As the season draws closer and the dog days of summer end, the inevitable questions about the Flyers opening night roster begin to circulate. There are more roster spots up for grabs this year than have been in years past, and there are many NHL ready players waiting in the wings trying to get their shot at a full time gig. With that’s being said, here are the two most interesting battles that will happen in Flyers camp this year.
1. Scott Laughton vs. Mike Vecchione
The departures of both Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde this past offseason left two noticeable holes on the fourth line. While one of them is bound to be filled by recent trade acquisition Jori Lethera, there is still one more spot which needs to be claimed before the season starts. More than likely, that spot will be filled by one of Michael Vecchione or Scott Laughton. Laughton, 23, was the Flyers first round pick in the 2012 Entry Draft, and has been up and down between the Phantoms and Flyers since 2014, never quite impressing enough to stick. In his longest tenure with the big club in 2014-15, he had 21 points in 71 games playing mostly third and fourth line minutes. The man he will be battling is Mike Vecchione, a highly sought after college free agent signed by the Flyers last season from Union College, the Alma Mater of Shayne Gostisbehere. Vecchione, 24, will be beginning his first full season as a member of the Flyers organization after his brief cup of coffee to end last year, where he only played two games and recorded zero points. A better testament to his abilities is his last season at Union, where he was able to amass 63 points in just 38 games.
These two are going to be neck and neck all camp long, and it will probably end up coming down to who looks better to head coach Dave Hakstol and his staff in the preseason and training camp. If I had to give an edge to someone though, it seems as if Scott Laughton would have the inside track, having already played a fair amount of games for the Flyers in the past. This may be Laughton’s last chance to prove he belongs, and if he performs he should sneak in as a fourth line winger. Also, with Vecchione just joining the organization late last year, some time getting used to the pro game with the Phantoms may not be the worst idea.
2. Brandon Manning vs. Robert Hägg
The other battle to watch is between two defensemen, both at very different points in their careers. Brandon Manning was a regular player on the Flyers third pairing last year, playing 65 games there. Unfortunately, he was not very good and his consistent play time had less to do with his ability and more to do with the fact that the Flyers were very low on NHL ready defensemen. Case in point, Manning was a minus 12 on the season, and was very awkward and slow looking on the ice, while taking many bad penalties as a result of being caught flat footed. However, he did bring some toughness to the team when he played, and did have a Corsi For percentage of 51.3%, which is still above average. Manning is basically a replacement level player, nothing too special, but on a third pairing with a quicker partner, he could be serviceable. His opponent in the battle for the sixth spot on the blueline is upstart Swede Robert Hägg. Hägg, 22, is a former second round draft pick of the Flyers in 2013, and has been quietly become a solid stay-at-home defender in AHL with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms over the past two years. While it is the common opinion that Travis Sanheim has the best chance to make the big club, Hägg has made himself known as a stalwart down in the minors, and may sneak in due to his steady defensive play, which is something the Flyers severely lacked last season.
The edge here goes to Hägg, he has much more upside and potential than Manning has had, or ever will have, and with the youth movement becoming more and more prevalent on the blueline, this move only makes sense to further the culture shift. As well, Manning’s penchant for bad penalties, as previously discussed, could have changed Coach Hakstol’s opinion on him, combine that with the fact he was already on the bubble to begin with, and I think Brandon Manning will enter the season in the press box.
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