SAN JOSE, Calif. — One of the Flyers’ rookies, Nolan Patrick, turned 19 last month, but he is so advanced, he is making the leap from juniors to the NHL.
Two other rookies, Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg, are sturdy defensemen who aren’t flashy, but are efficient in their own end and won’t be pushed around.
Morin is 6-foot-7, 225 pounds, and he has a funny, contagious personality that makes people congregate toward him. On the ice, however, he can turn into Mr. Nasty, and his long reach frustrated puck-carriers in the preseason.
Morin and the 6-2, 210-pound Hagg will do a better job of clearing the crease than some of last season’s defenders. Hagg also has the ability to carry the puck and create offense.
Like Morin and Hagg, left winger Taylor Leier paid his dues with the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms. He, too, has earned a regular spot at the start of the Flyers’ season and also figures to see time on the penalty kill.
Travis Sanheim, perhaps the Flyers’ most promising young defenseman, is another rookie who will start the season with the team. He shared the Flyers’ lead with three preseason goals.
Put them all together and you have what looks like one of the Flyers’ best rookie classes in recent memory. It’s the first time since 1992-93 that the Flyers start a season with five rookies, though one of them, probably Sanheim, figures to soon be sent to the Phantoms to alleviate a numbers crunch.
Coach Dave Hakstol said the rookies have brought a “different feeling” to this season’s team.
“It struck me yesterday,” Hakstol said after Tuesday’s practice in San Jose, where the Flyers open the season Wednesday. “We got off the plane just before we boarded the team bus, and instead of one or two (young) guys hanging together, there’s a small group of six or seven guys. That brings a little bit of a different outlook and a different energy to the team, and I think it’s been very good for our team, veterans included.”
Wayne Simmonds agreed.
“The young guys are pushing the pace at all times,” the high-scoring right winger said, “… and you don’t want to go out there looking lethargic. You want to make sure you’re in top shape, too.”
Hagg played three years for the Phantoms, while Morin spent the last two years with the team. Hagg has made steady improvement, and Morin has become a much better player than when he was an undisciplined Lehigh Valley rookie.
“He’s making better decisions,” general manager Ron Hextall said of Morin, the 11th overall pick in 2013. “Part of it is experience and getting to the American League, playing a different game than he did in junior. In junior, he played more. He was on the power play and he was in situations you don’t necessarily see him being in at the pro level, so he had to change his game a little.”
Morin made adjustments.
“I simplified my game,” he said.
“Simplistic guys are very valuable to a hockey club. That’s Big Sam,” Hextall said. “I mean, his strengths are his size, he’s a good defender, and he’s hard to play against. I don’t think any of us would want to go in a corner with him. He’s keeping his game simple, and he got better month to month in Lehigh.”
Because most games are so tight, Hextall said, Morin must stay disciplined and stay out of the penalty box.
All players “have to be careful of the unnecessary penalties at bad moments,” Hextall said. “And for a guy who plays like Sam, he has to be particularly careful because he’s a big guy; he’s a strong guy and he can just touch a guy and the guy goes down. He has to pick and choose his moments for sure.”
As for Patrick, he will center the second line and have Jordan Weal, a talented young player who just missed qualifying as a rookie, and the steady Simmonds as his wingers.
“He’s got a great mind for the game,” Simmonds said of Patrick. “He makes a lot of little plays that open up the ice for players around him.”
The Flyers moved from No. 13 to No. 2 in the draft lottery — they had just a 2.4 percent chance to climb that high — and were thus able to draft Patrick in June. That stroke of luck helped immensely, but the pipeline was already loaded with highly ranked prospects. That’s why many publications rated the Flyers as the NHL franchise with the best farm system, a tribute to Hextall, Chris Pryor, who is an assistant general manager and director of player personnel, and the team’s scouting staff.