In more ways than one, Flyers' young defense has unprecedented look

In more ways than one, Flyers' young defense has unprecedented look

As football season begins Thursday night, it’s a welcomed sign that hockey is right around the corner. The Flyers open rookie camp Monday and training camp next Friday. There is a hockey game at the Wells Fargo Center next Wednesday, when the Flyers host the New York Islanders in a rookie game. Winter is coming, and after a long summer of Phillies baseball, we’ll take it.

Although the Flyers have missed the playoffs three of the last five seasons, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about their prospects in 2017-18. Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom are the festival’s headliners, but the lineup is stacked with motives to tune in. We’re entering the enjoyable phase of the Flyers’ recharge, in which general manager Ron Hextall will begin injecting young blood into the roster, more so than we’ve seen in the past two seasons with Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny.

No longer will the majority of the buzz reside on the farm system while we ponder why Chris VandeVelde draws into the lineup every night. So long as the Hextall regime is in charge, it’ll be important to pay continued attention to prospects because it’s how he builds his program. Draft and develop will be a staple here for a long time.

The Flyers are entering a youth movement, and Hextall during the offseason made it a point to not block any of his kids from earning a spot in the lineup. There is a bevy of candidates to snag the open forward slots, and as we sit today, two spots on the blue line are up for grabs. Assuming all goes as expected, they’ll be rookies.

For the first time since 2008-09, the Flyers will have four defensemen that are 24 years old or younger with no more than two years of experience going into the campaign. Eight years ago, the Flyers finished with four blueliners 24 or under playing more than 25 games, with two of them in their third NHL season and the other two being rookies.

Braydon Coburn was 23 and in his third year. Matt Carle was 24, acquired from Tampa just 12 games into the season and in his third year. Ryan Parent was 21 and played in 31 games in his first season. Luca Sbisa played in 39 games as a 19-year-old. But that team also had 13 total defensemen play that year with plenty of veteran leadership.

This season will be different, however. The Flyers enter 2017-18 in an unprecedented situation, as they’ll have a young, largely inexperienced defensive group with four defensemen either in their first, second or third seasons.

But that doesn’t mean that the blue line will be a weakness. Instead, it should be a strength.

Gostisbehere is entering his third season, and Provorov his second. At least two of Robert Hagg, Sam Morin, Phil Myers and Travis Sanheim will be here, and there is the slimmest of possibilities a third rookie will break camp with the Flyers. Radko Gudas and Brandon Manning are both 27 and Andrew MacDonald will be 31 on Thursday.

Any way we carve it, the Flyers’ defensive corps will have its growing pains this season. We can’t expect a band of first, second and third-year players to go through an 82-game schedule without learning moments, and we can’t look at Provorov as an exception. His rookie season didn’t go without miscues, though they were limited.

As we wait for the chips to fall in camp, the early bet is on Hagg and Morin cracking the roster this season with Myers and Sanheim beginning the season in Lehigh Valley. Both Hagg and Morin made their NHL debuts last April, and while it was an extremely small sample size, both looked as if they belonged. It would be a surprise if both 2013 draft picks don’t make the trip out west with the Flyers on Oct. 4. It’s safe to say at least one of them will be a Flyer this season depending on Myers and Sanheim’s readiness.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Myers and Sanheim beat out both Hagg and Morin, but it’s plausible one of them steals a spot from either Hagg or Morin. Hagg made tremendous strides in his third full season in the AHL last year, which led to Flyers assistant GM Chris Pryor saying in January he believes Hagg is “just about NHL ready.”

With Gostisbehere, Provorov and two of the four prospects in the fold, the Flyers’ defense will feature youth, puck moving and a steady two-way mix. Gostisbehere endured adversity in his second season, but as he regained his confidence from offseason hip/abdominal surgery, he flashed signs of the player he was in 2015-16.

Many expect Provorov to make a huge jump in his second season. Whether head coach Dave Hakstol continues to pair him with MacDonald is something that will be decided in the preseason, but it’s possible Hakstol decides to pair MacDonald with one of the rookies.

The inexperience will show at times this season, but it’s largely a group that should garner excitement and improved overall play than in years past. The puck should be out of the zone quicker with crisper passes, and it’ll be a bigger group than recent years. The added size will be welcomed. Of the four prospects in the mix, Hagg is the shortest at 6-foot-2, which, still, is decent size. Sanheim is 6-4, Myers is 6-5 and Morin is 6-6.

Gone are the days when the Flyers’ defense would feature Luke Schenn, Nick Schultz, Nicklas Grossmann, and other defensemen that no longer jell well with today’s game. Beginning this season, we’ll finally see what Hextall began to build when he took over in 2014. The blue line will be young, it’ll be inexperienced, and we haven’t really seen anything like this in Philly in quite some time, if ever at all, but it should be fun to track.

Best of NHL: Anthony Duclair scores hat trick, Coyotes beat Senators in OT

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Best of NHL: Anthony Duclair scores hat trick, Coyotes beat Senators in OT

OTTAWA, Ontario — Anthony Duclair gave the lowly Arizona Coyotes another two points.

Duclair scored in overtime to complete a hat trick and the Coyotes beat the Ottawa Senators 3-2 on Saturday for their second straight victory.

Antti Raanta made 30 saves to help the Coyotes improve to 4-15-3. On Thursday night in Montreal, they rallied to beat the Canadiens 5-4 for their first regulation victory of the season.

"I think it was a well-earned win to be honest," Duclair said. "We carried that momentum from the Montreal game and all four lines were rolling and we just played a solid 60 minutes."

Duclair scored at 1:23 of overtime, his shot trickling through Condon's pads and over the goal line (see full recap). 

Anisimov's third-period goal leads Blackhawks past Pens
PITTSBURGH — Artem Anisimov scored a power-play goal in the third period, and the Chicago Blackhawks continued their winning streak against the Pittsburgh Penguins with a 2-1 victory on Saturday night.

Anisimov scored his 10th goal of the season just 21 seconds after Pittsburgh tied the game. Gustav Forsling scored his second for the Blackhawks, who won their eighth straight against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins.

The Blackhawks have won three of their last four games after taking two of their previous seven.

Corey Crawford made 35 saves for Chicago, including a right-pad stop on Phil Kessel in the final 20 seconds (see full recap). 

Lee scores 2 goals, Islanders beat Lightning
TAMPA, Fla. — New York Islanders coach Doug Weight had a simple message after a big lead was slipping away: Stay calm.

Anders Lee scored twice and the Islanders held on after nearly blowing a four-goal lead, beating the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-3 Saturday night.

"He was just telling us what we needed to hear," New York right wing Josh Bailey said of Weight's message on the bench midway through the third. "He was just getting his point across. We just needed to calm down a little bit, realize we're in a good position. We've still got the lead in the third period on the road against the top team in the league." (see full recap). 

Ovechkin returns after puck to face, Caps snap Wild's streak
WASHINGTON — Alex Ovechkin returned from taking a puck to the face, T.J. Oshie had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals snapped the Minnesota Wild's winning streak at four with a 3-1 victory Saturday night.

Behind goals from Oshie, Dmitry Orlov and Evgeny Kuznetsov and 30 saves by goaltender Braden Holtby, the Capitals stopped their skid at two and won their fifth consecutive game at home.

Ovechkin was bloodied in the second period when a puck ramped off his stick and into his face, but Washington's captain got some repairs and was back on the ice for the start of the third. He set up Kuznetsov's goal late in the period.

Nino Niederreiter scored for Minnesota, which lost for the first time since Nov. 8. Backup Alex Stalock stopped 40 of 43 shots in his first career start against the Capitals (see full recap.) 

Selfish, undisciplined play dooms Flyers in OT loss to Flames

Selfish, undisciplined play dooms Flyers in OT loss to Flames


The Flyers' emotions got the best of them Saturday afternoon, and in turn, they got the best from Sean Monahan.

Monahan's second-period power-play hat trick was the result of the Flyers' selfish, undisciplined penalties, which allowed the Calgary Flames to erase a two-goal deficit and take down the Flyers, 5-4, at the Wells Fargo Center (see observations).

Michael Frolik capped the Flames' comeback, converting on a 2-on-1 chance just 1:18 into overtime.

"It's not deflating — it pisses you off," Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said, "when things are a little bit within our control at that point in time. They're penalties that could have been within our control. That obviously turned and changed the hockey game drastically."

Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere was the primary culprit behind the Flyers' lack of discipline.

After a fracas in front of the Flyers' bench that saw Michael Raffl take a stick up high, Gostisbehere was the recipient of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for yelling at referee Tim Peel. The Flyers successfully killed that two-minute minor and then Gostisbehere was sent back to the box 65 seconds later for elbowing Flames forward Micheal Ferland against the boards.

"I think I was upset overall," Gostisbehere said. "I took it out on the wrong guy. Just wasn't a good team player in that sense on that play — heat of the moment. Obviously, there are no excuses for something like that to happen. I wasn't thinking about my team there. I really let my team down."

"It varies from ref to ref," Brandon Manning said. "In Ghost's case, it was a point to where he was fed up. It wasn't what Ghost said directly. I think it was just a matter of things building up and the time and situation of it."

Monahan didn't score on Gostisbehere's unsportsmanlike penalty, but he did convert on the elbowing call, which completed his first career hat trick. He scored his first goal with Dale Weise in the box for high-sticking and then scored his second goal just three minutes and 44 seconds later, with Manning in the box for slashing and snapping Matt Stajan's stick.

"It's something I've been bad for lately and (what) I've tried to work on is keeping my stick down instead of going after the stick," Manning said. "I was a little surprised he pulled up and kind of backed off and I was just trying to get around him. That's the way it is. They're calling that a penalty now."

While the Flyers' top line has been a three-man show recently, it was the Flyers' No. 1 line that took center stage, as Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Ferland combined for four goals on 22 attempted shots, many of which were high-quality scoring chances.

The Flyers, now 8-8-4 and losers of four straight, jumped all over the Flyers with three first-period goals and taking a 3-1 lead after the opening 20 minutes. It also marked the second straight game the Flyers wasted a two-goal lead. Thursday, the Flyers scored two early goals, led for nearly 57 minutes and then watched it vanish in the final minute of regulation in Winnipeg.

"We were outshooting them pretty badly at one point and then the penalties gave them a chance to get back in the game," Sean Couturier said. "We got to be better on the PK, but at the same time, we've got to be more disciplined."

"We kind of just lost our heads there," Wayne Simmonds said. "I think groaning and moaning at the refs, but some of those penalties are penalties. We got to get better. We got to keep our heads and we just got to focus on the play because we had the game and then we let it go."

Radko a no-go
Radko Gudas was unavailable for Saturday's game against Calgary after he elected to have a phone hearing with the NHL's Department of Player Safety following his slashing penalty to the back of Mathieu Perreault's head Thursday in Winnipeg.

Gudas was ruled ineligible and sitting out Saturday's game will be applied to his suspension. According to the league’s collective bargaining agreement, “no decision to issue supplemental discipline is made before the player has the opportunity to explain his actions.”

With Andrew MacDonald still not ready for game action, Mark Alt replaced Gudas in the lineup and played 13 minutes and five seconds.

Another Johnny Hockey homecoming
South Jersey's Gaudreau had a successful trip back home establishing a new career-high nine-game point streak. Gaudreau scored Calgary's first goal on a breakaway, which was his fourth straight game with a goal.

Gaudreau also assisted on a pair of Monahan's power-play goals, giving him a three-point night.

"Yeah, this is a big win for us," Gaudreau said, "especially after the last game we had (an 8-2 loss to Detroit last Wednesday). Some big performers tonight, power play looked good, had a huge kill at the end there in the third and a big goal Frolik, so it was a good team win there."