(Photo via Alan Diaz/AP)
Ron Hextall followed up a disappointing hockey season with a stellar draft weekend, adding a couple exciting pieces to an already solid group of prospects. In the aftermath of the draft and the recently held development camp, Philadelphia is buzzing with excitement about the future. But exactly how far away is the future for some of these guys?
It’s no secret that the biggest storyline going into training camp this fall will be the important decisions that must be made regarding the youth of the franchise. I wanted to take a shot at predicting which defensive prospects are most likely to see extended stretches of NHL time next season.
Might as well start with the obvious. The decision on whether or not to keep Ivan Provorov in the NHL this season looms large for Ron Hextall and Dave Hakstol. Several factors will come into play as this decision is made.
The recently drafted Provorov might already be the Flyers best defensive prospect, and many consider him to be NHL ready right now. He certainly made an impression at the recent development camp, and it’s tough to think that he wouldn’t have a positive impact at the NHL level this season.
At the same time, the Flyers have a very crowded blueline as things currently stand. If space opens up for a young defenseman on the roster, Hakstol could utilize Shayne Gostisbehere, Samuel Morin or Robert Hagg while preserving a year of Provorov’s valuable entry level contract. An extra year of WHL hockey did wonders for Travis Sanheim, and it wouldn’t necessarily be bad for Provorov’s development either.
Prediction: In a very difficult decision, Provorov is returned to the WHL for the season. Ron Hextall is clearly committed to a long term approach, and saving a year of Provorov’s ELC will tip the scale towards another year as a Wheat King for Provorov.
Sam Morin is an interesting case. Currently sitting at 6′ 7” and over 200 pounds, Morin undoubtedly has the size and skating ability to play at the NHL next season. He was so impressive during camp last season that he nearly earned a roster spot from Craig Berube before ultimately being sent back to Rimouski. He will be burning year one of his ELC next season regardless of where he plays.
However, most still seem to think that Morin’s game still needs work in several areas. His puck handling skills could certainly use some improvement. In addition, Morin reportedly struggled to use his size effectively at times during development camp last week. The tall defenseman still seems like a project in many ways.
Prediction: The AHL is perfect for Sam Morin next year, and Sam Morin is perfect for the AHL. He was close to making the roster last season mostly because the only other option was a return to juniors. Given that the AHL is an option for him this season, he won’t come that close again. This season he will tighten up his game while playing the entire year for Lehigh Valley and will hopefully contend for an NHL spot next year.
Ron Hextall’s first draft pick as the Flyers GM looks like an absolute home run. A late riser in the 2014 draft, Sanheim led all WHL defensemen in scoring this season and appears to have true first-pairing potential at the NHL level. He also added at least 15 pounds during the past year, leading many to believe that much like Provorov, Sanheim is NHL ready right now.
However, Sanheim is still only 19 years old, and will not be eligible for AHL play next season. This means that the only two options will be to keep him at the NHL level or return him to Calgary for another season with the Hitmen. Sanheim does seem mentally prepared for this possibility.
Prediction: Sanheim will undoubtedly impress at training camp, leaving a very difficult decision for Hextall and company. Ultimately, for the same reasons as Provorov, Sanheim will be returned to Calgary for another year. This would be a different conversation if the Flyers were in contention right now. However, with the Flyers still sitting a couple years from true contention, Hextall will opt to preserve Sanheim’s ELC for another year. The Flyers will have a legitimate chance at owning the top two defensive scorers in the WHL next season.
After injuring his ACL in November of last season, Shayne Gostisbehere appears to have made a complete recovery in advance of the 2015-16 season. Gostisbehere, who is the oldest of the Flyers’ defensive prospects at 22, was impressive during development camp last week. ‘Ghost’ did play twice for the Flyers last season, getting his NHL feet wet after a sudden series of injuries to defensemen.
Unfortunately, the ACL injury prevented Gostisbehere from obtaining a full season of professional experience last year. There is probably still some rust to be shaken off and there are still some steps to be taken before Gostisbehere is 100% NHL ready.
Prediction: Gostisbehere starts the season in the AHL after the Flyers stick with mostly veterans to start the season. Management will probably want some more time to evaluate his game, especially in light of last season’s injury. After tightening his game in Lehigh Valley to start the season, Gostisbehere will be called up after midseason injuries and will gain some solid NHL experience.
Robert Hagg is a decent defensive prospect who, in the excitement surrounding other young defensemen, has not received a lot of attention in Philadelphia. A second round draft choice in 2013, Hagg currently has more professional experience than any of the Flyers other defensive prospects. He is coming off of a 20 point (69 GP) season in his first full year in Lehigh Valley.
Hagg’s game could certainly use some fine tuning, though. He can still be a bit too casual with the puck at times. The 20 year old Swede could also stand to make some improvements in skating ability. Hagg himself seems committed to a long-term approach, recently telling reporters that “It’s not good for you to sit on the bench and play 12-15 minutes. You want to play a lot. We have that opportunity to do that at Lehigh to play 20-25 minutes. That’s most important.“
Prediction: Hagg sees another full season in Lehigh Valley, hopefully making progress as a skater and a puck handler. With several other young options for call-ups to an already crowded blueline, it is unlikely Hagg will be anything other than an emergency call-up at the NHL level this year.
As bright as the future looks for the Flyers defensive unit, there’s a good chance we will only get a small taste of that this season. Ron Hextall recently told reporters “We got eight defensemen right now (including Brandon Manning), everybody knows it. Things somehow find a way of flushing themselves out. We’re not going to hurry kids. It’s too dangerous”. Hextall is still focused on long term progress, and his decisions this fall will reflect that. Between the commitment to preserving ELCs and the defensive logjam that already exists, chances are we will have to wait a little bit longer to see the future of the Flyers blueline.
Next week, we will take a look at which young forwards could spend time in the NHL next season. Stay tuned!