Flyers' defensive prospects give the team hope

The Philadelphia Inquirer

As the Flyers get ready to open training camp this week, they do not look nearly ready to capture their first Stanley Cup since Gerald Ford was in the White House.

Yeah, it's been awhile.

But although this team isn't expected to challenge for a Cup it last won in 1975, there is an air of optimism that second-year general manager Ron Hextall has generated.

Hextall is working his way through Salary Cap Jail his predecessor left him in a difficult situation and he will have some money to spend after contracts expire (or are bought out) following this season. He also has a promising group of defensive prospects who are knocking on the NHL door.

The hope is that those players Ivan Provorov, Sam Morin, Shayne Gostisbehere, Travis Sanheim, and Robert Hagg will one day give the Flyers a much-needed identity, and that some will supply speed on the back end. Of that group, Provorov appears the closest to being NHL-ready.

Many fans are clamoring for the remake to start this season, hoping Provorov is on the roster when the season starts Oct. 8 in Tampa.

Provorov, 18, selected seventh overall in the June draft, is regarded as a future franchise cornerstone, a confident, a two-way defenseman with speed and strength.

The Flyers will decide during training camp it starts in Voorhees on Monday for rookies, and Friday for veterans whether he is ready for The Show.

Center Scott Laughton, fully recovered from a concussion that plagued his development last season, is another youngster who appears capable of landing a roster spot for the season opener.

The Flyers, coming off a listless 33-31-18 season, have a dominant scoring duo in Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek, a terrific power forward (Wayne Simmonds) anchoring the second line, and a goalie, Steve Mason, who was quietly among the NHL's elite last season.

But the question marks on the roster outweigh the exclamation points.

Does the team have enough speed to compete with the big boys? Enough secondary scoring? Enough defense, penalty-killing smarts, and overall leadership?

And there may be a learning curve as rookie coach Dave Hakstol adjusts to the NHL after spending the last 11 seasons heading the University of North Dakota's powerful program and leading it to seven appearances in the Frozen Four.

From here, the Flyers need to get mentally tougher, need to play with more swagger. That was missing last year and it contributed to the team's eye-opening failure to win close games.

The Flyers won just 15 of 43 one-goal games (15-10-18), an abysmal .349 winning percentage. Only two NHL teams had worse records in one-goal games.

The hope is that newcomer Sam Gagner will help in shootouts, where they Flyers went 3-11 last season. The new three-on-three overtime format should reduce shootouts and could also work to the Flyers' advantage.

There is also hope that defenseman Evgeni Medvedev, a three-time all-star during his seven seasons in Russia's KHL, will help the Flyers transition from defense to offense more quickly, and that backup goalie Michal Neuvirth, another free-agent signee, will make the team much more formidable than when Ray Emery was in the nets.

Bounce-back seasons from Matt Read, Andrew MacDonald and R.J. Umberger would also help. Ditto more development from Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn.

Yes, there are lots of questions, but the nucleus is in place, and the once-barren farm system has made great strides.

In short, this is a bridge season to 2016-17, when many of the top prospects should be ready. But a bridge season doesn't translate into a "wasted season. There are plenty of reasons that another season without a Cup will be interesting.

And it will be even more interesting if Hextall and Hakstol find a way to get a youngster or two into the lineup when the season begins.


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