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October 03, 2017

Season preview: Giroux, Flyers will be tested right out of the gate

If you wanted an opening-season schedule that will give you a quick read on how a team will stack up against stiff competition – welcome to the opening chapter of the Philadelphia Flyers’ 2017-1018 season.

The partially refurbished Flyers will open their season in the late-night anonymity of the West Coast Wednesday when they first face the San Jose Sharks in their shark tank before quickly navigating south to Los Angeles the next night where they will meet the Kings.

It is the first of 15 back-to-back situations for the Flyers, who have a demanding schedule right from the jump. The number of back-to-back scenarios is actually less than last season, but of those 15 back-to-backs, 14 will be against teams rested and ready. The Kings will be one of many home teams that will be playing on a full tank when they play the Flyers.

By the time the Flyers finally start their home schedule here in Philadelphia next week they will have wound through California – from San Jose to Los Angeles to Anaheim, and eventually into that cauldron of energy in Nashville to meet last spring’s Stanley Cup finalists.

By any measure, by any form of analytics or by just plain horse sense, it is a very tough start to the season. So, by the time they finally throw on a home jersey here in Philly we should have a very quick read on how good this team will be during the 2017-2018 season.

What to expect?

Expect a difficult trek toward April. Expect a journey from early October into next spring in which the Flyers should always be in touch with a playoff spot. But as with so many teams in the NHL, there will be little sense of comfort.

At the start, note that the seemingly trivial test of having captain Claude Giroux move to wing has apparently landed Giroux on a line with center Sean Couturier and Jake Voracek.

Indeed, it’s nice to think of Giroux as a winger who can provide steady offense and goal-scoring. However, Couturier as a team’s first-line center?

It will be interesting to see how long this lasts as the NHL is a league dominated by strength up the middle, and season after season, it was Giroux who provided that for the Flyers.

Giroux struggled last year, and the real win for the Flyers would have been for the captain to come back strong as their top center this time around. The guess here is that Giroux has a bounce-back season and winds up back in the middle as the Flyers stabilize their offense.

The most exciting aspect of the team will be the emergence of second-overall draft pick Nolan Patrick, who has earned a spot on the second line between Wayne Simmonds and Jordan Weal. There is also a real upside to the bottom six forwards as the fourth line of workmanlike players gets an upgrade with Taylor Leier and Scott Laughton – who finally appears to have delivered on his expectations.

There is also the advancing of a youthful defensive grouping. There are always some growing pains with young defensemen, but there is no question that Ivan Provorov is the real deal on the blue line, and this season he will become an even bigger pillar of stability.

The Flyers’ preseason has been filled with stories about so many other issues, but the nucleus of this team now and for the future is the sturdy, smart defenseman who should be the team’s minutes and strategic leader for many seasons. Provorov was remarkable last season. Expect that to only continue.

The other presumed “lock” for this season is that Shayne Gostisbehere will pick up where he left off last season. Following his rough start, Gostisbehere finally got his game in gear and finished strong. No doubt, the Flyers are a far more dynamic team when Gostisbehere is in top gear when he especially changes the power play.

The Flyers left for their opening-season road trip with three rookie defensemen on board as Gostisbehere was recovering from an “upper body” injury, but could very well be ready for the opening faceoff. The rookie who earned the spot on defense is Robert Hagg, with Sam Morin and Travis Sanheim pushing for time that will be theirs sooner rather than later.

The Flyers’ biggest problem last year was at five-on-five, which is why they moved power-play specialist Brayden Schenn to St. Louis in an effort to get more balanced scoring at even-strength.

The good news here is that Patrick has gotten better through the preseason. The truth of the matter is that he looked a bit slow in the early games, which might be the result of his June abdominal surgery.

However, Patrick has looked more comfortable every game. He has a keen sense of where a pass should be placed, and he dishes out some sweet apples. He might not engineer his offense at warp speed, but there is no doubt he thinks the game at a high level.

Coach Dave Hakstol will have his pick of line combinations from a roster balanced through the four lines, especially with Travis Konecny a year into his career and capable of some much-needed offensive creativity.

The veteran defensemen will have to perform at the top of their games or they will be readily pressed by kids ready to take their jobs – and a fan base that is all too eager to see the new faces.

As always with the Flyers there is the issue with goalies. Once again Michal Neuvirth will be part of a tandem, this time with Brian Elliott, who might as well have the nickname “Next” as the Flyers continue to roll through goalie candidates.

Some good news for the Flyers is that the Penguins and Capitals appear to have lost a weapon or two to keep within the constraints of the salary cap, but that is hardly enough to predict a clear path to the playoffs.

Get ready for a playoff picture that is unclear until the very last weekend. Every single point will be needed for a postseason berth, so the Flyers had better be ready to open with their best efforts in California and Nashville to avoid a big climb uphill before their first home game.