By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
Who could have known two weeks ago when the Flyers took the ice against the Boston Bruins that it would be the last game there would be for some time. The 2-0 loss to the Bruins was not shocking, considering the Bruins are the top team in the league, but it was still a disappointment given the Flyers were locked into a close game and outplayed the Bruins for nearly two periods and saw a nine-game winning streak come to an end.
That recent run that included two wins over Columbus, two wins over the surging Rangers, a win over the division-leading Capitals and several more along the way, started to say a lot about this team. This team had a lot of potential. By the end of that stretch, they were a virtual lock to make the playoffs and had the division in their sights. All of that came to a screeching halt due to the Coronavirus crisis that suspended play, not a drop-off in the level of play.
It remains a mystery at this point if and when the season will return. Who knows how much of a regular season will be left after this suspension? Who knows what the playoffs will look like? But whenever the league comes out of this stoppage and gets back to playing, let it be known that the Flyers window to compete is just opening up.
At this time a year ago, the Flyers were hoping against hope in the playoff race. Their playoff lives were on life support. It all officially came to an end on March 30 with a 5-3 loss to the Hurricanes, the first of five straight losses to close the season.
Everything up to that point for Chuck Fletcher was not really about action, but evaluation. The offseason was going to be his chance to take action and make an impact on this team ahead of the upcoming season. He made several additions that proved to be great ones. Kevin Hayes, Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun each added to the defensive side of things, helping to improve the penalty and even strength play in the defensive zone. Hayes was on his way to topping his career high in goals this season as well. Fletcher also acquired Tyler Pitlick, who fit the need of filling out the Flyers depth with high energy and aggressive forechecking that can lead to offense. Even Fletcher’s deadline additions of Derek Grant and Nate Thompson were paying early dividends.
But the main reason the Flyers window is just opening starts with Fletcher’s first big decision, the hiring of Alain Vigneault. This was the move that changed the entire mindset. Training camp was very different with more speed and intensity in drills than ever before. Players bought in quickly. By the time the season was reaching its most critical point, Vigneault’s team was playing like a well-oiled machine, involved in every game and very rarely turning in a poor performance.
Of course, it helps when you see the emergence of a new core just as the current core was putting together solid seasons of their own. Certainly, Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek and James van Riemsdyk are not going to be leading players on this team forever and the peak years may very well be behind all of them. Where they can be a great help is defensively. They may not be scoring like they used to, but this team was allowing far fewer goals than they have in years. That makes a huge difference when transforming from bubble team to contender.
The new core has emerged as well. The Flyers have locked up Sean Couturier, Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny for the foreseeable future and each was having arguably their best seasons. By the numbers, it was easily the best that Konecny and Provorov have performed so far, and while Couturier was pushing to match his previous totals from the past two seasons, he was starting to emerge into the Selke favorite.
There are plenty of other budding young players. Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers were really starting to put it together on the blue line. Joel Farabee joined the lineup as the franchise’s top prospect at just 19 years old and had some big moments. Nicolas Aube-Kubel came from virtually out of nowhere to not only earn a roster spot, but be a key player in the bottom six. Scott Laughton has established himself as a mainstay in the bottom six.
The biggest difference, though, was goaltending. Carter Hart’s sophomore season was starting to become better than his rookie efforts, a continuing growth of the prospect dubbed the goalie for the future who is here to stay. Brian Elliott was also his perfect compliment, filling in where needed and consistently finding a way to help the Flyers stay the course.
That collection of youth does not include Oskar Lindblom and Nolan Patrick. Lindblom got off to a hot start and was posting career numbers of his own before his diagnosis with Ewing’s sarcoma ended his season. Patrick has yet to even play a game this season while dealing with the effects of migraine disorder.
Collectively, the Flyers had all of the pieces falling into place nicely. Their core was still strong, a new core was being formed and they were starting to show the cohesiveness that the best teams have.
There may be disappointment that this season’s future is now in jeopardy due to the pandemic that is sweeping the nation and the world, but know that when hockey returns, the Flyers are seeing their window just starting to open, and that means many more things to come from this group.