Flyers
Nightmare years for Brian Elliott and Carter Hart in net caused in part by a lackluster defense derailed the Flyers 2021 season. (Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The dust has finally settled following the Flyers’ nightmarish 2021 campaign. The Flyers entered this season on the heels of their first playoff series win, best regular season since 2012, and most successful playoff run since 2010. They were expected to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in consecutive years for the first time in almost a decade, but they instead sputtered and ultimately missed the playoffs by a considerable margin.

There is plenty of time to cover the endless hypotheticals as to what the Flyers could do during the offseason to ensure a return to greatness in 2021-22. Those articles (plural) will come, but today, we look back on this hellish season one last time in the form of player grades. Grades will be assigned based on performance via traditional counting stats, analytics, and eye test. Needless to say, the general theme will be much less positive than the report card for last year’s team. Defensemen need at least ten games played to receive a grade; five games is the cutoff for goaltenders. Grades will not be given to players who started but didn’t finish the year in the Flyers organization, a decision made mainly to show Erik Gustafsson some mercy.

D Justin Braun: B-

2020-21 (53 GP): 1 G, 5 A, 6 PTS, 50.37% Corsi, 49.54% xG

You know it’s a bad sign when Justin Braun receives the highest grade on your blue-line. That’s not a dig at Braun, who’s still a very solid defenseman at 34 years old. But I think even he’d admit he doesn’t have the upside of the type of defenseman you’d expect to see at the top of an article like this. It’s a testament to how much the Flyers struggled to keep the puck out of their net this season.

While most Flyers (and the team itself) started strong only to fall apart after their COVID outbreak, Braun’s season followed the exact opposite trajectory. The Flyers gave him the first crack at playing with Ivan Provorov on the top pair, and it was very clear Braun simply couldn’t keep up; he was gashed for an atrocious 42.99% Corsi and 41.81% xG, with his most frequent partner Ivan Provorov fairing even worse. And at 34 years old, it was fair to wonder whether Braun’s best days were behind him.

Then Braun returned from COVID-19 in late February, and just like that, he became a whole different player. Over the final three months of the season, Braun posted a very solid 52.59% Corsi and 52.05% xG. His actual goals hilariously dropped over that stretch, but anyone who merely watched the Flyers play could tell you Braun looked rejuvenated over the season’s last 45 games. Braun isn’t completely absolved from the team’s defensive issues, but his risk-averse play-style means he often avoided the embarrassing mistakes that befell the rest of the d-corps far too often. There’s a reason I wrote after the last game of the season Braun had my vote for the Barry Ashbee Award, given to the team’s best defender. If Braun plays the same way he did from mid-February out in 2021-22, he’ll be more than fine. No other player in this article can say that.

D Ivan Provorov: C+

2020-21: 7 G, 19 A, 26 PTS, 48.87% Corsi, 49.52% xG

There’s a difference between being bad and being disappointing. Ivan Provorov’s season was the latter, not the former. Yes, he scored at basically the same rate as last year and was held back a bit by a struggling pre-COVID Braun. But this year was supposed to be a litmus test for the 25-year old defenseman. When he was surrounded by another great defenseman, like 2017-18 Norris darkhorse Shayne Gostisbehere or Matt Niskanen last season, Provorov looked the part of a true number one blue-liner. In the other two years of his young career, Provorov still ate big minutes but was just fine rather than truly great. With Niskanen’s sudden retirement in the offseason, Provorov had the chance to prove he could truly carry his own pair and was on the right path to becoming one of the game’s elite rearguards.

Instead, Provorov proved the exact opposite; he’s not a true number one, and at this point in his career, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever be anything more than a pretty good #2. To clarify, that still means Provorov is a very good player! But it leaves his likely high-water mark a bit lower than his ceiling as a former top-ten draft pick. Provorov has finished above 50% in Corsi and Expected Goals in just one of his five NHL seasons (2019-20). And while his in-zone coverage and ability to make a solid first pass out of his zone are fine, Provorov leaves a lot to be desired in terms of creating chances. The proof: The Flyers’ top defenseman somehow finished the year without a single 5-on-5 primary assist.

This concern especially holds on the man advantage. Yes, Provorov did lead all NHL d-men with 7 power-play goals last season. But that was largely driven off his great shot, rather than him being an actually good PP quarterback. Regression hit Provorov especially hard in this facet during the 2021 campaign. Provorov also struggled at keeping the puck in at the blue-line, which is critically important on the power-play. Looking forward, maximizing Provorov is arguably the biggest key towards Philadelphia’s long-term success. And it seems clear that the Flyers need to find Provorov another great partner rather than (for the third time) bank on him taking that leap himself.

D Shayne Gostisbehere: C+

2020-21 (41 GP): 9 G, 11 A, 20 PTS, 50.9% Corsi, 51.4% xG

Perhaps no Flyer had nowhere to go but up more than Shayne Gostisbehere entering the 2021 campaign. The once dynamite offensive defenseman saw his scoring touch disappear during the 2019-20 season. With it, so did his playing time. Gostisbehere was a frequent healthy scratch down the stretch and in the playoffs. Injuries played a part in his down year, yes, but Gostisbehere was a shell of himself all of last season. No one in Orange and Black was looking forward to a fresh start more than him in January.

Gostisbehere’s start to the season was delayed due to an early bout with COVID. Once he returned, Gostisbehere immediately returned to Ivan Provorov’s side and looked very good. It didn’t show in the pairings underlying numbers (which were quite poor, along with most of the team), and Gostisbehere didn’t score very much, either. But he was avoiding the nightmare defensive breakdowns of the past year and slowly regaining his confidence. Sure enough, his scoring touch returned in turn; Ghost scored 7 points in 11 games from February 24 to March 13.

The good times didn’t last forever. Gostisbehere’s defensive game started to break down, and Alain Vigneault started losing trust in him once again. Things culminated with Gostisbehere clearing waivers in late March and being healthy scratched during an embarrassing 6-1 beatdown by Buffalo. A setback like that would’ve derailed Gostisbehere for good in the past. But to his credit, Ghost responded nicely; he scored nine points in 16 games across April and May and put up phenomenal underlying numbers during that time as well. He’ll likely never be the unstoppable force he was as a rookie again, at least in Philadelphia. But Gostisbehere proved this season he can still be a worthwhile part of the Flyers’ blue-line.

D Robert Hägg: C

2020-21 (34 GP): 2 G, 3 A, 5 PTS, 52.36% Corsi, 50.06% xG

A lot of crazy things have happened over the last eighteen months that the February 2020 version of me would’ve struggled to believe. Robert Hägg’s possession numbers this season may be the most improbable. Out of 781 skaters with at least 500 5-on-5 minutes played from 2017-2020, Hägg ranked 734th in Corsi and 681st in Expected Goals. And over the season’s first month, it seemed like Hägg (46.44% Corsi, 38.96% xG) was trotting down the same path. But something crazy happened. After the Flyers’ COVID outbreak ended, Hägg… Became good? A player who averaged about 46% Corsi and 44% Expected Goals over the first three years of his career played at a 54% rate by both metrics over the final three months of the season.

While that jump is great to see, it’s not like Hägg’s game is suddenly perfect. He’s still a liability when it comes to moving the puck, especially on breakouts. And it’s not like the coaching staff fell in love with Hägg during this stretch; he was still healthy scratched a handful of times this season. A shoulder injury also cost Hägg about three weeks of his season. And while he’ll never be an offensive dynamo, Hägg’s scoring production fell from about a 20-point pace to 12 this year. It’s certainly much more appealing to have Hägg as the 6th or 7th defenseman next year, knowing he at least has a strong run of form in him like the one he showed this spring.

D Travis Sanheim: C-

2020-21 (55 GP): 3 G, 12 A, 15 PTS, 52.52% Corsi, 51.38% xG

Inconsistency plagued the entire Flyers organization during this season, and Travis Sanheim was no exception. While stagnating a bit after a breakout 2018-19 campaign last year was fine, Sanheim wasn’t at his best in 2021. Part of that can be blamed on an even worse year from his usual partner Phil Myers (more on him later). But Sanheim deserves his fair share of the blame, too. First, Sanheim’s scoring completely fell off a cliff; after scoring at about a 35-point pace the last two years, Sanheim produced at just a 22-point clip this year thanks to a horrid 3% shooting rate (he was at 7.44% and 7.3% over the last two seasons, respectively).

Sanheim also simply wasn’t good enough defensively, as the 25-year old was gashed for quality chances far too often. That was true at both 5-on-5 and the penalty kill, where Sanheim saw his ice-time increase by over 20 seconds a night. That may not seem like much, but it adds up over the course of a season. And it shows that Sanheim took a bigger role there thanks to Niskanen’s retirement.

To be fair, it seemed like every little mistake he did make led to disaster, as Sanheim finished with one of the lowest goals for percentages on the team at 33.33%, thanks to a comically low on-ice save percentage of .879%. Not all of that is Sanheim’s fault, of course, even if he plays the exact same in 2021-22 as he did this year, the results will almost certainly be better if he receives anything resembling league average goaltending. Sanheim was on the ice for about 26.5 expected goals at 5-on-5, yet a whopping 44 pucks entered Philly’s net with him on the ice. But make no mistake about it; this was certainly a down year for Sanheim, setting up an interesting dilemma for the pending RFA’s next deal.

D Samuel Morin: C-

2020-21 (20 GP): 1 G, 0 A, 46.88% Corsi, 39.74% xG

If I was grading Samuel Morin the forward, he would receive an F, no questions asked. The zany experiment to move the 2013 1st round pick from D to left-wing became a short-lived one. The Flyers hoped that Morin’s size would allow him to be a gritty fourth-line presence that the team felt they were lacking. But Morin understandably couldn’t adjust the new position well enough and the Flyers sent him down to the AHL. There, Lehigh Valley coach Scott Gordon started using him at defense again. And with the Flyers back-end struggling, Morin received a shot at playing defense again in the NHL.

For the first time in his career, Morin got to be a semi-regular in the Flyers’ lineup, dressing in 16 of Philly’s last 29 contests. Knock off the four games he played at forward, and Morin’s underlying numbers naturally improved, albeit not to a tremendous level (50.64% Corsi, 44.54% xG). But the eye test was much kinder to Morin. He does bring a physical presence to Philadelphia’s backend, and his toughness was much appreciated by fans and teammates alike. If nothing else, Morin deserves props for delivering one of the few feel-good moments of the 2021 Flyers season; his NHL point, a late 3rd-period goal against the Rangers to snap a 1-1 tie, holding up as the GWG. Morin proved he could hang on an NHL blue-line this year. No qualms here if the Flyers bring him back as defensive depth next year.

G Alex Lyon: C-

2020-21 (6 GP): .893 SV%, N/A Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) – Not Enough Games Played

This is about the typical Alex Lyon year; play a few NHL games when one of the two regular goalies gets hurt, and provide slightly below league-average results. Of course, the fact that Lyon is the first goaltender to show up here is… Concerning, to say the least. But that has more to do with the team’s other net-minders.

Lyon’s performance was a mixed bag this year, in part because he simply didn’t get a lot of playing time. Lyon spent most of the year on the taxi squad, only playing in four AHL games. So it was understandable to see him struggle in his first few NHL outings. Over his final two starts, Lyon stopped 73 of 77 shots (.948 save percentage). Lyon is a fine third goalie and could certainly return to the organization next year. But if the 28-year old wants a legit shot at being an NHL backup, he’ll almost certainly have to leave Philadelphia.

D Phil Myers: D+

2020-21 (44 GP): 1 G, 10 A, 11 PTS, 52.48% Corsi, 50.18% xG

There was a lot of hype around Phil Myers coming into the year, and with good reason. Myers had emerged as one of the organization’s top prospects over the last few years. And he lived up to his potential down the stretch in 2019-20. Myers became a key piece of Philly’s top four in January, delivered an excellent first-round performance against Montréal, and scored the Flyers’ first playoff overtime goal since 2012 in Game 2 of the second round. With Niskanen retiring, Myers figured to get a legit crack at becoming Provorov’s partner on a young, exciting top-pair.

Well, Myers did get that crack… And it did not go very well. Nothing really did in Myers’ 2021 season. Myers’ proneness to bad decision-making was on full display far too often during this season. Ill-advised passes or glaringly awful defensive reads plagued Myers’ 2021 campaign. He wasn’t able to maximize his 6’3”, 210 lb frame, a key part of why Myers was such a hyped prospect (if you’d like a more thorough breakdown on Myers’ year, I highly recommend checking out this article by The Athletic’s Charlie O’Connor). The coaching staff lost patience, healthy scratching him on numerous occasions. Simply put, it was a disastrous year for Myers, respectable possession numbers aside. Myers showed he could play like a top-four defenseman last year. But the jury is still out when it comes to his long-term fit on Philly’s blue-line.

G Brian Elliott: D-

2020-21: .889 SV%, -14 GSAA

Let’s be clear: the Flyers didn’t put Elliott in a position to succeed in 2021, though that wasn’t necessarily due to circumstances all within their control. Depending on a 36-year old used to being nothing more than a 1A to basically be the team’s starter for a significant time is usually a bad idea. If the Flyers kept Elliott on the low-pressure regime he began the season on, things likely would’ve been fine.

Instead, the Flyers pushed Elliott because his numbers were good (.931 save percentage through the end of February) and Carter Hart’s weren’t. As his final numbers show, Elliott simply couldn’t handle the increased workload. It’s hard to say how much blame the Flyers awful defense deserves for his poor numbers. But the answer isn’t all of it. Elliott allowed his fair share of bad goals during the year. And keeping him around next year at 37 is basically a non-option. Moose worked admirably during his four years in Philly. Thanks to him for all he did for the team, and I wish him the best. Congratulations on hitting the 500 games played mark, as well.

I’m sad that former Flyer Carlo Colaiacovo didn’t make this list.

G Carter Hart: F

2020-21 (27 GP): .877 SV%, -22.6 GSAA

If you read all of the hockey coverage here at Vendetta during the 2021 season, you read a lot of bad words (and I mean A LOT) about Carter Hart. Granted, most of them didn’t come from me. That’s not because I think Hart had a great year; he was absolutely brutal, no two ways about it. After being a beacon of light in the dark pit known as the Flyers crease since Ron Hextall retired over two decades ago in 2018-19 and 2019-20, Hart simply lost his game. Goaltenders are incredibly difficult to project and often deliver career years or absolute duds at random. A normal down year is one thing. Putting up the worst save percentage by a goalie since 2002-03 (min. 25 games played). Hart somehow fell into the latter category in 2021.

Of all of the Flyers, it seemed like the effects on the pandemic hit Hart the hardest. That’s even though he wasn’t one of the players to test positive during the team’s outbreak. Rather, Hart admitted that things were tough, saying “I don’t feel like myself” during the peak of his struggles. It’s logical to expect younger players who don’t have a family to come home to would feel the isolation of the pandemic harder than most.

The good news? Hart seemed to be in much brighter spirits towards the end of the year as some of the restrictions started to be lifted. And though his season ended a month prematurely thanks to injury, Hart did end the year on a high note, putting up a solid .910 save percentage in five April starts. Hart definitely struggled mightily during this season. But perhaps more than other Flyer, it’s safe to expect a bounce-back from the starter in 2021-2022.

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