* * * SNIDER’S VOTE OF CONFIDENCE
Training camp #48 opened for Flyers chairman Ed Snider this weekend. It’s a far cry from the first one, which arrived with little fanfare; nowadays, thousands of people turn out for the first weekend of camp, including a group that sits for a live audience for the annual taping of Meet The Flyers, which happened Saturday afternoon.
As is often the case, Snider minced no words when asked about his expectations of the team this year.
“I think that I have a lot of faith in Ron Hextall who has a lot of faith in [Dave] Hakstol, and quite frankly I’m looking for big things,” Snider said. “I think we’re going to turn this team around and I think we’re going to be a playoff team this year.”
But what of last year’s team, which missed the playoffs? The hockey pundits around North America aren’t saying much that would lead fans to believe this year will be any different. However, Snider – not to mention the entire Flyers organization – thinks differently.
“I think really we have a pretty good team,” he said. “That same team last year that did not make the playoffs, made the playoffs the year before so it’s not they’re chop liver or anything like that. We have a good team, we have some good stars on the team with [Claude] Giroux, [Jakub] Voracek. We have second level guys who are getting older and more mature [Sean] Couturier, [Wayne] Simmonds, I expect a lot from these players and our defense is solid, better than it’s been in years, with the addition of our Russian player [Evgeni Medvedev] that we’ve added and [Radko] Gudas, who we added from Tampa Bay. I think we’re going to have a really good team, I also like our goaltending, I think our backup goaltending is solid, which wins game for you.”
The players were happy to hear the vote of confidence from the chairman, and head coach Dave Hakstol said he has similar sentiments.
“We’re here to do a job and I’m not going to be one that stands here and talks a whole lot about our goals as a hockey team,” Hakstol said. “We’ll do that in and behind closed doors, but [making the playoffs is] certainly one of our goals.” FAMILIAR COACH; FAMILIAR DRILLS
Chris VandeVelde found himself experiencing a little bit of déjà vu from time to time over the first couple of days of camp. Every now and then, something about the drills the players were running took him back to his days playing under Dave Hakstol at the University of North Dakota.
“I think we’ve been doing some drills from when I was in college that bring back some things like ‘oh yeah, I did do this drill before,’” VandeVelde said. “I think he’s doing a great job. He’s such a professional and a good leader as a coach. He knows what he’s doing, and I think everybody is excited that he’s here.”
VandeVelde was completely surprised when his old coach got the job with his new team, and he said it made him even more motivated to try to re-sign with the Flyers, which he did a couple weeks later. A year ago at this time, he was entering camp with no lock on a job, but he ended up playing 72 games and earned accolades from his teammates as the most improved player on the roster at the end of the year.
“Last year, I don’t think I was expected to make the team,” he said. “I guess last year I really didn’t make the team. I was sent down and called right back up.”
VandeVelde played most of last season with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and has been doing the same so far in camp. He says he’d like to contribute more offensively, but that it won’t come in lieu of doing what’s gotten him this far.
“If I could get to 10 (goals) that’d be a good goal to reach,” he said. “But if I don’t get there, I just want to be a good shut-down game, play solid defensively, and chip in when I can.” DANGEROUS LINE COMBO
Over the first two days of training camp, the Flyers have been split into two groups – one mostly made up of the players largely expected to form the NHL roster, and one of everyone else. That’s not to say a player can’t cross from one group to another by the time camp ends, but it’s just the way the breakdown has happened early on.
One of the more intriguing lines in the second group has been Nick Cousins centering Aaron Palushaj and Taylor Leier. Cousins and Leier were Flyers draft picks; Cousins was the AHL player of the month last February and made his NHL debut in March, eventually appearing in 11 Flyers games, while Leier posted 31 points in 73 Phantoms games during his first pro season. Palushaj, meanwhile, is a former second-round pick of St. Louis who’s returning to North America after a year in the KHL, and brings 68 games of NHL experience to the organization.
“We’ve had some pretty good chemistry the first few scrimmages,” Cousins said. [Leier’s] an up-and-down, two-way player, and [Palushaj] I haven’t really seen too much of, but what I’ve seen of him, he’s highly skilled. It’s a pretty effective line.”
Leier dealt with some injury issues last year, which made his rookie season more challenging than it already is for players making the jump from juniors to pros.
“Definitely mental toughness plays a lot into it,” Leier said. “It was my first year in a league with men. Just that alone takes a lot of mental toughness. Only so many 20 years olds can do it, especially in the NHL. I was pretty proud of myself that I battled through it. At the same time I don’t give myself any credit for it; I still think I should have produced more.”
For Palushaj, the change of scenery to the KHL was something he felt he needed, but he’s glad to be back and getting a shot with the Flyers organization. Like a few players in the second group, he wishes he was playing against NHL players, but he doesn’t read much into the early groupings.”
“I think I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed, [but] you can’t really do anything about it – you have to respect the coaches’ decisions,” he said. “I don’t really think that reflects my chances of making the team. I think I’ve got to play well when I get out there, do what I can and show everybody. I think there’s a lot of people who aren’t familiar with me and my game, so I’ve got to go out there and show what I can do.”