With the Flyers’ training camp getting underway, here are six questions which should be addressed and possibly answered prior to the season opener on Jan. 13:
>1. **Can the void created by defenseman Matt Niskanen’s retirement be filled by a “committee’’ effort?**
It’s difficult to quantify just how much Niskanen meant to the Flyers last season, mainly because he contributed as much off the ice as he did on.
His leadership, his calming presence, his mentorship of Ivan Provorov. . .the list goes on and on.
On the ice, the Flyers are likely to experiment with second-year man Philippe Myers as Provorov’s new partner, partly because, like Niskanen, he’s a right-handed shot.
Head coach Alain Vigneault has already said he expects to use Myers to fill some of Niskanen’s penalty kill minutes.
A Plan B might be newly signed defenseman Erik Gustafsson, but he seems to be more of a flashy, puck-moving type who could fit in with Travis Sanheim.
Whatever the case, all seven backliners currently in the mix will have to pick up the slack left by Niskanen’s departure.
>2. **With a season of playing for head coach Alain Vigneault under their belts, can the Flyers cut down on some uncertainty in particular situations?**
General manager Chuck Fletcher probably said it best when discussing the shortened six-day camp, which will have no preseason games.
Fletcher indicated the Flyers will be spending less time in front of the rinkwall-mounted instruction board and more actually executing the drills.
Having pretty much a returning lineup will help. And making it through to the second round of the playoffs last season should also assist in terms of figuring out what Vigneault expects in crunch-time situations.
There were games last season when one big mistake cost the Flyers a point or two. Look for that to remedy itself the second time around.
>3. **Will goaltender Carter Hart and his teammates be able to improve on their 16-15-3 road play/record?**
The first thing which jumps at you is the difference between Hart’s home and away records last season.
He was 20-3-2 with a 1.63 goals-against average and .943 save percentage at home. Great.
On the road: 4-10-1, 3.81 GAA, .857 SP. Ugh.
Much of the blame for that would have to be shared by all 20 players. But it should be noted backup goalie Brian Elliott was 12-5-2/3.04/.896 away from the friendly confines of the Wells Fargo Center.
Perhaps one thing going for Hart this season will be playing in empty buildings where the silence will be deafening.
Also, there will be back-to-back situations on the road where Hart might be used in the second half for games in which fatigue becomes a factor and emotions don’t run quite so high.
Plus Hart will be entering his third NHL season and, at 22, should be a little more used to what works and what doesn’t on the road.
>4. **What is the long-range plan for injury-plagued defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere?**
Coming off two knee operations, the former Calder Trophy (rookie of the year) finalist was in and out of the lineup in the playoffs.
Trade rumors have dogged Gostisbehere the past year or so and no doubt they will continue this season if his production doesn’t pick up.
The paradox is this: Gostisbehere hasn’t produced enough to merit more than a third defense pairing but at the same time, he can’t generate more offense unless he sees second or first pairing ice time.
Plus, he’s lost his power-play quarterback job to Provorov.
There are still plenty of folks who believe “Ghost’’ will be moved if a right deal can be reached at the April 12 NHL trade deadline.
>5. **Can any rookies crack what appears to be a fairly set lineup?**
Even if all the Flyers’ NHL-experienced players show up and do well in camp, it doesn’t mean a couple kids can’t make their mark.
We saw it last year in the Czech Republic for the season opener against the Blackhawks when freshmen forwards Connor Bunnaman and Carsen Twarynski were surprise participants.
Bunnaman went on to play 21 games with the Flyers and Twarynski 15. Those two are still in the mix, as are former first-round draft picks Morgan Frost and Samuel Morin.
Remember this: The more depth and the more competition for jobs, the better.
>6. **How much impact can Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom have if they make full recoveries from health problems last season?**
First, Lindblom managed to complete a miracle recovery from Ewing’s sarcoma (a rare form of bone cancer) to play in a couple playoff games. Fletcher said the Swede has gained back weight and muscle and should be his old self in camp.
Lindblom was leading the Flyers in goals when he went down with the diagnosis in December, 2019.
Patrick’s situation is a little cloudier.
He missed the entire season with a chronic migraine headache condition and, while all reports indicate good things, there’s a lot of rust of shake off.
That said, Fletcher maintains if Patrick has been cleared to play, he will receive a full workload. If that happens and Patrick succeeds, the Flyers will be well stocked down the middle including the likes of Sean Couturier and Kevin Hayes.