The true molding of Alain Vigneault's season-opening roster and lineup began Wednesday as Flyers training camp reached the halfway point. As expected, that Jan. 13 opener is fast approaching.
The opener felt much more real Wednesday with how Vigneault split up his two groups for practice. The head coach's objective was to mix and match his players over the first two days of camp. On Day 3 Wednesday at Virtua Center Flyers Skate Zone, one group clearly resembled the big club and its combinations held merit.
The Flyers on Thursday will be off the ice for recovery and video sessions. They'll be on the ice Friday, Saturday and Sunday to wrap up camp, which culminates with an intrasquad game at the Wells Fargo Center (7 p.m. ET/NBCSP).
In the honeymoon stage of any season, optimism tends to be prevalent. But there's a valid case to be made that this is the Flyers' best shot in 10 years.
"The expectations are high, let’s not kid ourselves here," Vigneault said Wednesday in a video interview. "Our first goal is to get into the playoffs and then we are not in this to win one series; we're in this to win the Stanley Cup. Four series. Sixteen wins. We believe that we've got a very good team, we've got a Stanley Cup-contending team. And we can be if we play to our level and play to our potential."
With three days of camp in the books and three more to go, let's get into 10 all-encompassing takeaways:
1. Ghost of the past
Ivan Provorov's third defensive partner in three days was Shayne Gostisbehere on Wednesday.
Provorov has also played with Justin Braun and Mark Friedman. The pairing with Gostisbehere held the most meaning of the three. But don't read into it too much just yet. The Flyers are going to try various looks alongside Provorov early on as they try to replace Matt Niskanen by committee. But Gostisbehere did get the first meaningful opportunity with Provorov.
With his defensive pairings and line combinations on Wednesday, Vigneault said he was attempting to reconnect some past history and see how it translated. Gostisbehere put up his career-high 65 points when he played with Provorov in 2017-18, so there's familiarity between those two. Vigneault said he will change things up after Thursday's off-ice day.
Perhaps the Flyers try to jump-start Gostisbehere by building his confidence early with him in a bigger role. Now is the time to do it in a shortened season with less wiggle room. Having him play to his offensive strengths is important. The 27-year-old underwent arthroscopic surgery on both of his knees in 2020 and endured a hellish season.
Vigneault said he and Gostisbehere had a "very good meeting" before camp.
"We both expressed ourselves," Vigneault said Tuesday. "He’s a very smart young man, wants to play, wants to help this team win. He’s going to get an opportunity, he’s got to prove himself obviously, but I think for the first time since I’ve been here, he’s 100 percent healthy, which is real positive for him. He’s come in here with a real good attitude. Obviously, no exhibition games, but we’re paying a lot of attention to the scrimmages, we’ve got that intrasquad game on Jan. 10 and we’ll see what happens, how well he plays and how well he can help contribute to us winning some games."
2. Just like old times
Speaking of rekindling past chemistry, Vigneault put Oskar Lindblom, Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny together on Wednesday.
Remember how good that trio was right out of the chute last season? Lindblom, Couturier and Konecny made up the Flyers' best line — and it wasn't even close — through the first six weeks of 2019-20. They had to be broken up because Vigneault wanted to spark others and create greater balance in his lines.
In the 50-minute scrimmage Wednesday, Lindblom beat Carter Hart on a nasty shot from a side angle. He was active and around the net, creating opportunities.
"No doubt that having Oskar back with our group is not just comforting for me, it's comforting for all his teammates and I’m sure it's very comforting for Oskar," Vigneault said. "Today was the first time really that I put guys back together that have sort of played a little bit together in the past. When Oskar stopped playing, he was playing with Coots and T.K. I wanted to see that today and wasn’t disappointed."
3. Depth perception
Here were the Flyers' combinations at forward on Wednesday:
Oskar Lindblom-Sean Couturier-Travis Konecny
Claude Giroux-Kevin Hayes-Joel Farabee
James van Riemsdyk-Nolan Patrick-Jakub Voracek
Michael Raffl-Scott Laughton-Nicolas Aube-Kubel
There was a lot of conjecture over the offseason about how deep the Flyers would be if Lindblom and Nolan Patrick were able to return to the lineup.
In the NHL's return-to-play 24-team tournament, Laughton led the Flyers in goals with five. He was on the team's fourth line Wednesday. Not too bad.
On paper, the 2020-21 Flyers do look deep in their group of forwards. Again, on paper. We'll have to see how it all translates. But the presences of Lindblom and Patrick sure change the picture.
4. A physical test
Patrick had a small scare Wednesday when Samuel Morin inadvertently hit the 22-year-old center, who was on Morin's team in the scrimmage. Patrick was shaken up and went to the bench but came out for his next shift.
Vigneault said he "wasn't concerned at all" about Patrick. Jakub Voracek echoed his head coach.
"I was sitting right beside him, he looked fine," Voracek said. "We had a good chat about it. He’s ready, you can tell he’s ready. It’s a good sign to see him out there. I wasn’t concerned after I saw him practice the last few days. The concern wasn’t pretty big. I’m glad he’s OK."
As the physicality has increased in the scrimmages, Patrick has done the same. He has looked like his competitive self.
So far, all good signs from Patrick, who has practiced in full capacity with no apparent issues after missing all of last season with a migraine disorder.
The Flyers have had a specific group of players practice shootout attempts following each scrimmage. Patrick has been in the group and scored a pretty nifty one Tuesday on Brian Elliott.
5. Big Z with the big club guys
Here were the Flyers' defensive pairs on Wednesday:
Ivan Provorov-Shayne Gostisbehere
Travis Sanheim-Philippe Myers
Robert Hagg-Erik Gustafsson
Egor Zamula-Justin Braun
Interesting to see the 20-year-old Egor Zamula with the big club group rather than Friedman. This offseason, Chuck Fletcher said that "no player has improved more than Mark Friedman" since the general manager came to the organization in December 2018. There's a good chance Friedman will switch spots with Zamula and get his time, as well, with the big club group over the upcoming days.
But the Flyers have been very high on Zamula and clearly see him as a candidate to play games this season. It wouldn't be overly surprising to see him sneak into the lineup at some point over this 56-game sprint of a regular season.
Robert Hagg and Erik Gustafsson trained together in Sweden, so putting them together made sense for Vigneault's familiarity theme on Wednesday.
6. 'Claude is hungry'
Claude Giroux has looked good all three days. He looks in great shape, he constantly stands out and, per usual, he competes. Players fuel off that when they see their soon-to-be 33-year-old captain nonstop competing.
"He’s a dogged competitor," Fletcher said on New Year's Eve. "You rarely see players with that skill level that also have that level of competitiveness, and that’s what has made Claude such a great player for years. I remember watching him in junior, he’s never been the biggest guy and he's never really been the fastest guy, but he’s been an elite player at every level because of how he prepares, how he competes and his incredible skill level and hockey sense. He looks like he’s in excellent shape, he’s trained hard this offseason."
To no surprise, he has been fun to watch in the shootout sessions.
7. Wingin' it
Some tidbits on three wingers:
• Joel Farabee said he gained seven to eight pounds working out this offseason, putting him closer to 184, 185 pounds. He believes he'll be much stronger holding onto the puck this season and making plays with it.
As for changing his jersey number, he went with No. 86 because it was the first number he ever wore growing up. "It’s my favorite number," he said.
• Linus Sandin, the 24-year-old rookie from Sweden, scored one of the six goals in Wednesday's scrimmage.
• Wade Allison, the 23-year-old rookie who played four years at Western Michigan, does not look out of place. He has done some nice things and could bring various elements to the Flyers' bottom six, if/when he gets the opportunity.
8. Appreciating Jake's candor
There's never a dull moment with Voracek.
When asked how his offseason was and what he was able to do back home in the Czech Republic, Voracek said with a laugh and smile:
"F---ing nothing. Everything was pretty much closed. It got opened up a little bit for about a week and then it got shut down again. Just tried to train as much as I could, spent some time with the family because they didn’t travel with me this year. They're going to be here in about two months, they're going to come here, so I won’t see them for a while. Yeah, not much. It’s some weird times we’re living in right now, I’ll be honest."
9. Moose crossing in Philly
Elliott, who is a father to two boys, re-signed with the Flyers on a one-year deal over the offseason. The 35-year-old netminder said one of the biggest reasons why he wanted to return was because his family really likes being a part of the organization and in the Philadelphia area.
He had to break tough news, though, after he inked his contract.
"When we signed back here, it was kind of a really cool thing: my son got really excited when we told him and he said, 'I’ll be able to come watch you at the rink again and watch you play?' I was like, 'Ahh, I don't know if that's going to happen,'" Elliott said. "But maybe in some time we can get the families in there and watch some of the games."
One of the challenges for players and staff in the Toronto bubble during the playoffs was being away from their families.
"Just having them by your side and pushing you and behind you, it's always helpful," Elliott said.
10. Frost on the wing?
If Patrick sticks at third-line center this season, for talented prospect Morgan Frost to crack the Flyers' lineup at some point, maybe it comes along the wing.
Vigneault noted how they tried Frost on the left side Wednesday. Back in 2019 development camp, Frost mentioned how he had played winger at times in the OHL and at world juniors.
The 21-year-old is at his best with the puck on his stick and making plays down the middle but is willing to adjust.
"I'm comfortable with trying to play whatever position they want me to play," Frost said Wednesday. "I've obviously played center for most of my life, but I think I can adapt to wing and whatever gives me a chance to play for this team, I'm willing to learn and try to do.
"I'm just trying to focus on being a 200-foot player and the details that the coaches share with us before practice. I think I can do some things offensively, but if I can contribute in other ways, then it will give me a better chance to make the team."
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