Flyers

Fearless Forecast for the Flyers' 2017-18 season

Fearless Forecast for the Flyers' 2017-18 season

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.

- Boruk

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. 

- Boruk

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.

- Dougherty

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.

- Dougherty

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.

- Hall

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.

- Hall

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.

- Paone

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.

- Paone

Scott Gordon's trip to Atlantic City and Dave Hakstol's classy move

Scott Gordon's trip to Atlantic City and Dave Hakstol's classy move

It's been a chaotic time for those in the Flyers' organization.

With change comes a lot of moving parts.

One of those moving parts got a little lost the other day.

Scott Gordon felt the effects of all the hustle-bustle. The poor guy was just trying to get to his new job after being named the Flyers' interim head coach Monday.

He did everything right. He was following his directions and even studying up while on the commute.

Gordon was focused. Maybe a little too focused.

The new bench boss couldn't help but laugh when he shared the story after Tuesday's 3-2 win at the Wells Fargo Center.

There's been so much going on. I was telling the guys from TV, I was driving in here last night and speaking to the captains and a couple of the players that I knew, and I was so into the conversation that I looked up and I see a casino in front of me — I had driven into Atlantic City on the way to Voorhees. So it's been a bit of whirlwind here and I'm like, 'What just happened?' So what happened was I put the Skate Zone in and I got some other Skate Zone.

Whoops.

Hey, he's learning on the job — now he knows there are multiple Skate Zone facilities.

And Gordon's phone must have been buzzing nonstop Monday.

One of the first calls he received after taking the gig came from the man he was replacing.

A classy move from Dave Hakstol on the day the head coach was fired.

I wasn't expecting it, it kind of caught me off-guard. Hak and I, we didn't talk often but I felt like we had a good relationship. The first thing that he said was, 'I just want you to know that this is a really good group of guys. They care, they want to win … off the tracks a little bit right now.' 

But I just felt that … usually when a team struggles, there seems like there's some dissension, there doesn't seem to be enthusiasm in the pregame skate, the meetings, the game tonight, on the bench. That [enthusiasm] was there.

Gordon didn't have any problem finding it.

This time, his directions were just fine.

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Carter Hart gives Flyers fans something they've been waiting 20 years for

Carter Hart gives Flyers fans something they've been waiting 20 years for

When PA announcer Lou Nolan revealed the starting lineup with Carter Hart’s name off the top, there was an uproar from a crowd that had been building from the day Ron Hextall retired.

For those who have braved and endured Flyers hockey over the past 20 years, Tuesday night was a coronation. For Hart himself, it was simply a moment some 16 years in the making, and he soaked in every single moment, including the outburst of cheers that came with that very first NHL save.

“Yeah, that was kind of funny,” Hart said after the Flyers' 3-2 win over Detroit (see observations). “It was just like a toe save and they’re going nuts. It was something special tonight, just to be out there. Now, it’s something that’s starting to sink in a little bit when I saw my mom on TV there. It was just a dream.”  

Hart’s mother and father flew in from Edmonton. So did his 78-year-old billet Parker Fowlds, who Hart lived with the past three years in Everett, Washington, and came cross country to share in the moment as well.

Part of Hart’s acclimation to professional hockey has been living independently in Lehigh Valley and doing all of the routine things his family had done for him over the years.

“(I have) to cook, clean, pay the bills and do almost everything that I'm not used to doing,” Hart said. “But now, I’ve gotten into a routine of cooking and cleaning and doing laundry. I hate doing laundry.”

No one really cares if Hart has shirts piled up in the corner of his room. He’ll only be judged for the one thing he has mastered since he was 8 years old when he strapped on a youth size set of goalie gear for the first time — stopping the puck.

On Tuesday night against the Red Wings, Hart had to make just 20 saves, a workload that may have been easier than washing dirty clothes. He became the youngest goalie in Flyers history to win his NHL debut. Hart's most memorable stop coming with 3:17 remaining in the opening period. Hart stoned a wide-open Dylan Larkin from point-blank range to keep the game scoreless. 

“That was a critical save,” interim head coach Scott Gordon said. “Not to get behind in the first period I thought was important and that was a huge save for him.”

“He’s got ice in his veins if you watch him out there,” James van Riemsdyk said. “He’s very poised. Just tracks the game really well and did a great job for us.” 

That save and the final minute of regulation was crucial considering the Flyers simply haven’t been able to win hockey games this season when they score three or fewer goals — an inconceivable record of 1-15-2 until Tuesday’s 3-2 victory.

In other words, they haven’t had a goaltender steal them a game all season. When the Flyers aren’t at their best, which has been pretty much since the opener in Vegas, they need someone like Hart to step up and be a little bit better than the rest.  

“The kid is giving us something right now,” Shayne Gostisbehere said. “He’s giving us some energy, a jolt, something this team desperately needed.”

Desperate is a mild way of putting Hart’s appearance into perspective. The organization’s urgency for a franchise netminder is probably worse than a root canal patient requiring a dose of Lidocaine. 

On this night, Hart gave the Flyers that much-needed injection, and his performance helped numb the pain of a season that has felt like one excruciating toothache.

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