Right from the first day of training camp, one could get a sense that things were going to be much different for the Philadelphia Flyers this season. With the departures of Pierre Edward Bellamare, Chris Vandevele, Michael Del Zotto, Nick Schulz and Mark Streit, there would be plenty of open roster spots there for the taking for the young players in the Flyers system to step in to.
Flyers GM Ron Hextall made it clear from day one that a lot of the young players in the Flyers system were now ready to take the next step up to the NHL level. The result was the most competitive Flyers training camp in recent memory.
Also, Flyers coach Dave Hakstol ran a very grueling, very intense training camp. Just about every single day, you would hear the players commenting on how it was the hardest training camp they had ever been through. As a result of the upgrade in talent to their roster, and the hard work they put in during training camp, the Flyers are starting to see the fruits of their labor.
The Flyers are now a deeper, faster, well-conditioned team that puts in a full 60-minute effort on a nightly basis. In years past, after yet another disappointing loss, you would hear the Flyers players constantly lament the fact that they didn’t play a full 60-minute game. Too many times the Flyers would dominate parts of games but, then would have stretches where their play would fall off. Too many times that wound up costing them games.
That hasn’t been the case so far this year. As a result of the high intensity training camp and therefore being such a well-conditioned team, the Flyers have out shot their opponents in the third period of every game this season except for the third period meltdown against the Nashville Predators. Even in their two losses against the Predators and the Los Angeles Kings, the Flyers out played both of those teams for the majority of those games. Instead of the up-and-down, dominant at times but, then sleepwalking through games type of effort that we are used to from the Flyers, we are now seeing a consistent 60 Minute effort on a nightly basis from this team..
Another contributing factor to the Flyers being a more consistent team is the fact that they are much deeper this year. All four lines are contributing offensively. As a result, the third and fourth lines are getting much more ice time which is allowing the Flyers to be a much fresher team at the end of games. In last night’s game, Dave Hakstol wasn’t afraid to match up the Flyers fourth line against the Alexander Ovechkin line of the Capitals. The result was that Ovechkin was held scoreless and he was also a – 4 for the night.
The Flyers fourth line is the biggest example of how much more speed and depth the team has this year. This year’s Flyers fourth line of Taylor Leir, Scott Laughton and Michael Raffl is a huge upgrade over Chris Vandevele, Bellamare and Roman Lyubimov. Last year’s fourth line was a line that the Flyers would put out there just to try and keep the other team off of the scoreboard and to give the Flyers top players a breather.
Compare that to this year’s fourth line who every time they are on the ice, they are generating speed through the neutral zone, they are pinning the opponents in their own zone with a strong forecheck, and they are providing offense.
Scott Laughton is a huge upgrade over Bellamare. He is younger, faster, better on face-offs and has much more of an offensive upside. Bellamare only had eight points for the entire season last year. With his two goals last night against Washington, Laughton already has three points in five games Laughton is also a guy whose line mates love playing with. During last night’s game, Chris Therien was talking about how they were saying that Laughton is always in good position and that he always gets them the puck in the right spot on the ice.
Taylor Leir is a big upgrade over Chris Vandevele. Vandevele was a guy who just skated up and down the wing, wasn’t overly physical, wasn’t very skilled, and who didn’t have blinding speed by any stretch of the imagination. Taylor Leir is a guy who has blazing speed and as a result pressures teams into making mistakes. He is also a much more offensively gifted player than Chris Vandevelde.
The fact that Michael Raffl is now a part of the Flyers fourth line speaks to just how much deeper this Flyers team is than ones in years past. It was only a few years ago that Raffl was on the Flyers Top Line with Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek where he scored 21 goals. With both Laughton and Leir both being smaller players, Raffl balances out that line by giving it some more size and physicality.
The fourth line isn’t the only area of the team where the Flyers have improved though. With the addition of two skilled rookie defenseman in Robert Haag and Travis Sanheim, and a healthy Shayne Gostisbehere, the Flyers have become a much better team at moving the puck out of their zone and up the ice. This was clearly evident during training camp and it has continued through the regular season. So many times last year, the Flyers would get pinned into their own end because they didn’t have defenseman who could move the puck.
Valteri Fillpulla has stabilized the Flyers Center position. After he was acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning last year in a trade deadline deal, the Flyers went from a minus to a plus 5on5 goal differential Also after being moved from the Flyers third line Center to their second line Center position, the Flyers second line has been much more productive. Fillpulla has already chipped in three goals in the Flyers five games this year.
Sean Couturier has also become a more productive player since Fillpulla has joined the team. He has 21 points in his last 24 games. Much of this has to do with the fact that Courtier doesn’t have to play as many hard minutes as he did in the past now that Fillpulla has given the Flyers more depth at Center.
Having Jordan Weal on the team right from the start of the season is another huge Improvement for the Flyers. Weal provides the Flyers with a great deal of speed and creativity. And despite his small stature, his board work is phenomenal. A great example of this was a sequence against the Nashville Predators where when the Flyers were on a line change, Weal was able to keep the puck pinned in the Nashville zone while the Flyers completed their line change.
It’s very early in the season, but it is clearly evident that the Flyers are a much-improved team this year. A lot of people have even gone out of their way to text me during games to say how much better this year’s Flyers team looks than last year’s. It’s very exciting to finally start to see Ron Hextall’s plan slowly but surely falling into place. And with the Flyers being as young as they are, things should only continue to get better.