The end of the calendar year is always a good time to evaluate where things stand in a lot of areas. On a personal level, we think about health and finance and overall happiness and what we can do to improve these areas in the new year.
The same goes for sports franchises, as with any business, as you look back on the decisions made and the progression you have made or lack thereof. While we will get to the New Year’s Resolutions the Philadelphia Flyers can make in 2021, we start by looking back.
You may have heard me last week on 97.3 ESPN give my State of the Flyers a part of the Christmas Day special State of the Philly Sports Teams show – if you didn’t hear it, you can listen here. As 2020 draws to a close, here are some of the topics discussed in the State of the Flyers, a short playing year with a lot of progress made.
Alain Vigneault and a Familiar System
As the Flyers prepare to start a new season, they do face one advantage of entering their second season under Alain Vigenault. This allows many of the Flyers players to know what to expect from the beginning when it comes to training camp and be familiar with the system Vigneault likes to run.
In a shortened season, this year consisting of 56 games, you don’t have time to make many adjustments early on. You need to be sharp and ready from the start and can’t afford to still be trying to figure it out four weeks into the season. Points in the standings will be imperative.
There are two teams within the East Division that can’t say the same thing. The Washington Capitals hired Peter Laviolette and the New Jersey Devils hired Lindy Ruff over the offseason. While both are top head coaches in the history of the NHL among wins, it doesn’t mean success is going to translate immediately, especially for teams like the Devils who haven’t played a game since March. There may be time to adjust and that can hurt them in the long run.
The Flyers have the benefit of bringing back more than just Vigneault. They are essentially returning almost entirely the same roster. There should not be a significant adjustment period to being ready to return as other teams may experience.
A Look Back at the Playoff Run
Kevin Hayes talked about this the other day and said that the Flyers are back on the map and that the playoff run over the summer helps younger players get a taste of what playoff hockey is like, as strange as it was this summer in the bubble.
Hayes is right on both accounts. First, the Flyers were arguably the hottest team at the time the NHL paused in March. There was essentially no question that this team was on their way to not only making the playoffs comfortably, but also earning a Top 4 seed in the conference.
The Flyers ultimately returned from the pause and won their exhibition, then won their three Round Robin games, then won three of the first four games in the first round of the playoffs before finishing off the Montreal Canadiens in six games. That also helped get a lot of attention from around the league.
A lot of it has to do with young players contributing. Carter Hart got his first taste of playoff hockey and helped carry that team through the first round when scoring was at a premium. Joel Farabee also got his first taste of playoff hockey. Even guys like Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny and Travis Sanheim, all on the roster for the team’s playoff appearance in 2018, got more experience. It only helps for the future.
So the Flyers are able to take the experience and build off it. They take the desire to be part of the playoffs again and channel that into a successful regular season, then take the lessons learned in this playoff run and use that to try to make a deeper run this time around.
The Defense: Replacing Matt Niskanen
Let’s start with what we know: losing Matt Niskanen hurts because this was the consummate professional and there was full expectation in the pre-COVID, pre-bubble world that Niskanen would be back this season. It was a surprise when he retired, though understandable due to the circumstances.
Here’s something else we already know: Ivan Provorov is the leader of this defense. Provorov was certainly aided by having Niskanen’s presence on his right side, but continued to show growth and play more and more significant minutes.
Niskanen’s retirement is entirely the reason that Justin Braun was re-signed and Erik Gustafsson was signed as a free agent. Neither of them feels like a true replacement to what Niskanen brought last season.
I think that replacing Niskanen is going to be done by committee, where multiple guys need to take a bigger step and play to their strengths.
Phil Myers seems like a natural replacement for Niskanen in the sense that he’s a right-handed shot and skates well. He needs to take a greater step in his development to truly fill that void.
Ultimately, many defensemen will get a shot this season. There will be opportunities for guys like Shayne Gostisbehere, whether he is in the lineup on Day 1 or not, simply because a shortened season requires flexibility. Myers and Sanheim will need to step up and keep growing. You may even look to a guy in the pipeline like Egor Zamula to be a surprise out of camp and earn some time at the NHL level as well.
The Flyers have the personnel in place to try many options to find Niskanen’s replacement, but until we see the product on the ice, there’s no way to completely know just how much this loss hurts them.
There’s no question the Flyers struggled to score goals in the playoffs, and that had fans clamoring for a big-name signing over the offseason to bring in a scorer. There are two potential internal additions where they may be able to add goals.
Oskar Lindblom made his return in Game 6 of the second round after being diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma last December. By all accounts, he’s going to be cleared to play from the start and has restored a lot of his strength. At the time of his diagnosis, he was on pace for a 30-goal season, and while you can’t expect that pace right away, you need to consider that potential an addition to the offense.
There was a lot of talk in the offseason about “playoff” Travis Konecny and his lack of scoring. He has scored 24 goals in the regular season in each of the last three seasons. He can score, everyone knows it, and his energy is a target for defenses. Teams found a way to shut him down in the playoffs. It happens to the best sometimes. It doesn’t mean he has magically forgotten how to score. He’ll be fine.
In addition, this is an opportunity for younger players to take another step. Perhaps Morgan Frost joins the lineup and adds some scoring. Maybe there’s another gear in terms of production from Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Joel Farabee. Again, a lot of it comes down to opportunity for younger players to be in position to take the next step.
There’s also the topic of Nolan Patrick. Patrick missed the entire 2019-20 season with migraine syndrome and his health has been a huge question for well over the past year.
Could he play? Will he be productive? We’ll have some of those answers at the start of camp. If he gets cleared to play from the start, that’s at least the first step for him to return and contribute.
He’s had a lot of expectations in his career and has shown the potential to be that skilled player. Time will tell if he can not only return, but also be a key addition.
The Top Forward
So much of the focus goes to Claude Giroux and for good reason. He wears the ‘C’ and serves as the on-ice leader for the team. But the time has long since passed to view Giroux as the top forward on this team.
To me, the Flyers have three players, one at each position, that is too valuable to lose. We’ve already talked about Ivan Provorov on the defensive side. We’ll get to the other position in a moment. At forward, the answer is Sean Couturier.
His game continues to evolve and he’s grown into a more complete forward. He’s the guy people look to because he plays a 200-foot game. For years, he was the defensive stalwart, giving you the valuable minutes in key situations, but over the years he has evolved into one of the top scoring forwards on the team too.
That won’t change going into this season. The Flyers need Couturier to be in Selke form – after the forward was finally recognized on the national level as the top two-way forward in the NHL last season – and that can only help them have success at both ends of the ice.
It still feels like a foreign concept to get to this point of a State of the Flyers without even mentioning the goalie. That’s where the Flyers are now though with Carter Hart.
Games are not played on paper, but the Flyers can be viewed on paper as a good team by simply looking at Hart’s name alone. You need talent at this position to succeed, and the Flyers finally have that guy that makes them a good team without even looking to the other areas.
Hart is getting noticed a lot around the league, he will be a face of this franchise for years to come and the more he grows, the more successful the Flyers can be. Having the goalie allows the Flyers to address other areas of concern and build around him.
This will be a bit of a weird season for Hart as well, since there will need to be balance to the schedule so you don’t overwork him ahead of the playoffs, but Hart has already shown the ability to out-duel the top goalies in the game and carry a team through the playoffs. Once he really hits his peak, he could reach elite level.
Expectations for the Flyers in 2021
First and foremost, you need to make the playoffs. Now that you have a goalie, a continually-growing top defenseman and a lot of talent up front, you can’t afford to go backwards and miss the playoffs again. You are returning a lot of the same roster from a year ago.
Once you get into the playoffs, things get a bit interesting this year. With the first two rounds of the playoffs taking place within the division, there are hardly any guarantees. I’d still say an expectation is to win a playoff series and challenge for a second playoff series win and get to the NHL’s final four playing for the Stanley Cup.
Now that the Flyers are continuing to become a more relevant team, you have to show that moving forward and build on the season you had a year ago.
You can click here to listen to the entire State of the Flyers from last week’s special episode of the Sports Bash.