Flyers switch up travel routine in search of a spark

Flyers switch up travel routine in search of a spark

Diehard once ran a commercial in the 1970s claiming their battery could start a freezing cold engine that had been sitting on a frozen lake in Minnesota throughout the brutal winter months.

Sure enough, after a few cranks, the Diehard battery was as good as advertised. 

Thirty-one NHL coaches will be looking for a similar type of spark to their teams' motors when the NHL resumes play following a mandatory three-day Christmas break when teams weren't permitted to conduct any type of formal workouts. For most, if not every player, it was family time to the fullest.

With the majority of teams playing Wednesday, the Flyers will have an extra day before they tackle the remaining portion of their December schedule with back-to-back games against the Panthers and Lightning. In an atypical move for a team playing on the road, the Flyers elected to fly out early Wednesday morning and then proceeded with a 1 p.m. practice in Florida, whereas it's normally practice first and then board the charter.

"You've really got to find out what works for you," defenseman Andrew MacDonald said. "Collectively, as a team, we have to stay focused and committed whether that's in the video room or looking after yourself off the ice in the gym and just making sure you're well conditioned and ready to go."

Then again, the last time they deviated from their typical travel routine, they arrived in Calgary a day early and proceeded to sweep the Western Canadian portion of their road trip. 

What transpired during that extra day in Alberta explained a lot as Flyers forward Jake Voracek recently told Buffalo correspondent Joe Yerdon, "We got drunk, that helped. We sat down together, we talked about some stuff we wanted to do better. We had some heart-to-hearts and it worked out, so it was good."

Whatever they said, whatever they drank, it worked. The Flyers rolled off six straight wins to climb within striking range of a playoff spot. The Flyers feel fortunate, to some degree lucky, they can look at the standings and take stock they're only four points out.

"When you get to the end of December and you're six to seven points out, it's extremely hard to get in the playoffs," forward Dale Weise said. "Obviously, playing teams down the stretch, those two- and three-point games, it's really hard to gain some ground. I think we're very fortunate where we're at. That six-game winning streak obviously put us in a good spot." 

Now comes the sobering reality the Flyers are proving to be a streaky team, in both directions, while hoping they don't pick up where they left off — now winless in their last two with an absolute clunker in Buffalo. Dave Hakstol's challenge starting Thursday in Sunrise, Florida, is to provide a jolt of energy to a team that has been sluggish from the opening faceoff.  

"It's not always going to be there," Hakstol said. "The legs aren't always going to be there, especially when you're in such a busy stretch. So you have to find ways when things aren't going right to live for the next play and keep yourself in the hockey game and give yourself an opportunity to build and push for a win."

Quite frankly, it hasn't been there at all, at least at the start and throughout the first period. Would you believe the Flyers have held a lead after the first 20 minutes just once over their last 16 games, which came Dec. 7 at Vancouver? Still, the Flyers have found a way to win seven of those games. 

Hakstol realizes that can't be the pattern moving forward when teams prioritize locking down defensively in the second half of the season. 

"When you get a little bit of momentum, that's a big difference-maker," Hakstol said. "I think that's what we've been able to push toward here in this last stretch. It's a very slight difference, but it makes all the difference in the world."

"I think that's part of growing as a team is realizing when it's important to lock things down and when it's important to press forward and we're learning that," MacDonald said. "Obviously, we're coming off a great stretch of six straight and we want to get right back on that bandwagon."

The Flyers can only hope that bandwagon has one of those diehard batteries under the hood.

Nolan Patrick selected as No. 1 breakout player for 2018-19 by NHL Network

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Nolan Patrick selected as No. 1 breakout player for 2018-19 by NHL Network

Nolan Patrick's rookie season can be split into two halves, but his performance down the stretch has caught the attention of one national pundit.

NHL Network analyst Mike Johnson, who played 12 years in the league, selected Patrick as his No. 1 breakout player for the 2018-19 season during Friday night's "NHL Tonight."

Johnson scored 375 points in 661 NHL games from 1996-2008 and last played in the league during the 2007-08 campaign with the St. Louis Blues.

Behind Johnson's reasoning for picking Patrick as his No. 1 breakout player was the Flyers' center's two-way instincts, ability to finish, size and a full summer of training ahead of him.

"We know his injury history, his lack of proper training, his lack of ability to hit the gym properly," Johnson said, "and he's still strong on the wall. That's only going to get better as he matures physically."

For what it's worth, Connor McDavid was NHL Network's No. 1 breakout candidate for the 2017-18 season — that was a bit of a softball.

As for Patrick, the center joined "NHL Tonight" on Friday to discuss the honor and also provide an update on how his summer is going.

"Coming off that surgery last year," Patrick said, "I had a slow start. It took a while to get my body back to where I wanted it to be. I missed two summers of training. It's been the first summer for me in a while that I've been back in the gym."

Patrick, the No. 2 overall pick in 2017, finished with 13 goals and 30 points in 73 regular-season games. He missed nine games in October and November because of a concussion and spent most of the first half of the season getting his mobility back after undergoing offseason abdominal surgery. In fact, he's lost his past two summers of training because of surgery.

Prior to his final junior season and his draft year, Patrick underwent sports hernia surgery. Then 10 days before the Flyers drafted him, he went under the knife again.

Now he's fully healthy and has a full summer of training.

"First time I can get after it," Patrick said during the team's exit interviews in April (see story). "It's going to be a big summer for me. I'm not satisfied with how the year was or how my year was, so I'm looking to take big steps here."

Once Patrick began feeling healthier, he started getting a bigger role with the Flyers. He was elevated to the team's second-line center and stuck. He also found a role on the power play.

The 19-year-old posted 17 points in the final 25 games, which translates to a respectable 0.68 points per game clip and 55 points over an 82-game schedule. Not too bad for a rookie who couldn't actually train during his previous two offseasons.

"My coaches pushed me throughout the year. Then they gave me more opportunity," Patrick told the NHL Network. "Jake Voracek was huge for me. He thinks the game so well. The puck protection that guy has, you just got to get open for him.

"I think my body also just felt better as the year went on. I kind of took a while to get my skating legs there, so I think in the second half, I had a little more pep in my step."

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End to End: What is Ron Hextall's next big signing?

End to End: What is Ron Hextall's next big signing?

Going End to End today are NBC Sports Philadelphia's John Boruk, Tom Dougherty and Jordan Hall.

The topic: What is Ron Hextall's next big signing?

There are three ways to look at this …

1. The Flyers re-sign Wayne Simmonds, who's eligible for an extension that would take effect in 2019-20.

2. Ron Hextall inks one of his restricted free agents to a team-friendly, lengthy multi-year deal.

3. The Flyers go big in free agency next summer. 

Let’s start with the latter. There are some interesting names that are headlining next summer’s potential UFA class: Tyler Seguin, Tyler Myers, Matt Duchene and Artemi Panarin. 

Who knows which of these players will be re-signed or traded, but I don’t see the Flyers paying big dollars to add another forward now that you include James van Riemsdyk. According to, the Flyers have $46.5 million (fourth highest in the NHL) committed to forwards, with Travis Konecny due for a pay raise next summer, as well.

With that knowledge, I’m not sure it makes sense for the Flyers to extend Simmonds another four to five years with an AAV of $6-7 million. Hextall has a good barometer of what Simmonds is worth on the open market, which is why term would be the sticking point in negotiations. If he’s willing to look at a three-year deal, it could get done soon, but if I’m Simmonds' agent, I’m trying to maximize the length of any new contract, which very well could be the last one his client signs.

I think the next big contract will be signed by defenseman Ivan Provorov, who’s entering the final year of his entry-level deal. It’s not out of the financial realm to think Provorov could sign a Drew Doughty-type bridge deal similar to the eight-year, $56 million pact the Kings' defenseman signed in 2011 at the age of 21. Doughty was coming off a monstrous 16-goal, 59-point season. Last season, Provorov ripped off 17 goals and 41 points and appears poised to build on that for this upcoming season.

Prepare yourself. Provorov will receive the next big pay day in Philadelphia.

Outside of teaching the Sixers and Phillies how to close a deal, Hextall's only item left on his offseason to-do list is to re-sign restricted free agent Robert Hagg.

During his end-of-season-news conference in April, Hextall said "initially, my thought right now is that we would be open to either long term or short term" with Hagg.

Whether Hagg qualifies as a "big signing" isn't really up for debate. It's not. Hagg is a quality third pair defenseman in the NHL and he proved as much in his rookie season.

But re-signing Hagg is the only move left I envision Hextall making this summer, or at the very least, the next move. A Provorov or Simmonds extension remains possible too.

As Hextall mentioned, the Flyers are open to either a short or long-term deal with Hagg. Both have their upside. That is also likely the holdup right now.

While Hagg wouldn't qualify as a "big" signing, he is next on the checklist. Once his contract is out of the way, then I could see the Flyers knocking out Provorov or Simmonds.

Hextall tends to get ahead and take care of his own.

When you look at the track record, he's not one to let contract decisions linger, especially when it comes to his core pieces — which makes for good business.

Just like in any profession, stability and happiness are important.

The Flyers' general manager extended Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier the summer prior to their contract years. 

He signed Shayne Gostisbehere, a restricted free agent last summer, in early June before the expansion draft and free agency opened. 

He even signed Michael Raffl in February 2016 before the role forward was set to become an unrestricted free agent at season's end.

With all that said, my gut tells me Hextall's next big move is extending Simmonds at some point before the start of the season. Simmonds, coming off an injury-ravaged year in which he still managed to score 24 goals, can hit unrestricted free agency following the 2018-19 season. He wants to be back and Hextall values him greatly.

And the GM made it clear that when the Flyers signed van Riemsdyk to a five-year deal, it meant nothing to their situation with Simmonds.

"We like Wayne Simmonds," Hextall said July 1. "This doesn't change anything for Wayne. This is a left winger; this is a different player than Simmer. We're excited to have James, and certainly, we would like to have Simmer for a long time, too."

I expect that to be the next major check on the agenda.

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