Chuck Fletcher said it was more a GM decision than a coaching decision. He felt it was right for Morgan Frost and the 22-year-old's development to have the prospect open the season with AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley.
But will the Flyers be all right down the middle of the ice to start this important 2021-22 season?
At the beginning of 2020-21, a season that eventually went awry, there was justifiable enthusiasm about the Flyers' depth at center. The team was opening the year with Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes and Nolan Patrick as its top-nine centers — three pivots with size and 200-foot qualities. Frost was the Flyers' 13th forward and waiting in the wings.
To begin this season, Hayes is injured (abdominal surgery), Patrick is no longer here (traded in offseason) and Frost has been sent down to the Phantoms after missing nearly all of last season (shoulder surgery).
Prior to his preseason debut, Frost had played two pro hockey games over a span of 560-plus days. He went scoreless with two shots through three exhibition games.
"I was pleasantly surprised with how well he played, so this was not a punishment," Fletcher said Thursday. "I think he admitted that his timing isn’t where it will be, which is normal. ... It takes time. He's disappointed, as anyone would be. He's a top, top player; I can't imagine he's been cut many times in his life. I got cut lots, but I don't think Morgan's had to deal with that. I think he understands it, but in the moment, of course you're disappointed — he's a competitor.
"I anticipated he'd be further behind than what he was — he missed a whole season, had serious shoulder surgery and I thought his details, his commitment to defense, his competitiveness were above what I figured. You see players come back from shoulder surgery, it can be difficult for them to jump right back into it with confidence. I thought he did well."
With Hayes' injury coming a few days before the start of training camp, the Flyers put Frost between some of their better wingers but it didn't translate into offensive production for the 2017 first-round pick. Frost was defensively responsible and didn't hurt the Flyers, but providing a jolt of offense would have been his ticket to the big club's season-opening lineup.
"To be honest with you, the coaches really like Morgan," Fletcher said. "This is probably more my decision putting him down. I think we wanted to give Morgan every opportunity to show what he could do, we played him with good players, we played him in important situations. But I think the best thing for him long term is to play and play in an environment where he can get his confidence. It's the best thing for him, it's the best thing for us. We went into it in good faith and wanted to give him that opportunity.
"The coaches, they're really supportive of Morgan. This was more me to say, ‘Hey, let's do what's right here, let's give him a chance.’ It's not a rush to get him playing here. He's going to play here, but let's make sure we give him a chance to be successful."
It's understandable if Frost started placing some pressure on his shoulders. He was in a situation in which he was trying to make up for lost time and put up numbers in the box score. With Frost heading to Lehigh Valley, he'll be able to play in all situations without a spotlight, a good opportunity for him to feel comfortable and confident again.
"Coaches and management talked a lot about this, we thought Morgan had a good camp, we liked a lot of the things that we saw," Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault said Thursday. "At the end of the day, there's a young man that hasn't played very much hockey. We felt, in discussing it, for now he needed to go down, get some reps, get some playing time. We like the overall package, we like the potential, we love the skill level. He's going to get a chance to play and at some point I'm sure he's going to be helping us win some games here in Philly."
So how do the Flyers adjust for now with the regular-season opener a week away? Scott Laughton, a Swiss army knife for the Flyers, will move to center. In practice Thursday, the club's centers were Couturier, Derick Brassard, Laughton and Nate Thompson. There's good experience and defensive strengths, but will the Flyers have enough offense to make due through the early stages without Hayes? The 29-year-old second-line center could miss nine to 10 games, more or less.
There's no downplaying the importance of Hayes and the importance of the start to this season for the Flyers. They're coming off a frustrating, playoff-less 2020-21 campaign with a revamped roster. Building positive energy and a new identity early could go a long way for the Flyers' goals of bouncing back and also rebuilding the excitement of the fan base.
Heading into Friday night's preseason finale, the Flyers' roster was at 24, excluding injured players. Opening the season on a four-game homestand, the Flyers could roll with as few as 20 players on their roster. They can be at a maximum of 23.
Jackson Cates and Garrett Wilson stood as the Flyers' final two forwards entering Friday.
Vigneault said the 24-year-old Cates came into camp among the Flyers' top-10 conditioned players. Cates, a college product and native of Stillwater, Minnesota, trained in the offseason with Flyers defenseman Justin Braun and other pro players like Nate Schmidt, Kyle Rau, Mitch Reinke and Austin Poganski.
"I had a good summer of training," Cates said Thursday. "It was nice, I worked out at the [University of Minnesota] with a bunch of pros. It was totally new to me in terms of the TriPhasic Training they did. I liked it a lot, so worked hard, trained five days a week — it was a good summer."
Wilson, a 30-year-old winger on a professional tryout, has opened the eyes of the front office and coaching staff. He has 84 games of NHL experience between time with the Panthers and Penguins. Wilson, who played for the Phantoms last season, has had to constantly prove himself.
"I've been doing it my whole career pretty much," he said Thursday. "Nothing has been given to me easily. Just try to work hard and that's how my parents brought me up. Put my head down, go to work and try to gain the coaches' trust as best I can so they feel comfortable putting me out there. ... I know I can play here."
A major positive for the Flyers is their defensive core is intact and looks formidable on paper. Remaking the club's back end was Fletcher's biggest objective of the offseason. The Flyers' defensive pairs are set and Carter Hart was strong in the preseason. The 23-year-old goalie was expected to play in the final exhibition game Friday but he didn't practice Thursday because of a maintenance day, so the club held him out. Vigneault did not express any concern about Hart's status for the regular-season opener. Hart is expected to practice Saturday.
Close to their final roster, here's how the Flyers looked Thursday:
Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Travis Konecny
Joel Farabee-Derick Brassard-Cam Atkinson
Oskar Lindblom-Scott Laughton-James van Riemsdyk
Jackson Cates/Garrett Wilson-Nate Thompson-Nicolas Aube-Kubel
Ivan Provorov-Ryan Ellis
Travis Sanheim-Rasmus Ristolainen
Keith Yandle-Justin Braun
Cam York-Nick Seeler
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