February 25, 2021
The 2021 NHL season has been really unusual for a wide variety of reasons. The Flyers have felt the full brunt of that, as they've had the roll with the punches through cancelled games, injuries, COVID-19 quarantines and melting ice on the bank of Lake Tahoe this season. And it's still only February.
After jumping out to a fast start, the Flyers have fallen back to earth a bit, their 21 points putting them tied for third place in the Eastern Division (though they have a few games in hand for what it's worth). During their first 16 games, the Flyers have flashed what their potential can be but they've really failed to realize it.
They have 40 games left to go, and nothing would surprise us. They could get healthy, get in sync and have the best record in the conference. Or they could limp into the playoffs as the 8th seed — or worse.
With so much hockey left and so many absurd variables to account for, there's no way to really tell how good this team is. But in a rarity for pro sports, the 2021 Flyers appears to be simultaneously both over and underrated.
To help explain what we mean by that, here's a glance at some recent NHL power rankings (these are published on different days of the week, so a few of them are missing a game or two).
That's a little bit of variance, huh? Let's see if we can make some sense of this...
The Flyers are brimming with talent but what have they accomplished, really? Last year they had a nice streak of wins before the league shut down, but a seven-game loss in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as a surprise No. 1 seed, isn't exactly a pedigree of success. In 2021, they haven't done much either:
Barely a .500 team
The Flyers have just seven regulation wins in 16 games. And their goal differential 55-52 is also pretty close to even. It's hard to argue that they've been anything other than an average hockey team to start the current campaign.
They blow a lot of leads
There was a stretch of games a few weeks ago, before the Flyers were forced to skip four games due to having a mini-coronavirus outbreak, that saw them surrender four third period leads in a row. The lack of a killer instinct is a byproduct of, among other things, not having their full complement of players and also of being a little young. It could serve them well down the stretch, as they learn how to balance being conservative to protect an advantage while putting their foot on the throttle as not to lose all momentum. It could also have already cost them much-needed points in a condensed regular season.
Carter Hart hasn't lived up to the hype
Hart is supposed to be the Flyers' franchise goalie and, to be fair, if any position in sports is streaky it's a hockey goaltender. Unfortunately for the Flyers, their 22-year-old phenom is mired in one of those lulls in 2021, having surrendered 3.68 goals per game in 11 starts, with an equally unimpressive .891 save percentage. Somehow, though, he is 5-3-3, thanks to some sharp shooting from his teammates on the other end of the ice (more on that later). It's also worth a mention that his backup, veteran Brian Elliott, has been rock solid in his own five starts (4-1), perhaps taking some ice time away from the young net minder.
"Everybody goes through ups and downs and that’s the progression of a goaltender," Elliott said of his young teammate. "You have to go through those things like I said before to come out the other end. ... I think to make it to this level, any goaltender has to hate losing more than they like winning. He’s an experienced guy right now, he’s been in many big games in his life so far. He will be fine. Like I said before, it is important in this league right now to have two guys going. When you can count on both guys to go out there and give you a chance to win, that’s what you want as a team."
Hart is not totally at fault for his six setbacks. He has had some absolutely dreadful defense in front of him. The Flyers have allowed 32.9 shots on goal per game (in contrast to just 24.3 of their own, the worst in the NHL). Their inability to stop second chances and to get the puck out of their defensive end has been to Hart's detriment. Some solid defense going forward will no doubt help Hart improve his numbers and leap into one of those hot stretches we all remember from the bubble last summer.
As we alluded to above, the Flyers shoot 24.3 times per game and face 32.9 per game. And while shots count for absolutely nothing, and the overall quality of those shots is what matters — and, not all scoring chances are credited with a shot on goal in the stat sheet — it is no doubt a troubling and unusual trend for a contending team. Of course, as is fitting, the Flyers had a season high 39 shots in their Wednesday 4-3 win over the Rangers, a sign that is reassuring to head coach Alain Vigneault, who has noticed.
"I think a big part of us getting more shots on net starts with our back end," the coach said. "When our back end finds a way to get pucks through, obviously it creates more scrambles and it creates more looks. For us, we were talking about getting more pucks to the net. I think a lot of it starts with our back end, and we have some guys there who in my estimation should be able to get pucks through. Well offensive defensemen, yeah there is that pass, there is that breakout, there is that supporting the attack, but there is also getting your shots on net and a lot of that starts with our back end."
It is ridiculous to rank the 2021 Flyers off of their brief in-season performance alone. They have been forced to play games that should not have even been played for numerous reasons, many of which we'll discuss just below. This team is overflowing with talent and proponents of their underrated-ness will swear that their best is yet to come:
They've been decimated by injury (and COVID)
Let's start at the bottom. Four of the Flyers' top prospects are currently injured — including Morgan Frost, who was expected to spend some serious time on ice in South Philly this season (he is probably done for the year). They lost Sean Couturier for several weeks early this season, arguably their best player, and he's only recently returned. Phil Myers and others have missed time with minor nicks and bruises. But that's not the worst of it.
The COVID outbreak that forced them to miss an entire week of games also saw them forced to use duct tape and bailing wire to field a team comprised of more than half a dozen minor league hockey players not just for a regular game but for the outdoor game at Lake Tahoe (which saw them predictably get creamed by the Bruins). Claude Giroux missed time, Travis Konecny and Jake Voracek continue to miss time, same with Justin Braun, Scott Laughton and Oskar Lindblom. Try winning without all of those guys.
Strength of schedule
According to hockey-reference.com, the Flyers have played the third hardest schedule in all of hockey and the hardest of any team in their division. Due to their cancellations, they have played half (8) of their 16 games against the top teams in the division — the Bruins, Capitals and Penguins.
Wasn't pretty but the Flyers are 9-4-3 and 9-1-1 against everyone not named Boston— Kyle P (@Kyle_Phillippi) February 25, 2021
The Flyers schedule will get easier, but they still may wind up with a record that appears to be mediocre due to the abundance of solid teams in their division, teams they'll be playing exclusively as part of the makeshift 2021 schedule. If they can scratch and crawl to a playoff seed, they could feast against teams in the other divisions when things open up in the spring.
They score, efficiently
We mentioned their lack of volume with shots but the quality seems to be there. Through their first 16 games, Philly led the NHL in scoring percentage, finding nylon on 14.2% of their shots on goal. They converted 14 of their first 48 high-danger scoring chances, the best rate in the NHL. All of this makes the case that the Flyers take advantage when it counts — which is all that really matters.
They have so much talent
It's been documented everywhere before and during the season but the Flyers are loaded and are young (27.1 years old, sixth youngest on average). They have James van Riemsdyk, who is having a breakout year and is in the top 10 in scoring (with fewer games played than most guys ahead of him). They have young wingers who can score in bunches like Konecny, Lindblom and Farabee. They have an equally young and potent defense led by Ivan Provorov and one of the most promising young goalies in recent memory, in Hart. They've recently welcomed the healthy return of last year's Selke Trophy in Couturier. And they have leadership from veterans like Giroux and Voracek. All of them led by a Stanley Cup finalist head coach in Vigneault. On paper, their ceiling is sky high.
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