In more ways than one, Flyers' young defense has unprecedented look

As football season begins Thursday night, it’s a welcomed sign that hockey is right around the corner. The Flyers open rookie camp Monday and training camp next Friday. There is a hockey game at the Wells Fargo Center next Wednesday, when the Flyers host the New York Islanders in a rookie game. Winter is coming, and after a long summer of Phillies baseball, we’ll take it.

Although the Flyers have missed the playoffs three of the last five seasons, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about their prospects in 2017-18. Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom are the festival’s headliners, but the lineup is stacked with motives to tune in. We’re entering the enjoyable phase of the Flyers’ recharge, in which general manager Ron Hextall will begin injecting young blood into the roster, more so than we’ve seen in the past two seasons with Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny.

No longer will the majority of the buzz reside on the farm system while we ponder why Chris VandeVelde draws into the lineup every night. So long as the Hextall regime is in charge, it’ll be important to pay continued attention to prospects because it’s how he builds his program. Draft and develop will be a staple here for a long time.

The Flyers are entering a youth movement, and Hextall during the offseason made it a point to not block any of his kids from earning a spot in the lineup. There is a bevy of candidates to snag the open forward slots, and as we sit today, two spots on the blue line are up for grabs. Assuming all goes as expected, they’ll be rookies.

For the first time since 2008-09, the Flyers will have four defensemen that are 24 years old or younger with no more than two years of experience going into the campaign. Eight years ago, the Flyers finished with four blueliners 24 or under playing more than 25 games, with two of them in their third NHL season and the other two being rookies.

Braydon Coburn was 23 and in his third year. Matt Carle was 24, acquired from Tampa just 12 games into the season and in his third year. Ryan Parent was 21 and played in 31 games in his first season. Luca Sbisa played in 39 games as a 19-year-old. But that team also had 13 total defensemen play that year with plenty of veteran leadership.

This season will be different, however. The Flyers enter 2017-18 in an unprecedented situation, as they’ll have a young, largely inexperienced defensive group with four defensemen either in their first, second or third seasons.

But that doesn’t mean that the blue line will be a weakness. Instead, it should be a strength.

Gostisbehere is entering his third season, and Provorov his second. At least two of Robert Hagg, Sam Morin, Phil Myers and Travis Sanheim will be here, and there is the slimmest of possibilities a third rookie will break camp with the Flyers. Radko Gudas and Brandon Manning are both 27 and Andrew MacDonald will be 31 on Thursday.

Any way we carve it, the Flyers’ defensive corps will have its growing pains this season. We can’t expect a band of first, second and third-year players to go through an 82-game schedule without learning moments, and we can’t look at Provorov as an exception. His rookie season didn’t go without miscues, though they were limited.

As we wait for the chips to fall in camp, the early bet is on Hagg and Morin cracking the roster this season with Myers and Sanheim beginning the season in Lehigh Valley. Both Hagg and Morin made their NHL debuts last April, and while it was an extremely small sample size, both looked as if they belonged. It would be a surprise if both 2013 draft picks don’t make the trip out west with the Flyers on Oct. 4. It’s safe to say at least one of them will be a Flyer this season depending on Myers and Sanheim’s readiness.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Myers and Sanheim beat out both Hagg and Morin, but it’s plausible one of them steals a spot from either Hagg or Morin. Hagg made tremendous strides in his third full season in the AHL last year, which led to Flyers assistant GM Chris Pryor saying in January he believes Hagg is “just about NHL ready.”

With Gostisbehere, Provorov and two of the four prospects in the fold, the Flyers’ defense will feature youth, puck moving and a steady two-way mix. Gostisbehere endured adversity in his second season, but as he regained his confidence from offseason hip/abdominal surgery, he flashed signs of the player he was in 2015-16.

Many expect Provorov to make a huge jump in his second season. Whether head coach Dave Hakstol continues to pair him with MacDonald is something that will be decided in the preseason, but it’s possible Hakstol decides to pair MacDonald with one of the rookies.

The inexperience will show at times this season, but it’s largely a group that should garner excitement and improved overall play than in years past. The puck should be out of the zone quicker with crisper passes, and it’ll be a bigger group than recent years. The added size will be welcomed. Of the four prospects in the mix, Hagg is the shortest at 6-foot-2, which, still, is decent size. Sanheim is 6-4, Myers is 6-5 and Morin is 6-6.

Gone are the days when the Flyers’ defense would feature Luke Schenn, Nick Schultz, Nicklas Grossmann, and other defensemen that no longer jell well with today’s game. Beginning this season, we’ll finally see what Hextall began to build when he took over in 2014. The blue line will be young, it’ll be inexperienced, and we haven’t really seen anything like this in Philly in quite some time, if ever at all, but it should be fun to track.