The Flyers wrapped up their season-opening road trip with a tough up-and-down loss to the Nashville Predators that featured three lead changes, five unanswered goals and questionable calls from the referees and coaches. It was a disappointing finish to an otherwise successful start to the 2017-18 season. Nonetheless, early signs suggest that the team improved over the summer, despite some weak spots that still need to be shored up.
The Kids Are All Right
The big story this year is the rookies. Fans were already salivating over the Flyers’ farm system heading into the last draft lottery and nabbing the second-overall pick whetted their appetites even further. This may be the year in which the Flyers begin to turn potential into performance.
Nolan Patrick has been centering the third line with Dale Weise and Travis Konecny on his wings, and he’s adjusting well to the speed of the NHL. He’s also on the second power play unit along with former Brandon Wheat Kings teammate Ivan Provorov.
Their goal against the Anaheim Ducks, which came one second after a Flyers power play expired, suggests that the combination of chemistry and Kris Knoblauch’s coaching will improve the second unit’s efficiency. Patrick looks especially comfortable playing down low, a major focus for the power play under Knoblauch.
When asked about Patrick after that game, coach Dave Hakstol told John Boruk of NBC Sports Philadelphia, “He’s got great vision from below the goal line, from down low in tight spaces. … Those are strengths of his game, and we’re starting to see those things come out more and more.”
In addition to Patrick, two of the Flyers’ six starting defensemen are rookies: Travis Sanheim and Robert Hagg. Sanheim’s turnover against the Los Angeles Kings led to the eventual game-winner, but he seems to have put the mistake behind him. After his first game, Sanheim said, as reported by Boruk of NBC Sports Philadelphia, “I thought I could play a lot better. I started feeling more comfortable in the third. I…started to play more of my game, and getting up in the ice and making plays. I wish I could have done that early.”
Hagg’s two-way game, while less noticeable, has still been solid enough to impress his coaches, since they recently sent Samuel Morin down to the AHL. As impressive as Morin’s camp was, he fell victim to the numbers crunch. That, as they say, is a good problem to have.
A lack of scoring depth killed the Flyers last year. Other than the top forward line and first power play unit, no one scored with any consistency. Not counting empty-net goals, 23 of the Flyers’ 43 losses last season were by one goal, and they finished just four games out of the playoffs. The addition of Patrick, the expanded roles of Jordan Weal and Konecny, a speedier fourth line, and a younger more mobile blue line should turn that stat around.
The Flyers may have played only four games, but they’ve scored a lot of goals against some stingy teams. In 2016-17, the San Jose Sharks were fifth in goals-against average and the Ducks were third. Ducks goalie John Gibson was fifth in save percentage. Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, meanwhile, may be aging but can still play at a high level.
That said, the Flyers still need major contributions from their top players. Wayne Simmonds is scoring at his usual pace, but Claude Giroux has only one goal and two assists. Jakub Voracek has yet to score a goal but he does have six assists. If Giroux wants to quiet his critics, he needs to step up his production.
The Flyers signed Brian Elliott to serve as a stopgap goalie and that’s exactly how he’s looked so far.
He was generally solid in his first two starts as each of the Sharks’ three goals—a great tip-in, a screened shot on a power play and a deflection off a Flyer—would’ve been hard for any goalie to stop. In Anaheim, he let up a tough one-timer and a breakaway. Nashville, however, was another story. To be sure, Elliott is not to blame for the loss. After giving up a few soft goals, he made some excellent saves at key moments to keep the Flyers ahead late in the game before penalties and a questionable offside challenge cost them the game.
Elliott should be able to keep the Flyers in most games, but they’ll need the offense to keep producing; they can’t expect Elliott to steal very many games for them.
Back to Broad Street
With their season-opening road trip behind them, the Flyers are preparing for their home opener. They’ll have their work cut out for them as they face the Washington Capitals and a red-hot Alex Ovechkin. A solid performance against one of the league’s best teams should bode well for the rest of the season.