Flyers

Flyers 2016-17 preview: Ron Hextall's patience about to pay off

Flyers 2016-17 preview: Ron Hextall's patience about to pay off

LOS ANGELES — This is where it began.

Some time during the seven years Ron Hextall labored as Dean Lombardi’s assistant general manager with the Kings, he developed that sense of patience that has both tantalized and frustrated Flyers fans who want to win now.

“Every year you spend in the game, you become more educated,” Hextall said. “The more time you spend watching the game and the cap and not only short-term but long-term ramifications, you become more experienced at balancing things out and keeping them in perspective. I couldn’t make a move this summer that kills us in two years.”

Which is why the Flyers' GM didn’t mortgage the future — something his predecessors did so often — by dangling one of his many prospects or draft picks for a “win now” player who would guarantee playoff success.

“I see what’s going on,” Hextall said. “I’d like to make our team better every single day, but the reality is that sometimes you make moves to make your team better and two years down the road, look back and say, ‘What the hell was I thinking?’”

Hence, while some Eastern Conference clubs had significant makeovers, the only notable signees this summer were Boyd Gordon and Dale Weise — replacement parts for Sam Gagner and Ryan White and Russian forward Roman Lyubimov.

“I don’t make decisions on emotion or what other people are doing because in the end, it will hurt us,” Hextall said. “We are focused on the Philadelphia Flyers and what will make us better not just today, but also a year, two or three going forward.”

Something wonderful happened to Hextall this fall. He was rewarded for his patience.

Ivan Provorov came to training camp and simply became the club’s most standout defenseman. And while that was happening, fellow 19-year-old Travis Konecny showed people the many things he could do with a puck on his stick.

These kids weren’t ready to help the Flyers cross that void a year ago, but they sure look as though they’re ready now.

Last season, we witnessed what an amazing difference one young player could make with the emergency addition of Shayne Gostisbehere on the blue line.

Imagine what might behold coach Dave Hakstol’s club this season with two rookies, both of whom were impact players in junior. If they can have a fraction of the influence that Ghost had, the Flyers are in good shape.

Hakstol’s club, which takes the ice Friday night against the Kings at Staples Center, has gone from bubble team to playoff wild card with these two additions.

Think the Flyers are better?

“I do,” Hextall replied. “Part of it is we have a belief in ourselves. But it can’t be, ‘OK, we’re gonna get it done this year.’ We have to put the work in.

“It can’t be, ‘We’re gonna make the playoffs.’ We have to make the playoffs. We have a lot of work to do. We have to get off to a better start. Our first half (of the season) has to be better. With the additions, I believe we’re a better team.”

This season, the Flyers have more than one highly-skilled line. With Konecny here, Sean Couturier finally has a set of wingers — Jakub Voracek is the other —who can move quickly up ice with the kind of skill necessary to finish at the other end.

Finally, some of the pressure is off team captain Claude Giroux, who will get a reprieve in ice time from Gordon, whose sole purpose is to play Pac-Man and gobble up PK minutes and handle defensive draws. That allows Giroux to spend more offensive minutes on the ice.

And to top it off, both Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth — either of whom could be No. 1 goalies on many clubs — give assurance that no matter who is in net, the club has a chance to get two points.

That’s not to say the Flyers don’t have miles to go to achieve the level of Pittsburgh in the Metro Division, but fans can now see tangible evidence of a team in transition making forward strides and knowing there’s young talent right behind it in the organization, clamoring for a chance.

The evolution of the Flyers began last season under Hakstol, a first-year coach, and takes a larger step toward the unknown this season, as well.

“We’re beginning with a better foundation than what we started with last year,” Hakstol said. “A lot of that probably has a lot to do with most of this group being together for the year.

“That doesn’t guarantee anything. That is foundation we are working off. What I learned from Year One was the value of each and every point and hard how you have to scratch and claw for every one of those points. Whether or not you can say we’re ahead, that is for others to judge.”

They start the season with back-to-back games out West, then meet a Cup favorite in Chicago before heading home.

While their systems remain mostly the same, the single biggest factor that can influence the Flyers’ fortunes — or seal their fate — rests in how they begin the season.

Hakstol is the third consecutive coach who slogged his way through the first quarter of the season lacking momentum and points and ultimately watching his club gasp its way to the finish.

Last year, the Flyers barely made the playoffs and were exhausted when it began from trying to make up a points deficit.

A strong start in October means less angst in April.

Hakstol wants this club to resemble the one from February and March last season at the outset — not the end.

“That’s our bar and our starting point in terms of effort level, consistency level, and being a good team,” he said. “That was the biggest difference for our team those last couple months. We were able to really play every night with an identity that is called consistency.”

Three years into the rebuild, Hextall believes the organization is in “a good spot,” from the standpoint of veteran leadership, the sprinkle of youth, and talent developing in the minors.

This being the 50th anniversary of the franchise, it’s probably a bad idea to remind people the Flyers haven’t won a Cup in four decades and some core players are already in their prime years.

“We have time,” Hextall said. “And before that happens, as those guys age, these younger guys come up and take more of the burden from them.

“You end up having a deeper team and that’s the vision that we have. Those guys are still going to be productive players for us, but we won’t have to depend on them in three or four years as we do now. That’s a good thing.”

So how close are the Flyers?

“We've got some work to do,” Hextall said. “We've got some work, some growth to fully get better. How far to go? I don’t know. It has to play out on the ice.”

As it always does.

German Rubtsov continues roster push, Carter Hart sharp, more from Flyers' OT preseason loss

German Rubtsov continues roster push, Carter Hart sharp, more from Flyers' OT preseason loss

BOX SCORE

The Flyers couldn't get one back against the Islanders.

Alain Vigneault's team dropped consecutive preseason games to New York after losing, 3-2, in overtime Tuesday night at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The Flyers never trailed until the Islanders' OT winner.

They have five exhibition games remaining. Big names like Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, Travis Konecny, Ivan Provorov and Matt Niskanen have yet to dress for the Flyers.

Let's get into some observations:

• German Rubtsov came into the action as one of the most notable roster hopefuls on Tuesday night's game roster. He has played a lot. He competed in rookie camp, scored two goals in the prospects game, performed well in Monday night's preseason opener and was back in the lineup Tuesday.

The Flyers are challenging him.

"That's one of the reasons he's playing tonight," Vigneault said after morning skate. "There are some decisions to be made and some of the things we're going to do is put some players in a tougher spot to see how they react to it."

Rubtsov once again did some positive things. During the second period, he stripped the puck in a battle along the boards and rung the post, nearly giving the Flyers a 2-0 lead. However, he lost 10 faceoffs.

But he really showed himself when he raced out of the chute with AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley last season before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. He's healthy, strong and is looking more and more like an NHL center.

• Michael Raffl opened the game's scoring with a first period goal on a deflection. He and Scott Laughton were the only forwards in the lineup that played regularly for the Flyers last season.

Raffl will be a quietly reliable guy for the Flyers in 2019-20. Expect to see him on the fourth line and the penalty kill. The 30-year-old played a career-low 11:25 per game in 2018-19 and his minutes should be in that ballpark this season. Those lesser minutes are important, though, when they come on the PK and against the opposition's better lines to give the Flyers' top-six guys a blow.

• Carter Hart made his preseason debut and stopped all 14 shots he faced in 30 minutes.

He has been sharp in camp and the anticipation is there for his first full NHL season.

"For me, I'm here and I'm ready to play," Hart said last weekend. "I put in a lot of work this summer, on and off the ice. I added some muscle, added some durability and I feel really healthy in net, really strong."

Jean-Francois Berube allowed three goals in relief, including the OT winner, when he couldn't locate the puck after making the initial save.

• After a recent camp practice, Maksim Sushko spent a lot of time deflecting pucks at the net. He did about four or five rounds of redirecting shots.

The practice paid off as Sushko screened the goalie on a Chris Bigras goal in the third period. Sushko may have gotten a piece of it. Those role forwards understand that scoring chances will come from effort in limited minutes. Sushko is a 2017 fourth-round pick with speed and entering his first season with the Phantoms.

• Kurtis Gabriel got involved in the action. Flyers fans may recall the name. He's a big guy that likes to be physical and the former Devil is trying to get in the conversation for the Flyers' bottom six. Emotions boiled over between Gabriel and Ross Johnston during the second. In the third, captain Anders Lee laid a big hit on Gabriel, who was banged up and forced to leave momentarily.

Gabriel returned to the game for a short stint, but if anything lingers, it will obviously impact his roster chances with five exhibition games left.

• Bigras was signed on July 1 to a two-way deal. The 2012 second-round pick has 46 NHL games under his belt and enjoyed a career year in the AHL last season, scoring 22 points in 52 games. He had a nice game Tuesday night with two points and a plus-1 rating. The 24-year-old will be good for Lehigh Valley.

Nate Prosser, another defenseman, had an assist but was beat on the Islanders' second goal and was slow to react on New York's first goal. He played under general manager Chuck Fletcher from 2009 to 2018.

• Roster hopeful Andy Andreoff, who has shown a blend of toughness and skill in camp, was not very noticeable during his 15 minutes.

• The Flyers are off from practice Wednesday before welcoming the Bruins Thursday for the their third preseason game (7 p.m./NBCSP).

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Flyers at Islanders preseason: Storylines, game time and more

Flyers at Islanders preseason: Storylines, game time and more

VOORHEES, N.J. — The Flyers and Islanders are back at it Tuesday night.

Alain Vigneault's team travels to New York for its second exhibition game.

Let's get into the essentials:

• When: 7 p.m. ET
• Where: Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum
• Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia+

• A roster hopeful to keep an eye on will be German Rubtsov. He scored two goals in the rookie game, played well Monday night and he's right back out there Tuesday night. It appears like the Flyers could test his endurance and consistency with plenty of looks during the exhibition slate after an injury-shortened 2018-19 season.

"That's one of the reasons he's playing tonight," Vigneault said. "There are some decisions to be made and some of things we're going to do is put some players in a tougher spot to see how they react to it."

Rubtsov does a lot of things that profile well for a bottom-six role.

"I liked his game," Vigneault said. "I thought we put him in penalty killing situations, I thought with his linemates he was good and I liked his pace.

"When I watched him in the rookie game, you could see the skill. … He has to continue to improve. There seems to be a lot of upside there."

• Connor Bunnaman has had an underrated camp. The 2016 fourth-round pick scored 19 goals in his first year of pro last season with AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley. He has good size and some sneaky speed.

The 21-year-old did not play in the rookie game or the Flyers' preseason opener, so this will be our first look at him in game action.

• Many players did not partake in morning skate, so the Flyers' projected lineup is to be announced. Below is the game roster:

Forwards

Andy Andreoff
Michael Raffl
Scott Laughton
Mikhail Vorobyev
Kurtis Gabriel
Chris Stewart
German Rubtsov
Nicolas Aube-Kubel
Maksim Sushko
David Kase
Matthew Strome
Carsen Twarynski
Connor Bunnaman

Defense

Travis Sanheim
Robert Hagg
Chris Bigras
Tyler Wotherspoon
Nate Prosser
T.J. Brennan
Mark Friedman

Goalies

Carter Hart
Jean-Francois Berube

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