After a not-so-brief interruption, we now return you to your regularly scheduled program, namely “normal’’ Flyers hockey and the excitement of the NHL.
The 2021-22 training camp, which begins Thursday at the Flyers Training Center in Voorhees, N.J., signals what many hope will be the start of something special.
After 18 months of limited games, practices and perhaps most noteworthy of all, a less-than-full arena of fans, the Flyers will get back to work in their quest to return to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The team will welcome a total of 58 players, including a bunch of new faces, and there promises to be plenty of energy in both this building and later the Wells Fargo Center, where the first preseason game will be played next Tuesday against the New York Islanders.
Coach Alain Vigneault and his staff have their work cut out for them. Here are five issues which deserve attention over the next five days and into the preseason:
>1. In light of the Kevin Hayes injury (out six to eight weeks due to abdominal surgery), does current left wing/former center Claude Giroux get moved back to the middle as a stopgap measure?
Vigneault has plenty of options here. He can switch Giroux, one of the best faceoff men in the NHL, back to the middle or he could use one of several newcomers, including Derick Brassard, Nate Thompson or Morgan Frost. Nolan Patrick was traded away but Scott Laughton might be moved back to center, at least for the first 10 games or so in Hayes’ absence.
“I think that question will be answered if the chemistry is coming together on different lines,’’ Vigneault said. “Giroux gives us flexibility but so does Laughton, Thompson, Frost. We’ve got some options there. It’s who performs. We’ll have some decisions to make.’’
>2. Did the offseason moves by the Flyers reflect a desire to become a grittier, harder team to play against? If so, will the Flyers have a little more grind in their game this season?
“(GM) Chuck (Fletcher) and I talked about a lot of things and one of them is being tougher to play against,’’ Vigneault said. “There’s no doubt being a hard team to play against – that’s physicality but also in your style of play — is preferred. There’s a difference between being tough on the ice and being hard to play against. We want to be a hard team to play against when we don’t have the puck.’’
>3. With the trade of Jake Voracek and the long-term injury to Wade Allison (high ankle sprain), the Flyers are left with only three proven right wings – Travis Konecny, Cam Atkinson and Nicolas Aube-Kubel. Any plans to experiment in camp and move a forward or two to the starboard side?
“We’ve got Joel Farabee who can play the right side,’’ Vigneault noted. “And we have JVR (James van Riemsdyk) who can do that, too. I’m expecting more from ‘Ku’ (Aube-Kubel) this year. He had a real good summer. He brings a dimension of physicality, skates hard, gets in on the forecheck. If you have something to show, show it on the ice and the coaches will make the right decisions.’’
>4. Can No. 1 center Sean Couturier regain his Selke Trophy-winning form of two years ago after a so-so 2020-21 campaign? The Flyers have put a lot of faith in him by agreeing to an eight-year, $62-million contract extension.
Couturier plays a strong two-way game and the Flyers were the worst defensive team in the NHL last season. Clearly, No. 14 looked frustrated at times because he wasn’t getting a lot of help stopping opponents’ best sharpshooters like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. Bringing in some responsible veteran help might be the cure.
“The reason the Flyers committed to Sean the way they did is because he’s one of the best players at his position,’’ Vigneault said. “You’re talking about a guy who plays a full 200-foot game. He defends when it’s time to defend. He plays penalty kill, power play, five-on-five. . .a very strong leader, wanted to be a Flyer and the Flyers wanted him. He’s going to help us win.’’
>5. Will the addition of veterans such as Cam Atkinson, Ryan Ellis, Rasmus Ristolainen, Keith Yandle, Thompson and Brassard make it tougher for young players to earn roster spots, starting with this training camp? And is that a good thing?
Fletcher clearly wants a deeper, more rugged team with higher competition for jobs. Such a scenario makes for a team with more depth.
“You want to make it so that young players have to earn their spot,’’ Fletcher said. “You want the competition level to be high. That’s how you get better. That’s how young players get better. As we get deeper and as our group matures, we want this to be a difficult team to make. That will certainly ensure that we have a high-end team here.’’
No doubt depth will be important, especially this season.
“A second part of that as well is just this is a very difficult schedule, not just our clubs but for every club,’’ Fletcher said. “We have stretches of the season that are very difficult. I believe we’re going to need a lot of bodies to get through the year. If you’re dipping into your younger players just at the start of the season, then when injuries hit, you’re really digging deep into your farm system to just even ice a roster in the NHL. Besides making the competition level higher and make it more difficult for young players to make the team, what we hope we’re doing is simply improving the depth of our team, so when injuries hit, we’re recalling high quality players that are ready to play, step in and make a difference.’’