It has finally arrived. The 2021-22 regular season is set to begin for the Flyers on Friday night, as they host the Vancouver Canucks.
For one, this is a welcome sight, the first game for the Flyers against a Western Conference opponent since facing off against the San Jose Sharks on Feb. 25, 2020, as the NHL returns to its usual structure of playing all teams across the league.
Before the puck drops on the Flyers 2021-22 season, their busy offseason and several new faces bring about a number of storylines. Let’s take a look at 10 storylines that are worth watching this season for the Flyers.
1. Carter Hart: Can He Return to Form?
This is the top storyline for one simple reason: the Flyers will only go as far as Hart will take them. That’s not to say that all of the team’s success hinges on Hart. He had some rough nights in a great season two years ago and sometimes the team was able to bail him out with a higher offensive output. But in most games, if the Flyers want to compete, they need Hart to be on his game.
It was a forgettable year for Hart, but the team’s confidence that last year was an anomaly was on display in the new three-year contract he signed this offseason. In that regard, nothing has changed. Hart is still the goalie of the future for this team. But it’s still a huge year for him to prove that last year was exactly what it was.
The good news is that his preseason performance indicated that he could be returning to form already. The goalie on display in those two starts was sharp, tracked the puck well, and had his positioning down. The more we see that, the more it should build the confidence everyone has in this team’s ability.
2. Ryan Ellis: Solidifying the Top Pairing
If the season hinges on Carter Hart’s game returning to form, the offseason’s biggest need was firmly addressing the hole left by Matt Niskanen’s retirement. The Flyers never did ahead of the 2020-21 season and it showed. So Chuck Fletcher opened his busy offseason with a splash, landing Ryan Ellis from the Nashville Predators.
To watch Ellis, you see a player that fits the same mold as Niskanen. He’s poised. He’s confident. He’s as smooth and steady as they come. That’s what the Flyers need on the back end in many ways. At five-on-five, they need a solid playing partner for Ivan Provorov. They need a player who becomes a true staple of the penalty kill. They need an all-situations defenseman. So far, Ellis looks to be every bit of what was so desperately needed.
3. Improving Special Teams
This is an area of great concern entering the season. The Flyers special teams was awful last season, hence the many new additions that all seem to play a role in some way.
Ellis plays on both power play and penalty kill. Derick Brassard and Cam Atkinson can play on both. Keith Yandle is an established power-play quarterback. Rasmus Ristolainen has experience in both areas.
The Flyers power play did some good things moving the puck in the preseason and did score a handful of goals, but it needs to eventually cash in. It’s a process that at least shows signs of trending upward.
As for the penalty kill, allowing teams to go 8-for-20 on the man-advantage doesn’t boost confidence. It’s a downright ugly figure. And while the Flyers played several preseason games without their top PK units, there are so many new faces involved that it is going to take time for the Flyers to work out the issues there. Perhaps the best hope in the early going is to stay out of the box as much as possible.
4. Rasmus Ristolainen: Does the Bet Pay Off?
We move to the second big acquisition made by Fletcher this offseason. If Ellis came in as the stable defenseman the Flyers have been looking for, Rasmus Ristolainen comes in as more of a bet.
The bet that Fletcher is making is that a slightly reduced role – moving to the second pairing – and leaving Buffalo will be the difference-maker for Ristolainen’s game. It’s a contract year for the defenseman, and his future could certainly depend on the performance.
The year is already not off to a good start, as Ristolainen is dealing with an upper-body injury that will keep him out of the season opener. He’s already shown the physical presence he can bring during the preseason, and that is an area that was sorely lacking from the Flyers last season. But their improvement depends on a lot more than physicality. They need to keep the puck out of the net. And Ristolainen has a lot to prove in that area.
5. Kevin Hayes: Filling the Void
Ristolainen is a late entry to the injured list. From the start of training camp though, the Flyers always knew they were going to be without the services of Kevin Hayes for some time.
Hayes suffered an injury just days before training camp and had surgery that would keep him out for 6-to-8 weeks. That timeline became a little bit clearer in recent days, when the Flyers moved him to long-term injured reserve to start the season. This means Hayes will miss at least the first 10 games of the season and the earliest he can return is Nov. 10.
So who fills the void? At the very start of the season, it appears it will be Brassard and Scott Laughton down the middle. Morgan Frost got an opportunity to play among the top six during training camp, but will start the season in the AHL with the hopes of returning very soon.
But without Hayes, it brings into question the team’s center depth. Hayes obviously plays a big role in all situations, so filling the void of his absence will be very important early in the season until he is able to make his return.
6. Claude Giroux: Is This the Captain’s Farewell Act?
There is a portion of the Flyers fan base that doesn’t know a Flyers team without Claude Giroux. Hell, there’s a portion of the fan base that doesn’t know a team without Claude Giroux as captain of the Flyers. But could this be the farewell act for Giroux and the Flyers?
While there’s certainly no reason to believe the Flyers and Giroux don’t want to prolong things beyond this season, the question remains as Giroux’s contract enters its final season. Unlike teammates Sean Couturier and Joel Farabee – both pending free agents following the 2021-22 season that already signed extensions – Giroux and his camp mutually agreed with the Flyers to revisit those discussions after the season.
It seems pretty obvious that the Flyers and Giroux would like to have a life-long relationship and for Giroux to be a career Flyer, but if this season doesn’t go well, the possibility certainly exists that Giroux could play elsewhere.
Giroux is among the most polarizing figures on the team. It’s not a question of his heart, but more the role he’s held for the past nine seasons, now entering his 10th as Flyers captain. The Flyers have been in-and-out of the playoffs each season. The overall lack of playoff success has been the biggest defining factor in Giroux’s career, even if he has made his mark in the ranks as one of the best players in franchise history by games played and overall production.
So given all the changes that happened from last season to this one, could Giroux be on his way out if more changes become imminent, especially if he really wants a shot at a Stanley Cup? It remains to be seen.
7. Alain Vigneault: Is the Coaching Staff on the Hot Seat?
It’s been echoed throughout the organization. Last season was unacceptable. Changes were necessary. The team has something to prove this season. You’ve heard and will continue to hear it constantly. So what happens if this season just turns out to be a continuation of last season’s struggles?
Well, the typical easy area of focus falls to the coaching staff. While often times the scapegoat of a team’s in-season problems, there would be good reason to put all eyes on the coaching staff if the Flyers don’t get off to a decent start and really get into a rhythm through the month of November. There are several new faces, so many in fact that almost half the opening-night roster is new to the team from the previous season. The coaching staff completely survived the changes, hold for Ian Laperriere’s move to the AHL as a head coach and the addition of Darryl Williams to Alain Vigneault’s coaching staff.
It is without question a season where Vigneault and company enter on the hot seat. If things don’t go well, they will certainly be the target of further changes to come.
8. Martin Jones: Can He Help Stabilize the Goaltending?
Let’s move to another new addition. If the season’s success hinges on Carter Hart, it needs to be stabilized by Martin Jones. For a goalie that had horrific numbers over the last three seasons, there’s not exactly a lot of confidence that he can do that.
The real goal when it comes to goaltending for the Flyers is to have Hart emerge as the top goaltender he was two seasons ago. That will allow the Flyers to further limit Jones’ usage and play most of the back-to-backs. He’ll have nights where he’s on his game and helps you win and he’ll have nights where he’s not and it could be the difference in the result.
But at this stage of the season, as things are about to get underway, it’s pretty clear that Jones should only be in the stabilizing role as a backup. If the Flyers have to lean on him in any way, about the only thing that really helps them is that Jones can handle multiple starts in a row from a health standpoint. The results will likely not be enough to allow the Flyers to remain afloat though.
9. Travis Konecny: A Return to Form
For the previous three seasons, Travis Konecny’s production numbers were really about as consistent as it gets. He had 24 goals in each season, though his 2019-20 numbers were on track to shatter career-marks. He reached 24 goals that season in 66 games and had 61 points, 12 more than any previous season.
But after being shutout in the goal column in the playoffs that season and then posting only 11 goals and 34 points in 50 games last season, it’s really a prove-it season for Konecny.
He’s back on the top line with Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier to start. That should hopefully help lift his production numbers. He’s also been given a fresh start to a degree. Given the amount of offseason moves made by Fletcher, it would have been easy to include Konecny in a deal to address another need.
Instead, Fletcher made wholesale changes at every position and yet found a way to retain Konecny. That vote of confidence should be a wake-up call for the type of season he needs to have and the player the Flyers expect him to be.
10. Oskar Lindblom: Back to Full Strength
If the last two seasons have been a roller-coaster ride for the Flyers, Oskar Lindblom has really been at the center of it.
Lindblom was right at the top of the Flyers scoring list as the season reached December 2019. Then came his diagnosis with Ewing’s sarcoma. His season was over. His career and life were in jeopardy. As Lindblom went through treatments, as determined in that endeavor as he is on the ice, the rest of the team played for him.
When COVID-19 paused the 2019-20 season, Lindblom’s recovery continued, allowing him to finish treatments and become cancer-free. He was able to suit up and play in Games 6 and 7 of the playoff series against the Islanders. Lindblom was also back on the ice for most of the 2020-21 season, but missed some time on the COVID-19 list and was physically not the same player. That was to be expected.
But now, over a year removed from cancer treatments, Lindblom is back to pre-cancer strength and conditioning numbers. He looks every bit the part too. Last season, his return was expected to be an internal boost for the Flyers. He had modest numbers considering his strength had not yet fully returned, scoring eight goals and 14 points in 50 games. If he’s physically more like the player that had 11 goals and 18 points in 30 games before the diagnosis, he could just be the breakout player for the Flyers this season.
So, after reviewing these 10 storylines, the question that everybody wants to know needs to be addressed. Will the Flyers make the playoffs? The answer is really the great unknown.
On paper, this team has improved. You don’t just add a bonafide top-pairing defenseman and a former 40-goal scorer to your lineup and not consider it an improvement. They’ve added leadership and character guys who come from a culture of playing the right way and playing as a team. It’s a clear message to what last year showed, that this team will play completely for each other and give an honest effort every night.
Will that be enough though? The Flyers play in arguably the toughest division. To their benefit, the schedule is not based around the same seven opponents. That will help break things up and provide some relief. However, the Flyers need to really show that they have the makeup to compete with those teams.
Honestly, this team could be in the running for one of the top three spots in the division. This team could hover around the wildcard line all season long. This team could finish sixth or seventh and be out of the playoffs altogether again.
As much as it may be easy to say it’s an even year, so that must mean the Flyers will make the playoffs, this is not a team of the same mold as the rest of the last decade. Anything is possible here, from the best-case scenario of a team comfortably in the playoffs with a chance at a run to a team out of the playoffs again and going back to the drawing board in search of the answers.
At the very least, it’s time to put all that speculation aside. It’s time to stop wondering what these new players will bring, whether Carter Hart will bounce back, whether last season was as bad as it could get and not a reflection of the players still here. It’s time to actually play the games, and we will see just what kind of Flyers team steps forward.