The Flyers are officially back on the ice on Monday morning as they begin preparations for the 2020-21 season that will begin in just nine days with a meeting against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Wells Fargo Center. After last summer’s playoff run, it’s been a long time coming to get the Orange and Black back on the ice and in pursuit of another successful season.
As camp opens, the Flyers will face some questions that could make or break their success in the upcoming season. While they are widely regarded as a team that should make the playoffs and have a successful run, there are a lot of “ifs” that the Flyers are dealing with.
With camp starting, here are five of the questions the Flyers are facing as they hit the ice for the first time this year as a group.
1. Who Will Replace Matt Niskanen?
Easily the biggest question the Flyers face in the upcoming season is how they deal with the departure of Matt Niskanen. Niskanen’s decision to retire with a year still remaining on his contract was a surprise and the Flyers had to counter that by re-signing Justin Braun and adding Erik Gustafsson through free agency.
Are either of those players replacements? Not naturally. Gustafsson is a puck-moving and offensive-driven defenseman not known for his defensive abilities. That won’t replace a guy nicknamed “Steady Eddie” last season. Braun is more of a natural replacement in style, but is more of a fit in a more limited role on the third pairing. He will likely get a look as a possible replacement at the top, but his more natural fit is toward the bottom of the rotation.
Phil Myers and Travis Sanheim are poised to get a big opportunity here. Myers is a natural replacement for Niskanen in terms of handedness and skating ability. He’s got the defensive chops to stay at home and the offensive prowess to step up and make a play here and there. But is he ready for this role? It could still be too early in his career to push him that far.
The same could be said for Sanheim. While he has more experience than Myers, he still showed some growing pains too, and that could put into question whether he gets the opportunity to play alongside Ivan Provorov.
For sure, the Flyers will try to answer this question with many options. It remains to be seen if one truly locks into the role or if this is a role that is filled by committee.
2. Can the Flyers Fix the Power Play?
The Flyers struggled with timely scoring in the playoffs and when you can overload your power-play units with your top offensive players, you have to cash in more often.
The Flyers power play became very stale and predictable in the playoffs, and while it produced a few goals in the Montreal series, it didn’t help turn the tide of games against the Islanders like it could have.
There could be a few adjustments in store, both in personnel and system, but what it really comes down to is execution. The Flyers simply need to be more productive in this area of the game. It could potentially be a deciding factor in a number of games in a shortened season.
3. What are the Expectations for Additions from Within?
The Flyers did not go out and pick up a lot of players via free agency, so that means a majority of the previous season’s roster will be returning. There are a few additions from within the system that could be substantial though.
First and foremost, it appears the Flyers are getting Oskar Lindblom back from Day 1. That could be very significant for the team’s offensive ability, but it’s important to remember that Lindblom is still just over six months removed from cancer treatments and making a recovery from Ewing’s sarcoma. He’s likely not going to be a player on pace for 30 goals from the start. But if he could put it together in a few weeks, he could be a great addition for this team that they didn’t have for so much of the season a year ago.
Nolan Patrick is another name to watch for, and while his status is unknown until the team actually steps on the ice – they had physicals on Sunday where Patrick could be cleared for contact and able to fully participate in camp practices as a result – we won’t know the answer. But if he is cleared and gets back into game shape quickly, it could also be a huge addition for the Flyers. While expectations should be curbed on Patrick’s potential numbers after nearly two years without playing in a game, his abilities and potential are certainly well-known and playing in a sheltered third or fourth-line role to get back into better game shape could allow him to be a contributing factor even early in the season.
Then there’s the likes of Linus Sandin, Tanner Laczynski and Wade Allison. Sandin was signed as a free agent and comes from the Swedish Elite League where he was one of the league’s top scorers. How will that translate to the NHL and what style of player will he be? We’ll soon find out. Laczynski and Allison were both prospects signed after completing their college careers. How ready are they for the next step and what can they bring the team? Without having seen them go against NHL talent, we won’t know that answer yet, but all three should get their chance to show that they can be additions from within the system as well.
4. Will the Core Take a Step Back and Will the Young Players Take a Step Forward?
It’s a conversation we are used to having. It involves the traditional core group of this team: Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Sean Couturier, James van Riemsdyk and now it includes names like Kevin Hayes, Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov. How will these players look in the upcoming season? Will they be at their usual form? Could they take a step back in production and performance? Could there be even better from them?
The Flyers certainly hope that’s the case with Konecny and Provorov, both still very young players that are now established in the league and have assumed bigger roles. Even in the case of Giroux and Voracek, Couturier and JVR, there needs to be consistency to their game. Everyone knows what they are by now. It’s a matter of continuing to be that player while the rest of the team grows.
That means watching young guys like Sanheim and Myers, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Joel Farabee and Morgan Frost continue to take steps to being more for this team. It is a process getting to your full potential in the NHL and sometimes that is strictly in a specific role, but the Flyers have high hopes for a lot of these players to do bigger and better things in a new season. That could be what the success of this team hinges on most outside of defensive play.
5. Will Carter Hart Be as Good or Better than Last Season?
Once again, goaltending is not a question for this team. Carter Hart is the clear No. 1 netminder and Brian Elliott is a suitable and reliable backup option. So why is this still listed as a question?
Hart saw a greater workload last season as the Flyers pursued a Stanley Cup run. The team especially leaned on him in the playoffs to be spectacular, perfect at times with two shutouts in the series against Montreal, one more than he had in the entire regular season.
The question here is wondering if Hart can be as good or even better than he was a year ago and continue to carry this team and handle the workload. All signs indicate he will, but Hart’s performance is one of those “ifs” that needs to happen for the Flyers to have success. They need Hart to be his usual self. They need him to be on point and sharp a majority of the nights. They need him to be healthy too.
Hart is one of those players that, especially by having him at the goaltending position, makes your team a good one just by his presence. The Flyers have the goalie and that makes them a good team. You can emerge as a great or potentially elite team depending on the pieces you have around the netminder.
But the play has to show that they are a good team with Hart in net. Last season, it did without a doubt. The Flyers will need more of the same this season to make their run to a playoff spot much more comfortable like it was a season ago.