Last week, we looked at every forward on the Flyers’ training camp roster, breaking them into different groups and trying to figure how likely each of them is to make the Flyers out of camp this year.
Now let’s do the same thing for the 20 defensemen on the Flyers’ training camp roster. It’s an exciting time for this unit, as the team and its fans are expecting the defense to become a younger and much more talented group over the next few seasons.
But who’s going to be on it in the meantime? And who else are we going to see wearing orange and black over the next couple of weeks? Let’s find out.
The NHL roster locks
As of now, there appear to be five defensemen who will definitely be on the NHL opening-night roster barring a trade or something highly unforeseen. Those defensemen are, in alphabetical order, Michael Del Zotto, Shayne Gostisbehere, Radko Gudas, Mark Streit, and Nick Schultz.
Nothing is written in stone, I suppose — after all, we put Andrew MacDonald in this section last year, and we all know how that ended up. (More on that in a second!) But you can feel pretty confident that each of these players are safe on the roster for now.
The fringe NHLers
Next up are two guys who have significant NHL experience and are likely going to be on the Flyers this year, but are probably the two guys most susceptible to getting their spots taken should someone unexpected end up on the NHL roster.
We’ll start with Brandon Manning. Manning, who spent the entire season in the NHL for the first time in his career last year after multiple strong AHL seasons, is clearly a player the Flyers like. They gave him a two-year contract this past offseason. But if anyone knows a thing or two about using a strong training camp and preseason to take a roster spot, it’s him – he did it last year. Manning’s likely proven himself to the Flyers’ coaches and front office as a solid bottom-pairing defenseman, but if he doesn’t have a noteworthy camp and someone else in the later sections of this article does, that player could be to Manning what Manning basically was to Andrew MacDonald last fall.
So, on that note! Let’s talk about Andrew MacDonald. We all remember his story from last fall. He didn’t have a great camp, the Flyers needed to send someone down to Lehigh Valley to clear cap and roster space, and it somewhat shockingly ended up being him. MacDonald was then left in the AHL for much of the season, until a Michael Del Zotto wrist injury gave him a second chance in February. The Flyers proceeded to give him pretty meaningful ice time after that point, and by all accounts they appeared to be pleased with his play.
One figures that MacDonald is probably going to be on the roster this year, after that 27-game stretch to end the season that pleasantly surprised a lot of observers. If we had to guess, we’d think the Flyers see him as one of the seven best NHL defensemen in the organization right now, so he probably should be around. But it’d be foolish to think that what happened to him last season couldn’t possibly happen to him this season – even he would tell you that. Also working against MacDonald is the fact that the Flyers know that he is not going to get claimed on waivers thanks to his gargantuan contract, making him susceptible to being sent to the minors if the Flyers want to make space for someone else without losing a player on waivers for nothing.
All of which is to say that if a young gun earns a spot in camp, MacDonald very well may once again be the one who loses his spot for it.
The elephant in the room
But at this point, it looks like there’s one clear young gun who could make that move, and it’s Ivan Provorov.
As of now, there’s no question in training camp that’s getting asked as frequently as “will Ivan Provorov make the Flyers this year?” And it’s easy to see why. The Flyers and their fans got their first taste of the changing of the guard on defense in 2015-16, when Shayne Gostisbehere showed up and took the NHL by storm. Provorov has a chance to provide a similar sort of effect this year, giving fans yet another new face to watch and be enamored with on their blue line.
We’ll have many more thoughts on Provorov’s chase for a roster spot as training camp goes on, but until we hear that he’s been sent back to Brandon, Ivan Provorov is the guy who’s most likely to make the NHL among those who aren’t already established NHLers.
The other prospects, AHL edition
This group consists of the players who are facing long odds to make the NHL roster right out of camp but are legitimate prospects for the organization and will be playing at the AHL level this season.
If not for Provorov, the young defenseman who would be getting the most buzz as a potential NHLer this season is Travis Sanheim. There was some outside hope that Sanheim would make a charge for a spot last fall, but he had a just-OK camp and was sent back to the WHL pretty early in the preseason. He responded to that by leading the WHL in scoring for defensemen last year, solidifying his spot as a high-end prospect even if he’s become a bit overshadowed within this system thanks to Provorov.
Sanheim definitely shouldn’t be ruled out of contention for a roster spot as the preseason begins. But for the first time, the Flyers have the option this year to send him to the AHL. As such, he’d probably need to have a near-perfect camp and preseason to end up on the Flyers come October 14. Sanheim seems like a candidate for a mid-season call-up if he finds success early and often in the AHL, but right now he faces long odds to make the roster.
After Sanheim you’ve got a pair of 2013 draftees who figure to be headed to the AHL. Robert Hagg is coming off of a disappointing second season with the Phantoms, and his chances to make the NHL team are slim to none. On the plus side, it sounds like he was rounding back into form as the Phantoms’ season came to a close last year, so it’ll be crucial for him to get off to a good start this year for the Phantoms.
Meanwhile, Samuel Morin will be coming into his second pro season. By most accounts, his first AHL season went about as planned, but it still sounds like he’s got a way to go before he’ll have a real chance to make the Flyers. It’d be nice to see him really step forward this year with the Phantoms.
Finally, Reece Willcox was signed by the Flyers to an entry-level deal earlier this year after finishing up his career at Cornell. The 2012 fifth-round pick has no chance to make the NHL roster this year and is, probably, a long shot to ever make it. But he’s a player the Flyers have indicated that they really like, and he should be in the running for regular ice time with the Phantoms despite the crowded picture on defense there.
The other prospects, CHL edition
There’s only one name that really falls into this group, and that’s Philippe Myers, the guy who parlayed a training camp invite last year into an entry-level contract. That contract ended up being one of the best moves of last offseason for Ron Hextall, who watched Myers take a leap forward and play like one of the QMJHL’s best defensemen. One year after that camp invite, Myers is finding his way onto league-wide top prospect lists. He’ll be heading back to Rouyn-Noranda at some point soon, and the Flyers will be watching closely, hoping he can build upon his breakout 2015-16 season.
The AHL reinforcements
Next, we’ll discuss the three guys who probably don’t figure into the NHL picture but a) will likely be the Flyers’ top short-term call-up options in the event of an injury and b) have a lot of experience at the AHL level and will definitely help the Phantoms win games.
The familiar face here is Mark Alt, who’s entering his fourth full season with the Phantoms. Alt’s primary role last year was to work with Samuel Morin, and the two were the Phantoms’ primary shutdown defensive pair for much of the year. No word yet whether the two will reprise that role this year or whether Alt will be paired with someone else (assuming he gets regular ice-time, which, given the number of strong AHL defensemen on the Phantoms, is no lock). But the Flyers brought Alt back this summer for a reason, and he figures to be an important piece for the Phantoms in some capacity.
Then there are the two new faces. The bigger name is T.J. Bren—sorry, let me try that again—Moorestown Native™ T.J. Brennan, who is very, very excited to play for his home town team. Brennan was one of the best defensemen in the AHL for multiple seasons with Toronto, and the Flyers are clearly hoping he’ll be able to bring something similar to the Phantoms this year. And there’s no reason to think he won’t be able to. The fans in Lehigh Valley should be very excited to see what Brennan can do, and Phantoms coach Scott Gordon is surely excited to add Brennan to the lineup. (Brennan, for my money, is also probably the player who’s most likely to get a call up if the Flyers need one in the short-term and don’t want to send any of the prospects up. Just a guess there.)
And then there’s the other new addition to the lineup, 28-year old Will O’Neill. O’Neill spent last season playing for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, but was another one of the league’s highest-scoring defensemen — third in the AHL, to be exact. He’s never played in an NHL game, but has plenty of AHL experience under his belt. He, like Brennan, will bring a lot to the Phantoms’ defense, and he could also maybe be a call-up option for the Flyers.
The fringe AHLers
The two players in this group are ones who will be fighting for depth spots on the Phantoms and will likely be spending time in Reading with the ECHL team this year.
2014 seventh-round pick Jesper Pettersson is coming up on the last year of his entry-level contract, and unfortunately he hasn’t been able to even establish himself as an AHL regular at this point. The undersized Swedish defenseman split time last season between the AHL and ECHL, and figures to be on a similar track this year.
Maxim Lamarche, who the Flyers signed in 2013 as an undrafted free agent, is in a similar situation to Pettersson, with the exception being that he’s on an AHL-only contract after the Flyers did not extend his entry-level deal this past summer. He too is coming off of a year where he spent plenty of time in Reading, and he’ll probably be there again for most if not all of this coming season.
The camp invitees
Finally, the Flyers have invited two defensemen to their training camp, hoping to find a gem again the way they did last fall with Myers. The two players they’ve brought in, Brennan Menell and Garrett McFadden, are both very similar types of players. Both are on the smaller side (Menell is listed at 5’10” and 180 pounds; McFadden, 5’11” and 179) and both are offensively-oriented 19-year old defensemen from Canadian juniors (Menell posted 53 points in 69 games last season for Vancouver in the WHL, while McFadden had 40 in 68 games for Guelph in the OHL). It’ll be interesting to see if the Flyers spot anything that inspires them to give either or both of these guys an entry-level deal before they leave camp, but the spotlight is mostly off of them for now.