VOORHEES, N.J. — With the Flyers off to a hot 4-2 start, there’s a lot to like about the team. There's been the resurgence of Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek and the immediate impact of rookies like Nolan Patrick and Robert Hagg.
It’s all part of general manager Ron Hextall’s plan, and through six games, it seems to be working.
After Thursday’s morning skate, Hextall spoke at length about the team’s success, the development of the rookies and what to make of Sam Morin and Oskar Lindblom — two young players penciled into the lineup at the start of camp who failed to make the final cut.
Here’s what Hextall had to say about the state of the team:
Giroux's success at left wing
Having an abundance of quality centers forced the Flyers to move one to the wing. And Giroux seemed to be the top option because of his playmaking ability. So far, so good as Giroux is tied for third on the team with nine points (four goals, five assists).
“It’s pretty obvious that we’d be happy (with Giroux’s success),” Hextall said. “When you’re a smart player, you can play all three forward positions. But G’s a smart player. He has skill, he sees the ice well, he’s gritty, he’s smart with the puck. He’s got all the attributes that he can play all three positions and obviously, that’s a valuable guy because we’re a little loaded up in the middle this year. And then you go, ‘OK, who do we want to move? Who can move? Who’s the best fit?’ There’s a lot of things that go into a decision like that and quite frankly, G had never played left wing in all his life and all of a sudden he’s playing left wing and he’s made a real quick transition. So it’s a credit to him first of all for his buy-in. There was no ‘I want to play the middle’ stuff. Second of all, he’s worked at it and set his mind to it so credit to G.”
Sean Couturier’s hot start
Couturier has long been maligned for his offensive abilities, but the scoring has always been there somewhere. He was the eighth-overall pick in 2011 and scored 96 points in each of his final two seasons in junior. Now that he is finally playing with talent, like Giroux and Voracek — what an upgrade over Dale Weise and Matt Read — Couturier is starting to reach his potential with four goals and three assists this season.
“You never know until you try it, whether it’s going to work, but just the vision and the thought of it, you say, ‘Hey, you’ve got a real stable guy in the middle with two guys on the wings that love to make plays,” Hextall said of the top line. “It’s not like Coots is a poor offensive player. He’s a good offensive player. He’s been in different roles over the years and some of his role hasn’t changed. He’s going to match up against top players, which he’s very good at. Now he’s got two dynamic players on his wings and again, he’s a stabilizer in the middle. So far, so good.”
Perhaps the biggest upgrade over last year’s club is the depth. The Flyers can now roll four potent, speedy lines to compete with almost any team. Give credit to Hextall for addressing the team’s biggest need by getting rid of guys like Read and Chris Vandevelde and allowing the young guns to come up.
“It helps a lot,” Hextall said of the balanced lines. “There were points last year where — in terms of matchups — we had to be very fine in terms of who you’re going to matchup against another team’s top line or even their second line. Now, I think we all feel comfortable whoever’s out there is not going to get buried by whatever line and that’s a good feeling for obviously the coaches and us, but the players as well. We can put anybody out there on the road and we don’t choose the matchups and feel some comfort.”
One of the reasons Giroux had to make the move to wing was the Flyers’ drafting of Nolan Patrick No. 2 overall. Playing on the third line with Dale Weise and Travis Konecny, Patrick has shown his two-way prowess and oh yeah, he can make plays like this.
“I think he’s been good. I think he’s been real solid, all three zones. I think some people, you expect too much — second overall and all this hype and everything else,” Hextall said. “This is the NHL. And it’s a huge step so I think he’s done a good job for us. He plays a very poised game, he’s not an erratic player, very methodical in his thinking and predictable in a good way. He makes the right reads, the right plays, he’s typically in the right part of the ice. It comes down to maturity, but it also comes down to hockey sense.”
Benching Travis Sanheim
Sick of seeing Sanheim in the press box? You’ll get your chance to see him against the Predators on Thursday, as he rejoins the lineup after watching the past two games. Sanheim has played in three of the Flyers’ six games, but don’t worry, he’s going to play this year, but how short is his leash? Are Hextall and head coach Dave Hakstol on the same page with benching young players?
“I think it’s not going to continue, he’s not going to sit on the bench and continue here for long-term, things are going to change so that’s something that I said at the start of the year,” Hextall said. “I don’t believe in young players sitting, nor having a really small role. … But Travis has played well for us and we’ll see where it goes and we’ll evaluate on a day-to-day basis."
Last season, defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere and rookie winger Travis Konecny each served multiple stints in the press box for poor defensive play. Hextall didn’t seem to mind.
“People made a big deal when a couple young players last year were sat out and those young players have shown an awful lot of growth this year. With the little things that they help along the way, to realize that you know what, ‘I don’t have a secure spot in the lineup, necessarily for 82 games. I gotta be on the edge, I gotta work out, I gotta play well every night.’ There’s little messages that come out of things like that, which is why a young player — I’m not opposed to a young player sitting, especially for development reasons. Sometimes it just needs to happen an that’s not the case with Travis, but along the way, it is so a young player sits out the odd game. There’s things they learn, they realize that, ‘You know what, I can’t be complacent, I can’t do this, I can’t do that.’ You learn lessons in life and again, I don’t want you players sitting out a lot and certainly not for the wrong reasons. I mean, if they’re making that many mistakes they’re not going to be here.”
Is Lindblom sulking in the minors?
Lindblom, a fifth-round pick in 2014, had such an impressive 2016-17 playing in Sweden’s top league that many penciled him in as a lock to make the team this year. But after an uninspiring training camp, Lindblom was sent to the Phantoms, where he is off to a slow start this season. Hextall doesn’t seem worried, though.
“Big Sam (Morin) was real good, Philippe (Myers) was real good, Oskar did some good things, probably not quite at the level that we want him to get to or that he’s hoping to get to, but he was fine. Those kids are doing well.
“Training camp, it was pretty obvious that, not early but as we got along, that he wasn’t quite ready for this level. That’s OK. He didn’t fail. Oskar is going to be a good player. We like Oskar as much as we did a month ago, two months ago, three months ago. Yeah, he comes in, you say, 'OK, well he’s gonna be one of the guys we look at here’ and he’s just not ready for it. And that’s OK. It’s not a setback. It’s nothing. It’s like, ‘OK, Oskar, go down, play hard’ — and he’s playing hard. … Is he to the level that he can play? No, he’s not but that’s going to come. He’s a young kid, he’s a young player, he’s adjusting to life, the pressure. Everybody’s talking about him, he comes here, there’s all this hype on him. It’s unfair, quite frankly what the expectations that some of these kids come in with.”