PHILADELPHIA — In true Lou Lamoriello fashion, the Islanders didn’t let anyone in Philadelphia know what kind of team they would be icing for what was the Flyers’ preseason finale on Thursday night at Wells Fargo Center. It took until warmups for everyone to realize that it was essentially a B-level New York lineup against a mostly NHL group in orange and black.
The Flyers, perhaps predictably, dominated. They breezed past the Islanders, 5-2, while outshooting them 31-16, to conclude their preseason with a 3-2-1 mark.
Here’s some of what we learned over the course of the past two weeks, with the season opener now less than a week away on Oct. 12 in Columbus.
It’s been the most intriguing storyline throughout camp — will Foerster, who had some success during an eight-game NHL stint last season, lock down a place in the top nine on opening night? Or might Brink, an undersized but skilled winger who is now healthy after having to battle back from hip surgery a year ago, leapfrog him to claim that spot instead?
Brink seems to have the slight advantage. He posted one goal and two assists in four games, and didn’t play in Thursday’s finale after coach John Tortorella indicated in the morning that he had already seen enough of the 22-year-old second-round pick from 2019.
Whether that means Brink has done enough to be in the lineup for the opener, well, we’ll see. But there’s no question that he’s left an impression on Tortorella. Simply put, Brink brings an offensive skill set that is lacking among the Flyers’ forward group.
“The puck follows him around,” Tortorella said after Monday’s game. “I think he has that innate ability that you can’t teach, to see the next play.”
He continued: “If we’re going to get where we want to be eventually in this process, we’re going to have to create more offense. He’s been one of the better ones so far in camp here as far as (creating) offense.”
As for Foerster, it was notable that he started Thursday’s game alongside Sean Couturier and Joel Farabee. Tortorella said Monday that Foerster was perhaps “adding pressure to himself” in camp up to that point, but the coach didn’t have any issues with his preparedness or attitude. Foerster simply didn’t have much to show for it as far as statistics go, with just one secondary assist on the power play in his first three games.
He added a primary assist Thursday, shoveling the puck to Morgan Frost, who then sent it ahead to Owen Tippett, who scored on a breakaway.
“I thought tonight was my best game so far,” Foerster said after the Islanders game. “It’s up to them, we’ll see what happens.”
As for the other depth forward on the bubble, Wade Allison seems likely to stick, if only because he’s not waiver-exempt and, at 26 years old (on Oct. 14), he probably is what he is at this point — a big body that can create offense from time to time. He can serve as the 13th forward, and perhaps rotate in when the Flyers are in need of some size (more on that later), while either Brink or Foerster gets big minutes in the AHL.
The fourth line is set
If you’re of the viewpoint that both Brink and Foerster should make the roster and also be in the lineup, thereby breaking up the fourth line, don’t hold your breath. It’s not happening.
You can pencil in the line of Ryan Poehling, Nic Deslauriers and Garnet Hathaway for the season opener, and probably for the foreseeable future, too. They’ve been together from the start of camp and remained for Thursday’s finale.
Hathaway had perhaps the most impressive play of the night for the Flyers, upending Samuel Bolduc behind the Islanders’ net to gain possession, and then later in the shift backhanding the puck to the front of the net, where Deslauries popped it home to make it 1-1. In the second, he hammered Islanders defenseman Sebastian Aho with a thundering check into the boards.
🚨 2-1! 🚨
— Philadelphia Flyers (@NHLFlyers) October 5, 2023
Regarding Poehling, Tortorella mentioned that he talked to Penguins coach Mike Sullivan about the center, who posted 14 points (7 goals, 7 assists) in 53 games with Pittsburgh last season. He signed a one-year, $1.4 million contract with the Flyers on July 1.
“(Sullivan) gave me a run down about his intelligence,” Tortorella said. “You can see he thinks the game. And the thing I can respect about him, he’s betting on himself. Signs a one-year deal, and (says), ‘I’ll show you.’ That goes a long way with me, too.”
That intelligence will have to show itself on the penalty kill, too. Poehling and Hathaway have been together on one of the team’s penalty-killing units, and will be tasked with helping to improve what was the league’s 26th-ranked penalty kill last season.
“I’ve been killing with (Hathaway), too, which has been nice to just have that connection,” Poehling said. “For us it’s just a good stepping stone, and a building process.”
Poehling, 24, expects his line to have a similar identity to what teams typically are looking for from a fourth line.
“For us to just bring energy and kind of be a burden to play against is the biggest thing,” he said.
They’ll have that chance.
Does size matter?
Brink is listed as just 5-foot-8 and 169 pounds. That puts him at eye-level with some of his fellow forwards, which is to say that the Flyers could have one of the smaller teams in the league.
In fact, Elite Prospects has the Flyers at an average height of 185.5 centimeters (6-foot-1), 26th in the league, with an average weight of 192 pounds, last in the league — and that’s without Brink on the roster. While those rankings are bound to change a bit between now and Monday, when rosters are due, they still reflect that the Flyers will often be facing teams that are bigger and heavier than they are.
Having a small-ish forward group doesn’t seem to be of too much concern to Tortorella, though.
“It’s not so much size in the top nine,” he said. “I think every team is looking for size. The game has changed a little bit in that part of it. For me, I look at Vegas and I look at their back end and their size and how that stood out come playoff time. … Guys like Cam (Atkinson) and (Travis Konecny), their quickness can just take over.
“Speed and quickness is a huge part of the game now. (The) back end is something that I think really stands out, as far as taking up room.”
Eight defensemen a possibility, if not a likelihood
Tortorella said on Thursday morning that both Emil Andae and Egor Zamula wouldn’t play against the Islanders, but Andrae did in fact end up playing while Rasmus Ristolainen did not.
The 21-year-old Andrae made some errors. He had trouble handling the puck deep in the Flyers’ end in the first period, leading to a prime Islanders scoring chance, and in the third he was sidestepped at the defensive blue line by Matthew Maggio, whose breakaway attempt was stopped by Carter Hart with three minutes to go.
Still, Tortorella clearly has an affinity for the kid.
“I thought he made a bunch of mistakes, but right after he makes a mistake, he makes a good play,” Tortorella said. “I don’t think he’s afraid of anything. … I like a lot of things about him.”
Waivers will likely play a role in the Flyers’ blue-line decisions. Zamula would require them before any potential reassignment. Andrae still does not, so he could very well be reassigned.
On the other hand, Tortorella seems adamant that the young defensemen in the organization all have to play. That also apparently includes guys like Ronnie Attard and Adam Ginning, who were both reassigned this week.
“I believe in playing the kids. It’s the part of the process that we’re at right now on our team,” he said. “We need to find out what these kids are and go with it and take some lumps with it along the way, because we will.”
But where does that leave the veterans, like Marc Staal and Sean Walker? They’ll also be rotated in and out from time to time, it would seem.
“We don’t want to have kids lose ice time. Marc is going to be a mentor,” Tortorella said. “I know he’s already grabbed a couple of guys after a practice and talked to and worked on stuff with them. Marc Staal is going to play, but that’s what I kind of have to referee. Is it getting in the way of a development of a guy? Or is that guy just not ready, and Staalsy plays? Those are things I can’t forecast.”
That only makes it more likely that eight is what they’ll start with, allowing the young guys to compete internally for playing time.
Ersson earns backup role
When Sam Ersson played the entirety of Monday’s game against the Devils, that was essentially confirmation that he had earned the No. 2 goalie spot, beating out Cal Petersen and Felix Sandstrom, the latter of whom was still on the roster as of Thursday evening. (Petersen was waived and reassigned on Wednesday.)
“(Hart) is our guy and Ersson is backing him up,” Tortorella said Wednesday. “They’re one and two.”
Hart went the distance on Thursday, with 14 saves and one blunder with the puck that gifted the Islanders their second goal. He’ll be in there against the Blue Jackets.
Unless the Flyers keep three goalies on their roster — which wouldn’t make much sense — Sandstrom will have to clear waivers before a reassignment to Lehigh Valley. There’s a bit of a risk there, but there probably will be better options available to other teams looking for a goalie after Sandstrom’s subpar 2022-23 campaign.
Forwards (13): Wade Allison, Cam Atkinson, Bobby Brink, Noah Cates, Sean Couturier, Nic Deslauriers, Joel Farabee, Morgan Frost, Garnet Hathaway, Travis Konecny, Scott Laughton, Ryan Poehling, Owen Tippett.
Defensemen (8): Emil Andrae, Rasmus Ristolainen, Travis Sanheim, Nick Seeler, Marc Staal, Sean Walker, Cam York, Egor Zamula.
Goalies (2): Sam Ersson, Carter Hart.
(Photo of Bobby Brink: Eric Hartline / USA Today)