Tonight begins another season for the Philadelphia Flyers and after years of retooling, there’s genuine expectations of steps being taken this season. But it’s not all roses for the club. A look at the projected lineups, the biggest questions facing the teams and the most important games highlight the strengths and weaknesses heading into 2018-19.
Claude Giroux – Sean Couturier – Travis Konecny
The first line returns. This time the trio should have more help behind them, but plenty will still be expected. Konency and Couturier are a year older and should continue to mold into the team’s offensive leaders.
Oskar Lindblom – Nolan Patrick – Jake Voracek
Most thought JVR would be on this line and Lindblom on the third, but it looks like things will flip after the former showed chemistry with Vorobyev and the latter looked good with Patrick. Voracek gives the two youngsters a play-driving veteran that could be on any team’s top line.
James van Riemsdyk – Mikhail Vorobyev – Wayne Simmonds
Vorobyev really shores up the offense and this third line could be the team’s second easily. If Simmonds can regain his 2016-17, and prior form, this line will feast on lesser competition.
Scott Laughton – Jori Lehtera – Michael Raffl
[Jordan Weal, Corban Knight]
To start the year, Lehtera will center this line. If Weal, or even Knight, replaces him and sees more game action, this will be a solid fourth line. Laughton looked really good in preseason and Raffl is a solid all-around winger.
Ivan Provorov – Shayne Gostisbehere
There isn’t that many defensive pairs in the NHL that are better than Provorov and Gostisbehere. Both players can flex their strengths and cover their partner’s weaknesses (the few that there are) in this duo. Provorov is inching closer to being a Norris Trophy nominee.
Travis Sanheim – Radko Gudas
This pairing could really go a lot of ways. Sanheim should show NHL-plus puck-moving ability, but could also struggle defensively. Gudas might return to a defensive level that made him a top-four defender in 2015-16 and 2016-17. Or he could cause issues in defensive coverage and not play an intimidating style like last season.
Robert Hagg – Andrew MacDonald
As a third pairing, I’m okay with this duo. They could be better puck-movers but they’re OK defensively. If they see weak competition and 15 minutes or so a night, they’ll be fine. Folin, though, looked like a borderline NHLer and hopefully shouldn’t see many games.
Calvin Pickard / Michal Neuvirth / Anthony Stolarz
Elliott had some strong moments last year, but was definitely susceptible to bad nights. The backup goalie situation is unclear right now and that’s not a good thing for a group that has so many question marks.
The Big Questions
Does Hakstol optimize his lineup?
Lineup optimization has become a key phrase in Philly over the past few years, mainly because it so rarely happens. In his three years behind the bench, coach Dave Hakstol has shown a reliance on veteran players over more skilled, younger ones. This year, there’s only one example of that with Lehtera over Weal. Should Weal get into more games, the Flyers will have a forward corps that logically doesn’t have any weak links. Lehtera looked on the brink of waivers at several points during the preseason, so there’s some hope. Even if Knight replaces Lehtera, the lineup will be improved.
Will the penalty kill improve?
Some of the solution attempts for the Flyers’ PK in the past have been changing goalies and skater personnel. This offseason, Hextall didn’t change much and yet, will hope for an improvement. The penalty kill did look better at the end of last year during the regular season, but the Pittsburgh Penguins also burnt the unit often in their playoff series. In preseason play, tactics didn’t look very different. Improvement may be hard to come by.
Will Giroux and Voracek’s impressive play continue?
Giroux shocked the NHL by hitting 102 points as a 30 year old last season, a 44-point increase from 2016-17, and Voracek scored at over a point-per-game. In hockey terms, the pair are actually exiting their prime, so is it possible for the pair to continue last season’s dominance? Preseason didn’t show any reversion for Giroux and Voracek is typically a slower starter. Making things easier is the addition of van Riemsdyk and the continued emergence of young players.
Can the goaltending hold up?
It wouldn’t be a Flyers season without some goalie concern. Unfortunately, this year offers plenty. Elliott is coming off surgery, Neuvirth and Alex Lyon are already injured, Stolarz played four games last year and Carter Hart is just 20 years old. Calvin Pickard, who played just one NHL game last year, is here now as some sort of possible savior. At this point, Hextall is holding as many chipped darts as possible and hoping some stick on the board. There’s some hope, but not a ton of confidence.
Vs. Panthers – Nov. 13
For whatever odd reason, the Flyers begin the season by seeing a good amount of Western Conference teams. The game against the Panthers on Nov. 13 will actually be the teams’ second meeting, but starts a 10-game streak where Philly plays only Eastern Conference teams. It will be the most crucial stretch in the early portion of the season.
Vs. Penguins – Feb. 23
In the standings, the Stadium Series game will count as a four-point game involving two Metropolitan teams, but that’s no different than any other divisional game. The attention surrounding the game will be completely different, though. Outdoor games bring more media, more pressure and are always circled on the calendar.
Vs. Hurricanes – March 30 & April 6
Knowing the Flyers, they’ll never make their playoff chances simple by clinching early and the Hurricanes are hoping to be one of the biggest roadblocks in Philly’s playoff hopes. With two games against the ‘Canes in the final five contests (including the last game of the season), the Flyers could have four important points on the board.