who has played primarily at his original position in camp after playing on a wing for most of his Flyers tenure, has had a solid training camp thus far. He gives up size but his creativity and smarts have compensated for it overall.
Scott Laughton, who may open the season on left wing if he does not play in the middle, had a three-assist night at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday in his first 2018 preseason game at center, either on the third or fourth line.Â
“I think playing in the league a couple years now, I kind of have more confidence with the puck… I work with an elite skills coach back home and try to work on the little things that I wouldn’t work on – a lot of stuff with your head up. Just little things you learn as a kid,” Laughton said of his preparations and mindset during the offseason and camp.
After having what GM Ron Hextall described on Tuesday as a good overall but somewhat inconsistent rookie season with the Phantoms in 2017-18, Mikhail Vorobyev has had a very strong camp on both sides of the puck. He excelled in Rookie Camp and the Rookie Game and has carried it straight through the main camp and NHL preseason to date.
Vorobyev has worked hard in the areas he needed to improve upon in making the transition to the North American rink and game. In camp so far, he’s showing more willingness to shoot the puck, getting himself below and inside the dots in the attack zone with much greater consistency and regularly helping his linemates out in the unglamorous trench battles for puck possession. Added to his size and innate abilities to make clever passes, see the ice well and play above-average defense for a 21-year-old, and the Flyers have an intriguing young NHL roster or long-term call-up candidate. One area that has been a weakness in the preseason so far has been faceoffs; a common issue for young players.
“Misha continued to be doing what he’s been doing. We’re putting a lot on his plate and tonight he played on the power play in a little different spot. He did a good job on the PK and I thought his 5 on 5 was good,” Hakstol said after Monday’s 3-1 win over the Islanders.
When asked if Weal and Vorobyev were competing for the same spot (third line center), Hakstol hinted that the field might be a little more open than that. Perhaps there might also competition brewing for the fourth-line center role as well. The top two center spots, of course, are a lock with Sean Couturier and Nolan Patrick occupying those positions.Â
“They’re both working to battle for a center ice spot,” Hakstol said of Weal and Vorobyev. “I’m not sure they’re necessarily battling for the same spot, but they could be, certainly they could be.”
Incumbent Flyers fourth line center Jori Lehtera, who also played left wing for much of last season, has not had a poor camp. He knows he’s playing to keep his job. In his case, the veteran player’s strengths (size, “heaviness” in board battles, ability to protect the puck) and weaknesses (primarily his below-average skating ability) are known quantities. It is also worth noting that Lehtera is in the final year of his contract and can become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
A veteran dark horse also remains in the mix: versatile Phantoms forward Corban Knight. With Lehigh Valley, he has been part of the team leadership group and a valuable player on the ice who is able to be plugged in just about anywhere in the lineup and to play either center or wing. He has quietly had a good camp for the Flyers thus far, including penalty killing and fourth line center duties on Monday against the Islanders and a goal and an assist playing right wing on a line with Laughton and Oskar Lindblom on Wednesday. Hakstol is already familiar with Knight, whom he coached previously at the University of North Dakota.
2. ROOKIE WINGER’S STOCK
In addition to second-year pro Vorobyev having a strong all-around camp and third-year pro winger Nicolas Aube-Kubel stepping up in recent days after a rough opening game of the preseason (not just for him but for most of a youth-laden lineup), several first-year pros have looked good. One such player is Carsen Twarynski.Â
A year ago, after being cut from the Flyers camp, the organization kept Twarynski around to audition for an AHL job with the Phantoms. Instead, the Flyers ultimately decided he’d benefit more from an overage season of junior hockey in the Western Hockey League. The extra season in the Western League served him well.
Twarynski gained offensive confidence (45 goals in 68 regular season games, two goals in four playoff tilts) in using his heavy shot and fast release. His bread-and-butter game is combination of size, above-average skating and an aggressive, in-your-face style of play that agitates opponents. If he adds a scoring dimension to that at the pro level — and there have been hints of that upside, because he has shot the puck effectively in camp and his preseason appearances — the Flyers 2016 third-round pick’s stock will continue to rise.Â
In discussing the play of the rookie hopefuls in camp thus far, reporters asked Hakstol after Wednesday’s game if the young candidates are helping to create some enviably tough decisions.
“Yes, they are. There are several guys, much like [Tuesday] night’s game, you come out with two or three guys that have taken a step forward and pushed hard to make an argument that they belong and that they deserve to stay,” Hakstol said.
Two incumbent players from last season, veteran Dale Weise and 24-year-old Taylor Leier, are in a battle to retain their NHL spots. Leier won a job out of camp last season and spent the entire year in the NHL but played very sparingly in the second half of the season.Â
There is no faulting their work ethic in camp. There would be years in which incumbent players such as Weise and Leier would scarcely have to worry about making the team at this point. Their primary battle would be to be among the 12 forwards in the starting lineup on opening night. Â
This year, however, there is competition galore. It’s not just a matter of the incumbent playing well enough not to lose his job, it’s a battle to outplay the competition in games and match or exceed them in practice as well. That’s exactly the sort of system depth that the Flyers have been working for multiple years to create.
3. PAIRING THE BLUE LINE
The injuries to veteran Andrew MacDonald (lower body) and second-year NHLer Travis Sanheim (upper body) have thrown a temporary wrench into the blueline plan for the Flyers.Â
The good news is that Sanheim will only miss a week or so, and should be OK to play again by late in the preseason. MacDonald is somewhat ahead of schedule on his initial timetable of a late-October return.
Thus far in camp, Hakstol has broken up last season’s primary top defensive pairing of Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere. The coach wanted to get a look at both players with different partners but said they were be back together again at some point during the latter half of camp.Â
The Flyers scarcely have to worry about either of these players, whether individually or together. The rest of the blueline picture remains a work in progress. The defense has had some issues in preseason games thus far, including incumbent Robert Hagg and new veteran addition Christian Folin. Incumbent veteran Radko Gudas was, per Hakstol, “knicked up” late in the offseason but has participated in practices and is now seeing game action.Â
Much of the blueline intrigue in camp has surrounded second-year pro Philippe Myers‘ bid to make the opening night roster. He’s had some ups and downs of his own in his preseason games to date but the positives of his combination of size, strength mobility and puck skills have helped him build a case.Â
4. THE GOALIE SITUATION
Elliott played 20 minutes in his slightly ahead-of-schedule return to game action. He stopped 11 of 13 shots. Neuvirth played roughly half of Monday’s game against the Islanders. On Tuesday, scheduled starter Alex Lyon sustained a lower-body injury and Anthony Stolarz (now healthy after missing the 2017 playoffs and nearly the entire 2017-18 season) did a solid job in playing all 60 minutes.
In the meantime, highly touted rookie pro Carter Hart has been very solid in his 3 1/2 periods of work thus far. He turned in a spectacular third period in Wednesday’s game, stopping 17 of 18 shots including some severe tests with the Flyers on multiple penalty kills. While Hart will almost certainly be assigned to the Phantoms because it is very rare for a 20-year-old goalie to make the successful immediate jump from junior hockey to the NHL, he is showing why the organization and fans are very excited about his future.
5. THE ZAMULA DECISION
The Flyers have an imminent decision to make on 18-year-old amateur tryout defenseman Yegor Zamula:Â
1. Sign him to an entry-level contract before assigning him back to WHL’s Calgary Hitmen.
– OR –
2. Release him from his ATO and allow him to go back into the NHL Draft in 2019.Â
If signed, it would entail a five-year development commitment to the teenage player — his contract would slide back to the WHL for this year and next, then his 3-year entry-level deal would kick in. That’s a big commitment for an 18-year-old who slipped through the Draft. Players like Myers don’t fall into teams’ laps very often. Â
On the flip side, if released from his ATO, Zamula is fair game for any NHL team to draft him in 2019. He has shown enough in Rookie Camp, the Rookie Game, main camp and his first of two preseason outings to look like a player who probably merited an NHL team to select him this past July. He struggled a bit in Wednesday’s game at Madison Square Garden, but that is normal and expected.