The Flyers' 2017-18 season is here and with plenty of intrigue.
Five rookies are featured on the opening night roster, something the organization hasn't seen since 1992.
The Flyers' brass is hoping the youth can meet the current core and push Ron Hextall's master plan into the next phase, creeping closer to the ultimate goal of Cup contention.
A season of such transition brings inevitable questions.
The answers will start to be answered Wednesday night when the Flyers kick off a new year with their season opener in San Jose, California, against the Sharks (10:30 on NBCSN, NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports App; Pregame Live at 10).
So let's get you set for what to possibly expect by providing our Flyers Fearless Forecast, featuring a random assortment of predictions from reporters John Boruk, Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone.
The defense will make history
All the rage throughout the preseason has surrounded the team's young defensemen, so I'm sticking with that trend in my fearless forecast.
The Flyers' defense will contribute offensively in a way we have never seen.
The Flyers have not had a pair of blueliners finish with double-digit goals since Eric Desjardins scored 15 and Dan McGillis added 14 in 2000-01. The Flyers just haven’t received the offensive contributions and impact from their back end in a long time, until now.
So not only will they have two D-men reach double digits in goals, I’ll take this argument one step further and also predict that three defensemen will score at least 10 goals — a feat that has never been done in the 50-year history of the organization.
And here's how it will happen
Ivan Provorov, who scored six goals in his rookie season, will be joined by Shayne Gostisbehere, who should have no problem reaching double digits after ripping off 17 in his phenomenal rookie campaign.
Who will be that third guy? Would you believe Travis Sanheim? He’ll suit up for somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 60 games, and the three goals he scored in the preseason will only be a precursor of what Sanheim will accomplish as a rookie.
As Dave Hakstol continues to emphasize offense from his defense, 2017-18 will be a first in Flyers history.
Couturier finally cracks 50 points
We’ve heard it for the past six seasons.
Is this the season Sean Couturier finally breaks out offensively?
It’s a similar preseason narrative to the one we hear every August during Eagles training camp with Zach Ertz. (It seems like, yes, this is the season Ertz is breaking out.)
But Couturier has yet to kick it into another gear from an offensive perspective. As in he hasn’t eclipsed 40 points. The eighth overall pick in 2011 with a junior résumé of scoring in the QMJHL, Couturier had higher expectations from a point production standpoint.
That doesn’t tell the whole story. We discussed Couturier in detail in May. In short, the narrative that Couturier doesn’t produce enough isn’t exactly accurate; it’s more so the situations he scores in. Couturier has been one of the Flyers’ top even-strength scorers the past few seasons, and advanced metrics can be used to show his true value.
But, rather than look at the numbers, let’s take another approach with Couturier, one The Athletic’s Justin Bourne recently harped on: opportunity. It’s a little tricky with Couturier because he has been given opportunity on the power play and hasn’t produced. If he’s had more success on the PP, this narrative most likely doesn’t exist. But he’s struggled there. It looks like he’ll get more opportunity on it this season.
Couturier has been given opportunities in the past but the coaching staff going back to his rookie season appeared content letting Couturier focus more on a shutdown role. This is a fault to Couturier, too, as he’s so committed to that role that sometimes it does take away from his aggressiveness on the attack. But this season is going to be different.
Here’s why. The Flyers are going into the season with Couturier as their top-line center with captain Claude Giroux moving to top-line left wing with Jakub Voracek at right wing. How long this experiment lasts into the season will be something to follow, but based on the small sample size we’ve seen in preseason and the progression from game to game, it looks like it could be long term. With Giroux at wing with Couturier and Voracek, the Flyers’ top even-strength scorers, the team is banking on the move not only rejuvenating Giroux but also resulting in more scoring from Couturier.
It will. Couturier will finally crack the 50-point mark, which isn’t so far-fetched. He’ll stay healthy, and the numbers will come. Couturier will finally quiet the criticism, which to this writer, was always unfair. Think we’ll see a 23-goal, 29-assist season from No. 14.
But the Couturier line won’t be the best ...
Defense and goaltending often get the headlines, but no scoring depth has plagued the Flyers recently. That should change in 2017-18 with a much deeper forward group.
Hakstol should be able to roll four lines with a legitimate top six. Even the Flyers’ third line has scoring potential, largely because of Travis Konecny, who falls victim to the depth ahead of him. It’s clear Konecny is forward No. 7 right now.
We’ve discussed the top line already, but the second line will surpass the Giroux-Couturier-Voracek trio as the Flyers’ most productive line by season’s end.
Nolan Patrick didn’t score a goal during the preseason, but he pushed his way into a second-line role. Patrick will center Jordan Weal and Wayne Simmonds, giving the Flyers two lines with a ton of scoring potential. Weal looks like the real deal and we already know about Simmonds. The wild-card is Patrick, the 2017 No. 2 overall pick.
I’m not expecting Patrick to produce like the past two No. 2 overall picks. He’s not Patrik Laine and he’s not Jack Eichel. But he’s a big-bodied centerman with excellent vision, good hands, an excellent shot and good playmaking ability. Patrick will get power-play time, too, and he’ll have plenty of opportunities to produce in his rookie season.
With Weal and Simmonds on the wing, I foresee the Patrick line being the most productive unit this season. I think overall we’ll see an uptick in scoring, though I wouldn’t expect the Flyers to be among the league’s best offensive teams. There are still questions about the power play, and of course, I’m expecting a lot of a 19-year-old.
But I think the trio complements each other well, and this also has a lot to do with Weal. He had an extremely promising preseason that suggested the Weal we saw at the end of last season was the player he really is.
Weal will score 20-plus goals
Weal stood out so much in training camp, there were times when he looked like the fastest and most dangerous player on the ice.
And this was after he showed some serious potential as a top-six piece once he joined the Flyers last season in February out of necessity. He put up eight points (five goals, three assists) in his final 10 games. Overall, he finished with 12 points (eight goals, four assists) in 23 games with a plus-5 rating.
Weal, 25, is in a spot conducive to a potential breakout first full NHL season. He'll start off the 2017-18 campaign alongside Patrick and Simmonds, a line with a playmaker and a finisher, while Weal can do a bit of both.
And he also works his butt off. You have to pry him off the practice ice, and when he very well could have been in the NHL, he grinded away at the AHL level.
All signs point to difference-making production from him.
Neuvirth will have a big rebound
If you're worried about the Flyers' goalie tandem, no one is blaming you.
It's inarguably the team's biggest question mark entering 2017-18.
Brian Elliott is 32 years old and coming off a season in which he posted his worst goals-against average (2.55) since 2010-11 (3.34 with the Senators and Avalanche).
Michal Neuvirth, meanwhile, inspired little confidence last season in his contract year, going 11-11-1 with a 2.82 goals-against average and .891 save percentage. Among netminders with 15 or more games played, his save percentage was worst in the NHL. He missed nearly two months with a left knee injury and his season ended prematurely with a scary fainting incident.
Neuvirth isn't the most expressive player, but in his own way, he oozed with motivation during his April end-of-the-season press conference. He loves Philadelphia and the Flyers' organization, so he's eager to prove that 2016-17 was not who he is as a goalie.
A few positives to believe Neuvirth will answer the Flyers' call this season:
• He's no longer facing the pressure of winning a contract, which he admitted weighed on him a bit.
• He's now a father to a newborn baby girl, which sometimes helps a player escape the pressure and grind of a season when he's not around the ice.
I won't say to look for a career year from Neuvirth, but he'll show up this season, much more than we anticipate.
Provorov will garner serious Norris Trophy attention
You guys remember how good Provorov was in his rookie campaign last season when he scored six goals, recorded 24 assists, became the Flyers' shutdown and best overall defenseman, all en route to earning the Barry Ashbee Award at the ripe young age of 20?
Of course you do.
Who's ready for an encore?
The guy could be ready to burst onto the league-wide scene in a big way this coming season. With a year in the league now under his belt, he's poised for a jump in Year 2.
Look at the way he improved throughout last season. If you recall, it was a rough first few weeks for Provorov, who took his lumps adjusting to the NHL level before finding his footing and taking flight from there with his smooth skating, crafty puck-handling skills, natural defensive ability and veteran-like instinct.
The sky is the limit for him this coming year. And if that trajectory keeps up, he'll quickly rise up the ranks as one of the league's best defensemen. So much so that he'll find his name in serious Norris Trophy talk before the end of the season.
Do I think he'll win it? Nope, not just yet. He's still not on the perch with the Erik Karlssons, Drew Doughtys, P.K. Subbans and Duncan Keiths of the world just yet, obviously. But he's well on his way into their exclusive realm. And the chatter will get louder and louder as this year goes on.
The Flyers have a gem on their hands.
Gostisbehere tops the output from his rookie year
Much like Provorov above, big things were expected out of Gostisbehere in Year 2 after a sparkling rookie season. Ghost took Philadelphia and the NHL by storm with 17 goals and 29 assists that year and took a ride on a Flyers-rookie-record 15-game point streak.
But things went awry early and often for Ghost last year as offseason hip surgery played a role in stifling him from being the shifty, dynamic offensive stud with a booming blast from the point we had all become accustomed to. His production dropped to seven goals and 32 assists while he played eight more games and sat out a handful more as a healthy scratch.
Well, well, well … someone is feeling healthy again and is ready to take over again.
We're now entering Year 3 of the Gostisbehere era and not only did he have that burst and shiftiness back in the season's waning months last year, he's also a year wiser and knows adjustments need to be made as teams adjust and center in on him.
A year older, wiser, healthier and more seasoned means Ghost could be a near unstoppable force on the offensive end this season.
He'll top the 17-goal mark. Yeah, the guy is that good when he's healthy.
He's a risk-taker, but the risk is worth the reward. And will be more than 17 times this season.