The last decade or so of Philadelphia Flyers hockey was defined by mediocrity. Five head coaches, three GMs, and a revolving door in net, among other problems, held the Flyers back. This once proud and consistent contender fell into the NHL’s mushy middle, unable to win so much as a single series for eight straight years.
Until last season. The 2019-20 Flyers broke through the glass ceiling, emerging as contenders in a treacherous Metropolitan Division. From January 8 on, the Flyers were tied with the Bruins for the best record in the NHL. The club was a league-best 9-1-0 in their last 10 when the season shut down. They returned from the pause with a dominant sweep of the East round-robin. And they topped it all off with a series victory (albeit an unimpressive one) over the Montreal Canadiens, before falling to the Islanders in seven the next round.
That leap forward was the result of a series of bold moves in summer 2019 by GM Chuck Fletcher. His first offseason leading the Flyers started by bringing in experienced bench boss Alain Vigneault. Fletcher then added to the Flyers roster with a pair of steady right-handed defensemen (Matt Niskanen, Justin Braun), and filled the second-line center hole with a 7-year, $50 million pact to Kevin Hayes.
The league’s flat cap mostly kept the Flyers from adding to their roster this offseason. Now, the questions start to shift to the club’s upside. Last offseason’s trepidation has given way to excitement. The Flyers proved they were a good team last regular season. But an unspectacular playoff showing has created some doubts about their true potential. Is this the group that leads the Flyers to their first Stanley Cup since 1975, or are they still a step behind the league’s truly elite teams?
|Claude Giroux||Sean Couturier||Travis Konecny|
|Oskar Lindblom||Kevin Hayes||Jakub Voracek|
|Joel Farabee||Nolan Patrick||James van Riemsdyk|
|Michael Raffl||Scott Laughton||Nicolas Aube-Kubel|
|Ivan Provorov||Phil Myers|
|Travis Sanheim||Shayne Gostisbehere|
|Erik Gustafsson||Justin Braun|
Additions and Subtractions
As you can see, the Flyers are mostly choosing to run it back this year. Though the team was involved in rumors for high-end trade chips (notably Winnipeg sniper Patrik Laine), the club’s lone acquisition was defenseman Erik Gustafsson. But the focus is less on him and more on the reason they signed Gustafsson; the sudden retirement of Matt Niskanen.
Brought in from Washington last summer, Niskanen became the best right-handed Flyers defenseman in over a decade. The 33-year old found instant chemistry with Ivan Provorov, helping Provorov regain true top-pair form after a disappointing 2018-19 campaign. Niskanen’s two-way play-style and playoff experience made him a perfect fit in Philly. However, Niskanen chose to retire because of the uncertainty surrounding COVID and the NHL season. It’s understandable, but also a tough pill to swallow.
Unfortunately, Gustafsson won’t be able to fill Niskanen’s void. The 28-year old put up an impressive 60 points with Chicago in 2018-19, but failed to recapture that magic last season. Gustafsson is a great puck-moving, offensive defenseman, but struggles mightily in his own zone. It seems like a weird fit considering the Flyers already have a Gustafsson clone in Shayne Gostisbehere, who’s delivered consecutive disappointing seasons after receiving Norris votes in 2017-18.
Otherwise, the Flyers mostly stood pat. Braun and backup goalie Brian Elliott were brought back to sure up depth. Restricted free agents Phil Myers and Nicolas Aube-Kubel received raises after developing nicely last season. Depth deadline acquisitions Derek Grant (Anaheim) and Nate Thompson (Montreal) departed, but that’s more addition by subtraction than anything. The only notable loss is feisty fourth-liner Tyler Pitlick, but Aube-Kubel can adequately replace him.
For the first time since Ian Laperriere won the 2010-11 Bill Masterton Trophy, a Flyer took home hardware at the NHL awards; Sean Couturier received the Selke Trophy for the league’s best defensive forward. It’s a long-time coming for Couturier, who was on pace to record his third straight 70-plus point season last year and finished second for the award in 2017-18. The former top-ten pick is an elite first-line center on a dirt cheap contract ($4.33 million) for the next two seasons. He’s easily the team’s best forward.
But that distinction isn’t for a lack of quality competition. Claude Giroux’s point totals were thrown off balance because of wonky power-play formations and extended time at center due to injuries (he’s better suited as a winger these days). The captain is still an impact scorer and a deadly playmaker when deployed properly. He meshes perfectly with Travis Konecny, who emerged as a deadly sniper during the regular season, making his first All-Star Game in the process. Both players disappointed in the playoffs, combining for just one goal, but they’re still important cogs in the Flyers machine.
The same goes for (projected) second-liners Kevin Hayes and Jake Voracek. Hayes’ outgoing personality and habit for clutch goals made him an instant fan favorite in Philly. That’s good, because his 7-year mega-deal may not look well by the end of it. But he’s the best second-line center the Flyers have had since Danny Briere. Voracek is another outstanding playmaker who was one of the only big-name forwards to show up in last year’s playoffs; he delivered an impressive seven points in six games against Montreal in Round 1.
While Hayes and Voracek alleviated early 2019-20 concerns down the stretch, the inverse applies to James van Riemsdyk. JVR had a strong return to Philadelphia two years ago, but put up “just” 19 goals last year as his power-play production went dry. For what it’s worth, his possession numbers actually took a big step up, suggesting 2019-20 was just a Murphy’s law season. But 2021 is certainly a gut-check year for van Riemsdyk, who could be in Seattle next season if he doesn’t bounce back in a big way.
Perhaps the scariest thing about the Flyers is they were so good last year with two of their top young players suffering through serious medical concerns. 2017 #2 overall pick Nolan Patrick missed all of last season with migraine disorder. Then, emerging winger Oskar Lindblom was diagnosed with cancer 30 games into the season; at that point, his 11 goals were tied for the team lead.
Thankfully, Lindblom beat cancer and returned to the lineup for the Flyers final two playoff games. Patrick seems to be moving in the right direction, too; he’s been scrimmaging with ex-Flyer Ryan White, and all updates have been positive. The growth of those two (and 2019 1st rounder Joel Farabee, who played 50 games last season) are major storylines.
Philadelphia’s depth up front was a huge reason for their success last year, and this season should be no different. Scott Laughton scored at a 45-point pace last year; Nic Aube-Kubel’s pace was 34 points in a full season. Full seasons from both players, who have great chemistry with Michael Raffl, give the Flyers one of the best fourth-lines in hockey. All three are dependable forecheckers and penalty killers, two areas the Flyers excelled in last season.
Devil’s in the Defense
As previously mentioned, 2019-20 was a renaissance year for Ivan Provorov. The former 7th overall pick had a tremendous season last year, scoring 36 points and impressing in all zones despite playing big minutes against top competition. Provorov has lead the team in time-on-ice in each of his first four seasons, and has a 315-game iron-man streak dating back to his NHL debut in 2016.
But with Niskanen hanging up the skates, he’ll need a new partner. There are a few contenders to share top-pair minutes with Provorov. He and Shayne Gostisbehere were dynamite together down the stretch in 2017-18, but the Flyers probably won’t start Ghost so high in the lineup after a disastrous 2019-20 campaign. Provorov played fairly well with Travis Sanheim in early 2019; they were the team’s only pair that wasn’t caved in under former interim coach Scott Gordon. Sanheim is also an excellent puck-mover and is arguably the most balanced blue-liner on the club behind Provorov.
But for now, let’s pencil budding youngster Phil Myers alongside Ivan the Great. Myers went from top prospect to full-time NHLer in 2020, showing great chemistry with his former AHL partner Sanheim down the stretch. The 22-year old’s 6’5” frame combines with his smooth skating and puck skills to make him a potential unstoppable force. His decision making and discipline still need work, but he’s a good bet to grow into a strong number-two defenseman. In the future, his skillset probably makes him a perfect partner for Provorov; whether he can be that in the present remains to be seen.
Sanheim and Gostisbehere may be too offensively-minded to play together, but there seems to be no other option with Gustafsson likely ticketed for early 3rd-pair duties with the defensive-minded Braun. The only other route would be to scratch Gostisbehere for Robert Hagg, who has a much lower-ceiling but a higher-floor than Ghost. That’s on the table, but everyone knows the best version of the Flyers includes the 2016 Calder runner-up (that’s not Hagg, by the way). The Flyers did just that for most of the playoffs, but I’d expect the team to start from scratch with Gostisbehere in a new-season. If he can somehow get back to his 50-60 point ways, it would be a huge boost for this blue-line.
Goaltending has long been the biggest issue for the Flyers. Sieve after sieve let the team down after Ron Hextall left in 1999. But then Carter Hart showed up. Since debuting on November 18, 2018, Hart ranks 18th in the league in save percentage. His 4.46 goals saved above average is 25th. In other words, Hart is already a league average starter at age 21. Goalies aren’t supposed to be this good this young. In fact, those numbers probably undersell Hart’s play; he was basically the club’s lone consistent performer in the playoffs. If he takes a step forward this year, watch out.
Brian Elliott returns on another 1-year deal as Hart’s understudy. The 36-year old was better than his numbers showed last year, but if his save percentage drops eight points again, that’s cause for concern. Hopefully, that’s mitigated by the fact Elliott played a full season for the first time since 2016-17. Moose isn’t a major question mark this season, but he’s someone to keep an eye on. And since NHL teams will be required to carry 3 goalies this year (because of COVID hampering the ease of call-ups), Alex Lyon and his 16 NHL games of experience will also be hanging around.
In the Pipeline
Not only do the Flyers have a strong roster, but their prospect pool is also one of the deepest in the league. If Patrick isn’t able to play for health reasons, fellow 2017 1st round pick Morgan Frost should be NHL ready. Frost followed up consecutive dominant seasons in the OHL with a solid first pro season, earning a 20 game cup of coffee with the big club.
Connor Bunnaman showed he can be a competent fourth-line center. And like him, physical winger Carsen Twarynski also cracked the opening night roster last year. All three, as well as Swedish import Linus Sandin (brother of Toronto defender Rasmus) and college graduates Wade Allison and Tanner Laczysnki, should challenge Raffl for a fourth-line role.
On the back-end, Egor Zamula has followed Myers’ undrafted to top prospect path to a tee. The 20-year old could challenge for a taxi squad spot or gain valuable AHL experience this year. Mark Friedman looked solid in a third-pair role briefly last year; the 24-year old is no longer waiver exempt, and he could make the team out of camp in a depth role. And I’m mentioning Wyatte Wylie here too because a) he’s a solid prospect and b) his name is absolutely fantastic. The club also has several high end prospects like forwards Tyson Foerster and Bobby Brink and defensemen Cam York and Emil Andrae who won’t see NHL ice this season.
The new East division looks to be the deepest in the NHL — just like the Metro was last season. Losing Niskanen is a bigger blow than most realize; his impressive 5-on-5 production will be hard to replace. The club still has about $2.2 million in cap space. Trading someone like Gostisbehere opens up the ability to make a big move (Dougie Hamilton? Matt Dumba? David Savard?) at RD. The Flyers might need to do just that to take them over the top.
Even if Chuck Fletcher stays pat, the Flyers have already built a pretty impressive job. Some of the luster surrounding Alain Vigneault wore off during the playoffs, but his strong regular season work shouldn’t be forgotten. Assuming the Flyers return to their aggressive ways, they should once again be a tough club for opponents to handle. Maturation from their young players, especially Carter Hart (who struggled mightily on the road last year) should also help.
But are the Flyers ready to take that next step? We probably won’t know that answer until May, when the Flyers top players will hopefully be in a position to redeem themselves. Giroux, Couturier, and Konecny combined for just six goals in the entire playoffs. Konecny, the team’s regular season leading scorer, laid a goose egg in the goal department. The previously dependable Sanheim-Myers pairing was overwhelmed by the tenacious Islanders. Vigneault stopped optimizing the lineup. And it’s not like this is a one-time issue; underwhelming performances from star players was a major reason the Flyers went out in the first round their last two playoff appearances (2016, 2018).
However, every playoff disappointment is also a valuable learning experience, especially for a team as young as Philadelphia. Last year was just the second playoff trip for Konecny, Provorov, Sanheim, and Lindblom. Hart, Farabee, Myers, and Aube-Kubel were playoff rookies. They should be better prepared for the team’s next run. And the veterans that disappointed should be more motivated than ever to prove their doubters wrong.
With such a short season and tough division, there is a doomsday scenario where the Flyers continue the “make then miss the playoffs” routine they’ve followed since 2012. But the youth, depth, and quality coaching the Flyers possess makes the organization as stable as ever heading into this shortened season.
And it’s a pivotal one for the Flyers. Carter Hart and Travis Sanheim. Scott Laughton will be a UFA. Someone good will be selected by Seattle in the expansion draft. I don’t think this will be a Winnipeg Jets scenario, where the team goes from contender to bubble team in the blink of an eye. But with players like Voracek and Giroux exiting their primes, the Flyers contention window may not be as long as some may think.
But that’s next year’s problem. While I still think they’re probably a tick behind the juggernauts in Tampa Bay, Vegas, and Colorado, the Flyers are certainly banging on their door. The biggest reason? There’s no obvious weakness on this roster. Remember, last year’s right-side on D was far from a sure thing coming into the season, and it turned out just fine. A conference or even Stanley Cup Finals appearance for the first time isn’t guaranteed, but it’s certainly possible, if not expected. Philly fans are notoriously impatient, and it’s time for the Flyers to produce results. The good news — as this article proves, they certainly have all the pieces to do so.