Chuck Fletcher Speaks and Gritty is Back. It Must Be a Very Flyers Christmas.

Today, in hockey, is usually the last day of the unofficial first half of the season.

Normally, the final games are played. There is a roster freeze, so no transactions can take place for a week, and no games are played on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or Boxing Day, the latter, for our Canadian friends.

But this is 2020. We are living in the Upside Down.

Instead, today is the day we learned of the NHL schedule. Today is the day we learned the Flyers will open the season with not one, but two games against their most-hated rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins, on January 13 and 15 at Wells Fargo Center, Attendance – one… Gritty, as evidenced by his successful petition to attend Flyers home games even though there will be no fans for a while:

Even Flyers center Kevin Hayes got in on the act:

Gritty got 12,169 signatures on the petition (and fans are still signing it). So, the league gave in. Gritty is permitted to attend games next month.

Weird times we live in… weird times.

But, it’s a good thing because hockey is coming back.

Training camp opens Jan. 3. The first games are Jan. 13. There are no exhibition games. Just a 56-game sprint to the playoffs where the Flyers will only play seven teams total, eight times each – Boston, Buffalo, the two New York squads, New Jersey, Washington, and the aforementioned Penguins.

It’s going to be kind of crazy.

And the division is brutal. Only four teams will make the playoffs. The Devils stink, but even if you leave out the vastly improved Rangers and Sabres, at least one of the other teams is going to miss the playoffs altogether. If the Rangers and/or Sabres are better than even expected, then two or three of the other teams won’t make it.

Like I said, it’s going to be nuts.

Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher talked about a few of these things during a press conference today. There wasn’t anything earth shattering that came from the presser, but here are a few nuggets I kind of took from it, mostly reading between the lines.

The Flyers will carry 23 players on the active roster

Chuck said that outright. The Flyers have the cap flexibility to carry an extra man. What he didn’t commit to is the breakdown of the players, except that he would only carry two goalies. Teams are allowed to carry three, but Chuck said the Flyers will save one of the six Taxi Squad spots for the third goalie. So, will the Flyers carry 13 forwards and eight defensemen or 14 forwards and seven defensemen? They certainly could go either way, but the way Chuck talked about it, 13 and 8 seems more likely at the start if the season. They could eventually adjust and change that, but with the loss of Matt Niskanen to retirement, and nothing set in stone yet for the defensive pairings, I could see the Flyers looking to mix and match of the first eight games or so of the season to see who looks good with who. As such, barring a trade (more on that in a minute) The Flyers will likely carry the extra forward on their taxi squad (three forwards, two defensemen, one goalie).

The roster is what it is right now

Chuck said there are no plans to add a free agent before the start of the season, and that things have ben quiet regarding potential trades since October. As such, don’t expect the Flyers to do anything on either front in the next three weeks unless something happens to force their hand or someone makes an offer they can’t refuse.

The Taxi Squad

Chuck was asked about the makeup of the Taxi Squad – since there is so much uncertainty about the AHL right now, if the makeup will be prospects or players with NHL experience. Chuck basically hedged and said both. That makes sense though. Not many of the “prospects” are ready for prime time with no games to be played. Conversely, there are AHL vets with a little NHL experience who could fill in if there are injuries or Covid-19 related scratches.

It’s too early to tell what that quad will look like right now without getting a sense for practice, but I’ll say this, Alex Lyon is the likely third goalie. While the Flyers are high on Kirill Ustimenko, Not getting him time to play in the AHL before potentially being thrown to the wolves is not what the Flyers want to do, development-wise.

The Nolan Patrick Riddle

Chuck talked about how well Patrick was skating over at Skate Zone, but that no decisions will be made until he takes his physical on Jan. 3. Even then, the notion of Patrick suiting up for a game on Jan. 13 having played none – not even in the minors – for 22 months, might be daunting. Chuck did say everyone is in the same boat, and the start of the season might be a time to give a guy like Patrick a chance to prove he can play again, but he also said the team wants to be smart about how they bring him back, which could mean a slower return. The whole thing is an enigma, but, we’re going to see it play out in the next few weeks.

Phil Myers isn’t necessarily going to replace Niskanen on the top pair.

Chuck talked about more opportunities for Myers, but indicated they will come on the penalty kill, where Niskanen was an anchor last season. Chuck also added that he like the pairing of Myers and Sanheim together and that at even strength, the Flyers top two pairs play pretty even minutes. He also said, look for pairs to fluctuate depending on a game’s circumstances. That was interesting too. So, if Myers is staying with Sanheim, or at least that’s the plan, who plays with Provorv? My guess is Justin Braun. Erik Gustafsson is the new guy on the roster and he skated a bunch this offseason in Sweden with Robert Hagg. I think the FLyers will want to see that pair together to start the season. Shayne Gostisbehere is the wild card. Is he truly healthy and back to the form when he was posting a 65-point season in 2017-18? Or is he the same inconsistent player who depleted his value with shoddy play the past two seasons, even if the play was directly linked to injury? He’s had some success with Provorov before, so…

Travel advantages

Although the division is going to be brutally hard, compared to the other three divisions, the East has a cakewalk travel-wise. The Flyers only have to actually fly to three cities – Boston, Buffalo and Pittsburgh – and all are one hour flights. The remaining teams in the division can be accessed by bus or train.

And with the schedule forcing teams to mostly play each other in two game blocks in one city, most of the time with a day off in between (the Flyers have only eight back-to-backs), Fletcher admitted he might try and take advantage of the schedule and have the Flyers return home after a game in New Jersey or New York so they can sleep in their own beds for a night and get a practice in at Skate Zone, before hopping back on the bus/train to go right back to the same city, instead of teams being forced to lockdown in a hotel and not be allowed to go anywhere.

Restrictions for road teams are going to be severe. Players aren’t going to like going on the road, especially early in the season, where mingling, even with their own teammates outside of a hotel floor, will be verboten. Going home can offer a special respite from that Covid-19 protocol, and have his team more alert and prepared for the second game in a mini-series.

For more Flyers coverage, follow Snow The Goalie on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Also be sure to tune into The Press Row Show as Anthony SanFilippo and Russ Joy provide pregame and intermission coverage of every Flyers home game from press row of the Wells Fargo Center via the Crossing Broad Facebook page, YouTube Live, and Twitter, and their Twitter accounts   

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