One of the top priorities in the Flyers' organization over the last four years has been to overhaul the farm system through a commitment to stockpiling assets, drafting based on internal scouting consensus and patience in overseeing development. The process started with assembling what had been a virtually barren cupboard of defense prospects.
Flyers general manager Ron Hextall has consistently and steadfastly refused to place players he did not feel were fully NHL ready (even first-round picks) in a situation where they in over their heads with the big club. Each prospect's timetable for NHL arrival has been different; dictated by the player's own performance and consistency within his projected role.
In each of the last two seasons, a Flyers blueline prospect has graduated from the farm system to the NHL level. Shayne Gostisbehere was a finalist for the Calder Trophy in 2015-16. Last season, Ivan Provorov won the Barry Ashbee Trophy as the Flyers' top defenseman.
At camp this year, three different young defensemen have made strong cases to be part of the team's opening night roster: 2013 first-round pick Sam Morin, 2013 second-round selection Robert Hagg and 2014 first-rounder Travis Sanheim. Now the question is how many will start the season in the NHL. Will it be two or will it be all three?
If all three youngsters make it, a veteran will be likely be displaced on the roster unless the organization decides to carry eight defensemen and 13 forwards rather than seven defensemen and 14 forwards.
With two games left in the preseason, Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said that the evaluations will likely continue until just before the roster must be filed with the league office. The deadline for setting opening night 23-man rosters this year is on Oct. 3.
"From what I see coming out of [Tuesday's game against the Rangers], like I said we always take it one step, one day at a time, but I think those decisions are going to come right down to the wire," Hakstol said.
Asked specifically about Morin, who scored a goal and played a physically dominant game on many shifts on Tuesday, Hakstol praised the player while keeping the main focus on the roster competition as a whole.
"He's in a battle. He's in a mix of eight right now. So that's the positive of it. He's played well. The other seven guys are doing a good job. I know the focus is always on the young guy but it's a group of eight right now. It's been a pretty good competitive camp for all those eight guys," Hakstol said.
Hextall has stated repeatedly before and during training camp that he does not a pre-determined limit on the number of rookies who will make the team, whether it's forwards or defensemen or a combined number of both. Two caveats in the open roster spot battles: The young players had to earn roster spots based on camp performance, and the roster incumbents among their veteran competition would also have ample chance to defend their place on the roster.
Now that the Flyers have less than one week remaining in training camp, the ongoing battles will only intensify, both on the blueline and up front.
"Everyone who is still here in camp is here for a reason," Hakstol said. "They have earned it. They are still in the mix and still competing, whether it's in the games or at practice. I said at the start of camp that we're looking [for players] to build a body of work as we evaluate. I am pleased with how our young guys have performed so far, as well as the experienced guys they're competing against."
Each of the three remaining young defensemen in camp bring a different set of attributes.
Entering his third pro season, the 6-foot-7 Morin has played more under control discipline wise than he did when he first arrived at the American Hockey League level. He is less prone to taking himself out position, although not infallible. Always a good skater in a straight line, his footwork has greatly improved after years of hard work. Although offense is a secondary aspect of his projected role at the top level, he's replaced his big windup shot from his Quebec League days with a preference for a snap shot or wrister with a faster release.
"The jump from juniors in the beginning was really big for me. Guys are stronger, AHL to NHL right now, I am ready. I win those one on one battles. If I win those battles and get the puck up, I'm doing my job," Morin said.
Sanheim is the most offensively dynamic of the trio. At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, he has both size and high-end mobility working in his favor. Sanheim had a couple uneven performances early in camp but has clicked from the second week onward, both in offensive and defensive situations. He leads the Flyers with three preseason goals (including a two-goal effort on Monday) but it has been the way he's elevated his all-around game that has kept the second-year pro in the roster mix for opening night.
"All along, I've played that offensive side. I'm just trying to keep it simple defensively and trying to make smart plays and make good reads to get in the play and it's been working so far. …[My confidence] it's really high right now. Obviously, I don't want it to get too high. I just have to try and keep an even keel here and finish up strong," Sanheim said.
Hägg, who was a high-scoring blueliner at the Swedish junior level before turning pro, began to simplify his game over the last year and a half. His focus is on being a sound positional defender who consistently makes a good first pass and moves the puck efficiently. He picks up quickly on structure and plays within it. Periodically, when the ice opens up for him, he will still join the rush. Hägg is adept at getting his shot attempts on net when he does shoot.
"I think to play good in my own end, be good two-ways and just make the right plays, that's my game," Hagg said during the first week in camp.
According to Hakstol, Hagg has done exactly what's been asked from him, and done it well for the most part.
"Hagger has been solid for us, just in his attention to detail and doing the little things that we are looking for," Hakstol said. "He's shown a lot of poise."
None of the three Flyers' rookie defense hopefuls have been flawless. One of the most encouraging signs with the young players remaining in camp has been their resiliency at bouncing back after a mistake or a so-so game. Since there are sure to be bumps in the road over the course of any season -- true for any player, but especially for prospective rookies and second-year players -- it can be just as telling to see in the preseason how the young players handle situations that don't go their way.
Case in point: On the Rangers' first goal in Tuesday's game, Sanheim lost the puck to a forechecker behind the net (not a giveaway statistically, but a turnover nonetheless). Sanheim, however, handled the turnover properly. He pinned his check to the boards until help could arrive. Unfortunately, none did. The Rangers won the battle and ended up with a tap-in goal.
Sanheim did not let the mistake compound itself into subsequent shifts. He settled right back in, played a strong overall game defensively and made a few of his signature offensive zone forays to make good things happen for the Flyers on the attack.
Likewise, Morin and Hagg had a couple miscues last game, but showed no panic thereafter. Morin, passionately effusive in his natural personality, said that staying on an even keel on the ice has gotten easier as he's gained some experience.
"A hockey game can't be perfect. I made some mistakes tonight, it's a part of the game, everyone is going to make mistakes and I get so much better learning from mistakes. I have to keep going and battling, it's another shift after. It's all about how you react after," Morin said.
"They don't put pressure on me for that. I think I am pretty close to the NHL and I have had a good camp. Those guys have had a good camp as well; I just focus on what I can control. I don't have control of that the GM thinks or what the media thinks. I am confident in my game, I believe I can make it and that's how I have to think."
Sanheim and Hagg express similar self-confidence about their own performances in camp. They are leaving the Flyers with tough but enviable decisions. In the meantime, Phantoms prospects such as rookies Phil Myers and Mark Friedman are working to be the next ones to create difficult choices for the Flyers in the next couple years.