VOORHEES, N.J. — Egor Zamula was trying not to hang his head. It would have been easy to after Vegas’ Paul Cotter nimbly scampered past him and deposited a third-period goal in the Golden Knights’ win over the Philadelphia Flyers at T-Mobile Arena last month.
Cam Atkinson made it a point to tell Zamula that the play, a highlight-reel goal if there ever was one, is the sort of faux pas that every NHL player commits from time to time. In fact, Atkinson wasted no time in relaying that message to the towering 23-year-old defenseman.
Like, no time.
“He told me right away in the shower,” Zamula said, a couple days later. “It’s a mistake, but it’s one play. He told me (in) his experience, everybody has mistakes. So, I need to learn from that.”
TAKE A BOW PAUL COTTER! 😱 pic.twitter.com/6Hu8vDXPOC
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) October 25, 2023
The entire before-and-after sequence encapsulates what this Flyers season is all about. Young players are learning by experience, mistakes are being made, and, the hope is, they will ultimately get better from them. Those who do will be part of the future; those who don’t won’t be.
Zamula said the play helped to teach him “to be more like aggressive, and (be in) better position one-on-one to do my best.”
The Russian native’s career could still go either way. Zamula entered the league as an unheralded, undrafted free agent, but has done enough in parts of four NHL seasons now to fend off some of the other young defensemen in the organization to claim an opening-night roster spot. In 12 games, he has four points (1 goal, 3 assists) and is tied for the team high with a plus-9 rating.
But that doesn’t mean, apparently, that Zamula will be in the lineup on a nightly basis. He’s been a healthy scratch three times this season, including on Saturday in the Flyers’ 4-2 win in Los Angeles. He returned for Wednesday’s 3-1 win in Carolina, going scoreless with a plus-1 rating in about 12 minutes of ice time. But Zamula also committed an awful turnover at the defensive blue line midway through the first period, leading to a Jesperi Kotkaniemi breakaway that Carter Hart blockered aside in one of his 31 saves, and then threw the puck into the stands in the second period for an unforced delay of game minor that the Flyers successfully killed off.
Whether Zamula remains in the lineup for Saturday’s rematch with the Golden Knights is uncertain, but what is certain is that lineup decisions are about to get tougher for coach John Tortorella, particularly on defense. Veteran Marc Staal is nearing a return from what he called an injury to his ribs and might even be ready by Saturday, while Rasmus Ristolainen is also skating again after experiencing what one source described as “multiple setbacks” from his undisclosed ailment that has thus far prevented him from making his season debut.
When asked about how he might handle the logjam with those two vets getting closer, Tortorella said: “When there are decisions to be made, you know you’re getting deeper in your lineup. I’m not going to lose sight of the kids. We’ll see where it all goes.”
It’s not just the defense group, either. Rookie forward Bobby Brink has now been a healthy scratch for two straight games, despite a respectable stat line of three goals and eight points in 13 games. “I thought Bobby had leveled out,” Tortorella said on Tuesday, explaining the decision to remove him from the Kings game.
There’s another aspect of that Zamula play worth dissecting when it comes to the overall organizational philosophy. The defenseman didn’t see the ice for the rest of the third period after Cotter tied the game at 2-2; he was plopped on the bench for the final 12 minutes of what was an eventual 3-2 Flyers loss.
One thought might be, well, why not throw Zamula out there right after Cotter’s marker to see how he responds to the error? After all, that would give Tortorella and the Flyers even more information on which to evaluate the young defenseman.
The coach offered a reason.
“(We’re) trying to win the game,” Tortorella said at the time. “And that’s why Z’s on the bench. There were some struggles prior to that that you live through. … As a coaching staff, we have a little bit of a responsibility to the other guys, too, that we’re trying to win a hockey game. That’s why that decision was made.”
Yes, winning games is still important to the Flyers as an organization this season, even if they don’t plan on competing for a Stanley Cup. And at 8-7-1, including three straight wins now over the Ducks, Kings and Hurricanes, they already have more wins than many might have figured they would at this point. They might hang around for a little while.
Replicating the tire fire that is the current San Jose Sharks roster, or the per-Connor McDavid Edmonton Oilers, isn’t ever going to be the plan here. General manager Danny Briere has said that already, and offered a reminder of it in a sit-down interview with The Athletic in the stands at SAP Center in San Jose last week.
“You owe it to your players, you owe it to your coaches, you owe it to your fans as well, that pay a lot of money to support us,” Briere said. “I believe, too, part of the development is having a team that competes and has a chance to win every night, learning different situations. I really think it’s tough to learn when you know you don’t have much of a chance to win, and you’re just kind of going through the motions. That’s our belief, anyway.”
It’s also why Staal will almost certainly get back into the lineup as soon as it’s determined he’s healthy. He’ll get a chance to reestablish himself after he played just three games and one period prior to getting hurt. Part of the reason he was brought in was to help mentor the young players — defenseman and forwards alike — and he can’t very well do that from the press box.
But it’s not just Staal, or other forwards up front like Atkinson and Garnet Hathaway, that are viewed as proper role models for the young players on the roster and in the system. Other veteran blueliners like Nick Seeler and Sean Walker have both played every game so far, and are 29 and 30 years old, respectively.
Tortorella appreciates both, and it doesn’t sound as if he’s eager to take them out of the lineup, judging from what he said on Tuesday. His view is that the undrafted Walker and Seeler, a fifth-round pick of the Wild in 2011, are both good examples of players who had to fight tooth and nail to find a home in the NHL and that, too, helps to set a good example. They also each had a primary assist in Wednesday’s win in Raleigh.
“They had to grind away, and do it themselves,” Tortorella said earlier this week. “I think those are probably better lessons and better models about how you get your foundation to be a pro. … I think it’s invaluable to watch people like that.
“I think sometimes we get caught up in all the things being said about people — how much he makes, where he was drafted and this and that. You forget about how other guys got in this league and stayed in this league.”
It will be fascinating to see how Tortorella and the organization attempt to walk that line of playing the younger players while also trying to field a lineup that looks like it has the potential to win on any given night, particularly when winning might require an older, more experienced lineup.
“We’re going to do the right thing for the future of the organization,” Briere said, “but we want our players to know what it takes to win, and realize and go into every game thinking they can win that game.”
(Photo of Egor Zamula: Robert Edwards / USA Today)