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Did the Flyers’ opening-night lineup choices send the wrong message?

The Flyers’ season-opening win was great! But it also wasn’t what it should have been.

New York Rangers v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Alright, so before I say anything else, a few quick disclaimers:

  • The Flyers won their season opener last night against a good team in a tough place to play that happens to be three time zones away. That’s awesome, and I’ll take any win that we can get no matter who’s on the ice for it. Just win, baby.
  • I don’t know yet what the lines are going to look like tonight in L.A., or Saturday in Anaheim, or what’s going to happen when the team decides to revert back to carrying seven defensemen instead of eight, or how long it will be until the lineup-based complaints I’m about to make here are somewhat out of date. It could well be soon, and almost certainly will be by the time this road trip is done.
  • Finally, I am not in the locker room on a day-in, day-out basis, and even if I was, I don’t have Ron Hextall’s office bugged, so I don’t know what kinds of conversations he’s having with his prospects. Hopefully they’re getting clear instructions and feedback here, and hopefully, a while from now, we’ll be able to look back on this and laugh at it as a big overreaction.

So with that, allow me to put on my “I’m not mad, I’m disappointed” hat and vent for a few minutes.

Like a lot of you were (if our comments and Twitter/Facebook interactions are any sort of indication), I was reasonably frustrated with some of the personnel decisions that the team made in the week preceding Wednesday night’s opener. I had been drawing up forward lines in my head that included Oskar Lindblom since the day his SHL season ended back in April, and as the preseason went on I’d at least let myself consider the possibility that the Flyers would have three rookie defensemen as lineup mainstays right from the get-go.

That, of course, isn’t quite what happened. Nolan Patrick, Robert Hagg, and Taylor Leier all made the team, but Lindblom was pretty well shut out from getting a real shot to make it during the final week of camp, and was sent to Lehigh Valley as the preseason ended. And while all three of Hagg, Samuel Morin, and Travis Sanheim “made” the final roster, it seemed fairly clear from how Hextall discussed the matter last Sunday that the only thing preventing him from sending one of Morin or Sanheim back to the Phantoms was an injury to Shayne Gostisbehere in the closing minutes of the preseason.

The backlash to these decisions from the fanbase was pretty swift and unrelenting. How can you not keep the reigning SHL forward of the year on this team? How can you decide that Brandon Manning or Andrew MacDonald are worth keeping on this team over any of these rookies? What exactly is Ron Hextall waiting for? The frustration with this team’s decision-makers, from what I could tell, probably has at no point in the Hextall era been as universal and vocal as it was over the previous five or so days.

And I agreed with a lot of it. I, too, am far more excited for Travis Sanheim’s first NHL game than I am for anything that Manning or MacDonald will do for the rest of their NHL careers, and I think that Oskar Lindblom would probably be better right now than nearly half of the forwards the Flyers iced last night. So to see those guys not get rewarded is frustrating.

But I don’t think Ron Hextall’s an idiot, or a bad general manager (and, if our approval poll from this time a month ago is any indication, you probably don’t, either). I think he’s got some faults and blind spots as an NHL-level talent evaluator, but I think he wants what’s best for these guys and is just going about it his way.

I’d also managed to convince myself, to an extent, that it’s been so long since our fanbase really watched a prospect slowly ascend through the ranks — from juniors/college/international leagues to the minors and finally to the NHL — that’d we’d kind of forgotten that this isn’t always a quick process. Think about it: how many players since Claude Giroux spent meaningful time at a lower league and with the Phantoms before coming up to join the Flyers? Zac Rinaldo? Eric Wellwood? Nick Cousins? Maaaaybe Ghost, if you think he learned a ton from those 21 games he played with the Phantoms?

The point is it’s been a while since we’ve seen legitimate prospects spend meaningful time in the AHL before becoming Flyers, and I don’t think it’s fair to see that as necessarily a bad thing when the team asks one to do so. Different guys take different paths to success, and though I’m pretty confident the decisions this team made in the past week make them a bit worse off in the short term — which, again, I see as a talent evaluation issue, not a prospect evaluation issue — I’m not going to lose a ton of sleep over them in the here-and-now. Particularly since Hextall has basically said they’ll all be up at some point this year anyways. I don’t love it, I don’t even like it, but I can accept it.

What I have a much harder time accepting is the lineup that the Flyers iced last night, one which featured both Samuel Morin and Travis Sanheim watching the game from the SAP Center press box.

I’m not upset about that decision because it led to Manning and MacDonald both being on the ice. (Well, OK, I’m not thrilled about that part, but that’s not my big problem in this context.) Nor am I overly concerned about the fact that, as young guys, Morin and Sanheim should be on the ice playing games as much as they possibly can be. I’m pretty sure that this is a short-term arrangement.

I’m more concerned with this: what message are you sending to these two guys by telling them they aren’t going to be in the opening-night lineup?

The Flyers entered training camp with five returning NHL veterans on contracts. They completely punted on free agency and declined the chance to bring in a veteran defenseman on a PTO or a cheap one-year deal to either push the rookies in camp or to be there in case they all faltered. Even if the idea of three rookie defensemen making it was always a pipe dream, there were basically two spots on this roster with giant neon arrows pointing at them saying “ROOKIE DEFENSEMAN GOES HERE”.

This was supposed to be the year where these guys stepped forward and really started their Flyers careers. This was quite clearly the Flyers’ plan all along, all throughout the summer. Combine all of that with the fact that Hextall has repeatedly said that if a rookie is on the roster, he’s going to play, and even the most pessimistic observer had to figure that two rookies would be in the Flyers’ opening-night lineup, all while one of those five returning defensemen (presumably, one out of Manning, MacDonald, Gostisbehere, or Radko Gudas, but ideally one of the first two) would be watching from the press box.

So when opening night rolls around, and not only is there only one rookie in the lineup but there are two rookies up in the press box, how can the message there be anything but “these guys simply didn’t show us enough in training camp to earn a spot that we tried to hand to them”? How can Morin and Sanheim not take that as “we’re disappointed in your performances”?

I know it’s just one game, and as we know this team isn’t afraid to scratch young players for a game or two to try and teach them lessons, so in and of itself a one-game vacation doesn’t mean that much. And — if you’re willing to ignore the fact the Flyers were rolling with these pairings in practice as far back as last Saturday, before even the final preseason game — it’s theoretically possible that the Flyers were “playing the matchups” in sitting Morin and Sanheim against a team full of wily veterans in San Jose.

But even if you think those ideas have some validity in a vacuum, the first game of the year isn’t “in a vacuum”. This game is your first chance to really show off what you’ve spent all of this past summer and fall working on. It’s this team’s first opportunity to say “here’s the group that’s going to get us back to the playoffs”. And it was the Flyers’ chance to finally tell us who those big neon arrows were pointing at.

And last night in San Jose, one of those arrows was pointing at Brandon Manning, not Sam Morin or Travis Sanheim.

Did the Flyers enter camp thinking there was no chance this could happen, that they were definitely going to be rolling with at least two rookie defensemen from the get-go, and were forced to change their minds after something they saw in training camp and the preseason? Or were they always prepared for the possibility that one of the rookies would spend some time in the press box, and were fine with the alternative that was, by and large, the Flyers’ returning group of defensemen — one which helped this team accomplish nothing special last season?

Because neither of those options are appealing.

Again, I know: it’s one game. It probably doesn’t change much long-term, and I am sure we’re going to see one of Morin or Sanheim logging regular minutes soon. Heck, we’re probably going to see both of them logging regular minutes by January or so. I believe Hextall still has a plan, and whatever that plan is, these guys probably know it.

But Wednesday night in San Jose was the Flyers’ first big chance to say, to its fanbase and in front of a national TV audience, that they believe in these guys that have been the bedrock of the best group of prospects in the NHL. Instead, the Flyers took that chance to say that they think that what they did last year should mostly be good enough, and that the new guys will get there when they get there. No matter how patient they may be or how much they do or don’t still trust Hextall, fans have every right to be upset about this.