Heading into his first training camp as Flyers head coach, Alain Vigneault focused on delivering two very specific messages to his players: First, everyone starts with a clean slate. He is not interested in trying to diagnose the problems that led to excessively streaky play and individually disappointing campaigns in the recent past.
"The beauty about being me right now is I wasn't here last year," Vigneault said after Friday's Group B session concluded. "Don't know what happened last year, don't care."
Owing to his early unfamiliarity with segments of the roster -- primarily the youngsters in the system whom he had not previously seen play -- Vigneault had general manager Chuck Fletcher and assistant general manager Brent Flahr suggest the line combinations for the first couple days of camp.
"I said for the start of camp I didn't know any of the young players. I knew the veteran guys, but I didn't know any of the young players. I asked them to put lines together, and D pairs together. We have two exhibition games and we are going to talk about the lineups in two days, but I thought for me this was the right way to do it," Vigneault said.
Secondly, the implementation of new systems across the board -- breakouts, entries, neutral zone and offensive zone forecheck, certain coverages and both ends of special teams -- would begin on day one and be phased in over each subsequent practice. Players' specific responsibilities would be laid out to them clearly, both through video breakdowns and on-ice drills. Starting on Day 1, there was a key emphasis on rolling through drills at a rapid pace.
Both Vigneault and general manager Chuck Fletcher declared the first day a success in terms of communicating and setting a tone of the themes that will become mantras throughout the season both on practice days and game nights.
"I thought as a group, both groups attention to detail was there. The work ethic was there. Overall, we definitely got what we wanted accomplished today. Certain areas of our system that we wanted to work on, we touched on them," Vigneault said.
"[Tempo is] huge. In this game, in today's hockey it's played at a high pace with quick execution. I thought the pace today was excellent. I think the execution is going to get better, but I thought the pace as far as doing things quick, our attention to detail was real good. It's just the first day, but it's definitely a good step."
Fletcher had a similar take from Day 1.
"I've been doing this a long time, been around the game for a long time ... This is the best first day of camp I have ever seen. The players are executing great, the coaches are incredibly prepared. That was a great practice. There is literally ten seconds in between drills. The players are moving, there's competition. They're moving the pucks around. I think if you have three weeks of this that will bode well for our ability to play at tempo and conditioning. But everything has a purpose. The coaches are well prepared. I thought the better players, in particular Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier really set a great example in that first practice. I watched Claude leading the skating drills. Guys are really excited. We have a lot of work to do, but I feel like we are going to be prepared when the season starts," Fletcher said.
A big area of emphasis this season -- something that isn't new, but which was inconsistent in terms of execution -- is the need to play in synch as five-man units. Everyone, including the forwards, will have accountability to team defense and their decision-making with and without the puck. Within those parameters, there is room for aggressiveness in puck pursuit and playmaking.
If right-handed shooting Philippe Myers earns a starting job -- he has competition in camp, but on Day 1 was paired with lefty Travis Sanheim, his former AHL partner with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms -- there is a strong possibility that Vigneault and assistant coach Mike Yeo will roll with three pairs with one left-handed shooting defenseman and one right-handed on each unit.
The other Day 1 pairs included starting lineup locks Ivan Provorov (left-handed shot) paired with Matt Niskanen (righthander) and Shayne Gostisbehere (left-handed) with Justin Braun (right-handed). Additionally, left-shot defenseman Robert Hägg was paired right shot blueliner Andy Welinski and lefty Samuel Morin was with righty Mark Friedman.
That left-right arrangement carried on through depth pairs. A potential pairing on the Phantoms this season, lefty Tyler Wotherspoon was with right-handed veteran defenseman Nate Prosser on Friday. Junior prospect defenseman Egor Zamula (who played with Myers in Rookie Camp) was with right-handed Phantoms defenseman Reece Willcox to start NHL Camp. The only lefty-lefty pair on Day One was Phantoms defensemen T.J. Brennan with Chris Bigras.
Intriguingly, in the absence of unsigned restricted free agent right wing Travis Konecny, 2018 first-round draft pick Joel Farabee skated on the top line with Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux. Two of the organization's other primary offensively skilled prospects, Morgan Frost and Isaac Ratcliffe, skated on Day 1 with Jakub Voracek.
As with the other forward line combos and defense pairs, this camp-opening arrangement was suggested by Fletcher and Flahr.
"These are good young players, we may as well put them with good players and give them a chance to show what they can do. I don't know what it means for the season or the short term, but these guys are very important parts of our future and think we want to give them a chance to show what they can do and give them some confidence," Fletcher said.
"Any chance you get to practice with Giroux or Couturier or Voracek, that's a great opportunity to watch and learn and be a part of it and hopefully feel good about yourself. There is no sense putting them with checkers, let's give them a chance to show what they can do."
It is the rarest training camp that starts off without a single hitch. This year's Flyers camp, unfortunately, was not an exception. Camp opened with two significant absences.
Konecny remains unsigned, and negotiations between Fletcher and agent Mark Guy are at an impasse. Another important piece on the roster, third-year center Nolan Patrick, is sidelined week to week with an upper-body injury. Fletcher is currently unsure if Patrick will be cleared by opening night.
Said Vigneault, "I am very disappointed that TK is not here. It's the start of a new era, new group. I felt that it was very important for everybody to be here. With my time in the NHL, my experience, anyone that falls behind whether its injury or in TK's situation not coming to camp, it usually takes them a little bit of time to get back at it. Especially this time with a new coaching staff and new way of doing things. It's unfortunate, but I am going to work with the players that are here, and I am going to work extremely hard with those players.
"Just like TK not being there, you've got to work as a coach with the players you have available. Nolan's not here. Hopefully, it won't be too long. As you [media] guys can see, he's doing a lot of work on his own right now and a lot of work off the ice. Hopefully this won't be a very long situation for him."
On Day 2, there will be a few minor tweaks to the groupings and Group A and Group B will reverse start times for their on-ice sessions. Phantoms rookie forward Matthew Strome will get a look in the afternoon session with Group A, as will goaltender Felix Sandström. Ontario Hockey League defenseman Mason Millman, a 2019 fourth-round pick, will skate with Group B in the 10 a.m. session. Phantoms veteran Greg Carey will skate early in the morning with the youngsters in Group C, as will Reece Willcox.Video: Vigneault, Giroux, Farabee and Hayes speak to media