The Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers are traveling a long way to begin what they hope will be the road back to the playoffs when they visit Prague, Czech Republic for their season opener on Friday.
The Flyers are coming off a 37-37-8 campaign that left them out of the playoffs for the fourth time in the past seven years. They replaced general manager Ron Hextall during the season and brought in veteran NHL coach Alain Vigneault in the offseason.
Vigneault said this week that opening in the Czech Republic hasn’t made his job of getting his new team ready any more difficult.
“We’re evaluating our group, putting them in different situations on the ice,” Vigneault told reporters upon arriving in Prague. “Hopefully it won’t be a long process, but sometimes it takes a little bit of time and obviously right now we’re in that process of making the evaluations we need to make for this team to be successful.”
That group includes newcomer Kevin Hayes, a 6-foot-5 center who scored 19 goals and 36 assists last season with the New York Rangers and Winnipeg Jets, as well as defensemen Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun.
Carter Hart, who posted a 2.83 goals-against average and .917 save percentage during his rookie season, is expected to start in net for the Flyers.
The Flyers’ top line of captain Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek returns for the opener. For Voracek, a native of Kladno, the trip is a homecoming.
“What does it mean for me? That I get to see my family and friends,” Voracek told reporters. “What does it mean for me and the team? That we are here to grab two points. Obviously, we want to have a good start. It didn’t happen very often the last few years, so just want to dig in and make sure we show the Czech fans some good hockey.”
The Blackhawks are looking to end a two-year playoff drought after finishing 36-34-12 last season.
Chicago underwent significant player turnover in the offseason, with the new faces including defensemen Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta, goaltender Robin Lehner and a group of depth forwards.
After the short NHL preseason, coach Jeremy Colliton will continue to put the pieces together as he begins his first full season behind the Blackhawks bench.
“We’re going to learn way more in the first game than probably we learned in the whole first three weeks of preseason,” Colliton told reporters. “I’m excited for that, and we’ll just react accordingly, so that is exciting.”
Chicago’s top line of Alex DeBrincat, captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane accounted for 120 goals in 2018-19. The Blackhawks moved to ensure they’ll be together beyond this season when they signed DeBrincat to a three-year, $19.2 million extension Thursday.
Scoring was not Chicago’s problem last season, but the Blackhawks allowed the second most goals in the NHL.
The arrival of Lehner to team with veteran Corey Crawford, who missed more than two months of last season with a concussion, should improve those numbers dramatically.
“I think everyone’s excited,” forward Dylan Strome said. “I think there’s good vibe around here. … I think we’re ready for a long season, hopefully a good season and obviously a team where we think we can make the playoffs. Lots of positive things heading into the season and we’re ready to go.”