Line Combos and Storylines for the 2017-18 Flyers

| Giroux moves to the left wing, a new class of rookies arrive, and Dave Hasktol’s head scratching lineups; the storylines to watch for the Flyers in 2017-18 |

As training camp and preseason comes to an end, the final roster for the Flyers has taken shape. Second overall pick Nolan Patrick survived the cuts, as well as a handful of young defensemen. The young guns should provide a much needed injection of youth and energy to the lineup. And now that we have a set roster, we have a sense for the story lines that will follow this team.

1: Does Claude Giroux’s regression continue?

There’s a famous quote from Ian Flemming’s novel, Goldfinger: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.” The enemy for Claude Giroux is father time. Last year his point totals dropped for the third straight season. It’s no longer a question of if the Captain is in decline; it’s a question of severity and whether he can bounce back.

What makes this a confusing situation is discerning the exact cause of decline. Is Giroux simply slowing down, as all players do in the latter halves of their careers? Or have injuries played a larger role? Giroux did have hip and abdominal surgery before last season and believes that it affected his play in 2016-17, which saw his lowest 82-game point total since 2009. It’s most likely a combination of all these reasons, but this season will be telling. If he has another down year, his $8.275 million cap hit will become more of a burden on the team’s salary cap.

2: What will the rookies provide this year?

Flyers fans have grown to be patient. They have to be with Ron Hextall as General Manager; he’s taken a very conservative approach to bringing along prospects to the NHL level. Even Ivan Provorov couldn’t crack the team right after being drafted. Now, the team adds Nolan Patrick, a drafted player with the highest pedigree in recent memory. What can we expect from him?

He won’t be getting top line minutes right away and might even find himself on the third line if Hakstol favors a veteran. But he should see plenty of power play time as the catalyst on the 2nd unit. I think Patrick’s passing will surprise people this season. He’s shown tremendous touch and vision during the preseason. Still, Patrick plays a well rounded game and should be used in all zones. The point totals probably won’t blow everyone away, but Patrick is in line for a fine debut season.  Prediction: 15 goals, 28 assists for 43 points.

Hagg is harder to project as a defenseman.  He’s not a towering presence like Sam Morin or an offensive dynamo like Sanheim or Ghost. He’s a jack of all trades, master of none. Plus, he’s comfortable playing on the right side, allowing Ghost to move to his natural left after two years on the right. Hagg’s well rounded play will allow him to flourish in any pairing, especially one with Gostisbehere. Prediction: Gostisbehere bounces back in a big way, and Hagg’s steady presence is a big reason why.

In many ways we know what to expect from Sam Morin. He may be 22, but he still plays like an man amongst boys. Expect him to get a lot of defensive zone starts and penalty kills. He’s not the Chris Pronger archetype that fans hope for when he was drafted, but the Flyers haven’t had a defenseman with his size in a long time. He should improve the team’s ability to deny zone entries with his long reach and use his size to clear the front of the net. Oh yeah, he’ll probably drop the gloves a few times.

Prediction: Morin becomes a fan favorite pretty quickly.

3: Is Hakstol’s seat getting warmer?

Dave Haktsol’s tenure behind the bench has been up and down. During his first year he led the team on an inspired march towards the playoffs. Last year wasn’t nearly as successful. I think the key issue for Hakstol’s long term viability as a head coach is his ability to develop young players. This season will give us more examples to judge him accurately in that regard.

Consider three players; Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov, and Travis Konecny. All three played as rookies under Hakstol; Ghost two seasons ago, Provorov and Konecny last season. Ghost thrived in his first NHL season. His offense injected life into the Flyers and his Calder Trophy runner-up performance was a big part of the team making the playoffs.

The second season was not as good. There are reasons not attributable to Hakstol (a core injury that needed surgery after the season, a sophomore slump) but regardless of the causes, a drop off like that simply isn’t acceptable.

Provorov was, overall, very solid as a rookie. He showed more two-way upside as a rookie than Gostisbehere and clearly lived up to his high draft pedigree. But Hakstol shackled the young blue liner with Andrew MacDonald, who is, um, not very good at hockey. Will one season of playing with dead weight ruin Provorov’s career going forward? No, probably not. But it’s fair to wonder how it would affect a rookie of less talent or composure. It’s important to inspire confidence in young players as they start their career. Perhaps Morin or Hagg or Phil Myers won’t react to the challenge of anchoring a pair on their own as well as Provorov has.

Konecny will be an important gauge for the forwards. He had his moments last season, but didn’t leave a big impression. Many want him to make a big jump this season, and he appears ready to based on the preseason. But if Konecny struggles, just as Gostisbehere did in his second year, Hakstol’s supposed knack for developing young players might come into question.

4: What should we expect from the goalies?

Steve Mason, the third winningest goalie in franchise history, left for Winnipeg this summer.  To replace him, the team brought in the 32-year old Brian Elliott. He won 26 games with Calgary last season, but started off very poorly. Of course the team still has Michal Neuvirth who has looked good in the preseason, but he’s never been a safe bet to stay healthy for a full season. For the team to make a run at the playoffs, both goalies need to play well and stay healthy. Neither of those are guarantees.

The team does boast a collection of promising goaltender prospects, but the closest is Anthony Stolarz, who will miss an extended period of time with a meniscus injury. Felix Sandstrom, Carter Hart, and Alex Lyon appear to need a few more seasons before they’re NHL ready.

5: Who are the likely call-ups from Lehigh Valley?

Since injuries always seem to befall the Flyers, it’s worth noting who are the likely calls ups from the Phantoms.

Oksar Lindblom was close to making this team. The young swede still needs to adjust to North American-sized ice.

“Oskar did a good job in camp and it’s the one thing you try to punctuate with young players,” Hextall said on Sunday. “You didn’t fail. You had a good camp but right now the best thing for you and the team is for you to go up there [to Lehigh Valley] and play well.”

Travis Sanheim had his moments during the preseason, including two excellent goals. Technically he is still on the roster because of an injury Gostisbehere suffered in the preseason finale. He could play a few games this year, but I think the team wants him to have a full season as the leader of a blueline in the AHL.

Line Combo Predictions

Clearly there’s a lot going on with the Flyers that influence which players will play together. There are a number of rookies, and Dave Hakstol has shown that he’s willing to trust young players if they’re good enough (Provorov, Ghost, Konecny). But Hakstol has also shown a tendency to favor certain players, even if they don’t seem like good fits (Andrew MacDonald and Dale Weise). In predicting these lines, I’m trying to create combinations that would succeed, but also keeping in mind the preferences that Hakstol has. I’d love for him to break the mold, but it doesn’t seem like he will any time soon.

Giroux – Couturier – Voracek

For better or worse, I think the Flyers will at least try Giroux on the left wing. They’ve experimented with in in the preseason and the results have been mixed but certainly trending upward as the regular season begins. There are certainly benefits to this combination. Giroux (54% for his career) and Couturier (55% last season) are both strong in the faceoff circle and with their different handedness, it assures the team that whichever center takes the draw will be doing so on his preferred side. It also gives Couturier another chance to thrive with better line mates. There are a few wrenches that could be thrown into this line, however. One possibility is that Giroux isn’t comfortable playing on that left side. He plays there on the power play, but during 5v5 the players will constantly be rotating and shifting. The play in the defensive zone will ultimately be the deciding factor.

Voracek has played well with both Giroux and Couturier in the past, and he’ll need to bounce back to allow this line to flourish. Sometimes, you just have to throw your three best forwards out there and see what they can do.

Travis Konecny – Nolan Patrick – Wayne Simmonds

Konecny was brilliant again during the preseason. He looks faster and more comfortable after an up and down rookie season. He may be small in stature, but playing alongside Patrick and Simmonds will do wonders for the second year winger.

Patrick wasn’t spectacular in the preseason, but it was hard to find many blemishes. He showed more as a passer than a scorer, but that works just fine on a line like this. Opposing defensemen will have a hard time moving Patrick and Simmonds from the crease and they’re both skilled enough to make goalies pay. If Patrick is truly ready for a lot of minutes, this line could be tremendous right out of the gate.

Jordan Weal – Valterri Filppula – Dale Weise

Jordan Weal could find himself moving up the lineup depending on how well he’s able to replicate his production from last year (12 points in 23 games). Filppula and Weise are veterans that bring stability, but not much else. Both will probably fill in on special teams (Filppula in the 2nd powerplay unit, Weise on the kill).

Jori Lehtera – Scott Laughton – Michael Raffl

Scott Laughton finally gets his chance. After four rough professional seasons, Laughton appears ready to embrace his role. He clearly won’t be the high scorer that he was in Juniors, but he made great strides for the Phantoms last year rounding out the skills needed to succeed in a bottom six role. The biggest question for him; can he survive at center? His best stretches with the Flyers have come on the wing.

Letera and Raffl flank Laughton on this line; both are steady players that won’t be asked to do to much. Raffl might be able to move up the lineup in the event of an injury. I’d expect Lehtera to get the first crack in the lineup over Leier. He’s a center by trade, so he can always swap with Laughton if the center ice responsibilities become too much. Overall it should be a better fourth line simply because Pierre Eduard Bellemarre and Chris VandeVelde aren’t on it.

Scratches: Taylor Leier

Leier had an impressive camp and earned a roster spot. He’s likely just a fourth liner at the NHL level, but if someone in the bottom six has a really bad stretch or an injury Leier could inject some energy and maybe chip in some goals. He’s a serviceable player, nothing more.

Matt Read was placed on waivers Monday morning.  If he goes unclaimed, he’ll most likely be playing in Lehigh Valley.

Ivan Provorov – Radko Gudas

Not many surprises here. Provorov was already the team’s best defenseman mid-way through last season, and he should thrive alongside anyone not named Andrew MacDonald. Gudas has been a revelation since coming over in a trade with Tampa Bay, and his advanced stats have been surprisingly solid during his tenure here. This pairing is physical, mobile, and skilled enough to play in every zone.

Shayne Gostisbehere* – Robert Hagg

Ghost has looked spooky in the preseason. He’s the offensive catalyst on the blueline and arguably one of the veterans on the back end. I like this line for a few reasons; Ghost has played almost exclusively on the right side despite being left handed. Hagg is also left handed, but prefers the right side. This will push Ghost back to the left where he should be naturally comfortable.

Also, Hagg is a tremendously steady player. He’s comfortable in all three zones and plays a subtle game that should mesh with next to Gostisbehere.They say that the best defensemen are rarely noticed, and if Hagg can sit back and allow Ghost to replicate his 2015 performance, he’s a perfect fit.

Sam Morin –Andrew MacDonald

If MacDonald has to play (which Hakstol insists he must, for some reason) Morin is a logical partner. At 6’7″, he has the physical ability to cover for his mistakes more so than the smaller Gostisbehere and even Provorov. And ideally the less minutes for this pairing, the better. Morin is still a rookie and shouldn’t be playing a lot. MacDonald is very bad and should also not be playing a lot. Everybody wins.

Scratches: Brandon Manning

I expect Manning to still play some games this year. He’s a typical 6th or 7th defenseman who can fill the lineup when called upon.

*Gostisbehere did get hurt in the preseason finally on Sunday. Travis Sanheim is still technically on the roster in the event that Ghost has to spend time on IR, but that doesn’t seem likely. Ghost did travel with the team to San Jose for the opener.

Goalies

Starter (for now): Michal Neuvirth

Backup: Brian Elliot

Neuvrith looked better in the preseason, so I think he’ll get the nod in the opener. Overall, I think it will be a fairly even split between the two. Elliot might have the slight edge in games played in the (more than likely) event that Neuvirth gets hurt.

The Flyers’ first game in Wednesday night against the Sharks at 10:30 eastern.

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