It has already been a unique year in the sports world and especially for the NHL. Not only did they endure the near five-month pause between the unceremonious end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs in the bubble, but there were labor negotiations throughout the year to even get the players back on the ice for the completion of the 2019-20 season and the start of the upcoming 2020-21 season.
The result is a shortened, 56-game season designed to get the NHL back on track for a normal 82-game schedule in 2021-22.
Though the circumstances are very different, the NHL has been here before when it comes to shortened seasons, and not too far in the past either. The NHL saw the 2012-13 season shortened to 48 games after a lockout.
The Flyers roster featured some familiar faces that have been around for many years now. It was Claude Giroux’s first season as captain. It was Jake Voracek’s second season with the team. It was Sean Couturier’s second NHL season. Scott Laughton even got a five-game trial as an 18-year-old before returning to juniors. The Flyers even had Erik Gustafsson on the roster...though not the same Erik Gustafsson they signed this offseason.
Couturier remembers that season well. The Flyers had provided a lot of fireworks in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, despite their second-round exit, and hopes were high that the team was poised for another run.
“We need to get off to a good start, especially with a shortened season. I had gone through it the lockout year. We had a good team. We just got off to a poor start and just couldn’t make up ground in time to make the playoffs,” Couturier said on Monday. “I think it’s important to get off to a good start, get a good camp in and be ready for Game 1. Then go from there. Once you’re in the playoffs, anything can happen. That’s another part of our game where we’ll have to just take another step as the year goes on.”
The Flyers opened the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season with three straight losses and dropped six of their first eight games. Following the eighth game of the season, the Flyers never strung together a winning or losing streak of more than two games for six weeks. When they suffered a four-game losing streak in mid-March, they were 13-17-3 with 15 games remaining in the season.
Following that four-game losing streak, the Flyers won their next four games to keep their slim playoff hopes alive, but a four-game losing streak dashed them for good. They closed the season with wins in six of their last seven games, but missed the playoffs by six points.
This shortened season presents some different situations, like facing the same divisional opponents on a nightly basis, but Couturier said that the need to win early and often remains the same.
“Every game is more important because you are playing with a new division and fighting for the same playoff spot every night basically. There’s probably more value to each game,” Couturier said. “Going through it, the lockout year, it’s important to get off to a good start because if you come out of the gates with a poor start, after 10, 15 games, there’s not many games you can catch up. At the same time, it’s going to be divisional games so every point is going to be worth almost that much more. It’s going to be fun. There’s going to be some rivalries that are going to build up.”
At the time of that lockout-shortened season, Couturier was 20 years old, still a newcomer to the NHL. Now as the reigning Selke Trophy winner and a veteran on the team, it presents a unique opportunity for young players to continue to grow. Couturier remembers those early playoff runs as a valuable experience and echoed Kevin Hayes’ recent sentiments on how that experience in the bubble helps.
“I think anytime you can get into the playoffs, especially win a round and see what it takes to move on, it’s always a great experience,” Couturier said. “I think a lot of young guys learned from that. I think it’s important now in my tenth year and being in and out of the playoffs, it’s not something easy and doesn’t come that easy to get into the playoffs and win. You’ve just got to be ready every year and every playoffs. Every chance you get to improve and help the team, that’s what you need to do.”
Couturier added that it helps that the Flyers are returning with primarily the same lineup, and also commented on how the bubble was conducted well by the NHL, but being able to play in the team’s home arena, use the practice facility and return to see family will provide more normalcy than the summer playoff did.
“The set-up we had anyways in Toronto, our hotel was amazing. There’s no complaints about that. At the end of the day, you’re in a hotel and after a week or two, you get tired of being in a hotel. It’s not ideal,” Couturier said. “I’m happy that we get to play in our home rink and have somewhat a normal schedule. Personally with having a newborn baby, it’s going to be a lot better for me anyway, mentally and the guys with families. I think it’s way better this way where we can have somewhat more of a normal life.”
A shortened training camp will also mean that the Flyers have to get into gear early and will look to guys like Couturier to provide that spark from the start. The Flyers will lean heavily on their top-line center to be the defensive stalwart and the offensive catalyst he has been for the last three seasons, finally rewarded on the national level last season.
January will mark the start of a new campaign and another chance for Couturier to add to his own legacy within a core that has been in this situation before. It didn’t go well the first time, and Couturier seems determined to make sure it won’t happen this time.