We're officially less than one week away from the start of the Flyers regular season, next Thursday in Pittsburgh. At this point, the Flyers still have more than 10 cuts to make. The team hasn't officially said so, but Tim McManus reported that both Kevin Marshall and Joonas Lehtivuori have already arrived in Adirondack to attend camp with the Phantoms. In addition, Michael Leighton and Ian Laperriere are technically still at camp, though they are out with injuries.
The problem is that there aren't many positions open to win. In this weekend's final two preseason games against the Sabres, there are a few battles worth watching for.
1. The Battle to Backup Brian Boucher Between Bobrovsky and Backlund
We here at SB Nation Philly love alliteration. Because of that, we love this position battle. With Michael Leighton injured for at least the month of October, the Flyers will have to decide who will travel to Pittsburgh to backup Brian Boucher. Last night, Johan Backlund sat on the bench for the first time since Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Montreal. After off-season surgery on his hip, Backlund was finally cleared to return to action. Once thought to battle Boucher for the right to be Michael Leighton's backup, he's now slipped down the depth chart because of his injury.
While Backlund was rehabbing, Sergei Bobrovsky stepped in and stole all the headlines at camp. Through four games, Bobrovsky has a 1.37 goals against average and 0.952 save percentage. Those numbers are bound to turn heads, and as a result, Bobrovsky has to be seen as having the inside track for a seat on the bench in Pittsburgh. However, many - including Travis Hughes - feel that Bobrovsky should begin the season in the AHL no matter what. There are valid arguments on both sides, and while I tend to agree with Mr. Hughes, it becomes a much more difficult argument the longer Bobrovsky continues playing this well.
Because of this, it will be interesting to not only watch how the goalies perform this weekend, but how much of a look Backlund gets. If Backlund only plays two periods out of six - and while he's going to dress tonight, he isn't starting - I think it's safe to assume Bobrovsky has won the position. Even if the Inquirer brazenly claims he's already won it.
2. Whether Bill Guerin Makes the Team
This one is really simple: Whether Bill Guerin makes the team or not is likely to hinge on this weekend's games. As recently as two weeks ago, it seemed a given. After receiving Nikolai Zherdev's number and locker stall, then acting as team Captain against Minnesota last weekend, it seemed like all that was left was a signature. But as of today, it isn't so clear. After receiving a cut on his elbow, Guerin saw it get infected. He has been out with that injury ever since, hurting - but not necessarily ruining - his chances of making the team.
Even with the injury though, there seems to be plenty of room for the Flyers to take a chance on the veteran. With the injury to Ian Laperriere, there are ten forward spots that are locks to make the team (Richards, Briere, Carter, Hartnell, Zherdev, van Riemsdyk, Giroux, Leino, Powe, and Betts), leaving (likely) three spots left. Jody Shelley is all but guaranteed to make the team, while Dan Carcillo is more likely than not to make the team also. While Laperriere will take up a roster spot, he'll be placed on LTIR in order to free up a roster spot.
That means Guerin only has to beat out Mike Testwuide, Andreas Nodl, and Ben Holmstrom. Maybe the injuries on defense play a part - which we'll get to next - but I don't see the Flyers carrying two healthy forwards. Maybe we can argue over whether Carcillo and Shelley should both be picked (and I'd say they probably shouldn't both be), but if Guerin can play by next Thursday, look for him to be in the lineup on Pittsburgh. Even if he can't, so long as the infection doesn't threaten to force an amputation, the Flyers should sign him.
3. Who will make up the third defense pairing?
Entering camp, the Flyers had 8 NHL defensemen. Five were guaranteed jobs (Pronger, Timonen, Carle, Coburn, and Meszaros) leaving Sean O`Donnell, Matt Walker, and Oskars Bartulis to battle for two (maybe three) spots. Well, with Chris Pronger taking his time getting healthy - and really, an October of rest for him isn't a bad idea - the Flyers may end up taking all 8 to Pittsburgh.
If the team takes all eight, it won't be because they were the eight best defensemen in camp though. Rather, both second-year man Marc-Andre Bourdon and rookie Erik Gustafsson have impressed a lot more than both Walker and Bartulis, specifically Bourdon. The former third-round pick wore the 'C' for the Flyers at their annual rookie game and has scored 3 points in 4 preseason games entering Friday. As a big Bartulis fan, Bourdon is probably a better NHL defenseman right now, though the Flyers would - rightfully - rather have Bartulis sitting in the press box as the 7th guy over Bourdon. Either way, don't be surprised to see Bourdon in a Flyers uniform this year as neither Walker nor Bartulis will be able to fend him off for much longer.
It will be interesting to see how much Walker, Bartulis, Bourdon, and Gustafsson play this weekend. Look at their ice time, as that should be a pretty good predictor of what the coaching staff is thinking.
4. Can the Flyers avoid more injuries while getting healthy?
It isn't hard to identify the bubble players - Testwuide, Holmstrom, Nodl, Bourdon, and Gustafsson - but it's hard to determine what the Flyers will need on Thursday. This week, the team has been without Chris Pronger, Bill Guerin, and Danny Briere due to injury. While Pronger is likely going to miss a couple of weeks - again, take your time - Briere's injury is a lot more difficult to assess. He's suffering from an infected tonsils, which is preventing him from eating. This has lowered his weight, which makes him unable to play.
While the illness shouldn't keep Briere out for long, does it create an opening for Thursday? Does Bill Guerin's infection prevent him from getting a contract? Does somebody else get hurt, allowing one of the above five to fill in? If the team is able to get Briere and Guerin back for Thursday while avoiding any further injury, it's unlikely any of the bubble players make it.
5. Lastly, can any of those on the bubble force their way into the lineup?
This is something every coach and GM says at the start of camp: Nobody has a job, players will push, we want the young players to step up and earn a spot. It's a nice sentiment, and while it's true to some extent - look at van Riemsdyk last year - the "young players" on this team are facing a considerable climb. Let's look.
- Mike Testwuide - media darling - has had a solid preseason. The problem is that, if he weren't trumpeted all summer, most fans would have no idea who he was. He's had good games, good chances, good shifts, but he just hasn't proven that he earns a job over Bill Guerin or Jody Shelley. If Guerin is not offered a contract, maybe Testwuide gets the call, but it's hard to see him jumping over...
- Andreas Nodl. Yes, I am a big Nodl supporter. I think he should have a role on this team this year, and that was even before Ian Laperriere announced his injury. But the bottom line is that everything Testwuide does, Nodl does. Plus, Nodl can kill penalties. If Nodl somehow scores three goals this weekend - I know, that's more three times as many NHL goals as he's ever scored - it will be tough for the Flyers to decide between Guerin and him. Much more likely is that Nodl can convince the team that he would be better suited to play alongside Blair Betts and Darroll Powe than either of Jody Shelley or Dan Carcillo. Unlikely, but maybe he can convince the team to carry him as a 13th or 14th forward.
- Ben Holmstrom has been better than I expected him to be this preseason, but the truth is that he's behind both Testwuide and Nodl. He can play center, which is good, and he can kill penalties, which is also good. But the thing that would get him into the NHL right now - his defensive game - is just behind too many people. Both Betts and Powe can play center and kill penalties, while Nodl is the obvious replacement if one of Betts or Powe goes down. If both go down? Maybe Holmstrom has a chance.
- Marc-Andre Bourdon, as said earlier, is probably ready to play in the NHL right now. The problem is that he can still get better in the AHL while the defensemen in front of him can't, which means he'll have to be the 6th best Flyers defensemen instead of proving that he's the 7th. As such, he might stay with the team while Pronger is out, but it's not likely that he beats out O`Donnell, Walker, AND Bartulis to get playing time.
- Erik Gustafsson has been really impressive, but he's behind Bourdon right now. The good news is that Gustafsson is truly exceeding expectations as an undrafted rookie signed out of college. He should have a huge year in Adirondack, giving the Flyers a ton of solid prospects that... are going to be blocked at the NHL level by cap-unfriendly deals to Meszaros and Walker.
So that's it, that's what to look for. Though I'm pretty sure all anybody cares about is the first point (Bob? BOB!), there are more than a few interesting things to watch. But maybe I just get too excited for prospects.