We are a week into the Flyers training camp and the team has already played three games over a four-night span. It is a routine camp in that the veterans who don't have to worry about making the team -- guys such as Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Kevin Hayes, Ivan Provorov, Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, among others -- are going out, getting their reps in and doing the things they need to do in order to be physically ready for opening night.
The best part about watching training camp -- from an observer's standpoint -- is to see the young talent and veterans on the bubble giving their all for that one
majestic chance to make an NHL roster at the start of the season..
This year is no different. As of now, four rookies -- Phil Myers on defense, Joel Farabee, Morgan Frost and German Rubtsov up front -- appear to be the most likely candidates to snag an opening night roster spot. The injury status of center Nolan Patrick and winger Tyler Pitlick, depending on how they progress, could alter the picture for opening night and possibly even open another available spot.
The question is what goes through these players minds over the process of training camp and the preseason? I can't speak for other people, but I'm happy to share my own experience from my rookie NHL season.
When I came to the Flyers training camp in 1994, we had a new head coach (Terry Murray), a new system being installed, and lots of competition for spots. Garry Galley, Dmitri Yushkevich (who ended up being my primary defense partner that year) and recently acquired Kevin Haller had spots locked up.
The rest was up for grabs.
My competition included former first-round pick Jason Bowen (who had played 56 games for the Flyers the previous year), Stew Malgunas (67 games with the Flyers in 1993-94), rugged blueliner Ryan McGill, and depth veteran defensemen Jeff Finley and Rob Zettler.
Others in camp included young offensive defenseman Milos Holan, former Detroit second-round pick Bob Wilkie, offseason signing Shawn Anderson (who, once upon a time, was the fifth overall pick of the NHL Draft), prospect defenseman Aris Brimanis and Dan Kordic.
That's a whole lot of bodies in camp. A lot of these guys were pretty big, too, but I was the tallest at 6-foot-5. My biggest edge, as I saw it, was that I was an exceptionally good skater at the time for someone my size.
Lo and behold, on the first day of NHL camp, general manager Bob Clarke was watching us from overhead.Who did Murph match me up against in the battle drills? None other than Eric Lindros.
It didn't take a psychology degree to figure out what was going on. Right off the bat, they wanted to put me to the test against one of the biggest, baddest and most skilled players in the world.
Was I nervous? Maybe, but it was the good kind of nerves; the kind that gets the adrenaline pumping and the competitive juices flowing.
"Here we go," I thought. "Let's do it."
I knew in that moment I'd have to absorb some punishment and stand in against one of the physically strongest players I'd ever face. Lindros didn't take it easy on me, nor would I have wanted him to.
It was as physical a battle as I had on a rink at any point in my life until then. I was able to hold off Eric and eventually push him into the boards. Ultimately, I also came out with the puck.
It was after that that Murph and Clarkie said it was like having hit a home run for the organization to be able to find a guy who could skate well yet be able to get in a close-quarters battle and handle a player of Lindros's stature and ability.
People have asked me a lot over the years why I matched up so well against Jaromir Jagr. It was because Jags' game was based on his combination of lower-body strength and skill. I was one of the few players he couldn't muscle his way around. Keep a tight gap on him, and we were on equal footing strength wise. Give him time and space to come in full stride on a rush, and he'd make anyone -- myself included -- look foolish. It was pretty similar with Lindros.
I certainly didn't dominate Eric but I also didn't get manhandled. I also played pretty well in other situations. It springboarded me to the front of the young rookie defense corps that year who was trying to make the team and at that point there was no looking back for me.
The only thing that held me back to the start of the season that year was a labor disagreement. A work stoppage ensued and resulted in the cancellation of half of the 1994-95 season.
In the interim, I ended up going down to Hershey and playing 34 games. The AHL time was of tremendous value to me in the long run. By the time the NHL season started, I was ready to go and playing with a lot of confidence.
The bottom line is this: When you get your chance and people are watching you have to be prepared to show the brass and the coaching staff what you can bring right now as well as the potential of what you could bring long-term.
For any player, but especially for a defenseman, the organization is not looking for a pair of goals every single game you play. You don't need some incredible highlight reel 1-on-1 deke. The decision-makers want consistency. They want to see maturity in your game, and a high level of compete.
That is the most important thing that these four young Flyers hopefuls face this year. For that matter, every player faces it.
Putting a roster together isn't simply collecting as many guys as possible with pretty scoring stats or, nowadays, pretty so-called "advanced stats". It's like putting together a big puzzle.
This is what the coach and the GM care about: How do the pieces fit together? What exactly is each player's strength and how does that strength factor in to us becoming a better team in one who can compete on a nightly basis against the league's best? Do we have enough balance of skill and grit? Is there enough team speed? Are there enough players who play well on both sides of the puck?
Do we have the depth to withstand injury at any given position? That's where versatility helps a player in roster battles. If a defenseman can play his natural side and his off-side with comfort and confidence, that helps his chances. If a forward can play his off-wing or, even better, can switch off between center and wing without losing effectiveness, he has an edge in finding a roster spot.
The one thing a player simply cannot control that is part of today's game that was not prevalent 25 years ago is the salary cap. Many players now are simply slotted in during the offseason based on the salary they make and the term of their deal. It's just a fact of life in today's NHL, and applies to every team.
The salary cap has played such a huge factor in how general managers construct their teams in the off season. Many of those players are penciled in before the tryout guy or the prospect can even steps on the ice for camp.
That's why many of these young players have only a handful of games and days to show what they have. With open jobs heading into camp -- barring injuries, of course -- now being limited because of the salary cap structure dictating much of the lineup, the kids and the guys on the bubble had better come with their "A" game pretty much from the get-go or they'll fall behind quickly in the battle for the one spot or two that may be open.
Desire still matters in our sport. it is vital that any young player wanting an opening night roster has want that spot more than anything he has ever wanted in his life. In my entire career, I think the hungriest I ever was that during that first camp and my first season. Falter even a little, and there are other guys clamoring for that opportunity. Fall back in the line and you may not get another crack at getting to the front.
It's stressful. It's also what hockey players -- at least the ones who make it to the NHL and stay there -- live for.
Many challenges remain in front of the young group of Flyers trying to make the 2019-20 team. It will be up to them individually: you can give players opportunity and coaching, but you can't give the desire To find that will within themselves and hopefully have a coach who believes in them and their abilities is all any player can ask.
That was true when I was a rookie. It's still true now.