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September 20, 2023

Five thoughts on the Flyers ahead of training camp

Musings on the Flyers' rebuild, Sean Couturier, Cam Atkinson, the backup picture behind Carter Hart, and more.

The Flyers will begin their training camp on Thursday over in Voorhees, and this time with no disillusion about where they're at. 

The rebuild is on, tomorrow's the endgame, their best players – next captain, even – aren't even in the building yet, but to get where they ultimately want to be, they have to start taking the steps today.

And it's going to be a long way there, fraught with pain – likely lots of it – for the foreseeable future, but also with those ever-important glimmers of hope that this is all going to work out in the end. 

Here are five thoughts ahead of it all...

The ground floor

So here we finally are. Danny Brière is in charge and hasn't been shy about using the word "rebuild" to sum up the state of the Flyers. 

However, he's also been clear ever since he took over as the general manager back in the spring that "rebuild" doesn't translate to a fire sale or tanking, and he re-emphasized that Tuesday morning during a pre-camp press conference. 

"We're not tanking any games," Brière said. "We're not trying to lose on purpose. We're gonna do things, obviously, for the future, but at the same time, we expect these guys to go out and win every game. I hope they know that. I've told them that. I'm going to reinforce that before camp starts as well."

And besides, it's not like any team coached by John Tortorella is ever going to get to coast anyway. 

"We're not trying to lose," Brière continued. "We're trying to develop our guys, hopefully in a winning culture, but in an environment where they leave everything they have on the ice every single night. "

"I hope and think that our fans will respect that."

Now obviously, the Flyers' roster as it is right now, can only go so far. 

They're going to win a few games. They're going to lose more. But record and points in the standing shouldn't be the true judge of this team over the next six months.

The marks of progress

Because if your enjoyment or optimism for the Flyers is tied to wins and losses this season, you're going to go home disappointed. 

Progress has to be marked in the little things. 

If Owen Tippett can go even further than he did last season as a goal-scoring power forward with a lethal shot, that's a win. 

If Morgan Frost can keep contributing to the offense as a center the way he did from December on last season, that's a win. 

If Joel Farabee can fully rebound to his 2021 form or even greater and step up as a leader, those are wins too. If Noah Cates can find more to give as a two-way specialist in any and every situation, win. 

If either or all of Tyson Foerster, Elliot Desnoyers, and Emil Andrae make it up to the big club and are active in driving the puck and noticeable every time they're on the ice for their shift, huge wins. 

You get the point. 

The puzzle has to be put together, and the focus right now is in laying out the pieces. 

"It's about the future," Brière said. "It's about the development, it's about how we come together as a team. That's how we're going to judge success." 

But where do Couturier and Atkinson fit?

Sean Couturier hasn't played an NHL game since December 2021 and Cam Atkinson not since April 2022. 

They're both healthy now and skating with the team again at the Flyers Training Center in Voorhees ahead of camp's start, and – assuming there are no more health setbacks for either – they'll finally be back in the opening night lineup. 

But the direction of the franchise has changed dramatically in the months they've been sidelined. What's their fit now? 

Obviously, both are expected to be veteran leaders in the locker room, but on the ice, is Couturier still going to be the top-line Selke-caliber shutdown center he was before his back issuesIs Atkinson going to be that same, tenacious shoot-first winger that'll net you at least 20-plus goals that he was before his neck surgery? And if yes to both, what does all that mean for this kind of team?

Look, Couturier and Atkinson are going to be there, it's just that we've gotten so used to them not that it's almost like they have to re-establish themselves and their fit into the Flyers just as much as everyone else, though Brière thinks that might be a bit of a blessing. 

"What I like about this now, for those two guys especially, is they're starting with everybody in training camp," he said. "Whereas when you miss training camp or you miss a couple of months of the season and try to come back, you're behind everybody who's been playing for many weeks, it's tough to catch up."

The Sanheim situation

Shifting gears to another vet, it'll be interesting to see how Travis Sanheim approaches this season. 

The 2022-23 campaign was a brutal year for the 27-year-old defenseman, and it got out in the open during the draft earlier in the summer that Brière was trying to trade him before his eight-year, $50 million contract extension kicked in alongside his full no-trade clause. 

It was an uncomfortable spot to be in, but he didn't go anywhere in the end. His contract kicked in, and he's still a Flyer. 

And that doesn't have to be a bad thing. He still can be a valuable contributor to the Flyers' blue line corps. He's not far removed at all from that puck-moving, zone-pinning skater he was back in the 2021-22 season, when he really found a groove keeping the puck inside and cycling for Philly along the offensive blue line. 

If he can recapture that type of game, plus some aggression to boot, then the Flyers will have a very solid top-four defenseman to keep working with going forward.

The picture between the pipes

Brière said Tuesday that Carter Hart is the No. 1 goalie going in, but that the backup picture behind him is wide open. 

Between the NHL and AHL levels, the Flyers are carrying Samuel Ersson, Cal Petersen, and Felix Sandström on their depth chart, but with each having their own varying levels of struggles or inexperience up in the show. 

The playing time behind Hart could eventually go to any one of the three for numerous different reasons, but Ersson stands out in particular because he had a strong camp last year, which stuck with Tortorella and the organization for a long time. And when he was up with the Flyers, he performed reasonably well, going 6-3-0 with an .899 save percentage and a 3.07 goals-against rate.

Ersson only ended up getting a 12-game NHL sample size last season though, as it was more important for the 23-year-old netminder to play where there were more minutes, which was with the Phantoms down in the AHL. 

But opportunity could be knocking now.

"We'll see who steps up," Brière said.

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