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The Race for 3W: Will it be a newcomer?

Meltzer wraps up his series looking at which newcomer could steal the third-line wing at camp

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer / philadelphiaflyers.com

In part one of our three-part series on the candidates for the available third-line wing spot on the Flyers roster heading into training camp, we looked at a pool of six potential NHL rookies (Joel Farabee, Morgan Frost, German Rubtsov, Isaac Ratcliffe, Mikhail Vorobyev, and Nicolas Aube-Kubel). In part two, we looked at the possibility of either slotting versatile veteran winger Mikael Raffl or center Scott Laughton (who can also play wing) into the spot. 

In the final part of the series, we will look at veteran newcomers to the Flyers roster. As of now, Tyler Pitlick is the pre-camp favorite among the newcomers to win the third-line job unless either: 1) a rookie steps up in camp to earn it and Pitlick skates on the fourth line with Laughton and Raffl; or 2) the Flyers made another roster acquisition before the start of the season.

Reminder: The analysis in this series operates on the assumption that the top eight forwards in the line rotation all enter the season healthy: centers Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes and Nolan Patrick, right wingers Jakub Voracek and Travis Konecny (once the restricted free agent is signed), and left wingers Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk and Oskar Lindblom. 

Here's a look at the candidacy of Pitlick and the other newcomers:
 

TYLER PITLICK
On June 24, the Flyers acquired Pitlick from the Dallas Stars in exchange for Ryan Hartman. Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher also felt the 27-year-old Minnesota native could bring some versatility to the lineup as a role player in the lineup. The 6-foot-2, 200 pound veteran forward has primarily played on the wing in recent years but can also step in the middle and play center.

"He's played third line, he's played fourth line. He brings good size, he's a good skater. Pretty consistent north-south, physical game. Brings a lot of energy. Shoots the puck pretty well and he can certainly score a goal, but his bread-and-butter is that puck-pressure, forechecking type of game. The size and the speed fits well with what we want to try to create in terms of our bottom six," Fletcher said.

Originally drafted by Edmonton with the 31st overall pick of the 2010 NHL Draft, Pitlick is not as naturally talented offensively as Hartman but has been a bit more consistent. When former Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock gave Pitlick an opportunity to move up from the fourth line during a portion of the 2017-18 season, the player responded. He finished with a career-best 14 goals and 27 points. This past season, playing under Jim Montgomery, Pitlick was set back by a wrist injury that required surgery and was limited to 47 games (eight goals, 12 assists).

Shortly after Pitlick went down on Jan. 17 as a result of a hit by LA Kings forward Dustin Brown, Montgomery said that the player's absence was felt in the lineup.

"It's a tough blow," Montgomery told the Dallas Morning News on Jan 31. "Pitlick is a relentless-type player because of his speed, his tenaciousness off pucks. It hurts our overall team speed and playing to our team identity, which he's strong at."

Pitlick returned to the Stars lineup on March 30. He scored a pair of goals over the final four games of the regular season, including a tally against the Flyers on April 2. He dressed in six playoff games and did not record a point. Entering the offseason, Pitlick expected to be back with Dallas next season. The trade to the Flyers caught him off guard.

"I was obviously shocked, initially. But I am excited for the opportunity and looking forward to playing for the Flyers. They have a lot of good players in the organization and I'm looking forward to it," Pitlick said on June 24. "I spoke to Chuck briefly on why he likes my style of play but nothing too deep."

During the early part of his career, Pitlick appeared to be an up-and-coming player with Edmonton in the early part of the 2016-17 season. Unfortunately, he suffered a torn ACL on Dec. 19, 2016, and missed the rest of the season. After signing with Dallas in the summer of 2017, he regained full strength and saw his role expand to where he also saw some penalty killing duties on top of 5-on-5 play. He moved up from the fourth line to the third, frequently playing on a line with Radek Faksa.

Come next season in Philadelphia, Pitlick should at least be a fourth-line regular under new head coach Alain Vigneault. If he plays on the third line, Nolan Patrick will be his center. Wherever he plays in the lineup, Pitlick said that it will not affect his style of play.

"I'm a physical, north skating player. I can score and make plays when I get the chance. But I'm going to be physical and I'm going to create energy and compete as hard as I can," Pitlick said.

The other three veteran players on the newcomer list are in the training camp mix to compete for an opening night spot as the 12th or 13th forward. They are not likely top-nine candidates.
 

ANDY ANDREOFF
On July 1, the Flyers signed the 28-year-old Andreoff to a two-year, one-way contract carrying a $750,000 average annual value (AAV). The one-way nature of the deal -- meaning that he will earn the same money whether he plays in the NHL or clears waivers and is assigned to the AHL's Lehigh Valley Phantoms -- suggests that Andreoff is a candidate for at least the 12th or 13th forward role as training camp approaches. 

Fletcher confirmed as much after Andreoff's signing. When asked about whether Andreoff and fellow July 1 signee Kurtis Gabriel are solely ticketed for the Phantoms, the general manager said that is not necessarily the case. 

"Andreoff [is] a player that will make a very strong push to make our team this season," Fletcher said. "Kurtis Gabriel is a player that's played games in the NHL the past few seasons. We have a lot of options. That's what training camp is for. It's an opportunity for players to come in and show that they belong."

Andreoff is a veteran of 159 NHL regular season games and one playoff game (2016) with the LA Kings. The Kings originally selected him in the third round (80th overall) of the 2011 NHL Draft, Andreoff spent last season in the AHL with Tampa Bay's farm team in Syracuse (26 goals, 55 points, 150 PIM in 75 games).

Primarily, Andreoff supplies a physical and agitating presence. If the 6-foot-1, 198-pound winger is waived, clears and is assigned to the Phantoms, he is capable of playing significantly higher in the AHL lineup than he would for the Flyers. 
 

KURTIS GABRIEL
On July 1, the 26-year-old Gabriel signed a one-year, two-way contract with a $700,000 value at the NHL level. The player split last season between the NHL level with New Jersey (two goals, two assists, 59 penalty minutes in 22 games) and the AHL with Binghamton (two goals, six points, 28 PIM in 32 games). 

Previously, Gabriel appeared in 16 NHL games for the Wild over parts of two seasons, playing a fourth-line role for Mike Yeo and then Bruce Boudreau.

While he is not a likely 3rd line candidate for the Flyers, he will compete with players such as Andreoff and rookie candidate Aube-Kubel for the 12th or 13th spot on the depth chart in training camp.

Fletcher and assistant general manager Brent Flahr know Gabriel well, having drafted him to the Minnesota Wild in the third round (81st overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft as an Ontario Hockey League over-ager. Gabriel is a high-energy, in-your-face type of player. The 6-foot-4 winger is a bit of a throwback type of fourth-line candidate at the NHL level. When he dresses in the lineup, it is to throw his weight around and get under opponents' skin.

Flyers fans may remember Gabriel as the New Jersey Devils player who boarded Nolan Patrick in a game this past season, for which Gabriel was suspended one game by the NHL. 

At the AHL level, the 212-pounder was a physical and highly agitating forward who has typically posted between 125 and 137 penalty minutes per season. Gabriel is an emotional player who has to push the envelope of physical play to be effective but do so without crossing the line. 

Apart from the illegal hit on Patrick that resulted in the NHL suspending Gabriel, the player had generally been doing a better job recently in playing with increased discipline. During the 2016-17 season, while a member of the Iowa Wild, Gabriel was suspended six games by the AHL for inciting an off-ice fight with Chicago Wolves defenseman Vince Dunn in continuation of an on-ice altercation.


CHRIS STEWART
On July 17, the Flyers extended a professional try-out (PTO) invitation to the 31-year-old Stewart. The huge-framed power forward (6-foot-2, 242 pounds) knows Fletcher from their time together in Minnesota, and is a very close friend of now-former Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds. 

Stewart spent last season in the UK, playing for the Nottingham Panthers. He was last an NHL regular in 2016-17 but did dress in 47 games for the Wild in 2017-18. Stewart faces an uphill climb to earn an NHL contract out of camp this September.

There was a time early in his NHL career when Stewart was considered one of the league's fastest-rising power forwards. The Colorado Avalanche's first-round pick (18th overall) in 2006 -- four spots ahead of where the Flyers ultimately selected Claude Giroux -- scored 28 goals and 64 point in 77 games in his second NHL season. Apart from a deft touch around the net, Stewart was an above-average skater for someone with such a huge frame. From a physical standpoint, few wanted to engage with him, especially in fisticuffs.

In Stewart's third NHL season, he was leading the Avalanche in goals in the first quarter of the season until his career took a turn after he severely injured his hand in a fight. He never again had quite the same goal-scoring touch, although he combined for 28 goals and 53 points between the Avs and St. Louis Blues in 62 games. 

Thereafter, a series of injuries following the lockout shortened 2012-13 season -- he and Simmonds went as a tandem to teams in Germany and the Czech Republic during the lockout -- steadily took a toll and he became more of a strictly bottom-six player. 

Last season, after two stints with the Minnesota Wild and being claimed by Calgary off waivers from the Wild, Stewart agreed to a contract with a team in the KHL. However, for family reasons, Stewart elected to back out of the contract. Instead, he played in the UK. 

The odds of Stewart winning a contract and NHL job seem like a longshot. Additionally, with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms already staring at a veteran scratch rotation issue due to the AHL veteran maximum limit in game-day lineups, it may be tough to add Stewart on an AHL deal or NHL/AHL two-way contract as the situation currently appears. Things could change if Stewart has an outstanding camp or if there are injuries. 

A brief history of Flyers PTO players: The team has had quite a few players -- many of whom were once pretty prominent in the league -- on PTOs in camp but the list of players who ultimately received contracts is limited. 

The PTO route is how Jim Dowd got a Flyers contract for the 2007-08 season, and Blair Betts first got a Flyers contract that way in 2009-10. Actually, the Flyers had to bid against another team in Betts' case, because a PTO player is still officially an unrestricted free agent.
The list is longer of Flyers PTOs who were released without a contract and features many once-prominent players: Bryan Berard, Mark Bell, Bill Guerin, and Michael Nylander are the most notable names whom the Flyers brought in as tryouts but did not offer contracts. 
 

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