As the 2017-18 NHL season approaches, the Flyers seem to be on the verge of becoming a long-term contender again. They’ve had some strong drafts, made smart trades and brought in a high-profile coach from juniors. But is the team good enough to take that step this year? That will likely depend on the answers to the questions we raise below.
Will Claude Giroux Finally Bounce Back?
The 2017-18 Flyers will go only as far as their captain will take them. But after an 86-point campaign in 2013-14, his production has slipped each year since. With his hip and abdominal issues now well behind him and the team on the cusp of turning the corner, he has to have that bounce-back season fans have been waiting for. And with such a young roster, the Flyers need his leadership almost as much as his points.
Of course, while Giroux may have recovered from last year’s offseason surgery, he still has to contend with Father Time. Giroux turns 30 in January, and some believe that his days as a truly elite center are behind him.
“Is Giroux still an upper-echelon, high-level NHL player? Absolutely he is. The skill is still there and the guy isn’t a former Hart Trophy finalist and four-time All-Star by accident. But after last [season]…it’s more than fair to question just which echelon and level he is on these days, especially as he enters his age 29-30 season.” (Greg Paone, CSN Philly)
For his part, Giroux fully expects this year’s Flyers team—and himself—to improve. In an interview with Sporting News Canada, he said, “We’re going to have a young team, we know that. We’re going to have a talented team competing to make the playoffs.” The roster shows a ton of promise, but the Flyers need Giroux to be more than just a mentor. The influx of youth should improve secondary scoring, but the team is not yet deep enough to weather any sustained scoring drought from its best player.
How Many Flyers Rookies Will Make the Team?
ESPN’s Corey Pronman ranked the Flyers’ farm system as the best in the league. But fans have been hearing about prospects for years—fans now want players. One of the most intriguing aspects of this offseason will be how many rookies crack the roster.
If any prospect is a lock to make the team, it’s second-overall pick Nolan Patrick, who may spend his rookie year as the Flyers second-line center. For much of last year, he was expected to go first overall in the 2017 draft, but injuries led the Devils to take Nico Hischier.
Many also expect versatile winger Oskar Lindblom to crack the lineup. At 20 years old, he finished fourth in scoring in the Swedish Hockey League, considered by many the third-best league in the world. And beyond those two, the Flyers also have recent first-round picks German Rubtsov (2016) and Morgan Frost (2017).
The greatest strength of the Flyers’ farm system, though, is its defensive pipeline. It will be hard to top the first-year performances of Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov, but Robert Hagg, Sam Morin and Travis Sanheim have real shots at earning regular spots on the blue line.
Morin and Hagg were taken in the first and second rounds, respectively, of the 2013 draft. Hagg has played three full seasons with the Phantoms, Morin two. Hagg was a healthy scratch at times in 2015-16, but he improved his overall play last year and is widely considered NHL-ready. Morin may be on the verge of becoming an NHL regular as well. The Flyers have been looking for someone with his size and tenacity since losing Chris Pronger. The 6’7”, 224-pound Morin fits that bill. Sam Carchidi of Philly.com sees him playing alongside Gostisbehere, being the “stay-at-home defender…who will allow his partner to take more chances up ice.”
Morin and Hagg will have some competition at training camp, though. Philippe Myers and Travis Sanheim. The undrafted Myers impressed everyone at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championships, and despite injuries last year, he’s been one of the best all-around defensemen in juniors. Sanheim, meanwhile, finished an impressive rookie AHL season with 37 points. Few would be surprised if he ends up on the roster.
Will Hakstol Adjust?
Dave Hakstol is entering his third year as head coach of the Flyers. While Ron Hextall has expressed confidence in him, he has made questionable lineup decisions.
The back-and-forth in goal wasn’t good for Steve Mason or Michal Neuvirth, and the amount of playing time he gave Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and (especially) Chris VandeVelde was hard to justify. Hakstol also caught flak when he benched Gostisbehere and Travis Konecny.
Perhaps Hakstol is still adapting to the NHL game, but you’ll have to forgive Philadelphia fans for being apprehensive about a recently hired college coach who makes questionable lineup decisions.
Hextall has preached patience since taking the helm, so there’s no reason to expect a knee-jerk firing if the team gets off to a slow start. But Hakstol’s leash has got to be a bit shorter this year. This team is better, but Hakstol needs to put the best lineup on the ice every night. In particular, especially after trading Schenn, he needs to put together a second power play unit that can actually produce. He should get some help in that regard from the Flyers’ new assistant coach, Kris Knoblauch. In his last four years as Erie Otters head coach, his team’s power play ranked no lower than second.
As this young roster develops, the expectations rise. Hakstol needs to develop alongside the players if he wants to be more than a placeholder.