Training camp is finally here.
Not quite like Christmas day, but it does signal the start of the hockey season. The Flyers, like many teams, face some questions heading into camp. Here are the five most pertinent:
Who will play with Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek?
Scott Hartnell had his faults as a player, but his production will be missed on the Flyers’ top line. RJ Umberger, the player acquired when Hartnell was sent to the Columbus Blue Jackets, is a nice complementary piece but isn’t someone who should be counted on to play important first-line minutes. Brayden Schenn is another player that is being considered and is probably most likely to play alongside the captain. Michael Raffl enjoyed success when taking on a bigger role during stretches last season, but he remains an important piece of the team’s depth and head coach Craig Berube’s philosophy of rolling out all four lines. In all likelihood, it appears like the left wing atop the top line will be a revolving door throughout the season. Unfortunately for the Flyers, Giroux suffered a lower-body injury during the early parts of camp on Friday and is expected to be out for two weeks. This leaves Philadelphia with limited time, if any, to experiment with line combinations before the Oct. 8 season opener against the Boston Bruins.
Can the defense stay healthy?
General manager Ron Hextall was put behind the eight ball before the season even started when the news hit that Kimmo Timmonen had a blood clot in his leg and lung. Leaving the Flyers without arguably their top defenseman, Hextall struck quickly to bring in Michael Del Zotto on a low-risk. high-reward contract. With an already aging and expensive defensive corps, the loss of Timmonen puts the Flyers in a precarious position. Hextall has stressed that he does not want to rush any of the Flyers young blue-line prospects to the NHL if they are not ready. If another injury hits the Flyers’ defense, would the Flyers GM bring up Robert Hagg or Shayne Gostisbehere? Or will Hextall and Berube insert Nick Schultz into the lineup, the team’s seventh defenseman and a veteran who can come in and bring a steady presence on the ice. Losing Timmonen was already a big blow to the Flyers’ defense — another injury could lead to a long season on the back end for Philadelphia.
Will Steve Mason replicate his success from last season?
Last season, Steve Mason enjoyed his best campaign since 2008-09, when the then 20-year-old rookie netminder posted a 33-20-7 record, .916 SV%, 2.29 GAA and 10 shutouts en route to the Calder Trophy. Mason was never able to replicate that success again in Columbus, but don’t think this is the same Steve Mason. Working with goalie coach Jeff Reese, Mason has had a calming influence to help him begin to reach the potential he showed as a 20-year-old. The team around Mason is also much stronger than the teammates he had during much of his tenure with the Blue Jackets. Mason was the MVP through a big stretch of the Flyers season, and should replicate that success in a big way this campaign.
What will the Flyers do with Vincent Lecavalier?
It’s the albatross in the room — Lecavalier’s contract is horrible, there’s no way around it. And the Flyers don’t want their fourth-line center making $4.5 million per year over the next four seasons. So, what will Hextall do? He tried to move Lecavalier in the offseason, but found it unsuccessful when teams were asking the Flyers to take back a majority of his contract, all while not giving up pieces to make that trade worth Philadelphia’s while. The left-wing experiment was a disaster (even though Lecavalier had bumps and bruises he was playing through, including coming back early from a non-displaced fracture in his back). If Brayden Schenn moves up to the top line, Lecavalier may see himself back in his natural center position in the top-six while Sean Couturier continues his defensive duties on the shut-down line. The 34-year-old proved he could still light the lamp last season and is coming into this season in great shape, but will he provide enough in the other zone to warrant more ice time and a bigger role?
Is Scott Laughton ready for the NHL?
The 2012 first-round selection has already drawn comparisons to former Flyer Mike Richards, and has gotten a taste of the NHL in two brief stints. After dominating the OHL last season, Laughton appears ready to make the jump to the NHL. The question will be, do the Flyers put him on the fourth line where he’ll get limited minutes but find ways to contribute? Or does he begin the season with Phantoms so he can take on more of an offensive role that will help in his development. As a solid two-way player, Laughton’s value will be on the defensive zone if he makes the Flyers, where he will probably be expected to take on penalty-kill minutes if he makes the team over other veterans.