Flyers' young foundation yearning for long-term relationship

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Flyers' young foundation yearning for long-term relationship

Travis Konecny had just finished up his sophomore season and had a few days to process how it came to an end, bitterly against the Penguins in his first taste of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Konecny leaped from an immature rookie to an established scorer. He built onto his reputation as a chirper, and his personality screams bloody murder on the ice.

Two weeks ago, at his end-of-the-season news conference, Konecny didn’t let losing his voice impede that charisma from rising when asked about Nolan Patrick wanting to improve his shot.

“Yeah, he needs that,” Konecny quipped.

Now 21 years old, Konecny is one of the Flyers’ many young building blocks, along with the 19-year-old Patrick (see story). The Flyers are getting younger. Their average age in 2017-18 was 25.92, which was their youngest since the 2008-09 season (25.55), and the expectation is that they’ll get even younger next season. They haven’t had back-to-back seasons with an average age below 26 since a five-year period from 1990-95.

It’s hard to ignore, and the Flyers know it. Konency sees a young nucleus building. He came into the league with Ivan Provorov, who, at 21, is already among the league’s first-class defensemen. The current core knows what’s coming, and while some outside noise howls for the Flyers to break it up, GM Ron Hextall doesn't appear to have any plans on doing that.

Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds and Sean Couturier have been together since 2011-12. Giroux’s time as a Flyer spans back further. From a Flyers historical perspective, keeping a core together for this long without sustained playoff success is unprecedented.

“It’s funny because I see these relationships that these guys have,” Konecny said. “All those guys who have been around, talking about when they were rooming together way back. You see how close they are. They have that long relationship that they’ve built. I think it’s exciting for us. All the young guys get along here. We’ve all got stories with each other.”

While the Flyers’ playoff struggles under this core have continued, the core is still producing. At 30, Giroux posted the Flyers’ first 100-point season since 1995-96. Voracek, 28, set a career high with 85 points. Couturier finally broke down the walls with a 31-goal, 76-point year. Simmonds, despite playing through major injuries, still scored 24 goals.

As Konecny and Patrick prepare for a larger slice of the pie, there will be others stepping in too. Think Oskar Lindblom, who gained valuable experience in 21 games this season, and perhaps any of the forward prospects who graduate to the NHL.

“We all know what’s going on in junior,” Voracek said, “in AHL, the farm team. For us, the older players, which is weird for me to say, it’s a good thing. You need to be pushed sometimes.”

The Flyers are in a transition phase, and Hextall made it a point to declare that they’re not passing the torch from the core to the kids but it’s balancing experience and youth. Hextall pointed to the Sharks a few seasons ago when they made the Stanley Cup Final with Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton in their mid-30s.

“It’s all about those older players as they get older, our younger players are gonna take a bigger piece of the pie,” Hextall said. “If you look at teams that win, they typically got their older group and their middle group, and maybe a couple of young guys. That’s the way we’re going.”

Konecny wasn’t done poking at Patrick. With the heckle about Patrick’s shot behind him, Konecny told a story about how he turned Valtteri Filppula’s jeers against him onto Patrick.

“Fil says a lot of stuff to me,” Konecny said. “Like, ‘Oh, in my second year, I never would have done this.’ I say that stuff to Patty. ‘Oh, last year, I never would have done that.’ I’ll still do it next year.”

And so the Flyers’ next long-term relationship begins.

Chuck Fletcher: Flyers are 'bullish on Philippe Myers' upside'

Chuck Fletcher: Flyers are 'bullish on Philippe Myers' upside'

Back when Philippe Myers was called up to the Flyers in February, it was evident general manager Chuck Fletcher liked the 22-year-old prospect.

The Flyers were rolling through an NHL-best 10-game stretch at the time and pushing for the playoffs. Still, Fletcher had no qualms with trusting a kid who had no NHL experience to possibly jump into a postseason race.

"The fact that he's getting the call is a recognition of what he's accomplished and that he's knocking on the door," Fletcher said Feb. 9.

Where are the Flyers now on Myers?

Pretty high.

"We're bullish on Philippe Myers' upside," Fletcher said Saturday in a conference call.

Some of Fletcher's maneuvering with the Flyers' defense over the past two days has revolved around Myers and his ability to jump on a full-time role in 2019-20. The Flyers on Friday traded 29-year-old Radko Gudas in exchange for defenseman Matt Niskanen (see story). On Saturday, they parted ways with Andrew MacDonald, placing the 32-year-old on unconditional waivers for the purpose of terminating his contract (see story).

While Fletcher's work is far from done, the Flyers' defense is already rounding into shape, with visions of Myers taking a big step forward. The overwhelming point of trading Gudas was to acquire Niskanen, who can benefit the Flyers' defense in a variety of ways (see story). But the move also came to fruition with Myers in mind.

"Radko has been a very effective third-pairing defenseman for us," Fletcher said. "He's been a great member of our organization, he's competed hard and certainly we appreciate everything he did for our organization. 

"Going forward, we feel we have an in-house player in Philippe Myers that can come in and take on some of that role. He's only played [21] games in the NHL, so there could be an adjustment period, but having the ability to maybe slot Philippe into that third slot on the right side, we feel is a real proper place for him to potentially start his NHL career."

Myers, a 6-foot-5, 210-pound righty shot, was rated a top-50 prospect by the NHL Network last season. He's come a long way from going undrafted in 2015. He's quick for his size, a fluid skater and brings offensive qualities, as well.

He showed plenty of glimpses in his 2018-19 showcase.

Here's an early look at the Flyers' potential 2019-20 defensive pairings:

Ivan Provorov-Matt Niskanen

Shayne Gostisbehere-Travis Sanheim

Robert Hagg-Philippe Myers

"Certainly if we can find a guy that can play in our top four that we have the ability to acquire, we'll certainly look at it," Fletcher said. "I will say that we have some really top-end young defensemen here that have the potential to grow into that role. If you look at Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim … Shayne Gostisbehere is a young man that's been very effective in his young career so far, and by bringing in Matt Niskanen, we feel that we have some quality defensemen.

"You're always looking to upgrade if you can, but it will certainly depend on whether we can acquire that player and whether even that player is available.

"In saying our defense corps is young, I do believe it's the strength of our team going forward."

Myers can make it younger and stronger. In just two days, the Flyers cleared him a path, as if to say: Here's a spot, go take it.

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Chuck Fletcher, Matt Niskanen see a Flyers team ready to pop

Chuck Fletcher, Matt Niskanen see a Flyers team ready to pop

At first, Matt Niskanen was "a little surprised" and caught "a little off guard."

He had just been traded by the Capitals, a team with which he won the 2018 Stanley Cup and experienced fond memories, and was now headed to a division rival.

But after Niskanen spoke with Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher, his emotions slowly started to shift. Fletcher wanted Niskanen to believe in the Flyers' situation and how the accomplished defenseman could be integral to it taking off.

"He said he likes their team, he felt that they're ready to pop," Niskanen said Friday in a conference call after being dealt to the Flyers (see story). "He kind of feels the same way that I do about the group there — young talent, they're close, just need to add some more pieces along the way. 

"It sounds like he's trying to put together a real good team and we'll see where that takes us. But I'm excited to be there. Trying to be a real solid piece for what they have there already. They have a lot of talent, these guys can play and put up some goals, and maybe get our goals against down — so maybe that's where I come in, to help out with that. I'm excited for that challenge."

From the start, the Flyers fell well short of expectations in 2018-19, which put Fletcher in the team's GM chair. The 82 points were the Flyers' fewest in a full season since 2006-07 and the club hasn't made the playoffs in consecutive years since 2010-12, when it last won a series.

In this league, things can change quickly, though. 

"We're all close," Fletcher said on April 18.

The Flyers went 0-4-0 against the Capitals in 2018-19 and were outscored 18-9, but Niskanen remembered looking at one of his teammates during the regular-season series and saying, "Man, they should be doing better than they are."

Fletcher sees Niskanen as the type of player to change that narrative.

"This is a guy that has played over 1,000 games in the NHL when you factor in his playoff experience," Fletcher said Saturday on a conference call. "He's a guy that commands respect with how he plays and how he prepares, he shows up every day.

"I'll give Ron Hextall and Chris Pryor (former general manager and assistant general manager) a lot of credit here — we have some top-end young talent on that back end, and I think the goal right now is to try to surround them with the right people and add some talent back there, as well."

Niskanen didn't need a whole lot of convincing by Fletcher. The GM's message only helped build the excitement for the former Capital and Penguin who has played 38 career games against the Flyers.

"Over the last few years they've gotten younger. I like their team," Niskanen said. "They have dangerous people, they've added young players with a lot of promise, hard to play against.

"They have good people, dangerous players, talented forwards, a young group of D that can really play — they're just young, I think. They're on the upswing. It was hard to play against the Flyers. Good organization, they play the game hard, they play to win. A lot of promise there. I'm excited about that."

With the Capitals' first-round exit in the 2019 playoffs following their Cup run the previous season, Niskanen said he has been training for over a month now and feels much better physically. He knows about the Flyers' defense. He referred to the group as "young studs" multiple times (see story).

So, yeah, as tough as the trade is, Niskanen believes in Philly.

"I've been fortunate to be on real good teams," he said. "I've been around and I know what good hockey looks like, I know what a good culture looks like. I'm not going to be a rah-rah guy, but I think with my résumé, my words hold a little bit of weight, especially with young players. 

"They have a good team and I'm not going to come in and ruffle any feathers, but I think my word will hold some weight. I'll come in and try to have real good practice habits and have a good attitude, bring a good work ethic, and hopefully I'll be another piece to what they already have there."

And potentially make the Flyers pop.

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