The dog days of the offseason are well and truly upon us, and despite the excitement surrounding the Phillies this summer, it’s not hard to find yourself longing for fiery forechecks and flying pucks. So let’s take the opportunity to make a few overly optimistic predictions about next season’s Flyers team (and a few less so) to help tie us over.
Now, it is my firm belief that writers are not shamed enough for their wayward takes. That’s why we’ll be revisiting these predictions after the season, and for every incorrect prediction, I will share a brief, embarrassing fact or story about yours truly. With any luck, none of them will come to pass, and I will be sufficiently shamed on the internet. Let’s begin, shall we?
Mikhail Vorobyev is in the starting lineup on opening night
Is it highly irresponsible to make this kind of prediction before seeing even a minute of training camp? Absolutely. But “bold prediction” pieces are nothing if not irresponsible!
The battle for the 3C role in training camp is going to be a fun one to watch – and arguably the biggest storyline for the Flyers before the season begins. Hextall has frequently floated Jordan Weal as a candidate, Scott Laughton did solid yeoman’s work last year on the fourth line, and Morgan Frost is, well, Morgan Frost.
But here’s why I think the less-heralded Mikhail Vorobyev will emerge victorious, or at least claim a roster spot. To fill the 3C spot, you can expect Hak and Hexy to be looking for a smart, reliable player in the mold of Valtteri Filppula (*shudders*). What do you know — that’s exactly what Vorobyev projects to be (but, like, better than late-career Filppula, hopefully).
You could argue that Travis Konecny making the team proves Hextall is willing to bring up slippery, skilled forwards like Frost to the big squad at a young age. However, Konecny is a winger, which translates to fewer defensive responsibilities. Vorobyev is the only contender who has shown two-way ability at the AHL level, at the bare minimum. Frost very likely has that ability too—I’m just skeptical the Flyers will assume he does without taking a look at him with the Phantoms first. And despite all the talk of moving Weal to center, does that really seem like the best way to jumpstart a player who is struggling to generate offense as is?
If there’s one thing this coaching staff likes, it’s veteran-yness, and Vorobyev is as veterany as a player unproven at the NHL level can be. I think he’ll turn some heads in camp, and he goes on to carve out a solid rookie year in the Flyers’ bottom-six.
Travis Konecny finishes top 3 on the team in points
Konecny ended last year a distant fifth on the team in total points, with his 47 putting him behind Giroux, Voracek, Couturier, and Gostisbehere. Jumping ahead of two of those players next year might seem like a stretch, but it’s very much in the realm of possibility if TK can stick on the first line for the entire year. Before being moved up to the Flyers’ top line alongside Giroux and Couturier on December 23, Konecny averaged a mildly disappointing 1.3 points per 60 minutes of ice time in all situations. But everything changed once he got the opportunity to skate with two of the team’s best forwards. Konecny’s scoring rate skyrocketed to 2.82 P/60, a rate that would have been the 42nd-highest last season and higher than that of Patrick Kane, Nicklas Backstrom, and newest Flyer James van Riemsdyk.
And that’s all before considering that Konecny never played on the Flyers’ top PP unit. Any fan who’s followed the team in the last several years is well aware of the much-maligned second unit. Without a Giroux-like talent to lead it, the second unit has simply never been able to produce consistently.
Fortunately, the arrival of van Riemsdyk may change that. Where Hakstol decides to fit him in remains to be seen, but the second unit will be receiving a very strong player on the extra man, whether it’s van Riemsdyk himself or a player like Wayne Simmonds who would be bumped down. The result? A slight boost for the other second unit players like Konecny. Project a mild improvement for the second unit, and it’s easy to picture Konecny averaging around 3.0 P/60. Those would be star-level numbers, and likely enough to make him one of the team’s point leaders.
Lehtera and Weise combine to appear in over 80 games, again
Time to dial back the optimism a little. Last year, Jori Lehtera and Dale Weise were the Flyers’ two most ineffective forwards. Both finished bottom-four among regular forwards on the team in Corsi, Goals For Percentage, and Expected Goals. In other words, while Lehtera and Weise were on the ice, the Flyers were outshot by their opponents, outscored by their opponents, and deserved to be outscored based on the quality of the chances. And yet somehow, the two managed to appear in 108 games combined.
Hakstol finally turned on Dale Weise late in the season—from March onwards, Weise was virtually chained to the bench. Lehtera continued to receive time, though, and appeared in the playoffs against the Penguins. As evident as their ineptitude appears from the stat sheet, I would wager that Hakstol hasn’t quite given up on them yet. Even barring injuries to the players ahead of them on the depth chart, I’m expecting at least 60 games from Lehtera and 20 from Weise. *ducks*
Gostisbehere and Provorov finish the year on separate pairings
To be clear, this prediction has nothing to do with Ghost and Provy’s talent or effectiveness playing off one another. Playing big minutes against opposing teams’ top lines every night, the pair recorded a very solid 53.97 5v5 Corsi For %. Unhitched from the deadweight of Andrew MacDonald, Provorov took a noticeable step forward in Year 2, largely thanks to everyone’s favorite paranormal mammal.
So why would Hakstol break up this power couple? The first reason is simple: injuries. In addition to the possibility that Ghost gets hurt (Provorov has yet to miss a game, so therefore he must be indestructible), it’s not hard to picture MacDonald or Gudas or Sanheim going down, and the coaching staff feeling the need to spread the wealth a little.
But on a more positive note, I think it’s likely that touted prospect Philippe Myers gets his chance at some point this season. With size, skating, and a powerful shot, Myers is almost the complete package. Health permitting, the defenseman projects to be a top-four staple for years to come. And if he can hit the ground running, Hakstol might see in him an opportunity to balance the defensive corps while losing hardly anything from the top pairing.
Flyers make it to the Eastern Conference Finals
The Eastern Conference is shaping up to be an intimidating one next year. The Capitals are defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Lightning return much of their conference-leading roster, the Maple Leafs added John Tavares, and the Penguins are still the Penguins. There’s little reason to expect the Flyers to leap into Cup contention when so many teams appear to be better prepared for a deep run.
But the playoffs are a capricious beast, and when I look up and down this Flyers roster, I see a team that has the talent and depth to challenge the contenders. Their top two forward lines can match nearly any in the league, backed by a stockpile of up-and-coming young stars at almost every position. If utilized effectively (admittedly a big “if”), this could finally be the year the Flyers take another step forward toward bringing a Cup home to Philadelphia.
(Stats via Natural Stat Trick and Corsica Hockey)