What makes preseason particularly difficult to judge is that each player has a different measure of success. Veterans are primarily looking to find their legs and avoid injury. Fourth liners on the roster bubble are focusing on tenacity and effort level. The rookies are trying to impress both the coaches and front office with their skill.
But regardless of the individual report cards, surely new coach Dave Hakstol wants to see his team outperform the opposition at both ends of the ice, if only to instill confidence for the inevitable start of the season. To the end, tonight was a success, as the Flyers took down the rival New York Rangers by a score of 5-3 in the year's first game at the Wells Fargo Center.
New additions Evgeni Medvedev and Sam Gagner certainly looked eager to please. Medvedev ripped a power play blast by Magnus Hellberg for his first goal as a Flyer, while Gagner added a goal of his own in the second period. Veteran Wayne Simmonds also stood out, delivering two beautiful primary assists.
Not to be outdone, the rookies contributed as well. Travis Konecny had his second straight standout performance, and Shayne Gostisbehere added two third period goals to announce his return to full health at the site of his past Frozen Four conquest.
Also, for the second straight night, the Flyers' defense was noticeably active in the offensive zone. Not only were they slipping down lower than expected during cycles to pressure the Rangers defensemen, the Flyers blueline was pinching with regularly in an attempt to regain possession in 50/50 situations. The tactics marked a major shift from Craig Berube's more conservative style.
After the game, Hakstol agreed that the newfound aggressiveness was no accident. Instead, it signifies a conscious shift in philosophy. He also noted the risk involved.
"We want to get a little more movement in the zone," Hakstol admitted. "In the second period, actually, we gave up four or five opportunities off the rush, and the majority of those were in outnumbered situations."
Rather than criticizing his defensemen for jumping into the play, however, Hakstol noted that the forwards were actually more to blame. He also stated confidently that the assertive play of the defensemen would continue.
"They were good pinches that, as forwards, we didn't cover and reload above quickly or well enough. So those are things that we have to work through, and this is the time of year where we want to work through those things. Encourage our defensemen to have a little bit more motion and movement in the offensive zone."
The home opener brought a victory over a hated rival, strong play from key rookies, and a glimpse into the system of Dave Hakstol. Who says preseason is meaningless?
Some additional observations on tonight's game:
- Even a week ago, I would have laughed had I heard anyone proposing that Travis Konecny could make the Philadelphia Flyers out of camp. And while the idea still seems out of character for the patient Ron Hextall, I wouldn't blame the general manager if he was at least pondering the possibility. For the second straight night, Konecny was all over the ice, gaining the offensive zone with speed and employing an active forecheck despite his small frame. He's changed the conversation from "he's just not ready" to "there just may not be room" in only a few short days. Expect Hextall to take the long view, as is his modus operandi, but fans are totally justified in their excitement. Konecny's ceiling is sky high.
- For now, everyone in the Flyers fanbase seems to love Shayne Gostisbehere. But when he finally earns an everyday NHL role, he's going to be a divisive player. Ghost is a risk-taker at both bluelines, often pinching to keep plays alive or aggressively challenging puck carriers on the rush. He's going to get burned on occasion, as he did on a second period pinch that ended up in the back of the Flyers' net, even if Hakstol seemingly absolved his player of blame in the post game. Regardless, I'm willing to bet that the plays Gostisbehere extends will help the team more than his mistakes will hurt. Will the fans agree? It seems like he has Hakstol's support.
- Part of the reason why Travis Konecny's emergence in preseason has been so surprising is because most fans were anticipating Ivan Provorov's debut far more. Instead, the highly-touted defenseman has taken a back seat to Konecny-mania. That's not to say Provorov has looked bad. In fact, he's displayed the composure and maturity that made him so coveted by the Flyers scouting department prior to the draft. But the "wow" plays just haven't been there, and he did spent a decent amount of time in his own end last night and tonight. In many ways, he's looked like a positionally-sound veteran finding his legs rather than a prospect desperate to impress.
- One criticism lobbed at Travis Sanheim over the offseason was his supposed struggles at defending the rush. And at least tonight, it looked like those rumors weren't totally off base. He seems to give up a bit too much space while backtracking, and his skating gets choppy as a result. It seems as if he's worried about making a mistake rather than just reading the play. I'd like to see Sanheim clean up that element of his game before he begins his NHL career.
- After a strong performance in Allentown last night, Evgeni Medvedev picked up right where he left off in the first period, making smooth passes at even strength and taking slapshots on the power play. One such bomb found its way past Rangers goalie Magnus Hellberg for the first goal of the game, as Medvedev sent a message to coach Dave Hakstol that he has an eye for power play time this season. Medvedev's game was a bit more inconsistent in the second and third periods as he struggled some with turnovers, but he still looks far more like a 33-year old hockey veteran than an NHL rookie.
- With little in the way of cap space this offseason, it was always going to be tough for the Flyers to address their weakness at the left wing position. So it was encouraging to see Sam Gagner to look fairly comfortable skating on the left side. Gagner, who primarily has played center or right wing in his NHL career, potted a goal playing alongside Sean Couturier and Wayne Simmonds and showcased above-average puck skills all night long. The roster logjam at forward would be far more manageable if Gagner can successfully play left wing, so keep an eye on him during the rest of preseason and camp.
- In his first action of the preseason, Steve Mason gave no cause for concern. He allowed three goals, but none were particularly weak. In fact, Mat Bodie's tally only found the back of the net after an unlucky bounce off the skate of Travis Sanheim. Mason may be the Flyers' most important player this season, and if the team has any chance at sneaking into the playoffs, they'll need him to be every bit the Vezina contender that he was in 2014-15. At least tonight, he looked like the same guy from last year.
- If I had to single out a player for criticism, it would probably be Scott Laughton. Not because Laughton was noticeably terrible, but because he wasn't noticeable, period. After an up-and-down 2014-15 season, Laughton is at something of a career crossroads, especially with younger forward prospects like Konecny and Nicolas Aube-Kubel on their way. If he wants to carve out a spot in the Flyers' top-nine, it needs to happen now. Tonight, despite playing primarily with Brayden Schenn and R.J. Umberger, he looked like just a guy.
- Sean Couturier took an early slash from Jarret Stoll that alarmed the Flyers faithful, but despite missing a few shifts in the third period, he did return and looked no worse for the wear. Nothing to see here (hopefully).