Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Konecny was the best player on the ice, by far
Prior to the start of last night's game against the New Jersey Devils, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall spoke with the media and explained that he viewed the performance of Travis Konecny in his first preseason game as "average." That's not the type of word you want to hear if you're Konecny, if you have legitimate designs on making the big club out of camp. His response was to go out last night and blow the doors off everyone.
No player on either team matched Konecny's level of impact on the game. His first period was solid enough, but Konecny really took control in the middle stanza. Every aspect of his skillset was on display -- speed, aggressiveness, passing ability, hand/eye coordination and even chippiness. Konecny opened the scoring with a perfect deflection of an Andrew MacDonald point shot, a deflection that he made while being knocked to the ice by a defender. Soon after, he barely missed on his second goal of the game, sending a backhand wrister off the crossbar. He quickly redeemed himself with a beautiful pass up the middle of the offensive zone to a streaking Michael Raffl, who easily beat Keith Kinkaid to extend the lead to 2-0.
There was little to nitpick from Konecny's performance. In fact, with the amount of scoring chances he set up on the night, Konecny could have easily finished with five or six points. If Monday's supposedly "average" game put him behind the proverbial eight-ball, his play last night was a well-executed trick shot serving notice that he will not meekly return to the OHL with his tail between his legs. More outings like this, and Konecny is going to make Ron Hextall's decision regarding the future of his young forward prospect a very difficult one.
#2: Morin was quietly strong as well
When Philippe Myers was given the start on Tuesday night in Philadelphia, Hakstol hinted that the 19-year old had to jump a few spots to earn the nod. It was easy to read between the lines that Samuel Morin was one of the defensemen that got jumped. He's had his moments at camp so far, but wasn't especially standing out. And after Myers looked so surprisingly polished on Tuesday, it seemed possible that Morin could be falling behind his younger teammate on the organizational depth chart.
Last night, however, Morin halted any talks of a slide. The usual strengths were all there -- winning puck battles in the corners, using his reach to disrupt cycles, being a bear for opposing power plays to avoid -- but the real eye-opener was the clear improvement in Morin's passing ability. His short defensive zone passes were almost always on point, he engineered quite a few controlled zone exits, and actually sprung a teammate for an offensive zone entry via a long stretch pass. Even his "turnovers" seemed more the fault of forwards mishandling well-placed feeds than anything that Morin did wrong.
Considering Morin's undeniable physical prowess, he just needs to be adequate at moving the puck to carve out a place for himself in the NHL. Last night was the first time over a full game that I've seen him surpass that threshold.
#3: MacDonald was undeniably impressive
I've made the point during the offseason that if Ivan Provorov does make the Philadelphia Flyers out of camp, Andrew MacDonald might be the one sent to the AHL. That's not because the front office necessarily would rank him eighth on the depth chart in that scenario; it's because there is next-to-no chance any team would claim MacDonald's massive contract on waivers, while fellow bottom-pair talents Nick Schultz and Brandon Manning would actually have a chance to be scooped up considering they come with far smaller financial commitments.
However, if MacDonald posts a few more games like last night, Hextall may take the risk of sending a Schultz or Manning through waivers anyway. The 30-year old veteran was calm and poised all night long, picking up a primary assist on Konecny's tally and consistently contributing in the offensive zone with shots on goal and slick passes. He even was more aggressive in the neutral zone than usual. I'm far from a fan of MacDonald's game, but I have to say that if there's something of an "open competition" between him, Schultz and Manning for third-pair minutes, the $30 million man has looked the most impressive of the three during preseason games.
#4: Hagg was passive
Other than Konecny and Morin, Robert Hagg was probably the third-biggest "name" prospect playing in this game, with all due respect to Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Anthony Stolarz. Hagg was once viewed by some as the safest defenseman prospect in the system, if not the best all-around one. But a disappointing 2015-16 season in Lehigh Valley pushed him to the back of the line. Unfortunately, Hagg didn't do much last night to open eyes. He did have one great outlet pass in the first period to spring Raffl and Konecny for a rush opportunity, but aside from that play, he was mostly ineffective.
It's not that Hagg made lots of big mistakes, and more that his small mistakes regularly resulted in play moving in the wrong direction. His passes were often hesitant and/or off target, and his coverage in the neutral zone was surprising passive. Against a fairly weak Devils squad, I was hoping to see Hagg pressure puck carriers more, like Provorov did in Philadelphia, but Hagg instead allowed a number of controlled entries against. I'm certainly not burying Hagg for one underwhelming game, but I was hoping to see a bit more from him, especially considering his strong preseason play last year.
#5: Mark Alt got into a fight, got injured
At age 24, Mark Alt's status with the Flyers organization is a legitimate question mark. He's clearly a useful AHL defenseman, but with so many young, talented blueliners nearly ready for their NHL shots, it's tough to see where Alt fits. Last night was an opportunity for him to earn the attention of Hakstol and Hextall, which may have been Alt's thought process behind engaging Paul Thompson in a fight during the second period.
However, it proved to be a foolish decision, as Alt was injured during the brawl and did not return. His performance to that point in the game had been decent, but considering the fact that he likely didn't have much time left at Flyers training camp anyway, this injury could spell the end of his chance to impress the higher-ups in the organization during the preseason.
#6: Goaltending again solid, Stolarz had the tougher assignment
Following Steve Mason's shutout performance in Philadelphia on Tuesday, the Flyers sent prospects Anthony Stolarz and Alex Lyon out to face the Devils on Wednesday. The two combined for an 18-save shutout, so it's hard to criticize either goaltender's performance. It is fair to note, however, that Stolarz faced the tougher workload.
The Flyers came out flat in the early stages of the game, and last year's top goalie in Lehigh Valley was forced to protect his home goal repeatedly in order to keep things scoreless. Lyon, on the other hand, took over at the midpoint of the second period, after Konecny's stellar play had helped the Flyers turn the direction of play. It's a big season for Stolarz and Lyon, as both goalies are only under contract through the end of the year and will be battling for starts. My money is on Stolarz being the one to shine brightest, considering his size, athleticism, pedigree, and years of tutelage under Philadelphia goalie coaches. But the great part about hockey is that the players control their fates via their performance, and that's what Stolarz and Lyon will both try to do in 2016-17 with the Phantoms here at the PPL Center.
#7: Leier was feisty, quick, and active
I'm not quite sure where Taylor Leier stands with the Flyers' organization right now. He took a step forward in terms of production last season in the AHL and even received a cup of coffee in Philadelphia, but there doesn't appear to be a clear path to NHL playing time right now considering the team's depth in the bottom-six.
Regardless of whether Leier has any chance at all of making the Flyers out of camp, he certainly played like a guy who wants a shot. Leier is more quick than fast, but he has good instincts for where the puck will end up and isn't afraid to arrive there in ill humor despite his small-ish size. He took three shots in the game, and was active all night long.
#8: Raffl still finding his footing
For veterans, training camp and preseason is mostly used as a tune-up process. The hope is that they can shake off the cobwebs and get into a rhythm while avoiding injury in meaningless games. That's why it's not particularly concerning that Michael Raffl looked out of sorts so often last night.
It was especially obvious due to the fact that he played on a line with Travis Konecny, who seemed to create a scoring chance per shift. A number of those passes went to Raffl, who regularly flubbed either the pass or the ensuing shot attempt. His most glaring error came in the first period, when Raffl could not hit Konecny in stride for a breakaway despite being under little pressure from the Devils. The Austrian forward did eventually score a goal (again due to Konecny's efforts) but the mistakes outweighed the positives. Again, this is preseason, and Raffl certainly doesn't need to be at his best yet. But it's fair to note that he still needs to find his footing.
#9: Konecny looked comfortable in Giroux's spot on the PP
Obviously, even if Travis Konecny is able to make the Flyers out of camp, Claude Giroux is not relinquishing his spot on the left side of the team's top power play unit's formation. But with Giroux not playing last night due to the World Cup of Hockey, Konecny took over that spot, and was just as effective in creating scoring chances on the PP as he was at even strength. On multiple occasions, he set up Brayden Schenn with slick passes into the slot area, and was even able to send successful cross-ice feeds to the right side player (usually Jakub Voracek, in this case it was often Andrew MacDonald).
If Konecny does end up a Flyer for the 2016-17 season, it would make sense to use him in that spot on the second power play unit. He appears to have the skillset necessary to quarterback a power play, and it would give the Flyers an immediate replacement on PP1 if Giroux were to ever be injured during the season. Philadelphia has been trying to build a passable second power play unit for years, and Travis Konecny could go a long way towards solving that problem.
#10: Who survives cuts?
Hextall also told the media prior to the game that another round of cuts would occur today, bringing the roster size down to around 35 players left at camp. It was this round of cuts last year that saw Provorov and Konecny returned to their junior teams, earlier than many expected. So what happens this time around? I imagine those two have proved enough to Hextall this week to justify at least a few more preseason games and practices, but the more intriguing questions are deeper down the roster.
Does Philippe Myers stick around for now? He's still an extreme long-shot to make the club, but don't forget that Sam Morin lasted until five days before season start during his age-19 training camp, so Hextall has shown a past willingness to keep impressive junior players around if they've earned it through strong play. And speaking of Morin, my guess is that he'll hang around as well, especially after his solid performance last night. Prospects like Hagg, Leier, Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Radel Fazleev may not be so lucky, however.