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Flyers’ Veterans, Youngsters, and Rookies Look Poised to Shatter Lowly Expectations

(Heather Barry Images, LLC)

For fans of the Philadelphia Flyers, the 2022-23 season couldn’t have ended any quicker. As Ivan Provorov dangled his way through the Chicago Blackhawks defense to score the overtime game winning goal, the season had concluded and we were able to move on with our lives with our eyes set firmly on the upcoming draft and draft lottery.

The season was disastrous on so many fronts but to John Tortorella’s credit, he was able to instil changes. Chuck Fletcher’s horrendous reign had come to an end, Dave Scott was retiring, Daniel Brière was stepping in, and Tortorella’s system had made it relatively clear as to who was sticking around and who would be offloaded.

Owen Tippett and Morgan Frost looked like the first round picks everyone thought they would be back when they were selected in 2017. Noah Cates had an exceptional rookie season and became a younger version of Sean Couturier before our eyes. By the end of the season it looked like Joel Farabee was fully recovered from his offseason injury, Cam York took necessary strides to become the future anchor, Carter Hart was great most nights, and Travis Konecny had a career year. All this came without Sean Couturier and Cam Atkinson.

It became strikingly obvious that James van Riemsdyk would not be returning, Tony DeAngelo was held out of the final stretch of games, Kevin Hayes was not seeing eye to eye with Tortorella, and the Ivan Provorov saga had come to an end with Chuck Fletcher walking out the door. The new regime plucked away the angry and undesirable contracts and moved into a new direction – thankfully.

The move that drew a lot of criticism was moving on from Kevin Hayes. Whether it was the trade itself, how the trade came to be, his production in 2022-23, or all of the above, it split the fan base.

Lots of people look at the stats and see that Kevin Hayes was second on the team in scoring, he made the All-Star team, and was technically the Flyers’ 1C – at least heading into the season. However, lots of people forget that he scored 9 points in his final 32 games after tallying 45 in his first 49 games. He’ll claim he was playing 8-9 minutes a night but you look at the boxscore and he consistently got 15-17 a night. His irresponsible nature on the ice, lack of defense and back checking drew the ire of a head coach who laid out the rules on his first day at the job. Shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

“It looks like the younger guys are playing. I don’t know if they want a guy that’s making the money that I’m making playing nine, 10 minutes a night,” said Hayes during his exit interview.

Now, with the aforementioned departures, mixed in with the additions of Garnet Hathaway, Ryan Poehling, Marc Staal, and Sean Walker, the vision became abundantly clear; the Flyers are finally moving in a positive direction. At first glance it may not seem that way with veteran names, bottom-6 forwards, and bottom-4 defensemen, but it’s what the club needs right now.

When they made these moves in the 0ffseason it was somewhat shocking that the Flyers added so many veterans when most believed they would use in-house options. However after the opening night roster was announced we have Tyson Foerster, Bobby Brink, Emil Andrae, and Egor Zamula up with the big club – at least for now until Rasmus Ristolainen returns – Tortorella claiming that Staal will be used on a rotational basis, and Samuel Ersson claimed the backup position over Cal Petersen and Felix Sandström.

So as we embark on the season opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets, all the offseason changes leave many wondering how the Flyers are going to fare this season. Some believe they’re going to be one of the worst teams in the league, if not the worst. Some have them finishing in almost the same spot as last season, within that 22-25 range, while others believe they can be slightly better than that, which will ultimately hurt their chances of drafting one of the bonafide studs in the 2024 NHL Entry Draft.

Elliotte Friedman is on the side that believes the Flyers will shock many people but it’s also a wide open Eastern Conference this season with a lot of teams stuck in the middle battling for a playoff spot. The Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils, and Toronto Maple Leafs represent the best the Eastern Conference has to offer. Then you have the New York Rangers, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, and the New York Islanders right behind them and then rounding off are the dark horses – for a myriad of reasons – in Pittsburgh, Washington, Buffalo, Ottawa, and Detroit. That ultimately leaves Montreal, Philadelphia, and Columbus at the bottom and even Columbus might have a leg up after some of their off-season moves.

The Metropolitan Division has a lot of hopefuls in the middle as well, teams that have star power, veterans all throughout, but are missing a little “umph” in their lineup to propel them towards the top. The Flyers on the other hand are a team that should be better offensively, a lot of question marks regarding their defense, and their goaltending will be correlated to that aforementioned defense.

The early thoughts coming from training camp were generally positive as Sean Couturier and Cam Atkinson returned and played plenty of games in the pre-season, Morgan Frost picked up where he left off, Bobby Brink played his way onto the opening night roster, Joel Farabee looked like former self, and Samuel Ersson was as calm as a cucumber. The offense as a whole looks a lot more complete and based on their practices, you can make the argument that their top-9 is the best they have iced since 2019-20.

Health permitting, the Flyers will score plenty of goals with Atkinson, Konecny, Farabee, Tippett, and Couturier all more than capable of breaking past the 25-goal barrier. Add Frost, Cates, Laughton, and Brink to the mix and the Flyers might have close to double-digit 20-goal scorers.

On defense, it’s a bit of a mystery with the departure of Ivan Provorov. Their minute-munching defenseman is finally gone and in his absence, players like Cam York, Travis Sanheim, and Rasmus Ristolainen are going to have to carry the slack and be the best versions of themselves for the Flyers to have any chance of survival on a nightly basis.

Marc Staal is playing on a rotational basis, Nick Seeler had a strong 2022-23 campaign as the Flyers’ bottom-pair stud, Sean Walker has played himself onto the team after a couple rocky seasons in Los Angeles, and Egor Zamula is looking to cement his name into the lineup on a regular basis after putting on nearly 20 lbs this off-season.

It’s not a back-end that gives out a lot of confidence, but this is where Tortorella’s system comes in handy. Last season, he was able to turn around Ristolainen and Seeler after their disastrous 2021-22 campaigns and York played a lot of reps and became the bonafide number one. Sanheim has a lot to prove after a rough 2022-23 season, was almost traded to St. Louis before the draft, and then was dangling on the trade block to anyone interested before the free agent frenzy began. He put on some muscle over the summer, he looked great in training camp, and will be getting top pair reps with York to start the year.

Walker, Seeler, and Staal are going to be plug-ins for at least two-thirds of the season before becoming trade deadline bait – at least the latter two will be with expiring contracts. By the end of the season we should see some combination of Emil Andrae, Egor Zamula, Ronnie Attard, and Helge Grans with the big club, looking to solidify their spots ahead of 2024-25.

So while the defense will be filled with question marks, the goaltending seems rather straight forward for the first time in awhile. The Flyers had Sandström backing up Carter Hart last season but that experiment didn’t bear a lot of fruit. Ersson came out of nowhere just before New Year’s and staked his claim well in advance with a glorious first stint before having to return to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. There’s something about his goaltending that brings about a sense of calm, his positioning is fantastic for a rookie, and he should make way for some healthy competition with Hart.

Hart will start the lion’s share of games but if Ersson can supply 25-30 games of sturdy backing up goaltending, the Flyers might have found their tandem of the present and short-future as they continue to develop Alexei Kolosov, Carson Bjarnason, and Egor Zavragin. However if the defense can’t hold the fort, there’s only so much the goaltenders can do, which will be the ultimate test for Brad Shaw and this young back-end.

So while the Flyers won’t breaking down the doors just yet, there should remain a level-headed amount of excitement as we are hours away from puck drop. The returns of Couturier and Atkinson alone should bring about a lot of giddiness, players like Frost, Cates, and Tippett need to add onto their success from last season, Farabee should be a focal point now that he’s healthy and shaken off the rust from his neck issues, and Konecny – who hasn’t gotten a lot of the limelight – will figure into all situations and remain the spark-plug for this offense.

Youngsters like Brink, Foerster, and Andrae will figure into the plans throughout the year but there will be a point in the season where they become fixtures for the long-haul. Whether that’s through injuries, demotions, healthy scratches, or trades, the young bucks that we’ve been hollering about all summer long will be household names by the end of this season.

We do this to ourselves every season, where we get excited just to be let down in November-December-January but this time around we have a new front office, a management group that understands the gripe, and a coaching staff that is entering year 2 of a 4-year plan with steady growth in the future. While it doesn’t affect the 2023-24 Flyers directly, we also have Matvei Michkov, Cutter Gauthier, and a myriad of prospects to follow in their journey to the big leagues.

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