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Hakstol, Flyers hope to ride fast start to playoff berth

by Adam Kimelman / NHL.com

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2015-16 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams.

Philadelphia Flyers general manager Ron Hextall believes the biggest reason the Flyers have missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs two of the past three seasons is slow starts.

Last season, the Flyers started 1-3-2 and finished 14 points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the final wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference. In 2013-14, the Flyers started 1-7-0 but were able to make the playoffs. In 2012-13, they started 2-6-0 and finished six points out of a playoff spot.

"We need to really stamp the fact that we need to get off to a good start," Hextall said. "Holes are hard to climb out of. Two years ago we did, last year we didn't. It takes a lot of effort from your whole group. It takes a lot of emotional energy as well. … There's a lot of little things you can point to and say this is why. It's one of those things that quite honestly, why do 20 players play poorly for six or eight games? It's a hard one to answer."

New coach Dave Hakstol is tasked with helping the Flyers get off to a better start with most of the same pieces in place from last season.

The offense will be led by center Claude Giroux and right wings Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek. They combined for 75 of the Flyers' 212 non-shootout goals (35.4 percent).

Beyond those three, only left wing Michael Raffl (21) scored more than 20 goals, and no other forward had more than 50 points.

"We need more from the rest of the group of forwards," Hextall said. "You can never depend on one line throughout the course of a long season to carry you into the playoffs or to winning playoff series. It just doesn't happen. Our other guys have to step up for sure."

One player expected to step up is center Sean Couturier, who signed what was reported as a six-year contract in July. The 22-year-old had an NHL career-best 15 goals last season despite starting 39.89 percent of his 5-on-5 shifts in the offensive zone, fewest among Flyers forwards to play at least five games. But the new contract likely means new offensive opportunities, which Couturier is relishing.

"I want to be a solid two-way forward that can produce offensively," he said. "I don't want to be known as only the shutdown guy it's been the last few years. I want to take a step forward offensively and be one of the go-to guys when we're down a goal and we need a goal."

The line of Couturier between left wing Matt Read and right wing Brayden Schenn was productive in the final few games of the season, but there are no guarantees that line will be together this season.

Schenn, who is entering the final season of his contract, has played all three forward spots in his four seasons with the Flyers. He's a natural center but said he isn't spending much time worrying about where he might play or who his linemates will be.

"Wherever they place me, wherever they put me, I'll try to be as comfortable as possible and make the most of the opportunity," he said. "I've played center my whole life; last year was more on the wing. I enjoy playing the right wing, but if it's left wing, you've got to make the most of any situation you're put in."

Sam Gagner, acquired from the Arizona Coyotes in June, will be among the players competing for spots on the third and fourth lines, along with Vincent Lecavalier, R.J. Umberger, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Chris VandeVelde and Ryan White, as well as younger players Taylor Leier, Nick Cousins and Scott Laughton.

Last season, this group struggled in transition and at keeping up with speedier forwards, but most of those players will return.

Mark Streit, 37, finished in the top 10 in scoring among defensemen. Michael Del Zotto, who had a nice bounce-back season with 10 goals, also will be counted on to create offense.

Nick Schultz and Radko Gudas should see significant ice time. Gudas, acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning prior to the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline, will add a physical element the Flyers have been missing since Chris Pronger left the lineup in 2011; he should be fully recovered from season-ending knee surgery he had in January.

Yevgeni Medvedev, 33, was signed in May after seven seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League. He played in three KHL all-star games and helped Russia win the silver medal at the 2015 IIHF World Championship.

"We needed to add a defenseman on the back end with some size and puck-moving ability and skating ability, and we feel like we did that with Yevgeni," Hextall said.

Medvedev (6-foot-3, 198 pounds) will compete for ice time with Luke Schenn, Andrew MacDonald and Brandon Manning. The Flyers have eight defensemen on one-way contracts.

The Flyers also have a talented group of younng defenseemn pushing for roster spots. They sent 2015 first-round pick (No. 7) Ivan Provorov and 2014 first-round pick (No. 17) Travis Sanheim, back to their junior teams Wednesday, and Samuel Morin (2013, No. 11) to the American Hockey League. Shayne Gostisbehere (2012, No. 78) remains in camp. Gostisbehere, 22, got into two NHL games last season. 

"Things will play their way out one way or another and we'll make decisions based on everything that you put into the mix," Hextall said. "Contract comes into it, experience, a young kid. There's a lot of things that go into decisions, the fits. … It's really hard to predict. What we're going to do, our goal, is to put the best team on the ice as possible for this season and we'll keep in mind the development of our young players."

Steve Mason had a 2014-15 that rivaled his Calder Trophy-winning performance in 2008-09. His .944 save percentage at 5-on-5 last season led the League, according to war-on-ice.com, and his 2.25 goals-against average was better than his rookie season.

COMING AND GOING



2014-15 record:
33-31-18, 84 points

2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Did not qualify

Key additions: Coach Dave Hakstol, C Sam Gagner, D Yevgeni Medvedev, D Ivan Provorov, G Michal Neuvirth, G Jason LaBarbera

Key subtractions: Coach Craig Berube, D Nicklas Grossmann, D Carlo Colaiacovo, G Ray Emery, G Rob Zepp

Mason's re-emergence as a top-flight starter came with the help of goaltending coach Jeff Reese, but he left the Flyers on March 6. Former Los Angeles Kings goaltending consultant Kim Dillabaugh was named the new goalie coach July 3.

Mason said he's already built a solid rapport with Dillabaugh and that little will change in his style of play or day-to-day preparation from last season.

"It'll be pretty much the same, aside from being a couple different drills," he said. "Practice days, we'll be out there early, and on game days, I'll do my thing with him. We're going to incorporate a couple new drills. Aside from having a different face to talk to, I don't anticipate there being any changes that will affect me in a way I'm not comfortable with."

Michal Neuvirth, who had a .914 save percentage in 32 games last season with the Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders, was signed to replace Ray Emery as the backup.

"He's a proven goalie, he's a good goalie," Hextall said. "And one of the attractive things for us with a backup goalie is God forbid something happens to [Mason], he can carry the load."

Jason LaBarbera signed a two-way contract to provide organizational depth.

The Flyers had the League's third-best power play last season at 23.4 percent. The first unit runs through Giroux in the left circle. From there, he has the option of making a seam pass to Voracek, setting up Streit for a one-timer from the left point or dumping it to Simmonds at the near post. Simmonds' 29 power-play goals the past two seasons are third in the League.

The second unit rarely was productive, scoring 10 of the Flyers' 60 extra-man goals.

The penalty kill struggled all season, finishing 27th in the League. The Flyers also traded defenseman Nicklas Grossmann, one of their better shot-blockers, to Arizona for Gagner.

Hakstol has no professional experience as a player or coach, but his reputation from his successful stint at the University of North Dakota is known among his new players.

"Stern but fair," Simmonds said. "He expects a lot, he demands a lot from his players. At the same time he seems like a very fair person."

Hakstol's systems were good enough to help North Dakota reach the Frozen Four seven times in his 11 seasons, and now he hopes they're enough to win in the NHL.

"I don't have experience at this level, so I'm not going to pretend that I do," he said. "But I do have a great deal of confidence in what we do, in what my philosophies are and that they're going to be successful here."

Hextall said he has no doubts he found the right coach.

"I think Dave is a really good leader," he said. "I think that's the biggest thing that our group is going to notice, his leadership skills. They're off the charts. From what I knew prior, watching him coach and watching him operate, the way he carries himself, his work ethic. He's very calm under pressure. He's got a lot of really good attributes."

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