For a good part of the first quarter of last season, it seemed as though the future of the Philadelphia Flyers was still somewhere off in the distance. A rebuild with an emphasis on the build part under rookie head coach Dave Hakstol seemed to be about as good as it was going to get for Flyers fans.
But a funny thing happened to all of those dire predictions of being a lottery team: The Flyers scratched and clawed their way into a most unlikely of playoff berths and then managed somehow to stretch the powerful Washington Capitals to six games in the first round.
There's already healthy skepticism that last season was a blip on the rebuilding radar and the Flyers will be back outside the playoff bubble. But I'm not so sure, especially watching rookie of the year nominee Shayne Gostisbehere playing so well at the World Cup of Hockey and veteran Mark Streit helping Team Europe to an unexpected berth in the tournament finals.
Certainly GM Ron Hextall isn't letting the players feel it's a given they'll get back to where they were last season. "Essentially we're starting fresh here," Hextall said in a recent interview.
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A tinkering summer for Hextall brought in a couple of veterans to help augment the youth movement that is fully in place in Philadelphia. Veteran center and defensive specialist Boyd Gordon will be looking for fourth-line minutes, while Dale Weise will be expected to be a kind of everyman, even bringing unexpected offensive upside. Ivan Provorov is another young defenseman with a big top-end skill set. The left-handed seventh overall pick in the 2015 draft is just 19, and at one point during training camp was paired with Gostisbehere. A glimpse of the future or is the future here?
Can the Flyers continue their upward arc in terms of evolution while we've seen so many teams (the Dallas Stars, Winnipeg Jets and Columbus Blue Jackets come to mind) take one step forward and then regress for a season or two? Specifically, can they find enough offense to help take the pressure off the defense and goaltending? Last season, the Flyers were 22nd in scoring. Only one team with a worse offense made the playoffs (Detroit Red Wings). The penalty kill, tied for 20th, needs to improve.
Can the unlikely goaltending tandem of Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth continue to provide the high level of netminding we saw down the stretch and into the playoffs? And who is the No. 1? Neuvirth had an eye-popping .981 save percentage in three starts in the playoffs against the Capitals. Hextall has said he's looking for more from younger players Scott Laughton -- who is expected to miss three to four weeks with a lower-body injury -- Jordan Weal and Nick Cousins, who all have strong pedigrees but need to prove they are NHL-ready. And NHLers in the fold need to give more, such as Jakub Voracek, who struggled for much of last season after signing a monster contract extension last summer.
Not sure how Dave Hakstol didn't end up on the ballot for coach of the year, but that's a moot point. What isn't moot is that Hakstol, who came to the NHL after a long, successful stint with the University of North Dakota, should be even better in his sophomore season in terms of how to schedule practices and his familiarity with his own group and with the opposition. He showed he was a quick study a season ago and his skill set behind the bench should be even more evident this season.
Up front, you have to figure captain Claude Giroux is motivated after making Team Canada's World Cup of Hockey roster and then not playing. He rebounded after being left off the 2014 Olympic roster with a place on the Hart Trophy ballot a few months later, so expect a similar response this time around.
Is there anyone steadier -- and maybe more underappreciated -- than Wayne Simmonds? He's coming off a career-best 32-goal campaign and has become one of the on-ice leaders, having averaged a hair less than 30 goals a season over the past three.
The bottom of the Metropolitan Division is a dog's breakfast. But I'm liking what is going on with the Flyers, even if they finish just outside the playoff picture. Fifth in the Metropolitan.