With 4-game trip to begin season, Flyers more suited for road success in 2017-18

With 4-game trip to begin season, Flyers more suited for road success in 2017-18

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.”

First-round knockouts
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.” 

Flyers have a Travis Sanheim dilemma

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Flyers have a Travis Sanheim dilemma

Defenseman and prized prospect Travis Sanheim will start playing some big minutes again.

It just won’t be with the Flyers right now.

On Monday, Sanheim was reassigned to AHL Lehigh Valley as the front office also recalled Mark Alt to take Sanheim’s spot on the active roster.


Trust and development.

With the Flyers playing some of their best hockey of the season with wins in eight of their last ten games and the increased importance of gaining necessary points in an air-tight division (as of Monday morning, the Flyers hold with East's first wild-card spot with 54 points, one behind Columbus for third in the Metro, two behind New Jersey for second and just seven behind first-place Washington), Sanheim had been relegated as the seventh defenseman and had served as a healthy scratch in eight of those nine games.

“He comes out of the lineup and the team plays well,” general manager Ron Hextall said of 21-year-old blueliner. “Like most teams when things are going well, you really don’t want to change too much. If you look at the whole year with Travis, I think he’s played well with us. He’s had his moments, but he’s a young player and that’s going to happen. I don’t like him sitting and coaches don’t like him sitting, and I’m sure he doesn’t like sitting.”

Prior to the Devils/Capitals weekend series the Flyers swept, head coach Dave Hakstol was asked about the possibility of utilizing an 11 forward-seven defenseman combination as Tyrell Goulbourne has been used sparingly since his call-up. But Hakstol made it clear he wasn’t going to make concessions to accommodate one player.

“We’re not going to do anything to get anybody in the lineup at this point in time,” said Hakstol. “It can’t solely be about that. If that’s a scenario that’s best for our team, then we’ll consider it. What’s the right combination for our team to win a game that day?”

Coming out of the Christmas break, Hakstol started shortening the length of Sanheim’s leash. The rookie played 14:42 of the Panthers game (a 3-2 loss) on Dec. 28. Brandon Manning was fully healed and ready to return from a hand injury the next night in Tampa, a 5-3 decision the Flyers took from the league-best Lightning.

After missing the next five games, Sanheim received another chance with the Flyers' playing their first game against the Devils out of the bye week on Jan. 13. All it took was one play where Sanheim stepped up to check his man along the boards. He subsequently lost his stick, and by the time he grabbed it, the Devils converted an easy goal to take a 1-0 lead.

That came during Sanheim’s second shift as he finished the game playing a season-low 6:02, including just one 18-second shift in the third period.

“They’ve got to earn the trust of their teammates and the coaches, and sometimes that’s a process,” said Hextall. “Some of what Travis is going through is good for Travis. There’s a lot you learn out there. Part of it is the life lesson of you have to earn things. Things aren’t going to be handed to you. Just because you’re a first-round pick or a highly paid guy, you have to learn things. You don’t come out of college and become a CEO. You have to pay your dues, and you have to earn what you’re going to get.”

Travis Konecny and Shayne Gostisbehere learned those life lessons the hard way last season as both young players were pulled out of the lineup after their performance lagged. Hextall believes Sanheim will eventually bounce back and reflect at his rookie season as a valuable learning experience.

“Sometimes the only way they learn is by missing a shift or having their ice cut back a bit or getting sat out at some point,” Hextall said. “Most players have gotten sat out in their career. If you ask most guys, not at the time, they say it was a good lesson. There’s a lot of things our young guys are learning right now, not only at this level, but at Lehigh.”

Gostisbehere and Konecny are playing arguably some of the best hockey of their careers right now.

Even if Sanheim has more upside and potential than Manning, the veteran has proven to be more reliable defensively and has even been more opportunistic in the offensive end. In a twist of fate, Sanheim's offensive upside is a big reason why Hextall selected him with a first-round pick in 2014. Sanheim has one goal and four assists in 35 games played this season.

“You got to get stronger. You make a mistake and if you can’t rebound from it, you probably not going to be at this level for very long,” Hextall said. “There’s learning curves all along the way. You can’t look at everything in a vacuum. There’s a small picture and there’s a big picture.”

Hextall is right. At this critical point of the NHL season, the bigger picture of winning outweighs the smaller picture of player development.

Samuel Morin's frustrating season continues

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Samuel Morin's frustrating season continues

Before this week begins, it’s time for our weekly check-in on the Flyers’ prospects playing in the AHL, overseas and at the junior and college levels.

Samuel Morin, D, 22, 6-7/202, Lehigh Valley (AHL)
It’s been a roller-coaster season for the 2013 first-round pick for many reasons, and the frustration continued last week for Morin. In the third period of the Phantoms’ 5-2 win over Hershey Saturday in the AHL Outdoor Classic, Morin departed with another injury. The injury may have occurred on this poke check, but there was no update post game.

Morin has appeared in 15 of the Phantoms’ 42 games because of injury and a brief two-game cup of coffee with the Flyers. It appeared Morin played well enough to make the Flyers out of training camp and stayed with the big club on the team’s opening four-game West Coast trip but didn’t play. Then on Oct. 29, the Flyers announced Morin would be called up to as a spot opened up, but then discovered he was injured.

We don’t know how long Morin will miss with his most recent injury or if he will miss any time at all. The Phantoms play Wednesday night, but a season like this could harm a young player’s confidence. One, many believe Morin should be with the Flyers, and if you ask him, he’d tell you the same. Add injuries to the mix, and it’s the perfect storm.

Wade Allison, RW, 20, 6-2/205, Western Michigan (NCAA)
Allison’s breakout sophomore season is over. He will miss the remainder of the season after suffering a lower-body injury in the first period of the Broncos’ game on Jan. 13. The 20-year-old was among the initial list of 74 nominees for the Hobey Baker Award. Before the injury, Allison was among the nation’s top scorers with 15 goals and 30 points in 22 games. We’ll see how the injury affects his decision to turn pro next season.

Pascal Laberge, C, 19, 6-1/192, Quebec (QMJHL)
Laberge, another prospect who’s had an up-and-down season, has trended upward over his last nine games with the Remparts, as he becomes more acclimated to his new club. The 19-year-old had two goals and two assists in three games last week for Quebec to extend his point streak to four games and he’s now averaging a point per game over his past nine games. Laberge’s story is one to root for and this season's been another rocky one for him. He’s battled inconsistency, and a trade, which, compared to the past, seem like small potatoes. But he’s on his best nine-game stretch this season, and we'll see if his recent showing will allow him to finish the year strong.

Quick hits
Morgan Frost saw his 20-game point streak end Friday night but picked up an assist in Sault Ste. Marie’s 4-2 loss to Flint. Frost had 45 points during his point streak. 

Philippe Myers registered his third goal of the season and his first since Oct. 28 last Wednesday night in the Phantoms’ 4-1 loss to the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins.

Myers’ first professional season has been met with injuries, but when he’s been on the ice, he’s making progress. He has eight assists and 11 points in 25 games this season.

• How did Carter Hart respond to allowing three goals on Jan. 14 for the first time since Nov. 10? You guessed right. Hart pitched another shutout Saturday night — his sixth of the season — and then extended his winning streak to 12 games Sunday.

Alex Lyon was excellent in net for the Phantoms on Saturday night vs. the Bears, turning aside 41 of 43 shots. He’s been better since returning Dec. 26 to Lehigh Valley.

• Hamilton’s Matthew Strome is enjoying a three-game goal streak. He has 28 goals in 43 games this season.