The Calm Before the Storm: A Flyover of the 2019 Preseason
Though the Flyers preseason technically doesn't end until a unique exhibition game against Lausanne HC on Monday, Thursday night's contest wrapped up the North American part of training camp 2019. Though a 1-2-3 record (not counting a 5-4 shootout loss in the rookie game) may not have been ideal, historically, preseason is hardly an indication on a team's success.
Besides, the attention of fans, coaches, and management usually shifts to individuals during this time of year, rather than the team as a whole. With final cuts looming and plenty of players still unsure of what, if any, role they will play in the 2019-20 season, here are some of the players who stood out to me during the six game exhibition season - for better, or for worse.
Whether you agree with the contract or not, Hayes makes the Flyers center depth much better than it would be without him. And he's lived up to the hype early on. It may be "just preseason," but Hayes has looked very good. He's winning battles along the boards, making smart plays with the puck, and has looked very comfortable around the net, with or without the puck.
Maybe it's because he's used to Vigneault's system, maybe it's just that we haven't seen an above-average 2nd line center in seven years. But Hayes has looked as good as you could have hoped. It will be very interesting to see how the Flyers deploy Hayes on the power play. He's looked great in front of the net, as I mentioned. But with JVR the heavy favorite for that role on PP1, will Michel Therrien chose to keep him on PP2 for balance or give him a look in a different spot (probably in the slot) on the top unit?
With one spot in the Flyers top nine already open (and perhaps a second, but we'll get to that later), the chance for one of the kids to make the team is as high as it's going to get. Frost, one of two first round picks within the last three years vying for a role, stood out towards the end of camp.
It took him a bit longer than hoped to get going, but Frost is on another level compared to where he was a year ago. Frost can now handle the pace of the NHL, allowing his stellar vision and puck skills to shine. He's been generating chances all over the place, but hasn't been able to bury any of them. And unfortunately, Frost suffered a minor groin injury on Monday that left him on the shelf for 5 to 7 days, killing his chances to make a final "seal-the-deal" showing. Frost will officially the season in the AHL (he was demoted Thursday), but if he can build on his solid preseason play there, he won't be in the minors for long.
One man's pain is another man's pleasure. Joel Farabee certainly isn't happy about Frost's injury - the two seem to be developing a Patrick-Konecny esque friendship already. However, with Frost on the shelf, Farabee becomes the front runner for the vacant third line wing spot.
The 2018 1st rounder hasn't broken down the door between him and the NHL. Thursday was the closest Farabee's come to a statement game. Though the game was blacked out locally, the Flyers beat reporters came into a consensus on Twitter that Farabee was excellent with the puck and created a ton of offense. He's never been a flashy player, and while he does have skill, Farabee won't dominate highlight reels like a Frost or a Konecny. Instead, his stellar hockey IQ and two-way excellence have been on display for most of camp. Oh, and he's hit every post in the world, creating the feeling that once he gets one, the floodgates are going to swing wide open.
Overall, Farabee has looked as poised as any prospect throughout camp. I think that he'll dress for opening day and get that last top nine spot, but as Fletcher said, just because a player is going to Europe doesn't mean they're on team for good. Farabee needs to prove a little bit more to avoid an AHL-less career, but he's on the right track.
Like Hayes, there were plenty of doubters about Braun when the Flyers acquired him for the high price of a 2nd and 3rd round pick. But like Hayes, it's been so far, so good for the 32-year old defenseman. Braun has looked very good in his own zone, using both his stick and his body throughout the preseason. For example, at home against Boston, Braun saved a surefire goal by deflecting a Bruin shot into the safety netting thanks to great positioning in front.
The biggest concern about Braun is that he will spend too much time in his own zone. He's done a good job of avoiding that pitfall so far, not looking half bad while spending a decent chunk of his shifts in the offensive zone. He also shooting the puck fairly often. Basically, he's looked like a safer Radko Gudas, which is far from an insult.
If Braun has been the pleasant surprise on the d-core's right side, Phil Myers has been the mild disappointment. After a solid 21 NHL game audition following a season a half of strong play in the AHL, Chuck Fletcher said that he traded Gudas in part so that Myers could begin the year on the Flyers third pair.
However, Myers is still trying to do a bit too much on the ice, an issue that plagued him last preseason as well. For example, on Monday's game, Myers was too indecisive covering a 2-on-1, then fumbled a puck at the blueline in the dying minutes that directly led to the game-tying goal. On Thursday, he failed to tie up Lias Andersson's stick in front, allowing him to score a goal in front. These were mistakes we saw too often at last year's camp, ones we thought Myers had cleaned up for good. But the growing pains with the young blueliner are from gone.
Granted, it hasn't been all bad. Myers has made some legitimately great moves with the puck in the offensive zone and his decision-making has had its bright spots (like his great assist on German Rubtsov's 1st goal in the rookie game). But good might not be good enough. At this point, Myers could end up as 3rd pair right-d, in the press box, or even in the AHL to begin the season and it wouldn't surprise me.
Chris Stewart and Andy Andreoff
These were the top two contenders for the 13th forward role going into camp. Andreoff was coming off a solid AHL season, signed a 1-way contract, and had been named by Fletcher as someone with a good chance of making the team in the offseason. Stewart played for Fletcher in Minnesota twice during his NHL career, which took a year off last season as Stewart played in England. Coming into Philly on a professional tryout, this was viewed as his last chance at the NHL.
Unfortunately, neither player impressed very much. Stewart has proved that he can hit and isn't afraid to drop the gloves, and even chipped in a couple of assists. But the biggest concern with Stewart is his speed (or lack thereof), and he's done nothing to quell that, and probably never will. Andreoff did even little to stand out, looking just meh for most of the preseason. He has been sent down to the AHL. Stewart will take the trip with the team to Europe, but Fletcher said there are currently no plans to sign him. He's likely just an emergency option in case of a last second injury before Prague.
Carsen Twarynski and Connor Bunnaman
The Flyers took Twarynski and Bunnaman with their 3rd and 4th round picks in 2016. Both had their moments last year - Twarynski looked great in training camp and darn nearly made the team out of camp. Bunnaman, captain of the Kitchner Rangers during the 2017-18 season, was the better of the two in the AHL level, scoring 32 points.
Neither seemed like they were particularly strong candidates to make the Flyers out of team. But with injuries in the bottom six and slowish starts from Frost and Farabee, both have run with the opportunities given to them. Twarynski has scored two goals (both bat-its at the side of the net) and been great on the forecheck. Bunnaman has been a bit slicker with the puck on his stick and plays a responsible game. Both are solid skaters. They are going to Europe, but either (or both) could be in Lehigh Valley within a few weeks. Both are going to need to keep improving to become full-time NHLers.
Perhaps no Flyer (except for maybe Hayes) has lived up to expectations better than Carter Hart has in this preseason. Hart stopped the first 32 shots he faced across three games (posting a. scary good .982 save percentage overall) and looked his usual poised, technically sound self. Hart is certainly making the case that he is ready to be the Flyers full-time starter this season. The early returns are nothing but positive on Starter Hart.
The same can't be said for Hart's understudy between the pipes. Though it hasn't been all bad, Elliott has looked a little rusty so far this preseason. He's let in some weak goals, such as unscreened shots from the point or the overtime winner on Monday, when Elliott thought he had the puck covered up only to have it poked home by Jake DeBrusk.
This doesn't mean that Elliott is cooked. Many veterans have sluggish preseasons before kicking into high gear once the regular season begins. However, because of Elliott's age and injury history, his slow start is a bit more concerning. Let's just say that his performance against Boston Monday prompted Alain Vigneault to say, "We can't win with goaltending like that. It's sh*t." (Video of him saying this was captured without audio by NESN cameras).
Injuries: Patrick, Pitlick, Gabriel, Welinski
A few days before training camp officially began, we found out that Nolan Patrick had an upper-body injury and would be skating away from the team. He's been missing from the official drills all season long.
We officially got an update on his status Thursday. Patrick has migraine disorder. Apparently, migraines run in Patrick's family, and his injury is not related to his previous concussions. He's been taking medicine for it since June. He is week-to-week and will not be traveling to Europe. It's a big loss for the Flyers, but Patrick's health is more important than whatever the on-ice impact of his absence may be.
In addition, Tyler Pitlick continues to progress his wrist injury suffered during the summer. He recently began skating in a non-contact jersey with the team. Kurtis Gabriel suffered an awkward collision with the boards in the second preseason game and will be out for at least a month. Defenseman Andy Welinski is also week-to-week with a lower-body injury.
The final person on this list is perhaps the most important. For those unaware, the NHL Network aired the first of their four part "Behind the Glass" series on Wednesday night that goes behind the scenes at Flyers camp. AV was in the spotlight for much of the first episode, and for all the right reasons.
Vigneault seems to be just as motivated to make 2019-20 a great season as the players. His attention to detail seems to be much higher than Dave Hakstol's. He oozes confidence, but is also emphasizing fun and making practices not only more fast paced, but more a labor of love. He accelerated the first round of cuts to make sure the vets were given more chances to get comfortable in his system. And his honest comments about players like Myers and (in Behind the Glass) Stewart are a breath of fresh air. Maybe it's just an example of better by comparison, but Vigneault has pressed all of the right buttons so far. But the real test comes one week from now.