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