The season opener for the Philadelphia Flyers is finally here, and with it is the first lineup of the season.
Let’s take a look at the opening night roster, and break it down a bit by position. Line by line, pair by pair.
First up is the forwards.
Claude Giroux – Sean Couturier – Travis Konecny
The line that we all hoped and expected to see leading the charge for the Flyers has been reunited to begin the year. This trio was one of the best and most exciting in the league when they were together last season, and all three are looking to get right back at it this year.
Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier became quite the dynamic duo last season, with the latter replacing Jake Voracek as The Captain’s right-hand man. They’ll be together again, with Travis Konecny on the right side.
While there weren’t any real questions about the duo of Giroux and Couturier sticking together, the role of top-line right wing wasn’t set in stone. Voracek had been in that role over the past few seasons, but last year it was Konecny who stepped up. That will be the case again at the start of this season.
Konecny brought the offensive flair and energy on the right side once he was promoted to the top-six last December. After some early season struggles he turned it on in the second half and was one of the best scorers on the team, if not in the league, for a large portion of the final few months of the season.
Giroux is looking to continue to prove that he isn’t over the hill just yet. He defied the aging curve last season, finishing with 102 points and a fourth-place finish in voting for the Hart Trophy. The position change to left wing has stuck, and he’s hoping it’ll revitalize his career after a dip prior to last season.
After sustaining an injury in August that cost him most of the preseason, Sean Couturier is healthy for opening night. Like Giroux, he is hoping to build off of last season. While Giroux is fight off the downward slope of his prime years, Couturier is hitting his peak. He finally showed his offensive chops last season, while keeping his stellar defensive game, and got high on the ballot for the Selke Trophy. He’s going hard after that trophy again this year as he is the first-line center once again.
This line can be one of the best in the game when all three players are clicking. If they get out to a hot start the rest of the league better watch out.
Oskar Lindblom – Nolan Patrick – Jake Voracek
Like the top line, two members of the second line were pretty much set. Nolan Patrick is the top-line center of the future and the second-line center of the present, while Jake Voracek has become his go-to winger. Voracek could’ve been up top with Giroux and Couturier, but his presence and skill set will help Patrick on the second line.
Patrick emerged in the second half of last season and showed why he was the unanimous top-ranked prospect in his draft class up until the draft. With his injuries behind him, he came into his own and helped run a strong second line for the Flyers. He will do that again this season and he should bring that depth down the middle with Couturier for years to come.
Most of the attention last season went to Giroux, Couturier, Konecny, and even Patrick towards the end, but Voracek quietly flew under the radar a bit with a 20-goal campaign while putting up career-highs in assists and points. He thrived on the top line in the first few months, but carried the second line for most of the latter half of the season. He could do some damage with a guy like Patrick as his center.
The most surprising part of this line, and arguably of the top-nine, is the left winger. It is Oskar Lindblom, not James van Riemsdyk, who will get the first crack as the second-line left wing. Lindblom had a strong preseason and got some good experience towards the end of last year with the Flyers. He does the little things right and could play well off of the playmaking from Patrick and Voracek.
Another possible reasoning behind choosing Lindblom over JVR is the age and experience factor. This line now has a veteran, a second-year player, and a rookie (even though Lindblom does have some experience), rather than having two rookies on the third line.
James van Riemsdyk – Mikhail Vorobyev – Wayne Simmonds
The Flyers’ third line is good enough to be some teams’ second line. Hell, it might be almost as good as a few teams’ top lines.
Adding a guy like JVR this offseason and finding potential diamonds in the rough like Lindblom and Mikhail Vorobyev allow a team to spread the talent around three lines fairly evenly. Wayne Simmonds can even still play. He’s in a contract year and is finally healthy (well, we think) after playing through countless injuries last season.
Both van Riemsdyk and Simmonds will likely see time in the top-six in the near future, and could even be placed on the top line down the road if the team needs a shakeup; but for now they are anchoring a very strong third line. They are both more of the power-forward type with a playmaking machine in Vorobyev between them.
Mikhail Vorobyev was arguably the most impressive player in the preseason. He came into camp looking to battle his way to a roster spot, and he had the third-line center role locked up pretty early on. He has never put up flashy offensive numbers, but he has great hands, and plays a good two-way game.
I would not be surprised to see either winger swapped with Lindblom at any time, or even for Voracek. Hakstol will be able to mix and match in the top-nine to find the combinations that work best for the team.
Scott Laughton – Jori Lehtera – Michael Raffl
With the skill spread throughout the top three lines, the more “grinder” type players have all moved down to the fourth line. The line is almost perfect for most, with Scott Laughton and Michael Raffl definitely warranting spots in the bottom-six. However, Jori Lehtera is the odd-man out.
Lehtera, not Jordan Weal, will be in the lineup on opening night. Laughton was in contention for the third-line center job and carved out a role as a bottom-six staple last season, while Raffl has moved up and down the lineup with no complaints, driving play wherever he goes.
Then there is Lehtera.
He held back the fourth line (and third) at times last season, but didn’t look as bad in the preseason. Don’t get me wrong, he still shouldn’t be in the lineup, but there has to be some reasoning for it. If I had to guess it would be that he brings a more defensive presence, or in other words, a responsible “veteran presence” to the fourth line.
Healthy scratches: Jordan Weal, Dale Weise
Although Weal may deserve some playing time over Lehtera, and he’ll get it, he didn’t show much last season in the opportunities he was given. If they want Laughton at wing, they’re going to want a more responsible defensive-centerman in Lehtera, rather than a guy like Weal who has played well on the wing, but not at center. A Weal – Laughton – Raffl fourth line would be ideal, and hopefully we’ll get it soon enough.
Dale Weise, on the other hand, was waived earlier this week and could be sent to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms when Calvin Pickard is activated. Weise is a right-handed wing, like Weal, who brings nothing more to the table than his experience. At this point, the Flyers should bury his contract, trade him to a cap-floor team, or buy him out in the summer.
Onto the defense, where things get a little bit more shaky.
Shayne Gostisbehere – Ivan Provorov
The one portion of the defense that is solid as a rock is the top pair. When the top pair is on the ice, the Flyers are golden. Unfortunately, the top pair can only play just over one-third of the game, with some games nearing 30 of the 60+ minutes.
Shayne Gostisbhere proved in his rookie season that he has what it takes to score and be an effective offensive defenseman and power-play specialist (at the very least) at the NHL level. He slowed down a bit in his sophomore season on the surface, but still drove play and found his way prior to offseason surgery and the drive to get better heading into last year. Last season, he put it all together.
He was one of the top scoring defensemen in the league, dazzled with the puck on his stick, and also used his stick and body in the defensive game to eliminate the opposition.
Gostisbehere has truly become a two-way defenseman and can be relied upon night in and night out.
Ivan Provorov is right there with him. He doesn’t have the offensive flash, but still produces points and sets up plays. What he lacks in showmanship, he gains in the defensive end. He is a shutdown defenseman and can turn a rush around as quickly as it started. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that he’s just 21 years old. He hasn’t even begun his prime yet.
Andrew MacDonald – Robert Hägg
Another year of Flyers hockey, another year of Andrew MacDonald.
MacDonald will once again be a staple on the blue line for the Flyers this season. Well, at least at the start. He isn’t as bad as some may say, but he isn’t great either. He is a third-pairing defenseman that is overplayed at times. Still, he’s not someone you want as a second-pair defenseman, especially on what would probably he the Flyers’ more defensive (or shutdown) pair.
MacDonald will be paired with what could be a younger version of himself in Hägg. I don’t want to put that onus on Hägg just yet, but he seemed to decline as the season moved along last year after a solid start. Part of that could be due to his change in partners (from Gostisbehere to anyone else), but that could also be due to the grind of the NHL.
This pair could easily be a mess for the Flyers if they get caught in their own end. We’ve all seen the highlights (lowlights) of MacDonald in his own zone, and Hägg got into the habit of trying to dump the puck out too much last season. If they can move the puck out of the zone, they’ll be fine. If not, it’ll be a long night (or season).
Travis Sanheim – Radko Gudas – Christian Folin
The third pair is not set in stone yet, though it looks like it should be Travis Sanheim and Radko Gudas.
Sanheim has matured a bit more now after being sent down to the AHL last season and having a full offseason behind him, so hopefully that can match his skill level and he can put it together. He’ll hit some bumps along the way, but he can become a pretty good defenseman for this Flyers team. If the top pair is set, Sanheim could be a great second-pairing guy right behind them.
Radko Gudas got buried last year due to his questionable (and at times poor) play, but he’s better than that. He got a bad rap late in the year due to his mistakes and inadvertently injuring Couturier in the playoffs, but he has played well with a puck-moving defenseman in the past. In fact, Sanheim and Gudas played well together last season and can hopefully click this season.
Sanheim and Gudas could be the lynch pins for the defense. If they play well and can be the second pair, they can help hide some of the deficiencies. If not, it will be a mess.
Also, Christian Folin is here. He could get some time on the third pair, but will hopefully be the seventh defenseman that is used sparingly. It’s good to have a veteran there, especially a right-handed shot, but he shouldn’t be used more than he really needs to be.
Is it Flyers hockey if there isn’t some sort of problem in the crease?
The Flyers went through a handful of goaltenders this preseason, and one of the few left standing is Brian Elliott. Elliott played very well at times last season, but saw his year cut short due to injuries. With surgery and rehab behind him, he’ll look to be that above-average goalie we saw during stretches last season. Hell, even average goaltending would be fine.
The backup will either be Anthony Stolarz or Calvin Pickard, depending on how fast Pickard can get to Las Vegas.
It’s good to see Stolarz back on the ice after what was essentially a lost year due to injuries.
Pickard was good in 26 starts between 2014 and 2016 for Colorado, with a .927 save percentage, but that dropped to .904 in 48 starts in 2016-17. Workload could potentially be an issue for him, but who really knows. If Elliott can start 45-50 games this season, Pickard will be a decent option (along with Michal Neuvirth) to back him up or be ready in the AHL. Worst case scenario is that he doesn’t play well and the Flyers cut bait.
The Flyers are going into what could be a make-or-break season. They’ve cracked the playoffs but have yet to win a round since 2012. This team is built to win a round, and eventually multiple rounds, and this year should be the start of that. On paper this team looks poised to make some noise, but they have to play the games and show what they’re made of.
The 82-game regular-season journey starts tonight in Vegas against the reigning Western Conference Champions, the Golden Knights.