March 10, 2021
There always seems to be a question Philadelphia Flyers fans ask themselves every season: what is this team?
Take the 2009-10 season when the team scrapped its way into the postseason and pulled off one of the biggest surprises of the decade to earn a spot in the Stanley Cup Final. Even last year, the team was considered a contender but really turned heads when they earned the No. 1 seed, taking a major step forward in their progression, in the round-robin format heading into the postseason.
This season is no different. Fans are continually asking themselves what exactly this team is all about, how real their Stanley Cup chances are and whether or not this team has what it takes to be the best in the league.
Through 23 games, the Flyers sit at 13-7-3 and as of Wednesday, are one point back of Boston for the No. 4 spot in the East division, meaning they are on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff picture. Still, their Stanley Cup odds are +1600, eighth best in hockey and third best in the division, according to Unibet. And in a season where the schedule dips from the standard 82 games to 56, each game takes on even more importance than in seasons prior. Due to this, fans are constantly searching for definitive answers when it comes to understanding this team.
As such, here are 23 things we have learned so far about this year’s Flyers team:
1) The Flyers are a top pair defenseman away
The team has managed to find success despite some serious miscues on the blue line, as evident in their two-game slide over the weekend. Ivan Provorov is a great player but beyond that, there seems to be something missing, which leads into the next thing we have learned.
2) Chuck Fletcher has to make a move
Pairing Provorov with another 1A/1B type player would do wonders for this team. Besides giving Provorov a legitimate and consistent partner, it would also bump everyone else down a peg into a position for which they're more suited. There just seems to be a hole among the seven defensemen that needs fixing.
3) The Flyers miss Matt Niskanen
That hole next to Provorov, of course, is due to the void Niskanen created by suddenly hanging up his skates. While some fans remain hopeful he’ll make a grand return, this team, especially Provorov, drastically misses his calming presence. The veteran leadership has yet to be replicated by guys like Justin Braun and Erik Gustafsson.
4) The young defenseman still play young
Outside of Provorov — and to be honest, he's not fully immune from mistakes here and there — guys like Phil Myers, Travis Sanheim, Robert Hagg and Shayne Gostisbehere continue to have some mental lapses and physical on-ice gaffes that occasionally results in the other team going the other way. While they've been around the league for multiple years each, the youth on the blue line still has some ways to go.
5) Keeping Brian Elliott was 100% the right move
What has covered up some of those mistakes, of course, is the play of Brian Elliott. Serving more so as a 1B option for the team, Elliott, who resigned with Philly this offseason, has been as reliable and steady as any goalie in the league. His ability to remain poised was on full display in Tuesday’s game against Buffalo when he stopped 12 of the 13 shots he saw and all of the shootout attempts in relief of Carter Hart.
6) Carter Hart is human
With Elliott playing so well, Carter Hart has come under fire from the fan base for a handful of forgettable performances. He admitted he's not playing up to par after being pulled on Tuesday: “I just need to find a way to get back on track because I’m not playing well.” Don't let the mishaps cloud his outlook, though. Hart is still the guy for this team and the franchise netminder moving forward. Young goalies are not an exact science, and Hart having some inconsistencies shouldn't diminish what he did last year and in the postseason. Getting him back on track, though, is not just essential for the future, but also for this team’s Stanley Cup hopes this season.
7) Joel Farabee is a star in the making
Hart will have some company for hopefully a long time in this city. Farabee’s rapid development has been astounding. Who foresaw him putting up these numbers this fast? On an 82-game schedule, the 20-year-old would be on pace for exactly 82 points with 22 points in 22 games. That’s pretty ridiculous considering he’s 21-years-old. His 11 even-strength goals are tied for the most in the league among all players.
8) Nolan Patrick will need more time
While one youngster has risen to the task, the former No. 2 overall pick in 2017 hasn't quite found his footing this year after missing last season. Through 23 games, the 22-year old has just five points and hasn't picked up a point in 16 straight games. It's unfair to get on him too much due to missing an entire season and missing out on an important year of development, but Patrick’s prospects as a top-line producer one day have diminished. His shootout goal on Tuesday is hopefully a step in the right direction for him as Vigneault noted afterwards, “I hope it does give him confidence.”
9) Travis Konecny is missing something
Another key cog in the team's outlook, Konecny has battled through some inconsistencies this season, some from his own doing and some from his placement on the COVID list that kept him out of action. After leading the team in scoring last season, the forward hasn't quite picked up where he left off; some of that may have to do with him being a guy who feeds off energy, which is lacking without fans in the stands up until two games ago.
10) Sean Couturier is more important than we realized
It seems impossible to undervalue a guy who does it all and is fresh off a Selke Trophy for being the top defensive forward in the league last season. Yet, there may be some understanding of just how important he is to the team. The team is 8-4-1 with him in the lineup, but it's bigger than that. Couturier is contributing more offensively than he ever has. With another two points in Tuesday’s win, Couturier now has 16 in 13 games, putting him at an 82-game pace of 101, which would shatter his previous high of 76 points.
11) Claude Giroux is still the same player despite his lower goal numbers
The Captain may not be finding the back of the net as frequently as he used to, but don’t let that fool you into thinking he is over the hill. He picked up his fourth goal in the win on Tuesday, giving him 18 points over 21 games, which would be an 82-game pace of 70. His assist total, which sits at 14, is well above his rate from last season and on par with some of his most effective seasons of his career. When things get tight, Giroux is still as reliable as anyone on the team.
12) James van Riemsdyk must be protected in the expansion draft
Maybe this is controversial, as there’s definitely reasons to expose him. It just seems that maybe all the talk of van Riemsdyk being past his prime was overblown last season. After scoring the first goal in Tuesday’s game, the 31-year-old moved his point total to 27 in 23 games. If this was a regular season, he’d shatter his career-best season; he still is on pace for his most productive season ever even with only 56 games. Seattle, the NHL’s newest expansion team, would probably love to have him as one of their top guys in their inaugural season; the Flyers should also consider finding a way to protect him, even if it involves cutting a side deal with Seattle to do so.
13) This team can score with the best of them
The Flyers find themselves with one of the better offenses in the league once again. They’re currently scoring at a 3.30 goals per game clip, a mark that puts them just outside the top five in the league. They boast nine players with double-digit points, including two with 20-plus in van Riemsdyk and Farabee. There’s plenty of more offensive help to be found from the rest of their players, including five others with at least seven points to their name.
14) They need some grit
There have been plenty of instances this season where the team appears to be pushed around on the ice. On Tuesday, Scott Laughton was body-slammed at center ice and not one Flyer ever seemed to bat an eye at any point. Buffalo ended up potting two goals after that to take a lead into the intermission. It seemed like an ideal time for someone to step in and make a stand, but this team as is currently constructed doesn’t have anyone capable of doing that. Aside from addressing the need for a top-end defenseman, Fletcher would be wise to bring in some toughness for the stretch run.
15) The powerplay needs to be fixed
They happened to finally strike in crunch time on Tuesday when Shayne Gostisbehere lit the lamp, but overall, the Flyers’ powerplay has left much to be desired. After Tuesday’s game, the Flyers have scored on three of their last 24 man-advantages. Their struggles have gone on for much of the season, which is why they find themselves in the bottom-third of the league for powerplay success. The pieces are there for them, they just need to recalibrate and right the ship. Farabee alluded to this after Tuesday’s win: “Things are moving in the right direction for our power play. Pucks are getting to the net. We are creating chances. That is all you can do.”
16) The penalty kill must continue to improve
Likewise, the second part of their special teams, the penalty kill, has struggled to say the least. If they have any hope of making a deep run, this will certainly need to be corrected. They killed off both of Buffalo’s attempts in Tuesday’s win and have done so successfully in 11 of their last 14 times playing a man down. That success rate of 79% would put them in the middle of the pack; however, their work over the course of the season and early season struggles on the penalty kill puts them well into the bottom-third of the league.
17) This team has resiliency
Perhaps a staple of the Flyers, resiliency really does suit this team well. Tuesday’s game was no different, just as their second game against Pittsburgh last week proved that they are never really out of a game. Sure, it's not a positive that they sometimes dig themselves in holes early in games, but the fact that more times than not they can claw back makes them a very tough team for opponents to play against.
18) The Flyers depth is a huge difference
At this point, the Flyers can roll out 4 lines and feel pretty confident about it. That can't be said for many of their teams in recent memory and especially can’t be said for many teams across the league. The balance they possess, and some untapped potential in guys like Nolan Patrick specifically, really makes them a scary team to go against.
19) There's even more talent on the way than we thought
With their depth being one of their strengths, it’s worth noting that even more is in the pipeline. Zayde Wisdom, a fourth-round draft pick last year, leads the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in points. Their 2019 first-round pick, Cam York, looks as good as advertised at the University of Michigan, as does 2019 second rounder, Bobby Brink, at the University of Denver. These are just some of the names Flyers fans will be seeing in the orange and black in the near future.
20) The East Division is the toughest division in the league
Considered a no-brainer by many coming into the season, the East division truly is as tough as they come. When all is said and done, there’s going to be a very good team on the outside looking in. Between the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins and the Flyers, there are never any lackluster games on a nightly basis as these teams jockey for position. Even the New York Rangers have proven to be a tough team to go against. Assuming the Flyers, who sit at 29 points, pick up a point in their next couple of games, the division will be home to five teams with 30 or more points, a claim that no other division will be able to boast about at that point in the season.
21) The Bruins are going to be a problem
Specifically within the East division, Boston is going to be the thorn in the side of the Flyers’ Stanley Cup hopes. So far, the Bruins have won all five of their games against the Flyers, including two in overtime. With the way the playoffs are set up this season — each division’s top four teams will face-off in the first two rounds — the Flyers are going to have to go through Boston if they want to have any chance of hoisting the ultimate prize.
22) The Flyers still have hopes for the Stanley Cup
Speaking of which, the Flyers still maintain strong Stanley Cup expectations. It’s been quite an interesting season, to say the least, but the team remains in contention and will be competing for a spot the rest of the way. As they showed last season when they earned the No. 1 seed in the round-robin format, they’re capable of getting hot when it matters. While Boston has been their Achilles’ heel up to this point, there’s still plenty of season left for them to crack the code and figure out how to get past their biggest competition.
23) Enjoy the game
Here’s a bonus one for everyone. One thing we’ve learned, perhaps above everything else, is that hockey — and sports, in general — are best suited for fans cheering on their team in person. Though it’s been just a few games, having fans back at the Wells Fargo Center is such a welcomed sight for not just the players, but also for those watching at home. Perhaps we never realized how true this was until it was taken away, but now that it’s back — even in a limited manner — just remember how important it is to enjoy every game, no matter the outcome (OK, I get it, wins feel much better).