WATCH ABOVE: Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol talk about the club's roster being reduced to 27 players
For months, this year’s Flyers training camp was eagerly anticipated. Now that it’s half over, it’s taken the natural next step – eager anticipation of the regular season. Fans have had their first look at a Dave Hakstol-coached Flyers team, and their first look at several different Flyers players.
Now just to be clear, the preseason does not equal the regular season. The Flyers have on two occasions played a New York Islanders squad that was split in half, and they played a New York Rangers club that was probably about half of their camp after several other players had played at home the night before. It’s difficult to look at any of the games and make the argument that it’s an apples-to-apples comparison of what the regular season will look like.
However, despite that, the Flyers have every reason to be at least optimistic, if not a little excited, about what they’ve done so far. They are 3-1 through four games after only managing a total of four preseason wins in the last two years combined. They’ve scored 17 goals, which is near the top of all NHL teams who have played that many games. The power play is clicking along at roughly 47 percent – for comparison, in the regular season, a 25-percent power play is considered excellent. It’s a small sample size, these four games, but there are many glimmering parts there.
Take Evgeny Medvedev. The Flyers plucked him out of the Kontinental Hockey League this past spring at the age of 32 – he’s 33 now – after several years of keeping an eye on him there. At the time, some hockey pundits described him as the best defenseman in the world not playing in the NHL. What that means to the average fan can be a bit murky, but generally it means good things. His transition so far has likely been everything the Flyers front office hoped it would be when the signing happened. He has been solid defensively – no small feat considering that he has to adjust to a faster game on smaller ice – and has showed excellent poise and playmaking sense on the offensive end, including seeing time at the point on the power play.
“I’m very familiar with the system and what is needed from me,” Medvedev said via a translator following Friday’s win over the Islanders. “I met with the coach before the season and everything was explained to me, so every game right now I just need to be better and to feel more comfortable and to get used to the smaller ice rink.”
Medvedev was added to an organizational defense corps that for a while now has been the most anticipated part of the Flyers’ future. The components of that future defense were returned to juniors or sent to the Phantoms piece-by-piece this week, with Robert Hagg and Shayne Gostisbehere being the last two to go. Those players were paired together twice this preseason and appeared to be a great fit, with Hagg’s defensive tendencies complementing Gostisbehere’s puck-moving, offensive game.
“That’s my game, like pull out here and make the first quick pass and shut down guys, so I love to play with Shayne,” Hagg said. “He’s a spectacular good guy and a great player out there.”
Hagg has a little more experience than Gostisbehere simply because he played a full season last year while Gostisbehere missed most of the year with a knee injury. But now Gostisbehere is healthy again, and he’s been a quick study. Hakstol like to play what he calls “quick defense,” and Gostisbehere is a good fit for that.
“My game is going to be different than the guy that’s 6’5,” Gostisbehere said. “When I pick my spots, when I’m not going to move anyone in front of the net and put them on their back, so I’m just focusing on what I need to do to play good sound defense.
“You can’t make a whole season up in one game so I’m just taking it day by day, game by game, just trying to be a sponge out there learning from our veteran defensemen and just playing well.”
Some Flyers fans were disappointed with Saturday’s news that Gostisbehere was sent to the Phantoms along with Hagg and center Nick Cousins. But it’s important to realize there’s a bigger picture than just three goals in three preseason games. Some of it has to do with the team having eight defensemen under one-way NHL contracts, and some of it has to do with Gostisbehere still needing some seasoning on the defensive side of his game, which isn’t something that all fans would notice. General manager Ron Hextall says Gostisbehere knows that, and the perceived demotion doesn’t mean the organization is down on him at all.
“He had a little bit of a tough start to camp, but he really came on,” Hextall said. “We’re excited where he’s at. He does a really, really good job when he’s got the puck. I think defensively there’s some things he’s got to tighten up. He’s a kid who didn’t play all last year, so he’s shown some great signs… If you’d told me he’d come into camp and do as well as he’s done, I’d have been thrilled.”
In goal, things also look promising. Steve Mason has played in one game and certainly looked like he was on his way to regular season form. And the Flyers have gotten a good look at Michal Neuvirth, brought in this summer to be Mason’s backup. He has certainly looked capable of getting the Flyers some wins when Mason gets some rest.
“Felt definitely better, 2nd game in,” Neuvirth said of Friday’s win. “We spent a lot of time in the box in the 1st period. There’s a lot of time in our zone, so it wasn’t easy, but I definitely felt better today after last game.”
And then there’s Hakstol himself, who again has only had three games to display what he can do with an NHL bench. But in those three games, he seems to have found several instances of good chemistry up and down his lineup. With the team cutting down to 29 players prior to Friday’s game against the Islanders, a bit of the extra noise is now gone and he can focus a little more on who might be in his lineup on October 8. He is living up to his billing as a coach whose players love to play for.
“I think he seems like a smart guy,” said left wing Michael Raffl. “He has a really good feeling for who fits well together and I think it shows in the preseason right now. I don’t think I’ve won a preseason game with the Flyers before, and I can tell you it’s fun winning right now. Have to keep building on that.”
That’s certainly the goal. A week and four games has gone by, and as is naturally the case, the coming week is going to see an increase in the level of competition as the Rangers and the New Jersey Devils also trim down their own rosters and get closer to what will be their final NHL lineups to start the season. Then things will just be more challenging as the Flyers open their season in Tampa Bay against the defending Eastern Conference champions on October 8. But whatever building blocks are in place right now, they’re resulting in good offense, pretty solid defense and some good-looking special teams. It’s a good start, and now Flyers fans will get to see what Hakstol and his players can do with it.