Michael Del Zotto hopes to make the most of his third NHL opportunity.
By David F. Cohen
It’s Craig Berube’s Flyers team now, and new general manager Ron Hextall’s.
Berube took over as coach of the Flyers three games into last season, giving him ample time to get his team playing the way he believes they need to play to be successful.
However, there’s nothing like having a full training camp.
“I think from my standpoint and the coaching staff, it’s getting that system down to a T right away so when that puck drops Oct. 8 we’re ready to go and we’re not busy thinking about what we’ve got to do. We know what we have to do, we have our skating legs and we’re ready to really compete. That’s really important for us as an organization.”
The commitment to conditioning led to more players returning to Philly sooner for pre-camp workouts, and the vibe around the team has been some anger at how last season ended. The Flyers recovered from a 1-7-0 start to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but the energy exerted to get there left them with little left in the tank and a Game 7 first-round loss to the New York Rangers.
“We have something to prove,” captain Claude Giroux said. “You can see guys want it a little bit more. I don’t know if it’s just me, but it’s obviously a good feeling.”
The biggest question among the forward group heading into training camp was who would fill the hole at left wing on the first line, a position that opened when Scott Hartnell was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets. However, those plans were put on hold when Giroux sustained a lower-body injury 15 minutes into the first on-ice session Sept. 19. Fortunately, he is back for the season opener Oct. 8.
Brayden Schenn opened camp on the top line alongside Giroux and right wing Jakub Voracek, and the Flyers hope that coming off his first 20-goal season his offensive production is on the rise.
“He’s got a real gift at putting the puck in the net,” Hextall said. “He scored 20 goals, which at this stage of the game that’s a lot of goals. But we still think there’s more there and there’s more growth. I think the biggest thing is the consistency part.”
If Schenn stays on the top line, Sean Couturier could move into a more prominent role in the offense. He opened camp centering the second line, flanked by Matt Read at left wing and Wayne Simmonds on the right.
In his first three seasons, Couturier has excelled as a checking-line center but his scoring hasn’t developed as hoped; his 13 goals last season tied a career best.
“He needs to push the offensive side of his game and continue to do the things he’s done [defensively],” Hextall told the Inquirer.
Simmonds will be looking to build off an outstanding 2013-14 when he set career-highs in goals, assists and points, and his 15 power-play goals were third in the League.
Another option in the middle of the second line could be Vincent Lecavalier, 34, who is hoping to bounce back after struggling last season with injury and position issues; he spent time at left wing on the first and second lines, and center on the second and fourth lines. Lecavalier never seemed to be on the same page as Berube and was the subject of offseason trade rumors.
“I think it wasn’t a great year for him,” Berube said. “There were some injuries there and different things that occurred and playing different positions, not used to playing the wing. … He understands that he has to change his game a little bit. We just have to work together and we’ll get to where we’ve got to be. I’ve had good conversations with Vinny over the summer and he’s ready to go.”
Despite all his issues Lecavalier scored 20 goals, and he reported for camp five pounds below his playing weight of 215 pounds last season.
“I really worked hard like every guy did to be here,” he told CSNPhilly.com. “… We need a good start to this season. Everybody needs to be on the right page and in the right frame of mind. I am. I’m excited about it. I really am.”
Another wild-card for the top nine is R.J. Umberger, who arrived from Columbus in the Hartnell trade.
Candidates for the fourth line include Zac Rinaldo, Jay Rosehill, Ryan White (recovering from surgery for a torn chest muscle) and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who had 20 goals in 52 games for Swedish Hockey League champion Skelleftea last season.
The Flyers will have to move forward without Kimmo Timonen, who is unlikely to play again due to blood clots in his leg and lungs.
Timonen has been the closest thing the Flyers have had to a No. 1 defenseman since Chris Pronger left the lineup in 2011, playing big minutes in all situations. Last season he was second among the team’s defensemen in goals and points, and fourth in ice time.
Veterans Mark Streit, Braydon Coburn, Nicklas Grossmann, Luke Schenn and Andrew MacDonald will have to pick up the slack, but they were part of a veteran group that allowed 2.71 goals and 31.6 shots per game while being exposed by the faster Rangers forwards in the playoffs.
Berube said he’s excited by the potential of Michael Del Zotto, who was signed Aug. 5.
“I’ve seen this guy play real good hockey for the New York Rangers at one point,” he said. “I think he’s going to get back to that standard.”
“Michael has admitted he had a down year [with the Rangers and Predators],” Hextall told CSNPhilly.com. “We look at a young player like Michael coming into the NHL at his age. He has a lot of money. He’s got fame, he’s got people wanting to spend time with him and thinking he’s a big deal. Any 20-, 21-, 22- or 23-year-old, it’s pretty easy to get off the rails. I think that is what happened to him. I think in two years, he will look back and say, ‘It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I regained my focus and what is important.’
“It’s so hard. These kids come in and get so much money and so much fame, you’re living in New York City and we expect them to be what we call ‘pros.’ No. They’re in a process at 20, 21, 22 years old, figuring out what it is to be a pro … You go from being a junior hockey player playing in front of 3,000 people and riding a bus to playing at Madison Square Garden or Wells Fargo in front of 19,000 people. You’re in the NHL, in front of Hockey Night in Canada. It’s … national TV. It’s a big adjustment for any kid in any walk of life. It’s a lot tougher than people think. These young people have to grow up in a hurry.”
The loss of Timonen also could open the door for one of the Flyers’ top defense prospects, Samuel Morin, Robert Hagg and Shayne Gostisbehere.
It will be the same pair as last season, with Steve Mason backed up by Ray Emery.
The 2013-14 season was Mason’s best since his 2009 Calder Trophy-winning performance. He tied his career-high with 33 wins and played well in the postseason after returning from a concussion sustained late in the regular season.
Emery was lauded for his professionalism last season when Mason emerged as the No. 1 goalie, which is a big reason he was re-signed. His teammates trust him in the event he’s pressed into serious playing time.
German league standout Rob Zepp, 32, was signed to provide veteran insurance with Lehigh Valley of the AHL and also mentor 2012 second-round pick (No. 45) Anthony Stolarz, who will start his pro career this season in the AHL.