5 reasons why all 3 rookie defensemen should make the Flyers

5 reasons why all 3 rookie defensemen should make the Flyers

You can safely remove the training wheels now. 

It’s time to ride with three rookies on the Flyers' blue line to begin the season. Sure, they may lose their balance and scrape up their knees along the way, but that’s to be expected. 

Few defensemen have made the smooth and seamless transition to the NHL in their first year without hitting a pothole and flying over the handlebars. Even Ivan Provorov had his wipeout moment in a minus-5 game against the Blackhawks in Chicago last season.

The expectation coming into camp was that two of the three young defensemen would separate themselves from the other guy, but collectively, the open competition has been beneficial and you can make a solid case for either Sam Morin, Travis Sanheim or Robert Hagg to make this team.

Although general manager Ron Hextall and head coach Dave Hakstol are probably very hesitant to begin the season with three rookies on defense, here’s why they shouldn’t:
1. The rookies' ability to bounce back
It’s crucial, if not vital, to have a short-term memory. Make a mistake and move on. One of the most impressive aspects of Sanheim’s camp was the manner in which he handled adversity early on. After a lackluster preseason opener at Nassau Coliseum, Sanheim didn’t beat himself up as he was “demoted” to the Phantoms' practice squad. In a matter of days, the 21-year-old displayed the necessary maturity and work ethic, which left Hakstol impressed.

“Sometimes you learn as much about a player and where he’s at coming off a night like that,” Hakstol said.

Sanheim quickly worked his way back into the main group after stringing together solid back-to-back games. Hagg had a slow start to the game at Madison Square Garden Monday night, but he kept his composure and turned in a solid effort over the final 50 minutes. Part of the seasoning process is escaping those moments that can potentially linger. When playing three games over three consecutive days at the AHL level, you’re forced to move on to the next shift and the next game very quickly.

2. They don't have to play every game
It’s a balancing act. You don’t want your young promising talent to sit for an extended period of time, but as part of the process, there’s a benefit to having a rookie take a step back and assess the situation from a different vantage point.

A coaching staff usually has a sense of when a young player needs to regroup coming off a tough game or tough stretch of games. Watching from the press box for a game or two can help a player gain a much different perspective. The 82-game schedule is a grind and when Shayne Gostisbehere was a healthy scratch, justified or not, for three games last season, he reverted back to the type of assertive offensive defenseman he was during his rookie season, and "Ghost" responded with 17 points in his last 27 games while firing shots more frequently.     

3. What's the alternative?
Are the Flyers considerably better with Andrew MacDonald or Brandon Manning in the lineup? The Flyers thought so much of MacDonald that they stashed him in the minors in 2015-16, as he played just 28 games at the NHL level that season. He was left exposed during the expansion draft and Vegas elected to go with fourth-line center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare instead. Both MacDonald and Manning are serviceable defensemen, but on many teams, they are probably that team’s sixth or seventh option.

Since 2011-12, the Flyers have finished 20th, 22nd, 20th, 21st, 12th (Hakstol’s first season) and 19th in goals allowed. Whether that’s a product of poor goaltending, overall defense or a combination of the two, stopping the opponent from scoring has proven to be a real weakness, even with a veteran lineup. 

4. The future begins now
If the Flyers were one or two pieces away from Stanley Cup contention, then it would make perfect sense to be a little more selective on how you work in young players into your lineup. I’ll contend with Hextall’s assertion that the organization isn’t in a rebuilding phase, but it's undoubtedly in a transitional period. The Flyers are seriously looking at starting a pair of rookie forwards (Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom) in their top six.

Teams vying for championships aren’t making those roster decisions. The Flyers' franchise goaltender appears to be a good two to three years away as well. Once Carter Hart, Felix Sandstrom or whoever it is makes that jump to the NHL, wouldn’t you prefer to have veteran defensemen with several years of NHL experience in front of them to ease the pressure that might come with a first-year player in net?

5. Injuries will lead to the inevitable
Even if the Flyers start with a combination of Morin and Sanheim or Morin and Hagg, it’s only a matter of time before all three will be playing here at some point. How long before the Flyers lose a defenseman to injury and the team is forced to recall a replacement from Lehigh Valley?

Over the past five years, the Flyers have utilized on average 10 different defensemen throughout the course of the season, whether it's been the result of injuries or trades completed near the deadline. The one quirk with bringing up a defenseman from Lehigh Valley is that the player you call up will likely serve as the team’s seventh defenseman and probably wouldn’t play right away, which would seem counterproductive.

In that event, if Hextall elects to recall T.J. Brennan or Mark Alt, then what message does that send to one of those three guys (Morin/Sanheim/Hagg), who are currently on the fringe and capable of making the Flyers' opening night roster?

Here’s how I’d pair the rookies going into the regular season from what I’ve seen so far.

Ivan Provorov-Robert Hagg
Sam Morin-Shayne Gostisbehere
Travis Sanheim-Radko Gudas

Andrew MacDonald

Why Nolan Patrick is such a power-play fit

Why Nolan Patrick is such a power-play fit

Replacing Wayne Simmonds on the power play may be one of the toughest assignments in the NHL.

After all, the guy is second to only Alex Ovechkin with 85 man-advantage goals since the 2011-12 season.

So when the predicament actually faced Dave Hakstol this week, the Flyers' head coach turned to … a 19-year-old rookie.

Why Nolan Patrick?

Three components of the decision stand out:

Intelligence factor
Leading up the NHL draft, the overwhelming strength of Patrick's scouting report was his hockey sense.

Those close to him, as well draft experts, lauded Patrick for comprehending plays before they even happen and being above the ice in understanding spacing.

Those characteristics are crucial when having an extra man.

Patrick has two goals over two games filling in for the injured Simmonds on the Flyers' top power-play unit. Patrick exhibited his IQ with Thursday's game-winner, where he quickly planted himself right in front of the net, had the presence of mind to find the puck and then bury it past Sergei Bobrovsky.

"We told him, just stand in front, if you see a puck, bring it home," Shayne Gostisbehere said. "We tried to simplify it for him and he's going to take care of it himself, he's a great hockey player. It's paying off for him."

All about the touch
Patrick has excellent hands.

Put him around the net, and he'll know how to deflect pucks and find holes in a goalie. His vision, skill and finesse are why he's regarded as such an all-around playmaker.

In Tuesday's win, Patrick found immediate success with the first power-play group. Making his way to the middle, Patrick took a Claude Giroux pass and showed off that touch, adeptly going top shelf as Carey Price went low.

Studying Simmonds' net-front proficiency hasn't hurt, either.

"I watch him every game, he's unbelievable there and good at tipping pucks and making plays," Patrick said. "You learn from just watching every day."

Building up the kid
With time, Hakstol and the Flyers have allowed for Patrick to become comfortable instead of putting the world on his shoulders from the get-go.

That's part of Patrick's makeup.

"He almost always wants to be comfortable and then he really starts to exert himself," Patrick's uncle, James, said to NBC Sports Philadelphia last June

We're starting to see Patrick let loose.

As the Flyers have gradually upped his opportunity and responsibility, Patrick has eight points (five goals, three assists) in his last 12 games after putting up six (two goals, four assists) over his previous 34.

Placing Patrick among the team's best talent on the man advantage will only help with his confidence moving forward, in all situations.

The Flyers' power play entered Friday with the NHL's sixth-best percentage at 21.6.

It'll need more of Patrick — but the Flyers couldn't have asked for a much better start to life without Simmonds over the next two to three weeks.

Streaking Penguins move atop Metro Division

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Streaking Penguins move atop Metro Division

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin each had two goals and an assist and the Pittsburgh Penguins routed the Carolina Hurricanes 6-1 on Friday night for their season-best sixth straight victory.

Jake Guentzel had a goal and two assists, Sidney Crosby scored a late goal and Olli Maatta also scored. The Penguins took control with three goals -- two by Kessel -- in a 7:39 span in the second period.

Matt Murray made 27 saves for Pittsburgh, which has won 11 of 13 to overtake idle Washington for first place in the Metropolitan Division. Since the Penguins were shut out by Carolina on Jan. 4, they are 16-3-1.

They were just as busy off the ice, completing a mid-game trade in which they picked up center Derick Brassard from the Ottawa Senators. As part of the complicated three-team deal, they sent defenseman Ian Cole to Ottawa and forward Ryan Reaves to the Vegas Golden Knights.

Teuvo Teravainen scored and Cam Ward stopped 33 shots for the short-handed Hurricanes, who have gone 0-3-1 during a four-game slide that's keeping them outside the Eastern Conference playoff race (see full recap).

Wild dominate skidding Rangers for New York sweep
NEW YORK -- Mikael Granlund and Eric Staal each scored twice and Devan Dubnyk made 22 saves in the Minnesota Wild's 4-1 victory over the free-falling New York Rangers on Friday night.

The Wild completed a three-game sweep of New York-area teams after beating the Monday night and New Jersey on Thursday night.

The Rangers lost for the sixth straight time in regulation. New York is 6-17-0 since beating Buffalo in the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 (see full recap).

Blackhawks’ Berube dominant in 1st Chicago start
CHICAGO -- Jean-Francois Berube made 42 saves in his first start for Chicago to help the Blackhawks beat the San Jose Sharks 3-1 on Friday night.

Defenseman Jan Rutta, activated from injured reserve Friday, and Nick Schmaltz scored, and Artem Anisimov added an empty-netter with 30.5 seconds left.

Anthony Duclair had two assists for the Blackhawks. They won their second straight and third in four games following an eight-game losing streak that dropped them to last place in the Central Division.

Berube lost a bid for this first NHL shutout when Timo Meier scored his 15th goal on a screened shot with 7:51 left in the third period.

Martin Jones stopped 33 shots for the Sharks, coming off a 7-1 loss at Nashville on Thursday night (see full recap).