When the Flyers begin their 2017-18 season in San Jose on Oct. 4, they will be considerably younger on average than when they began in 2016. Gone are 39-year-old Mark Streit, 34-year-old Nick Schultz, 32-year-old Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and 30-year-old Chris Vandevelde.
In their place will be a collection of rookies and young players with a small fraction of their NHL experience. The average age of the Flyers roster without those guys above is 26.57 years, and regardless of whether it’s the two 22-year-olds, Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg, who fill what is likely to be two open defenseman spots, or if 20-year-old Travis Sanheim wins one of the jobs, that number will dip below 26.
Nolan Patrick, the second overall pick who will turn 19 at the onset of camp, is expected to make this team. As is 21-year-old (by then) Oskar Lindblom. Either Scott Laughton, 23, or Mike Vecchione, 24, will win the fourth line centerman spot that opened up when Las Vegas took Bellemare in the expansion draft.
Yet the stated goal of this organization, and one they believe to be realistic, is to make the playoffs and compete for a Stanley Cup.
The first is realistic. There are, after all, eight berths in each conference.
The second is a stretch, so much that it would be unprecedented in this century.
According to SportingCharts.com, not once since the turn of the century has a team with an average age of under 26 won a Cup. The youngest two teams have been the 2011-12 Kings (26.18), and the 2009-10 Blackhawks team that beat the Flyers for the Cup (26.42). Last year’s Stanley Cup winners, the Pittsburgh Penguins, had an average age of 29 years. They beat a Nashville team (27.7) who was just as old or older than 16 others in the NHL.
But it is the Kings and the Blackhawks that serve as the template for what Flyers general manager Ron Hextall is attempting here: The Kings, because he was part of it, and saw its blueline grow as a group; and the Blackhawks, because they offset an iffy goaltender with an experienced defense and young but high-end players up front.
Neither, though, serves as a parallel. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were both 21 when the Blackhawks beat the Flyers to win the Cup, but both were in their third full season. Their defense was sizable, with plenty of NHL experience: Dustin Byfuglien (6-5), Brent Seabrook (6-3) and Duncan Keith (6-1) were well into their NHL careers. Niklas Hjalmarsson, 22 and 6-3, was the only regular blueliner with less than a season’s worth of experience.
Two of the Kings’ defensemen, Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov, were 22 years old when the Kings won the Cup as an eighth seed in front of 26-year-old Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick. Voynov was a rookie. But Doughty was in his fourth full season and the Kings also had veteran blueliners in Rob Scuderi (33) and Willie Mitchell (34).
Scuderi had already won a Cup with Pittsburgh. With Minnesota nine years earlier, Mitchell had reached the Conference finals via two seven-game playoff series. They also had 28-year-old Matt Green. So their defensive corps was hardly as inexperienced – or as playoff untested — as the one with which the the Flyers will begin the season.
Here’s something in the Flyers favor though: The average age of all NHL teams has trended downward for the last decade, according to 3rdlinegrind.com. In 2006, 33 percent of all NHL players were over the age of 30. By last season, it was down to 26 percent.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, who went from the worst team in the league in 2015-16 to 95 points and a first-round playoff series with top-seeded Washington in 2016-17, began last season with just four players over the age of 30 — only two pegged to play regularly. There were nine players who had not played more than 67 NHL games when the season began. The brand names, of course, were 18-year-old top pick Auston Matthews and 19-year-old rookie Mitch Marner, the fourth overall pick in 2015, but Toronto also began last season with three rookie defensemen: Connor Brown and Connor Carrick, both 22, and 24-year-old Nikita Zaitsev.
Two, Brown and Zaitsev, played in every regular-season game. Carrick dressed for 67.
The Leafs started slow, losing seven of their first nine games. But they torched the month of March to gain the final playoff spot.
Starts, of course, have been an issue in Dave Hakstol’s first two seasons as Flyers head coach. Including overtime, the Flyers lost 14 of their first 20 games in 2015-16, 12 of the first 20 last season. Given the bumpy early games of Ivan Provorov and what you saw from second-year D-man Shayne Gostisbehere for much of last season, it seems reasonable to expect some major growing pains on defense this season with the addition of at least two kids. Especially given that both goaltenders, Michal Neuvirth and free-agent signee Brian Elliott, had their own start-of-the-season troubles last season.
“That could be the case,” said Hakstol during Development Camp last week. “We may have some young players at different positions and, yeah, there’s always growing pains with a player who is making the transition to the National Hockey League. In Year 1, Year 2, even Year 3. It’s not an instantaneous process. Any young player is going to go through that and not necessarily just in their rookie year.”
“It’s a process.”
Yep, he used that word.
But it is, of course. And so the best thing to hope for from the coming season is the kind of coming-attraction finish experienced in Toronto last year — even if the thought of what the Kings did with a good goalie and the Blackhawks did with a not-as-good-one is titillating.
Goalies Carter Hart and/or Felix Sandstrom are still to come. As is exciting defenseman Philippe Myers, big bodies like Isaac Ratcliffe and Wade Allison, scorers and playmakers like German Rubtsov, Morgan Frost and, perhaps, Pascal Laberge.
“We feel like we’re getting better day by day,’’ Hextall said as this month began. “Young defensemen coming in. Brian and Neuvy and some of our top guys getting back to the level where they’re capable of playing at. We’re very comfortable with where we are as a team right now. And we certainly look to be better than we were last year.”