With Rookie Camp underway this week and full training camp set to start on Sept. 15, there is a different feel to the Flyers' 2017 preseason than any in recent September. Multiple opportunities exist for rookie hopefuls to earn NHL roster spots. It is not a situation where incumbent veterans would have to "play themselves out of a job" or suffer an injury for there to be more than one or two NHL jobs available.
Here's an in-depth look at five storylines to follow as the youngsters arrive for camp.
1. Deepest rookie group since 2005 camp?
When was the last time the Flyers had this many potentially NHL-ready rookies in training camp? The last time may have been 12 years ago. In 2005-06, first-round picks Jeff Carter and Mike Richards staked down spots on Ken Hitchcock's NHL roster. So did R.J. Umberger (himself a former Vancouver Canucks first-round selection), while goalie Antero Nittymaki also graduated from the AHL level to the NHL. By the end of the season, they were joined as NHL regulars by forward Ben Eager and defenseman Freddy Meyer.
In 2011, Flyers first-round selection Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn (a former LA Kings first-rounder) and older prospect Matt Read made camp impacts as rookies. Schenn started the season in the AHL but was recalled after a couple of games. The other two spent the entire campaign in the NHL.
The current cadre of Flyers prospects in the mix for NHL jobs could rival or surpass even the 2005 group in terms of the number of players who earn spots during the season to follow.
2. Time to reap what's been sewn?
The abundance of available NHL roster spots in this year's Flyers camp is not a matter of young players being force-fed into the NHL mix by necessity, which is rarely a recipe for success even with the average age of players league-wide dropping. Instead, it's a matter careful design and patient development.
Over the last four years, the pipeline of prospects in the Flyers farm system has been overhauled and carefully nurtured. The Flyers' crop of prospect is now widely considered within hockey circles to be one of the best - many believe it be the very best - in the NHL.
Last season, 2016 first-round Draft picks Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny earned NHL roster spots out of camp and spent the entire season in the NHL. This year, while Flyers general manager Ron Hextall doesn't want to pre-judge and "put a number on it", there is the potential for various prospects either to earn NHL jobs or position themselves as strong call-up candidates if long-term opportunities arise.
"There's a body of work behind it. With all of our players who've put themselves in a [competitive] position regarding the big club, we say, 'What has Player A accomplished? X, Y,and Z. What has player B accomplished? X, Y, and Z.' So they come in with a certain amount of evaluation from our staff and that leads us to put them in the position we believe they can handle as players," Hextall said.
3. A different kind of pressure
There is a difference between a prospect holding his own in training camp when he is an NHL roster longshot and demonstrating he is truly NHL-ready under the pressure of making a case to win a job with the big team. Hextall acknowledges there is such as a thing as the playing-with-house-money effect, and that is why there is a high standard set for when the expectations and pressure elevate with NHL jobs on the line.
"That is a fair statement," Hextall said. "But that is part of the evaluation process. If a young player isn't ready to handle the pressure of earning a spot in training camp, he isn't going to be ready to handle the demands of an 82-game season in the NHL."
Hextall said that the evaluation process spans the entirety of how prospects conduct themselves at Rookie Camp and full camp among the veterans as well as in any preseason games. It is within the player's day-in and day-out preparations, the all-around performance in the preseason with and without the puck and in physical battles that an NHL-readiness decision is made.
While fans may become instantly enamored if a prospect scores a couple goals or otherwise makes a few nice plays during the preseason, the Flyers' coaching staff and Hextall evaluate a wider array of proficiencies and at how consistently a young player demonstrates them. This is how maturity and NHL readiness are determined.
During the regular season, veterans leaguewide tend to elevate their own games to a higher level than in typically seen in the preseason. There is also a wear-down effect over an 82-game season in which many young players "hit the wall" by midseason. Entering the Flyers' 2017 camp, there's a host of players whom the Flyers believe have now reached the NHL-readiness crossroads or may soon be at that point.
4. Quality AND quantity
During rookie camp and the team's full camp, the sheer quantity as well quality of Flyers prospects with potential NHL futures will be on display. The Flyers' roster for the upcoming Rookies Game at the Wells Fargo Center against the New York Islanders rookies is loaded with many of the top prospects in the NHL. The depth extends beyond the pro rookie and second-year NHL hopefuls to several other somewhat older prospects who figure prominently into roster battles during the main camp.
Among forwards, 2017 first-round pick Nolan Patrick, 2016-17 Swedish Hockey League Forward of the Year winner Oskar Lindblom, Hobey Baker Award finalist Mike Vecchione and established young American Hockey League players such as Taylor Leier and Cole Bardreau will all make roster spot pushes as will still-young veteran Scott Laughton and various role-playing older veterans. Entering his first North American season, 20-year-old Mikhail Vorobyev is an upwardly mobile candidate over the course of the year to come.
In the meantime, 2016 first-round selection German Rubtsov and 2017 first-rounder Morgan Frost may be longshots to earn NHL jobs out of camp this season. Nevertheless, they will have an opportunity to build a case for themselves for the long haul. Ditto other recent draftees such as 2017 second-round pick Isaac Ratcliffe and bounceback candidate Pascal Laberge.
The blueline prospect pool is arguably the area of the farm system pipeline that has been the most dramatically overhauled in the last five years. Morin, Robert Hagg, Travis Sanheim and first-year pro Philippe Myers are all in the mix to compete for NHL jobs. In the meantime, prospects such as rookie pro Mark Friedman will push to gain a foothold for the long term.
In goal, veterans Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth are basically set as the Flyers' NHL tandem. However, the recent left knee meniscus surgery and projected lengthy absence of prospect Anthony Stolarz creates an opportunity for second-year pro Alex Lyon to make a strong push to prove himself a viable NHL callup candidate if Elliott or Neuvirth get injured.
5. Opportunity, yes. Guarantee, no.
Hextall emphasizes that none of the young players arrive in Voorhees with a guaranteed NHL spot. Each player's previous body of work has created an opportunity but he must seize upon it in camp to be part of the Flyers' NHL roster this season. That includes the much-ballyhooed Patrick.
"Nolan is going to have to come in like Travis Sanheim or Sam Morin or Robert Hagg or anybody else, and he's going to have to prove to us that he can earn a spot and make us a better team," Hextall said.
As a precaution in case the rookies unexpectedly struggle in camp, the Flyers put out a feeler to at least one unsigned NHL veteran free agent as a possible professional tryout (PTO) candidate. However, Hextall said that possibility does not look like it is going to pan out, at least not for the start of camp.
"We'll continue to kind of see what's out there and monitor it. The other thing is, with tryouts around the league, everybody keeps an eye on them, too, because most tryouts don't get signed. So you try to have your scouts keep an eye on guys who are out there. So, if I had to bet right now, I'd say we're probably not going to have a tryout but that's not 100 percent," Hextall said.