Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2016-17, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2016-17 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Puck Drop Preview: 2016-17 Philadelphia Flyers
Typically you wouldn’t call getting easily bounced out of the first round of the playoffs a success. But for the Philadelphia Flyers, making the playoffs last season was a success. It was a promising season for a team that was just a few shorts years away from becoming a true contender.
The biggest highlight of the season was no doubt the runner up for the Calder Trophy, Shayne Gostisbehere. General Manager Ron Hextall has always been very adamant about patience and not bringing up the rookies too quickly. His hands were tied, however, when Mark Streit went down with injury in November and Gostisbehere got his first full time chance after playing two games in the 2014-15 season.
2015-16 was once again another season where the Flyers stumbled out of the gate to start the year. A 7-1 pummeling by the Florida Panthers in their second game highlighted their vicious start. Scoring seemed to be at a premium as well. There was no worse stretch, however, than a bad October that carried into early November. Over a nine-game span the team went 1-6-2 and scored only 14 goals.
Through 16 games the Flyers saw themselves at the bottom of the league with a 5-8-3 record. Slow starts had become normal for the team, but this one was becoming much worse. And then Gostisbehere came around and brought an electricity to the team that was desperately needed.
There were other factors that included a career season by Brayden Schenn, leading the Flyers in scoring from January until the end of the season. Goaltending also held fairly steady with Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth between the pipes.
The playoffs were a distant thought during most of the season. A berth to the playoffs was picked up with a win against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the team’s second to last game of the season. This put the team with a first round match-up against the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. A clear mismatch on paper and certainly on the ice.
The Flyers were able to scrap a few wins out after going down 3-0 in the series but ultimately fell in six games to the Capitals. The only real highlight for the Flyers was Neuvirth coming in after game three and grabbing a shutout during the two games that he played.
The Flyers were one of the busiest teams in the NHL during the 2016 NHL Entry Draft in Buffalo. The team made a total of 10 picks during the weekend, along with two trades. They originally held the 18th pick in the draft, but traded back with the Winnipeg Jets and sent the 18th and 79th pick in exchange for the 22nd and 36th pick. The team also received the 120th selection from the Arizona Coyotes, finalizing a trade made last year. They would flip that pick to the New York Islanders for a fourth round pick next year.
With the 22nd pick in the draft the Flyers would take Russian forward German Rubtsov. There was thought that the controversy with the U-18 Russian team and their disqualification from the World Championships would hurt Rubtsov. The Flyers weren’t fazed and drafted the 13th ranked player. Rubtsov, however, is currently under contract by HC Vityaz for the next two years so he will not be attending training camp.
A bigger highlight of the draft came in goaltender Carter Hart. The Flyers made him the first goaltender taken in the draft with their 48th pick. This is an organization that has a stockpile of goalies in its system. Anthony Stolarz, Alex Lyon, and Felix Sandstrom are just a few of the names. Hart was the top goaltender in the WHL and posted a .918 save percentage with the Everett Silverstips.
It was another fairly quiet off-season for the Flyers in terms of big free agent names. The first move for the team was the buyout of forward R.J. Umberger. The buyout will bring a cap hit of $1.6 million this upcoming season and $1.5M in 2017-2018.
The Flyers also picked up a few depth pieces which included Andy Miele, Will O’Neill and T.J. Brennan. Dale Weise was also signed to a four-year deal, a player likely finding a spot in the bottom six forward group.
Jordan Weal, Nick Cousins, Petr Straka and Brandon Manning were small re-signings for the team. The Flyers also rewarded Schenn for his play during the season. They locked him up with a four-year deal after he came off a career high in goals, points and assists.
2016-2017 Opening Night Lineup
The Flyers top six is set, with Schenn’s suspension for the first three games the only thing that will change it to begin the season. Michael Raffl has spent time on the top line so he will likely be a prime candidate to replace Schenn until he returns from his suspension. Read will also most likely slide in Raffl’s spot on the second line for the time being.
Once Schenn returns, he will likely move back into the top wing spot. Raffl would then take his place on the second line. Things will be interesting for Read, however, due to a log jam in the bottom six. There’s a chance that he could end up taking the third line right wing spot, knocking Scott Laughton out of the lineup.
There will most certainly be a fight to secure a position in the bottom six. Nick Cousins has one of the best chances to secure a spot. During his call-up last season, he was finally able to put things together and play solidly for the team down the stretch. A hard-nosed player that has the ability to draw penalties with his play is a good candidate for a line that’s typically considered the checking line.
Boyd Gordon is another player who has his position all but locked up. The center was acquired to take away penalty kill time for Claude Giroux. Known as a face-off specialist, it gives the Flyers another player who can take defensive zone draws. With a team that has had trouble recently in the face-off circle, Gordon should be a boost in that category.
Weise could possibly throw a wrench into the pile with where he ends up. A pickup to potentially replace White may turn into a third line winger spot. Regardless, the battle for the bottom six during training camp and the preseason will be one of the big things to look out for. Most players will essentially be fighting for a job.
The defense is where it can get a little interesting. The Flyers went with a variety of different pairings throughout the last season. One pairing that is almost certain to stick together is that of Andrew MacDonald and Gostisbehere. The pairing was together most of the season once MacDonald was re-called from the Phantoms.
There are a few names on this list that could also flip-flop in and out of the lineup. Nick Schultz and Brandon Manning were two prime candidates that often fell on the scratched list. MacDonald also saw his name there a few times. It will all depend on how well one person is playing or if one makes a few too many mistakes.
Each of these pairings spent the most time together during last season so it would be no surprise if that is the case again this season.
A notable name not on the list is that of highly touted prospect Ivan Provorov. It’s a hard decision to not include him in the opening night lineup, but it would be on par with how Hextall has handled his prospects. The word on Provorov is that he has nothing left to learn at the junior level and is ready to step into the NHL. He will likely get the longest look during the preseason. Unless any major injuries happen during camp or the preseason, Provorov has a great chance at spending another season with the Brandon Wheat Kings. Having another year in juniors won’t hurt the young defenseman and gives time for the Flyers to have less of a log jam on the back-end.
The Flyers have one of the best problems that a team can have. Both of their goaltenders have the ability to be number one starters. Both, however, have the same issue: Neither of them have been able to stay healthy for an entire season. When healthy, each of them have shown reasons that the net should belong to them.
For Neuvirth, he showed that he can step up and be a number one goaltender when needed. After Mason struggled during the playoffs, Neuvirth stepped in and stopped 103 of 105 shots and helped the Flyers win two games. Mason has proven himself ever since coming over from the Columbus Blue Jackets. He has even said that coming to the Flyers turned his career around. His teammates have also backed him up with how valuable he is to to the team.
Both goaltenders are playing for a contract to be the Flyers starting goaltender for the future. Mason and Neuvirth are also both in the last year of their current contracts. While Neuvirth will be off competing for the Czech Republic at the World Cup of Hockey, Mason will be busy at Flyers training camp. This gives Mason more time in front of the coaches so they have a better chance at seeing where his game is.
Players To Watch
It’s almost too easy to include the defenseman on this list. His first year in the NHL saw him produce quite frequently with 17 goals and 29 assists. These stats helped him finish second in the Calder Trophy voting, behind Artemi Panarin.
A multitude of records highlighted his rookie season. He became the first rookie defenseman in NHL history to record points in 11 straight games. It was also a Flyers record for longest point streak by a rookie. It’s hard to believe that the Flyers drafted him in the third round of the 2012 draft.
The spark that Gostisbehere brings in his game and to the team is very evident. His abilities saw him named to Team North America for the World Cup of Hockey. It will be a different role, as he has spent some time on the team’s third paring.
All eyes will be on the kid they call “Ghost” to see if he can continue his impressive start. Or if he will fall into the dreaded sophomore slump.
There will also be a lot of eyes on Schenn coming the 2016-2017 season. The forward is coming off a career season with 26 goals, 33 assists, and 59 points. This career year earned the forward a hefty new four-year deal with the Flyers in the off-season.
It’s been a steady incline for Schenn since being traded from the Los Angeles Kings. Only at 25 years of age, things are looking up for Schenn. Consistency issues had followed Schenn since he was acquired by the Flyers. Based on his stats the last few seasons, it’s safe to say that those issues may be behind him for good.
He will have to wait until the fourth game of the season before he gets the chance to continue to prove that. But with the way the 2015-2016 season went, it seems very likely that big things are coming for when he does make his debut.
After signing an eight-year extension before last season, it was a tough year for Voracek. His first goal didn’t come until November 7th. And the second goal didn’t come until a month later. Voracek finished the season with 11 goals and 44 assists. It was very much a down year.
But there is hope that Voracek will turn it around come this upcoming season. One down year is not cause for panic. There are plenty reasons to believe that Voracek will bounce back. A rebound in mid-December saw him put together nine goals and 24 assists in 30 games. When everything seemed like it was going right, a foot/ankle injury sidelined Voracek from February 25 until March 19.
A fresh start health-wise and mentally should help Voracek have a much better start to his season than last year. Taking part in the World Cup of Hockey may also give him the opportunity to work on anything on a bigger stage than the preseason.
Players on The Rise
Raffl was signed by the Flyers as an undrafted forward in 2013. He was coming off his second year with Leksands IF where he posted 24 goals and 22 assists in 49 games. The expectation was that Raffl would head straight to the AHL for a year.
He ended up spending his first season in the NHL, aside from two games he spent with the Phantoms. His first year stats are no surprise for a player who was in North America for the first time. It was his second year that was more impressive. He jumped from nine goals the previous year to 21 goals.
While scoring came a little bit harder this past year, it’s clear to see that Raffl has adjusted to the North American style of play and found his role on this Flyers team. He has spent some time playing alongside Giroux and Voracek. He can also provide solid depth down in the lineup for the team as well.
Raffl will likely never be known as a high skill player, but his ability to drive play and possession numbers make him a very valuable asset. Hextall also saw that, as he signed Raffl to a three-year deal this past season.
Michael Witmer also spoke on Raffl’s potential for a breakout year as he enters his fourth year in the NHL
At just 23 years old, Couturier is already considered a veteran in the league. The forward has been playing for the Flyers for five seasons, coming into the league when he was 18. At this young age, Couturier is known as one of the best defensive forwards in the league. This status helped him join Gostisbehere on Team North America.
The knock against Couturier has been that he is just a defensive forward and nothing else. The stats say otherwise. He is coming off his best point total since the 2013-2014 season, in less games. Couturier is also at the age where players typically begin to breakout. Schenn had his breakout season at 23, Giroux jumped from 47 to 76 points at that age and Jeff Carter went from 53 to 84 points.
Couturier has a vital role on this team and it obvious to see that in games where he has been absent. This past season saw Couturier not play 82 games for the first time since the 2012-13 season. His most notable absence was during the playoffs. He was knocked out with an upper body injury on a hit by Alex Ovechkin in the first game. The power play was the difference in that series and with Couturier’s effectiveness on the penalty kill, things could have gone another way had he been healthy.
In his five years on the Flyers, he has become one of the most versatile players on the team. He plays in almost every possible situation, often playing against the best players on the opposing side. Couturier can go nowhere but up from here and there is nothing to suggest that he won’t continue to dominate the defensive game while providing some offense as well.
For the first time in his career, Wayne Simmonds reached the 30 goal mark this past season, finishing with 32 goals in 81 games. It had seemed like bad luck always struck when Simmonds was close to this mark before. The lockout in 2012-2013 had made it impossible to score that many. The next season he ended with 29 despite playing all 82 games. It seemed like he would finally reach the mark in 2014-2015, but a lower body injury ended his season with two weeks to go and he would finish with 28 goals.
In the beginning, Simmonds was primarily known as power-play scorer due to his net-front presence. He is also a player that isn’t afraid to play with an edge and will be one of the first players to step in if things get nasty. This has helped him become well-liked as a Flyers player.
His consistent goal-scoring ability also helps him out. While sometimes the goals can come in streaks for Simmonds, he is consistently been around the 25 goal mark in all but one of his five seasons with the team. His even strength play has also been trending upwards.
This past season saw Simmonds most productive even strength play of his career. This came in a season where the Flyers power play was not at its best. Simmonds was able to get past that and became an important force in the Flyers push for the playoffs.
Turning 28 in August, eyes will be on Simmonds to see if he has set a new standard for his play or if this season was just a one-time thing.
Players on the Decline
At 38, Streit is entering his 11th year in the NHL. It seems like time is finally starting to catch up to the elder defenseman. When he signed with the Flyers, he was already 35 years old. A decline in his play was expected.
However, in his first season with the Flyers, Streit put up 10 goals and and 34 assists for 44 points. His next season saw nine goals and 43 assists for 52 points. It was starting to look like Streit was defying time with his production. This put him 10th in the NHL in scoring among defenseman.
This past season, though, was a complete turnaround from where he started. Streit’s points in those first two seasons were primarily coming on the power play. That fell apart this past season, mostly due to a lower body injury that kept him out of the lineup for six weeks. The emergence of Gostisbehere also limited his power play time once he returned.
He finished the season with six goals and 17 assists, his lowest total since his first year in the NHL back in 2005-2006. The injury also saw him play in 62 games, his lowest since 2012-2013.
Rumors of a potential trade have followed Streit around. The Flyers are waiting on some of their defensive prospects to mature so it’s more likely Streit hangs around as he has one more year left on his deal. There’s a chance the Flyers find a buyer for Streit, but all signs point to the Flyers sticking it out and hoping Streit still has a few moves up his sleeve.
Read broke into the NHL as a 25-year-old undrafted forward. And he delivered steady point production and strong penalty killing during his first few years. Along with Couturier, the two were known as a shutdown tandem at even strength and on the penalty kill.
The point production came to a halt in 2014-2015. In 80 games the forward put up just eight goals, a career low. Read would go on to admit that he had been playing through a high ankle sprain during the first half of the season. The expectation was that he would come in to the next season healthy and have a bounce-back year.
The exact opposite would happen. The goal total did increase for Read, but only by a few as he would score just 11 goals. His point total only reached 26, which was less than a season ago.
The struggles can be linked to the change in head coach and the change in Read’s role. Under former head coach Craig Berube, Read was primarily playing against team’s top lines along side Couturier. The role seemed to change frequently under current Head Coach Dave Hakstol. An adjustment period is certainly understandable.
There is room for improvement in Read’s game, however. The point totals have steadily fallen since his 40-point season in 2012-2103. The deadly wrist shot that made Read successful early in his career seems to have disappeared. Early in his career, Read was also using his speed to gain entry into the offensive zone. The dump and chase method has appeared to replace that as of late.
It’s possible that age is starting to catch up to the forward, as he turned 30 years old in June.
2016-17 Season Prediction
The Flyers are in a interesting situation. While the team is not quite in contention status, they were able to sneak their way into the playoffs this past season.
When looking at the team strictly via their roster, it’s easy to see that the team has stars and impact players. It’s putting all the pieces together on the ice and performing night in and night out that has been the problem.
Having not done much in the offseason to address scoring issues, it’s hard to say that this team will be any better than the past season. However, with some of its star players taking part in the World Cup of Hockey, a slow start to the season for the Flyers could become a thing of the past. Playing in competitive hockey before the season begins may help players like Giroux and Voracek into better starts to their seasons.
Even with the chance for a better start, it’s more likely that this will be another season of struggles for the team.