VOORHEES, N.J. — Alain Vigneault walked into the press conference area at Flyers Training Center, put out his arms, smiled and said: "We're back."
Vigneault was not staring into a computer screen and seeing a live video recording of himself on Zoom. Instead, the Flyers' head coach sat down behind the table at the front of the room and across it were media members, live in person and covering Day 1 of a much more traditional 2021 training camp.
"Time to get back to normal, eh?" Vigneault said.
The Flyers are hoping normalcy and a full-length camp are just the start of a rebound 2021-22 season. In the shortened, coronavirus-impacted 2020-21 season, the Flyers took a considerable step backward and missed the playoffs.
An active offseason later, the club has a revamped makeup and it put the new pieces on display for the first time Thursday as fans made their way back to the practice facility to watch the competition commence.
Let's get into our first three observations of the preseason.
Stick it to 'em
Keith Yandle, a 35-year-old veteran, is more known as an offensive-minded defenseman. But there's a reason why he has played 1,032 games and in 922 straight. It can't purely be for offense. He can defend a bit, too.
Yandle has a savviness with his stick, which he used on Thursday to win numerous 1-on-1 battles, some of them against the Flyers' top forwards.
During one rep, just as Claude Giroux was preparing to beat Yandle, the first-year Flyer poked the puck away from the captain. Giroux has elite skill and often wins or at least gets off a shot in 1-on-1 drills.
"Playing against him, you know that his stick is very annoying," Giroux said Thursday. "This morning, you go 1-on-1 with him, he's a competitive guy. Just happy to have him on our side now."
The biggest objective of general manager Chuck Fletcher's offseason was to bolster the depth and experience on the Flyers' back end. The club dearly missed Matt Niskanen last season. This summer, Fletcher added Yandle, Ryan Ellis and Rasmus Ristolainen to the defensive core.
Ellis did quite a bit in 10 seasons with the Predators while Yandle is approaching the NHL record for consecutive games played.
"Both of those guys, they've played a lot of hockey, a lot of games, a lot of experience, but also big games, big experience," Vigneault said. "I know Yands personally, I've said this a few times, everything that I know about him and the relationship between him and his teammates, everybody just loves him.
"Ryan Ellis, what I can tell from him right now, he's a pro. He does it the right way. He's not afraid ... if somebody's not doing it the right way, it seems to me like he's not afraid to use his experience to come in and help — whether it be a young player or an older player. His adaptation to our group is coming along and I think it's only going to get better."
Centers of attention
A major storyline to training camp and the start of the 2021-22 season will be the Flyers' adjustment to the absence of Kevin Hayes. The second-line center unexpectedly had to undergo abdominal surgery Tuesday, sidelining him for six to eight weeks.
To open camp, Vigneault is giving playmaking prospect Morgan Frost a chance to prove himself in Hayes' second-line center spot. Frost centered James van Riemsdyk and Joel Farabee on Thursday. Offseason acquisition Derick Brassard, who can play some winger, slotted into the third-line center role between Oskar Lindblom and Cam Atkinson. Scott Laughton, a Swiss army knife for the Flyers, was featured on the fourth line.
Vigneault likes to put his younger skilled players in situations that accentuate their strengths. He often did so with Farabee during his rookie season. So far, Vigneault wants to do the same with Frost. It's a good idea in the Flyers' hope that this gives Frost an opportunity to build his confidence and get comfortable after he missed nearly all of last season because of a left shoulder injury.
"When I look at our team right now, Brass I wanted to see in the middle because for me, he's played his best hockey in the middle," Vigneault said. "With Hayesy going out, in my mind, you look at our depth, Morgan's a young player that hasn't played a lot of hockey in the last couple of years, but had high expectations, was a high-end prospect. With Hayesy going down, it sort of gives him a quick opportunity to show what he can do.
"That's supposed to be his skill set. In theory, he's supposed to be a top-six forward, so I want to give him that opportunity. I don't know how long that's going to last; we're going through a first five days and then two exhibition games, we'll see how everyone reacts and see if there's some chemistry between guys on the ice. A lot of new faces, probably going to take a little bit of time. I think for now, everybody is slotted into areas that they should be able to help this team and contribute. We'll see moving forward if that happens."
Hayes, one of the Flyers' alternate captains, will be around the team off the ice in meetings as he rehabs his injury. He watched some of the practices Thursday along the boards.
"With all of the new guys that we have, finding that time to gel with each other and just get to know everyone is an important thing as you develop that chemistry and do the team-building stuff," van Riemsdyk said. "And Kevin's a big part of that for us. He's kind of the life of the locker room in that sense where people tend to gravitate toward him, they love being around him. We're happy to have him around. Tough break for him as far as the injury stuff, but he'll be ready to go when he's back in there."
Here's how the Flyers lined up on Day 1 in their two main groups:
Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Travis Konecny
Oskar Lindblom-Derick Brassard-Cam Atkinson
Isaac Ratcliffe-Tanner Laczynski-Tyson Foerster
Ryan Fitzgerald-Cal O’Reilly-Gerry Mayhew
Ivan Provorov-Ryan Ellis
Keith Yandle-Justin Braun
Egor Zamula-Nick Seeler
Linus Hogberg-Brian Zanetti
James van Riemsdyk-Morgan Frost-Joel Farabee
Scott Laughton-Nate Thompson-Nicolas Aube-Kubel
Connor Bunnaman-German Rubtsov-Linus Sandin
Max Willman-Jackson Cates-Garrett Wilson
Travis Sanheim-Rasmus Ristolainen
Cam York-Adam Clendening
Mason Millman-Wyatte Wylie
Jackson van de Leest-Logan Day
New year, new mottos
Outside of Flyers Training Center, a big banner hangs with the following slogan: "Bring it to Broad."
Flyers players rocked shirts with the slogan across the front.
Vigneault wore a shirt that sported the words "something to prove" on the front and "let's get to work" on the back. Those two mantras may have been coined by the head coach himself. Vigneault stated both phrases Tuesday in his media availability two days before the start of camp. The organization is certainly feeding off of his energy and following his lead.
"We all have something to prove individually or collectively," Vigneault said after Day 1 of camp, "and the only way to do it is by getting to work and that's what we're trying to do."
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