End to End: Projecting the Flyers' 23-man opening night roster

End to End: Projecting the Flyers' 23-man opening night roster

Throughout the season, we’ll ask questions about the Flyers to our resident hockey analysts and see what they have to say.

Going End to End today are reporters John Boruk, Tom Dougherty and Jordan Hall.

The topic: Projecting the Flyers' opening night roster.

I wrote a few weeks ago pertaining to five questions that needed to be answered throughout training camp and the preseason, and No. 2 on that list was, "Who are the team's top two wings?" While I had suggested Claude Giroux back in the summer, I didn't think the Flyers would actually follow through. Now we know the answer to that question: Giroux and Jordan Weal.

Unfortunately, it appears as if Oskar Lindblom will start the season with the Phantoms, even though I believe he could complement Valtteri Filppula's line along with Travis Konecny. Lindblom has been scratched recently, which hasn't been a good sign for the rookie. I also like what I've seen from Michael Raffl to insert him onto that left wing as well.

Scott Laughton is your fourth-line center and has played consistently throughout the preseason with solid checking and his improvement in faceoffs along with his addition on the penalty kill. You need an energy guy on that checking line as well, and that’s where Taylor Leier comes into the picture. He brings speed and toughness, as well as that sandpaper-grit style. That leaves us with Matt Read and Jori Lehtera. Both players came out of the gates strong in the preseason opener against the Islanders in Long Island, but I haven’t been too overly impressed with either guy since.

Defensively, I’ve stated my reasons to keep all three rookie defensemen, but I don’t think the organization is willing to put that much risk on the ice, at least to start the season. Sam Morin has been the most impressive of the trio and he’s clearly NHL ready, as is Robert Hagg, who goes relatively unnoticed out there, which is a good quality to have for a rookie defenseman. Travis Sanheim will eventually pan out to be one of the top two-way defensemen in the organization, but unfortunately, he’s probably the odd man out here. Like Lindblom, he’ll join the Phantoms and log some major minutes, and I don’t think it will be long before he’s back with the Flyers. 

I see the Flyers taking 23 players out West for the season-opening four-game road trip.

What would I do? Place Lehtera on waivers and if he clears, send him to the Phantoms along with Lindblom, who needs to play top-line minutes in the AHL while he refines his scoring touch. As concerned as I was with Brandon Manning coming off back surgery, he stepped up and played a big game against Boston. That leaves Andrew MacDonald and Sanheim. You know what I would do — let’s see how the Flyers handle the situation.

I’ve seen enough from Hagg, Morin and Sanheim to say all three defensemen should be here when the season opens Wednesday in San Jose. I don’t know how general manager Ron Hextall can go to any one of the three and tell them they haven’t done enough to make this team. They’ve all earned spots in my eyes.

But I’m not in charge. Hextall has said time and time again he’d make room for a kid if they prove they’re ready. That’s either GM speak, the truth or somewhere in between. There are two open spots, and to me, Hagg and Morin are locks. I didn’t expect Sanheim to make the Flyers coming into camp. I thought he still had defensive deficiencies that would prevent him from breaking camp with the big club.

Sanheim has had his blemishes this preseason, but he’s also shown he can brush them off, recover and move on. That’s big here, but will it be enough? If I had to bet, I’d still say Sanheim starts the season in the AHL. I just don’t know how you send him back. With that said, projecting the defense to start the season: Ivan Provorov, Shayne Gostisbehere, Radko Gudas, Hagg, Morin, Manning and MacDonald.

As for the forwards, it’s pretty easy for me. There’s no chance Nolan Patrick goes back to Brandon. Thought this before training camp and think it now. No chance. Lindblom, too, is a lock in my eyes. He’s played well enough to make the team, and I think his commitment to a 200-foot game has earned his spot. The scoring will come. Laughton will be here, as will Raffl. The players on the bubble, in my eyes: Lehtera, Read and Leier.

I’ve liked what I’ve seen from Leier, and it’s clear he has chemistry with Laughton from their time with the Phantoms. Leier is a bit of a long shot but if he plays well Sunday, and I’d expect him to play, I think he’ll have a legit shot at making the team. I don’t see Hextall cutting Lehtera, so essentially it’s Read or Leier for the final forward spot.

Read has been, well, Matt Read. He’s been solid but not spectacular. I don’t think he’s locked up his spot yet, and I think it’ll go down to the wire. I think as a fourth-liner and penalty killer, he’d be an adequate option, but I prefer Leier. That said, I’d bet on Read.

Final cuts: Leier and Sanheim.

I don't foresee any sexy surprises by Hextall when the Flyers make their final cuts and announce the 23-man roster.

Let's start with the defense.

Sanheim possesses terrific offensive upside and has shown it in the preseason, which is what makes his case for the roster so strong. But the Flyers aren't necessarily in dire need of offense from the blue line. They already have Gostisbehere and Provorov, defensemen that can move the puck up ice, do damage on the rush and orchestrate the power play.

Right now, the Flyers might want more stability than ability on the back end. They're about to plug in two rookies on defense, which brings a level of unknown to a pivotal position group. This isn't to say Sanheim hasn't improved defensively. He has and doesn't get enough credit for it. He will soon be here making a difference for quite some time, but Morin and Hagg have done plenty in the preseason, too, enough to win the jobs that were really their spots to lose.

Manning and MacDonald haven't done anything egregiously bad thus far to force the Flyers into action of pushing them out. And MacDonald's contract is in a difficult juncture to move given there is still three years left with a $5 million annual cap hit.

Do I think Sanheim is ready? Yes. Would I love to see him now? Of course. My gut just tells me the Flyers see no harm in the 21-year-old starting the season at AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley while they continue to address ways to make room.

Now to the forwards.

In early June, I wrote how I wouldn't be surprised to see Lindblom open 2017-18 in Lehigh Valley, provided the Flyers have that option with the 21-year-old. That still would not surprise me, yet the Flyers need scoring from the wing, there's a vacancy there and he can help.

He's done enough, while I believe Hextall and company have viewed him winning a job since April.

Patrick belongs with his spot looking all but sealed, and Laughton, adapting to his role, seems like a lock. Raffl is fine, while Read and Lehtera are here for now, leaving Leier the odd man out, despite a valiant effort in the preseason. If he passes through waivers, the 23-year-old will be a nice depth option on the wing during the season.

Flyers prospect Mike Vecchione gives thanks with Union hockey

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Flyers prospect Mike Vecchione gives thanks with Union hockey

As much as the stories pierced his heart, Mike Vecchione wanted to listen.

There he sat in the Schenectady YMCA, next to a war veteran a few days before Thanksgiving. After tours in Iraq, the gentleman had lost so much. His home gone due to foreclosure, his livelihood ripped out from underneath him, with the terror of war still fresh.

There wasn't much to be thankful for, but he had someone in Vecchione that night.

Not an NHL prospect or an NCAA national champion.

But just someone who cared.

"He went over there, back and forth, and next thing you know, he's out of his home and can't afford to pay for the necessities — and it's really sad," Vecchione said. "I feel like I've heard a couple of those stories where guys go over there and come back and kind of lost a lot of their lives. It's difficult to listen to and you can see he was kind of shaken up about the whole thing. He was talking about when he was over there, what he saw and it still kind of haunts him at night.

"I thought that was one of the tougher stories. He was only like in his mid-40s and seemed to be doing really well, and now he's just living day to day, trying to figure out a way to make a living. That was one story that stuck with me and I definitely hope he's doing OK."

This was one of four years, from 2013-17, in which Vecchione helped continue a growing tradition of the men's hockey program at Union College, a private liberal arts school in Schenectady, New York, located in the state's Capital District.

"It's one of the highlights of the year," Union head coach Rick Bennett said. "And you say that, you think highlights of the year, it revolves around hockey, but it's just the opposite."

This Tuesday marked the 13th consecutive year Union hockey has helped serve Thanksgiving meals to the less fortunate at the Schenectady branch of the Capital District YMCA, which houses war veterans, men with disabilities, mental illness and chemical addiction.

Vecchione, 24, now a Flyers prospect in his first season with the Phantoms after signing as a college free agent at the end of March, will always remember the people he met.

"Some guys can't handle those stories, other guys can, and I was one of the guys who were listening to them, talking to them," Vecchione said earlier this month in a phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. "Afterward, they just kind of say, 'We're very thankful for what you guys do here, to come here and talk to us, serve us and listen to us.' All the little things you don't really think about are biggest things for them, that they're most appreciated."

Rick Bennett and Mike Vecchione (Union College)

What has become a staple of the Union hockey season started before Vecchione's time and prior to Bennett becoming head coach.

It began with the teams of Nate Leaman, who is now in his seventh season at Providence. Bennett, who was an assistant under Leaman and has been Union's head man ever since his predecessor's departure, has pushed the annual event forward.

"First and foremost, we're just trying to help others. We're trying to help our community, and the lessons that we all learn — not just the players, our staff learns from it every time that we do it every year — of how fortunate that we are and how we can help others," Bennett said. "When you do things in your community, to really help others, it's a good feeling. We're fortunate enough to be on the coaching staff here at Union College and our players are lucky to be student athletes at Union College. Some of these people that we're serving actually have come to our hockey games. They actually know some about the program, which is really impressive."

But, as Bennett and Vecchione will tell you, the credit goes to the Schenectady YMCA.

Union hockey is simply happy to lend a hand and add to the night.

"There's really not much that goes into it," Vecchione said. "The YMCA does a great job setting everything up with the food services and that sort of thing."

Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere took part during his three years at Union (2011-14) and is proud of what the community outreach has become.

"It's Schenectady, it's not the biggest place, so it's definitely cool," he said. "A lot of people, even though they don't have the best in the world, they find a way to put a smile on every day.

"It's the holiday season, some people aren't fortunate enough to be with their friends and family and whatnot. For us to be together, spend it with some people that are less fortunate, I think it's awesome. Puts everything in perspective for your life, to realize how lucky you are."

Over time, Union and the Schenectady YMCA formed a special bond with one common goal around Thanksgiving. Lou Magliocca, the executive director of housing for the Capital District YMCA, is a leader in coordinating the event and deeply appreciates the realness of Union hockey. The men's and women's programs are the school's only Division I sports, while the rest compete at the Division III level.

The institution of 2,200 undergraduate students hit the national map in 2014 — Vecchione's freshman year — when the men's hockey team captured its first-ever NCAA championship.

Magliocca, however, was blown away the following season.

"I thought it would be over with when they won the title, I thought I wouldn't see them again, you know? Now they're real big," he said. "Matter of fact, Coach called us and he said, 'Do you know the date of your Thanksgiving?'

"It's amazing. It's absolutely amazing."

Union hockey at Schenectady YMCA (Union Athletics)

To make each year possible, Magliocca said the YMCA receives donations from various businesses within the community to help provide the food.

The dinner is then prepared in the YMCA's kitchen and served from 4-7 p.m., typically on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving Day. Magliocca has been with the YMCA for nearly 17 years and fondly looks back on how it started with Union.

"Their athletic programs do some great volunteer work in the community," he said. "They've made it a mainstay that they all give back to something in the community.

"So what the Union hockey team did, we started to put together a Thanksgiving dinner. And what we did during the Thanksgiving dinner is we gave thanks to the guys that live here, they can invite a family member over, they can invite a friend over, that type of thing.

"Of the 188 that live here, we usually serve around 220, 225. Some don't have families, some do."

Magliocca said Union hockey works all three hours in numerous roles. Some are stationed in the back preparing the plates and drinks, while others hustle out the food and provide the dinner conversation.

"All the guys, great attendance, all the guys come, they mingle with homeless veterans here in Schenectady County," Magliocca said. "It's turned out to be a great event, a great partnership between the YMCA and Union College, where it's kind of grown with steam every year.

"It's just been a really good relationship, real good time and a real purposeful event serving the individuals here at our program."

And a person like Vecchione brightened the days of those individuals.

"What Union hockey adds to it, it adds a smile to their face," Magliocca said. "The conversation that they don't normally have."

Union hockey this year at Schenectady YMCA (Ross LaDue, Union Athletics)

It's no surprise such an effort and setting is right up Vecchione's alley.

The Saugus, Massachusetts, native comes from a family of work ethic and respect, values that have shaped him on and off the ice. His father, Joe, is a correctional officer and his mother, Diane, works as a billing assistant for a fence company.

Growing up, Vecchione learned the importance of hard work — nothing being given to you.

During his college summers, instead of focusing only on hockey — a sport that has earned him all sorts of accolades and now a professional career — Vecchione worked manual-labor type of jobs, from construction to building fences, to landscaping and roofing.

His daily routine consisted of waking up at 7:30 a.m., working out for two hours, skating for another two, before heading off to the day's job from 2-6 p.m.

Then doing it all over again.

"I did all those blue-collar jobs while I was home for the summer," Vecchione said. "It was something that's been instilled in my family — you've got to work to make a living. So I had to find a way to make some money and have a job. It definitely taught me some good lessons."

The drive and grind turned the 5-foot-10 Vecchione into a four-year college standout at Union, where he put up a program record 176 points, won the national championship in 2014 and was named a 2017 Hobey Baker Award (top college player) finalist.

The accomplishments weren't a product of pure talent.

"Family sacrifices growing up are a huge part of it," Bennett said. "It always starts at home; as we say, it starts at the kitchen table.

"[His parents] did it the right way."

The right way is a major reason why Vecchione took Thanksgiving at the YMCA to heart.

"Talking to some of the people, and there were some of them that sounded like they didn't really celebrate Thanksgiving because they couldn't afford it or they were alone on Thanksgiving," Vecchione said. "It's kind of a time to be around friends and family, whoever, but in this case, we were their family. Stand and kneel with them, hanging out, having some laughs, telling stories.

"You wouldn't think they would care too much about those little things that we take for granted, but at the same time, it can be a lonely world, a tough world, and these people have to go through with it every day. And we don't even think about those things. For us just to be there, have fun, listen to them and just kind of share this holiday, it was something they really appreciated and we didn't even think it was a big deal. It was very rewarding and I definitely always love to do that for those people."

Mike Vecchione (Union Athletics)

It was more than about simply showing up.

As a team captain his junior and senior years, Vecchione, humble and unassuming, wanted things done right when representing Union at the YMCA.

Just like it was for the war veterans, this meant something to Vecchione.

"They absolutely love it," Vecchione said. "The people that we serve are very generous and just very thankful that we go out there and support them and help them."

Bennett knew his team was in good hands with Vecchione. In this instance, the coach was not there to bark orders. He was there to listen to his leader.

"He was a two-year captain here, so let's just say we never had an issue at the YMCA with our team when Mike was running the show," Bennett said. 

"I'm usually with our staff in the back with a couple players getting the plates ready. I think that's where Mike said that I belong, so I was just following his orders.

"He said, 'You know what Rick, you just get the back, keep it quiet and just make sure the food is out here so I can serve it.'"

Vecchione deflected the attention away from the importance of his role.

"My job really was to make sure everybody's there, dressed appropriately and we're on time. And just delegate jobs to guys, need people to refill the water and the juice, guys in the kitchen, putting things together, servers, that sort of thing. We have the easy part," Vecchione said. "For me, I just delegated jobs, figure out what guys like to do. Some guys are more comfortable in the kitchen, where other guys are more social and can listen to those stories. So you kind of get a feel for what guys are willing to do and give them the job that best suits them."

Vecchione knew he wanted to listen.

"Just give them an ear to lean on," he said. "I definitely don't forget about those people when Thanksgiving comes around."

They were thankful for Vecchione.

But a guy like him was thankful for the opportunity.

Best of NHL: Nick Bjugstad stars in Panthers' shootout win over Maple Leafs

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Best of NHL: Nick Bjugstad stars in Panthers' shootout win over Maple Leafs

SUNRISE, Fla. — Nick Bjugstad scored Florida's only goal in regulation and the game-winning goal in a shootout as the Panthers beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1 on Wednesday night.

Bjugstad skated in and held the puck until Toronto goalie Frederick Andersen was sprawled out, then moved to his right and flipped in his goal during the fourth round of the shootout.

The Panthers won the tiebreaker 2-1 after Aleksander Barkov scored for Florida, and Patrick Marleau was successful for Toronto.

Vincent Trocheck and Henrik Haapala had assists for the Panthers (8-11-2).

Nazem Kadri netted a goal for Toronto (14-8-1), assisted by Connor Brown and Marleau (see full recap).

Forsberg, Turris lead Predators past Habs in SO
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Filip Forsberg scored a pair of power-play goals and Kyle Turris had the only goal in a shootout to lead the Nashville Predators to a 3-2 victory over the struggling Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night.

Pekka Rinne made 27 saves in regulation and overtime, then denied all three Montreal shootout attempts as Nashville won for the eighth time in nine games.

Jordie Benn and Joe Morrow scored for the Canadiens, who have lost their last five. Morrow's goal evened the score with less than a minute left in the third period.

In the tiebreaker, Turris beat Antti Niemi with a wrist shot between the pads (see full recap)

Anderson's goal in OT gives Blue Jackets win
COLUMBUS, Ohio — After missing training camp because of a contract dispute, Josh Anderson has performed at a consistently high level for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Anderson scored two minutes into overtime to give Columbus its fifth straight win, 1-0 over the Calgary Flames on Wednesday night.

Sergei Bobrovsky had 22 saves for Columbus in his third shutout this season and 22nd of his career. Mike Smith turned away 40 shots for Calgary.

It was the first time this season that either team ended regulation scoreless (see full recap)

Point scores in overtime as Lightning beat Blackhawks
TAMPA, Fla. — Falling behind Chicago and staging a comeback has become the norm for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Brayden Point scored a power-play goal 3:25 into overtime, and the Lightning rallied again to beat the Blackhawks 3-2 on Wednesday night.

Point took a pass from Steven Stamkos while positioned near the post and put the winner past Corey Crawford and complete a three-goal rally.

"To be down 2-0 to a team as good as Chicago, it was a great bounce-back performance," Stamkos said.

Chicago was short-handed after Nick Schmaltz was sent off for slashing at 3:10 (see full recap)