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Even before Game 1 of the 2023-24 regular season officially kicked off for the Philadelphia Flyers, they were facing one obvious conundrum.
They had too many NHL-caliber forwards, and too few lineup spots.
Bobby Brink’s surprise seizure of a job had given the Flyers 13 forwards, with only 12 able to play in a traditional NHL lineup. But not a single one fit the mold of a player who the organization wanted to regularly sit. So started a nightly debate: Who plays? Who sits?
The coaches began with a rookie rotation, starting Brink in Game 1 and then swapping fellow youngster Tyson Foerster in his place for Game 2. Then, Brink returned to the lineup, and Morgan Frost sat. Next, it was Ryan Poehling who would ride the pine. Then Frost again. Then Brink. And the revolving door continued to spin.
Until Tuesday morning, when the forward conundrum was given unwelcome resolution: Noah Cates would miss six-to-eight weeks with a lower-body injury, later confirmed by head coach John Tortorella to be a broken foot.
Cates was off to an undeniably slow start this season, scoring just four points in his first 20 games and allowing his overall five-on-five results to dip from borderline-elite levels to the realm of merely decent play drivers. His struggles were so apparent that, on Saturday, the Flyers took the drastic step of moving him back to wing — his natural position — in an attempt to squeeze more offense out of him.
And it seemed to be working — at least until Cates blocked a booming Ryan Pulock slapshot early in the second period. He made it through the rest of the team’s 1-0 win, but when he finally took his skate off in the aftermath of the contest, the reality of the situation set in: Cates would be looking at somewhere around a 19 to 26-game absence.
“A little frustrating that we couldn’t see him more after playing a pretty good offensive game, but it’s gonna give people opportunities,” Tortorella acknowledged after his club’s 4-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday.
Namely, all of those forwards who had been rotated in and out of the lineup over the season’s first quarter.
Suddenly, Frost can play every night in a top-nine role, as can Brink. Poehling’s experiment as a top-niner doesn’t have to come to an end. Foerster can continue to work through his goal scoring issues at the NHL level. At least through the end of the calendar year, they can all stop looking over their shoulders in concern that a stint in the press box could be forthcoming.
Right? Not so fast.
“We’re not going to wait around as far as if things aren’t working out, because we got 12 forwards here now, right?” Tortorella said. “If we’re not happy about certain things, we’ll dip (into the AHL) and give other people opportunities. That’s where we’re at.”
And it’s not like the Flyers don’t have forwards with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms making strong cases for promotions. Olle Lycksell is off to a monster start with 12 goals in 18 games. Tanner Laczynski is scoring at over a point-per-game pace (17 points in 16 games). Samu Tuomaala has built off his impressive showing at main NHL camp and also is sitting at 17 points.
In other words, the Flyers have options if an NHL roster player previously in the pre-Cates injury forward rotation continues to underwhelm, at least in the estimation of Tortorella and the rest of the coaching staff.
“Not trying to threaten anybody, but we’ve got to get more out of some people, and they’re gonna get the opportunity,” he noted. “But we’re not going to live with (poor production) the whole time that Catesy’s out. So we’ll see where it all goes.”
So who took advantage of that opportunity in the team’s first 12-forward game? Not those with the most to lose.
Start with Frost, who brings the biggest spotlight, given the fact that his scratching saga has been one of the top Flyers-related stories of the early season. More than for anyone else, Cates’ injury opens a door for Frost, giving him a chance — maybe his last chance — to earn his way into Tortorella’s good graces, and make it clear to the Flyers that they would be foolish to not consider Frost part of their future plans.
Tuesday wasn’t a great start.
Frost didn’t shower himself in glory on Carolina’s first goal, ending up in no man’s land watching the puck rather than helping to protect the netfront, where Michael Bunting would ultimately score. Nor did he bring much to the table offensively, with his final shift in the first period emblematic of his night — three fruitless entry attempts over a 35-second span, two of which failed entirely and the third simply generated no meaningful offense.
That’s just not going to cut it, especially given the identity of the coach behind the Flyers’ bench and his preexisting feeling regarding Frost as a player.
Brink didn’t exactly thrive in his return to the Flyers lineup, either. He does display more physicality than Frost in spite of his 5’8 frame, as he proved late in the first when he sought out contact with Bunting in open ice in a preemptive attempt to win a looming puck battle. Nevertheless, Tortorella still appears to paint him with the same offense-only brush he does Frost, which helps to explain how the two of them ended up in a semi-rotation over the past few weeks (with Brink getting preferential treatment).
Just two shot attempts in 15:18 minutes of ice time isn’t going to convince Torts otherwise, nor cause him to forget that Brink has ended up on the scoresheet in just three of his last 10 games. Brink’s placement on a lineup with Scott Laughton and Nicolas Deslauriers in the third period — with the Flyers down just one goal — certainly hinted that the head coach hasn’t loved what he’s seen recently from the 22-year old.
If Frost and Brink failed to seize the opportunity on Tuesday, who did take advantage of it? Mostly the guys already in Tortorella’s good graces.
Foerster — who, in fairness, hasn’t sat since Game 1 and only is loosely affiliated with “the rotation” at this point — set up Travis Konecny’s second period breakaway goal with a gorgeous stretch pass, continuing to do all of the things that keep him from losing his lineup spot despite the fact that he now has just one goal in 21 games. Then, there’s Poehling, once a healthy scratch but now a Tortorella favorite, in the midst of an audition in the top-nine that is showing no signs of ending, as he continues to attack with speed, crash the dirty areas and generate scoring chances like he did against Carolina.
“Poehling has come in, and I think has played really well,” Tortorella said on Tuesday morning.
In fact, Poehling has impressed Tortorella so much that he’s taking minutes away from another player — one yet to be formally included in the rotation, but who certainly seems to fall into Torts’ bucket of players who “we’ve got to get more out of.”
Laughton’s struggles are becoming more and more of an issue. Through 22 games this season, he still has just one single goal. He’s pointless in his last six games. He was benched for almost the entirety of the third period last Wednesday on Long Island. And on Tuesday, with opportunity in the air, Laughton faltered in a big way. It was his turnover — a failed attempt at a clear off the boards out of the slot area which instead bounced off a shin pad and went right to Brendan Lemieux — that gave Carolina a lead they would never again relinquish. Then, he took a penalty after the second period buzzer that he himself admitted was “dumb” — cross-checking Bunting under the mistaken belief that Bunting was spearing teammate Nick Seeler.
It was far from a mistake-free night for Laughton.
The good news for him? Tortorella still loves Laughton, raving about him on Tuesday morning and noting how comforting it is in-game to know that Laughton is on the bench and can slide into any role if necessary, the perfect Swiss Army Knife.
“Scotty Laughton, it doesn’t matter where you play him. He’s gonna be doing the right things, he’s got good habits, so it doesn’t matter where I put him,” Tortorella said.
But recently, he’s been putting Laughton more and more often on the fourth line, and he’s averaging just 14:56 minutes per game, well down from his 18:17 mark in 2022-23. His role, in other words, was trending down, perhaps to the point that a brief scratching may have even been considered — if Cates had remained healthy.
With Cates out, however, Laughton now has an opportunity to re-establish himself as an every-night top-nine forward. Just as Frost will get the chance to change the narrative of his season and replicate his scoring rates from the final two-thirds of 2022-23. And how Brink should be working to take full advantage of his newfound lineup security and bust his slump.
But opportunities are not guarantees of success. They’re simply opportunities to succeed, which can be seized, or ignored. Noah Cates’ injury does open the door for rotational forwards and those scuttling a bit at the moment, because of how it alleviates the lineup logjam up front. But those players still need to successfully pass through said door.
Or else, as Tortorella hinted, it just might slam back shut quicker than anticipated.
1. My guess is that the Flyers will stick to 12 healthy forwards on their roster for the next three games, all of which will take place in the state of Pennsylvania. But expect them to bring a 13th forward on their looming road trip next week to Arizona, Denver and Nashville. Whether it’s a quality prospect like Lycksell or Tuomaala, or a press box in-case-of-emergency placeholder (like Cooper Marody) will likely be determined by how those forwards on the lineup bubble perform this weekend.
2. Hart allowed a weak goal to Seth Jarvis late in the third period to put the game on ice for Carolina, but Hart contended after the game that it was more the result of bad luck than a lapse in positioning or technique.
“No, it was just unlucky,” he said. “Puck’s going wide if it goes off my skate. Gets stuck underneath my skate and the ice, and when I go to stretch out or kick back, it kicks in the net. So just a crappy bounce.”
3. Tortorella pinned the 4-1 defeat to the Canes at the feet of an issue that the Flyers have largely avoided to this point in 2023-24. “We were just flat, right through the lineup,” Tortorella bluntly stated.
4. Interesting tweak to the defensive pairs in the third period — Travis Sanheim was back on the left side of a pairing with Sean Walker, while Cam York was moved alongside Rasmus Ristolainen in a second lefty/righty duo.
The adjustment can easily be explained by a desire on the part of the trailing Flyers to bench their blueline corps’ most offensively-challenged options (Seeler and Marc Staal) and lean on the more skilled ones to engineer a comeback. But it’s still an interesting experiment, especially because Tortorella specifically said on Monday that he very much still views Sanheim as a right-side blueliner and he planned to deploy him as such for the foreseeable future. We’ll see if they test out this new-look top-four this weekend.
5. The Flyers hosted Owen Micciche for Hockey Fights Cancer night at the Wells Fargo Center, and they pulled out all the stops. They gave the nine-year old cancer survivor a stall in the locker room, took him out for warmups with the players, and finally, even let him stand behind the bench next to Tortorella for the entire first period of play.
“That was incredible,” Travis Konecny said after the loss, his face lighting up for the only time during the interview. “And having him on the bench too was a lot of fun, seeing him back there. That’s amazing, what the organization did, and we’re glad we can be a part of it too.”