The past week or so has been all about experimenting for Dave Hakstol and his staff - putting together various line combinations and defense pairings to see what works and what doesn't, what might work with some tweaking, and what other possibilities might be out there… much like a chef in a test kitchen tossing together ingredients to make some new dishes.
The fact that so much of the beta test has looked so good makes it obvious that some tough decisions lie ahead in the final days of training camp. The Flyers have three more cuts to make to get down to the NHL's 23-man roster limit, and they also have salary cap ramifications to consider thanks to some camp injuries - a list that grew by one when Ron Hextall announced Friday that Michael Del Zotto will miss four to five weeks with a lower body injury.
"It's going to be tough," Hakstol said after Friday's practice before the team headed to Boston for Saturday's exhibition finale. "Guys have had real good camps and guys are going to make those final decisions hard decisions to make. I know that's the way you would want it."
There have not been a whole lot of constants in the Flyers' lineups over the past three games. Sean Couturier and Jake Voracek have played together in the past three, but have had a different left-winger each time - one night it was Travis Konecny, another it was Matt Read and Thursday night it was Michael Raffl. Claude Giroux and Brayden Schenn have played together the last two games, first with Konency and then with Wayne Simmonds - but Schenn shifted from right wing to left wing Thursday. Previously he'd played on the left side with Nick Cousins and Simmonds, and in the game up in Allentown he centered Raffl and Konecny.
There has been similar movement up and down the lineup - Cousins has seen time as a top-line center, third-line center and fourth-line winger, while Jordan Weal played center in the first part of camp but switched to right wing Thursday with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare becoming the third and final Flyers centerman to return from World Cup duty.
And the defensive corps has seen similar tinkering. Ivan Provorov has been tested with heavy workloads - he played 28:48 on Sept. 26 at New Jersey and then played 21:43 the next night vs. the Islanders - and has also received an audition with five different defensive partners in his five games, seeing time with Mark Streit, Shayne Gostisbehere, Philippe Myers, Andrew MacDonald and Brandon Manning. Injuries to Nick Schultz and Radko Gudas limited opportunities to pair him with those two veterans, but that could come Saturday. MacDonald has similarly been paired with a lot of the team's young defensemen.
All of this means the Flyers have taken plenty of looks at what they have to work with.
Saturday's finale against the Bruins will likely offer the most introspective glimpse yet of what the lineup will look like come October 14, but there are still those pesky injuries to deal with, plus Brayden Schenn's suspension that covers the three-game Western Conference road trip. Schenn's salary remains on the cap during his suspension; the salaries of Manning and Laughton could come off with a trip to long-term injured reserve, but Hextall said Thursday he'd rather not have someone on there to start the season. Even if they did go on, the Flyers would still not be under the cap without making another roster move.
Now with the developments regarding Del Zotto, it may not be possible to start the season without using LTIR - however, if there could possibly be a silver lining to the injury, it's that placing Del Zotto there would fix the Flyers' cap problem itself, buying them what sounds like a month to figure out what they would do when Del Zotto returns. And a lot can happen in a month.
All of this will combine to create a very interesting final week before the regular season begins. But after the training camp a lot of Flyers have had, the club finds itself not scrambling to fill holes, but rather deciding how to handle its riches.
MANNING RETURNS TO ICE
Although still restricted to non-contact status, Brandon Manning was on the ice Friday with the Flyers taking part in what drills he could. Manning has been skating this week before practice as he nurses an upper-body injury that Hextall pegged as a week-to-week situation.
"I feel pretty good," Manning said. "It's nice to be able to skate with the team and keep my conditioning up that way. Right now it's just some patience and giving it some time to heal."
Manning pinpointed last Friday's practice as the time he felt something wasn't right, and sought the advice of the medical staff.
"I can't do much upper body stuff," Manning said. "If I can skate and handle the puck, getting back into game action and contact will be that much easier."
MASON A DAD
Steve Mason missed Thursday's trip to New York for the best possible reason - his fiancée Brittany delivered the couple's first child, a baby girl. Emma Rae Mason weighed in at seven pounds, 10 ounces when she arrived at 5:17 PM.
"It was an exciting day," Mason said. "A long day for my fiancé, but she did great. Obviously a really special day."
Mason stayed back in Philadelphia Thursday night while the rest of the team went up to Boston, but he'll catch a Saturday morning flight and rejoin the team in time for the 5PM start at TD Garden.
"I want to play, [but] we'll see what Hak has in mind," Mason said. "It was good to come out here today and get a sweat going. We've been in the hospital the last 30-plus hours, so it was good to get out here and move around and get outside of the hospital."
Hakstol didn't say who would play the final tune-up, but acknowledged that Mason would be an option.
"He's ready to go," Hakstol said. "He missed one day yesterday, had a good practice today , and he'll be available for the morning ice [in Boston] whether it's an optional skate or not. It's a 5:00 game, so I'm sure our goaltenders will want to get some shots, and the extra guys will skate."
Saturday's game will be available on the NHL Network in the Philadelphia market, and will also air on 97.5 The Fanatic in greater Philadelphia and on 104.1-FM and 1450-AM at the Jersey shore. Puck drop is 5 PM.