End to End: Projecting the Flyers' 23-man opening night roster

End to End: Projecting the Flyers' 23-man opening night roster

Throughout the season, we’ll ask questions about the Flyers to our resident hockey analysts and see what they have to say.

Going End to End today are reporters John Boruk, Tom Dougherty and Jordan Hall.

The topic: Projecting the Flyers' opening night roster.

I wrote a few weeks ago pertaining to five questions that needed to be answered throughout training camp and the preseason, and No. 2 on that list was, "Who are the team's top two wings?" While I had suggested Claude Giroux back in the summer, I didn't think the Flyers would actually follow through. Now we know the answer to that question: Giroux and Jordan Weal.

Unfortunately, it appears as if Oskar Lindblom will start the season with the Phantoms, even though I believe he could complement Valtteri Filppula's line along with Travis Konecny. Lindblom has been scratched recently, which hasn't been a good sign for the rookie. I also like what I've seen from Michael Raffl to insert him onto that left wing as well.

Scott Laughton is your fourth-line center and has played consistently throughout the preseason with solid checking and his improvement in faceoffs along with his addition on the penalty kill. You need an energy guy on that checking line as well, and that’s where Taylor Leier comes into the picture. He brings speed and toughness, as well as that sandpaper-grit style. That leaves us with Matt Read and Jori Lehtera. Both players came out of the gates strong in the preseason opener against the Islanders in Long Island, but I haven’t been too overly impressed with either guy since.

Defensively, I’ve stated my reasons to keep all three rookie defensemen, but I don’t think the organization is willing to put that much risk on the ice, at least to start the season. Sam Morin has been the most impressive of the trio and he’s clearly NHL ready, as is Robert Hagg, who goes relatively unnoticed out there, which is a good quality to have for a rookie defenseman. Travis Sanheim will eventually pan out to be one of the top two-way defensemen in the organization, but unfortunately, he’s probably the odd man out here. Like Lindblom, he’ll join the Phantoms and log some major minutes, and I don’t think it will be long before he’s back with the Flyers. 

I see the Flyers taking 23 players out West for the season-opening four-game road trip.

What would I do? Place Lehtera on waivers and if he clears, send him to the Phantoms along with Lindblom, who needs to play top-line minutes in the AHL while he refines his scoring touch. As concerned as I was with Brandon Manning coming off back surgery, he stepped up and played a big game against Boston. That leaves Andrew MacDonald and Sanheim. You know what I would do — let’s see how the Flyers handle the situation.

I’ve seen enough from Hagg, Morin and Sanheim to say all three defensemen should be here when the season opens Wednesday in San Jose. I don’t know how general manager Ron Hextall can go to any one of the three and tell them they haven’t done enough to make this team. They’ve all earned spots in my eyes.

But I’m not in charge. Hextall has said time and time again he’d make room for a kid if they prove they’re ready. That’s either GM speak, the truth or somewhere in between. There are two open spots, and to me, Hagg and Morin are locks. I didn’t expect Sanheim to make the Flyers coming into camp. I thought he still had defensive deficiencies that would prevent him from breaking camp with the big club.

Sanheim has had his blemishes this preseason, but he’s also shown he can brush them off, recover and move on. That’s big here, but will it be enough? If I had to bet, I’d still say Sanheim starts the season in the AHL. I just don’t know how you send him back. With that said, projecting the defense to start the season: Ivan Provorov, Shayne Gostisbehere, Radko Gudas, Hagg, Morin, Manning and MacDonald.

As for the forwards, it’s pretty easy for me. There’s no chance Nolan Patrick goes back to Brandon. Thought this before training camp and think it now. No chance. Lindblom, too, is a lock in my eyes. He’s played well enough to make the team, and I think his commitment to a 200-foot game has earned his spot. The scoring will come. Laughton will be here, as will Raffl. The players on the bubble, in my eyes: Lehtera, Read and Leier.

I’ve liked what I’ve seen from Leier, and it’s clear he has chemistry with Laughton from their time with the Phantoms. Leier is a bit of a long shot but if he plays well Sunday, and I’d expect him to play, I think he’ll have a legit shot at making the team. I don’t see Hextall cutting Lehtera, so essentially it’s Read or Leier for the final forward spot.

Read has been, well, Matt Read. He’s been solid but not spectacular. I don’t think he’s locked up his spot yet, and I think it’ll go down to the wire. I think as a fourth-liner and penalty killer, he’d be an adequate option, but I prefer Leier. That said, I’d bet on Read.

Final cuts: Leier and Sanheim.

I don't foresee any sexy surprises by Hextall when the Flyers make their final cuts and announce the 23-man roster.

Let's start with the defense.

Sanheim possesses terrific offensive upside and has shown it in the preseason, which is what makes his case for the roster so strong. But the Flyers aren't necessarily in dire need of offense from the blue line. They already have Gostisbehere and Provorov, defensemen that can move the puck up ice, do damage on the rush and orchestrate the power play.

Right now, the Flyers might want more stability than ability on the back end. They're about to plug in two rookies on defense, which brings a level of unknown to a pivotal position group. This isn't to say Sanheim hasn't improved defensively. He has and doesn't get enough credit for it. He will soon be here making a difference for quite some time, but Morin and Hagg have done plenty in the preseason, too, enough to win the jobs that were really their spots to lose.

Manning and MacDonald haven't done anything egregiously bad thus far to force the Flyers into action of pushing them out. And MacDonald's contract is in a difficult juncture to move given there is still three years left with a $5 million annual cap hit.

Do I think Sanheim is ready? Yes. Would I love to see him now? Of course. My gut just tells me the Flyers see no harm in the 21-year-old starting the season at AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley while they continue to address ways to make room.

Now to the forwards.

In early June, I wrote how I wouldn't be surprised to see Lindblom open 2017-18 in Lehigh Valley, provided the Flyers have that option with the 21-year-old. That still would not surprise me, yet the Flyers need scoring from the wing, there's a vacancy there and he can help.

He's done enough, while I believe Hextall and company have viewed him winning a job since April.

Patrick belongs with his spot looking all but sealed, and Laughton, adapting to his role, seems like a lock. Raffl is fine, while Read and Lehtera are here for now, leaving Leier the odd man out, despite a valiant effort in the preseason. If he passes through waivers, the 23-year-old will be a nice depth option on the wing during the season.

It's back to school for Flyers prospect Noah Cates

Philadelphia Flyers

It's back to school for Flyers prospect Noah Cates

Noah Cates became a hit in high school.

His first year after graduation, though, he didn't exactly mind being away from the classroom. From Stillwater, Minnesota, Cates traveled south to Omaha, Nebraska, for a full season of USHL hockey with the Lancers.

A nice, little perk to the decision?

"No school that year for me, so that was fun just to play hockey," Cates said with a smile three weeks ago at Flyers development camp. "Develop, work on everything."

Despite not hitting the books, Cates, a 2017 fifth-round draft pick of the Flyers, learned a lot, gaining a knowledge base he'll use moving forward.

Because it's back to school.

In mid-to-late August, the 19-year-old is headed to the University of Minnesota Duluth to continue his education and hockey career with the 2018 national champions, where he'll be joined by his older brother Jackson Cates.

"Very excited," the younger Cates said.

A year away from home to prepare for the college hockey life did Cates well. He grew on and off the ice, which built confidence — especially important ahead of development camp, a world junior summer showcase and his freshman season.

"Just how to be a pro, show up every day," Cates said. "It's a long season but you have to be consistent — that was a big part for me. Consistently, doing the right thing, day in and day out.

"It's all about confidence. If you're confident you can play with those guys and that your body can hold up, you can do it. That's just a big part of it and what I developed this year."

Cates, a left winger with a true offensive skill set, came on strong after a feeling-out start to the season in which he totaled 14 points (six goals, eight assists) over his first 22 games. From then on, he broke out for 41 points (15 goals, 26 assists) in his final 38 contests, finishing second on the Lancers with 55 points (21 goals, 34 assists) in 60 games, while posting a plus-21 rating. 

"Second-half league for me, just got more comfortable with the team, the coaches, the league," Cates said. "The team did well, so I kind of fit in, did my part."

The offense has always been a part of Cates' game. Beyond the statistics, what truly stood out from the 2017-18 season was the added strength to his 6-foot-1 frame. Cates weighed 165 pounds at 2017 development camp. He said he started the year with Omaha at 170. Impressively, by season's end, he was a solid 180 to 185.

"That was a big part, how I progressed throughout the season," Cates said. "That was my main goal going there to step into college hockey and get ready to play against those older guys, so it was a really good season in that case."

Cates will now take his next test — back in class and on the ice.

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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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