Coming off an uneven 2016-17 campaign that saw the team fall short of the Stanley Cup playoffs for just the fourth time since 1995, the Philadelphia Flyers enter training camp with an ambitious dual goal of returning to the postseason while increasingly injecting NHL-ready youth into the lineup. There are many jobs up for grabs in this year's camp, with a cadre of top young prospects seemingly ready to challenge for them.
Here are five key storylines to follow as the on-ice portion of training camp gets underway on Friday.
1. COMPETITION UNLIKE ANY OTHER
Flyers general manager Ron Hextall and head coach Dave Hakstol have made it crystal clear that this isn't a year where there's only a few viable candidates for one or two roster openings. Whether it's the highly touted rookie candidates in camp or some tenured NHL veterans, jobs will be won or lost based on performance and not on reputation.
"I hope the players are on edge, because they should be," Hextall said.
Even among the returning group of core veterans who do not reason to worry about their roster spots, Hextall sent out fair warning that everyone will be expected to "dig deep" and push themselves beyond their comfort zone. That could entail added situational responsibilities, being asked to periodically skate at a different position or make more subtle adjustments that will aid a major team goal for 2017-18 of performing better at even strength than last year.
A good example from last season of a player embracing a new challenge: Wayne Simmonds effectively stepped back into penalty killing duties he hadn't been regularly asked to do since his pre-Flyers days with the LA Kings. He tackled the task with enthusiasm and was one of the team's better players on that end of special teams as well as his more glamorous role as a key net-front presence on the power play.
2. YOUTH SHALL RISE
Last season, months prior to celebrating their respective 20th birthdays, defensemen Ivan Provorov and winger Travis Konecny excelled in training camp and won roster spots with the Flyers. Provorov went on to win the Barry Ashbee Trophy (Flyers best defenseman) as a rookie while handling heavy duty ice-time and dressing in all 82 games. Konency tallied a respectable 11 goals and 28 points in 70 games while feeling his way through some of the nuances that separate NHL expectations from junior hockey standards.
In this year's camp, the likes of 2017 second overall draft pick Nolan Patrick, 2016-17 Swedish Hockey League Forward of the Year winner Oskar Lindblom, 2012 first-round pick Scott Laughton (aiming for a full-time return to the NHL after spending most of last season in the American Hockey League with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms) and blueline rookie hopefuls such as Samuel Morin, Robert Hagg, Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers all have their sights set on performing comparably to how Konecny and Provorov did last September into October.
There are also some dark horse candidates who are capable of putting together strong camps and pushing to start in Philadelphia rather than Allentown: big two-way center Mikhail Vorobyev (a World Junior Championship standout for Team Russia last year who already hast two pro years under his belt in the KHL), defenseman Mark Friedman and versatile forwards Cole Bardeau and Taylor Leier among others.
"That youthful enthusiasm and eagerness to learn is a good element for a hockey club," Hextall said. "It kind of energizes everyone, including the veterans."
Flyers right winger Jakub Voracek, now a 28-year-old veteran of nine NHL seasons, agrees.
"You look at the league now, and it's getting younger and younger. You see these guys flying around there and they are good players. It definitely pushes us 'old guys' to be at our best," Voracek said.
3. A FULL OFF-SEASON MEANS A FULL ROSTER
Around the NHL, many (but certainly not all) of the players who participated in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey found that having a shorter offseason affected their preparations and ultimately took a toll on them during the season.
In the case of Flyers captain Claude Giroux, who was coming off hip and groin surgery, the 2016-17 season started out well for him. He rattled off a 10-game point streak after being held without a point on opening night. Through 15 games, he already had 16 points (3g-13a).
To his credit, Giroux dressed in every game last season despite feeling considerably less than 100 percent for much of the season. Unfortunately, after the first 15 games, his production dropped off a cliff. Over the remaining 67 games, he had only 42 points (11g- 31a) as he uncharacteristically struggled to gain separation from opposing defenders.
"If you're not in tip-top shape, power, strength, quickness, all that stuff, it doesn't always show up at the start. It can show up down the line in the season. You just sort of wear out. Whether that happened with him., that would probably be my guess a little bit because you can sort of make up quickly for a short period of time but you're not ready over the long haul," Hextall said.
"Summer training is not only to get you off to a good start, it's so you can power through the whole year. It's an important part. Claude, to his credit, wanted to make changes to his summer training and I think he did that."
Giroux has steadfastly refused to use his 2016 offseason surgery or his World Cup of Hockey participation as an excuse for what he readily admits was a subpar overall individual season as well as for the team. Ditto defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere (who had a similar surgery and then played World Cup), first-line right winger Jakub Voracek (World Cup), Michal Neuvirth (World Cup, down season plagued with injuries), two-way center Sean Couturier (2016 playoff injury, World Cup) or new acquisition Jori Lehtera (a member of Team Finland at the World Cup who had a down year with the St. Louis Blues). Nevertheless, all have said they relished the chance to have a full offseason to get ready for the marathon-like hockey season.
4. TAKES TWO (OR MORE) TO TANDEM
There is a new duo in goal for the Flyers this season, with veteran Brian Elliott replacing free agency departure Steve Mason in a 1A/1B tandem with returning netminder Michal Neuvirth. While the work distribution between Elliott and Neuvirth is something that will be determined over the course of the regular season, one thing Hakstol and goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh want to see in camp is for both goalies to come out strong for opening night.
"How the NHL is with the scheduling, it's tough to play all those games. I think a lot of teams are switching to making sure that they have two guys who can down the fort. There's still competition, because everyone wants to play as many games as you can," Elliott said.
With Phantoms goaltender Anthony Stolarz out for months with a torn left knee meniscus, it will be worth watching in camp to see if second-year pro Alex Lyon puts forth a strong preseason and instills confidence that he could be a viable call-up candidate (as Stolarz was last season) in the event of injury to Neuvirth or Elliott. Likewise, 2016 second-round pick Carter Hart could gain some added preseason playing that he might not have otherwise gotten if Stolarz had not gotten reinjured. The 19-year-old Hart, however, is not eligible for American Hockey League play in 2017-18.
Veteran goaltender Leland Irving, a former Calgary Flames first-round pick who had an NHL cup of coffee, is on an AHL contract with the Phantoms. As such, he is not eligible to play for the Flyers once the regular season starts. However, if he plays well in camp and early in the season, the Flyers could sign him instead to an NHL deal if the need arises for a veteran who can come up to the big club in a pinch. The 29-year-old Irving has spent three of the last four seasons in Europe, and played well in two of the campaigns as well as during the 2015-16 season as a member of the AHL's Iowa Wild.
5. SET A WINNING TONE
Preseason wins and losses are meaningless in and of themselves. However, in order to be ready to roll when the games start to count in the standings, players need to be ready to execute the team's system without excessive ups-and-downs over the course of the game. They need to understand their roles, gain some chemistry and show self-motivation as well as the leadership group setting the tone on a daily basis.
"Training camp and the preseason is about preparation," Hakstol said. "It's coming to the rink ready to work every day. It's about getting yourself prepared to come ready to play. We're not looking for perfection but we are looking for consistency as we evaluate. That process starts on Day One and then goes from there."