SAN JOSE, Calif. — Dave Hakstol displayed a rare moment of humor Tuesday when he jokingly said, “I haven’t sent the thank-you card yet to NHL scheduling.”
More like thanks, but no thanks.
Whoever’s responsible for the unenviable task of compiling the 82-game schedule for each of the 31 teams has the Flyers as the home opening opponent for three different clubs: the Sharks, Kings and Predators. Essentially, the Flyers will have to endure an extended pregame ceremony in each of the three cities, which will also include a banner-raising night for the Western Conference champions in Nashville on Oct. 10.
“It can be a little frustrating,” defenseman Brandon Manning said. “You have to be professional about it. There’s no other way to deal with it. Find a way to get yourself ready and it’s no different than guys playing in their first NHL game. It’s just part of the game. I don’t think that will be a real issue for us. Once you play in one (home opener), you’ll be ready for the next one.”
But how prepared will the Flyers be for the entire 41-game road slate? Last season, the Flyers were 22 points better at the Wells Fargo Center, and following their 10-game winning streak, they proceeded to win just six of their final 27 games on the road. General manager Ron Hextall suggested perhaps the Flyers just didn’t have the mental fortitude required of a playoff team.
“I think there’s a certain mentality of playing on the road. It’s hard,” Hextall said. “It’s not cushy like home. You don’t have all your fans there. You don’t go to your house for a pregame meal, you don’t go to the rink for a pregame skate. You’re traveling. You’re not playing the day before typically. It’s something we have to get better at. We’ve talked about and we have to have a better road record. Our home record we have to maintain and we have to be better on the road. No question about it.”
It will ultimately become the difference between the Flyers qualifying for the postseason or staying at home for the fourth time in a six-year span. Of the 16 teams that qualified for the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, 15 had a winning record or a point differential above .500 on the road. Had the Flyers finished with just four more road victories and a record of 18-18-5, that would have been enough to overtake the Toronto Maple Leafs for the second wild-card spot last season.
“I think the last few years, we haven’t been as good on the road as we were at home, and that’s just a fact, for any team in the league,” Claude Giroux said. “You need to find a way to get those wins, get those extra points on the road. It’s not easy to go into another building, but we need to find a way, whatever that is, to find a way to get those points.”
Hextall believes he’s done his part by constructing a team that will allow the Flyers to be a tougher matchup for their opponents, who have the last change on faceoffs. With Sean Couturier, Nolan Patrick, Valtteri Filppula and Scott Laughton comprising your four centers to start the season, the Flyers appear to be better defensively to play the type of game required in a visitor’s arena.
“I think our depth right now is better than what we’ve had in the past,” Hextall said. “So in terms of matchups, I definitely think we’re better off. You don’t dictate many of the matchups on the road as you do at home. We’re certainly better off with the depth we have. I think we’re strong in the middle. I feel good about our team right now, but in the end, we have to make it happen.”
For an organization that has subscribed to a win-now mentality in the past, and has often mortgaged its future to make that happen, you may be genuinely surprised to see that the Flyers' opening night roster has more first-round picks drafted by the organization than any other team in the league.
Within the Flyers' 23-man roster, the organization can claim eight first-round picks (Giroux, Couturier, Patrick, Travis Konecny, Laughton, Ivan Provorov, Sam Morin and Travis Sanheim). The Islanders, Capitals and Kings currently have seven of their own first-rounders on their rosters.
Bring their 'A' game
On Tuesday night, the Flyers voted in a pair of new alternate captains who will replace Pierre Edouard-Bellemare and Mark Streit, who both served as alternates depending on where the Flyers were playing.
Beginning tonight and for the next three games, Andrew MacDonald will wear the 'A' along with Wayne Simmonds, who will be an alternate all season, on the road. Filppula will take over MacDonald's duties for the Flyers' 41 home games, beginning with the home opener Oct. 14 against the Capitals.
MacDonald, who will wear it Wednesday and for the next week, also served as an alternate with the Islanders.
"Obviously, it's a big honor and a big responsibility to have your peers and teammates choose you for that situation," MacDonald said Wednesday. "It's pretty special. I'm familiar with leadership roles and what it's all about. Being an older guy now, I've picked up a lot of things along the way."
Filppula wore the 'A' during the preseason in his time with the Red Wings, but never during the regular season.
“It means a lot and hopefully I can do a good job,” Filppula said. “It’s always an honor to be part of the captain’s group, especially coming from the other teammates. It’s a big thing personally.”