January 12, 2021
The Flyers made all the right moves last offseason and it's still paying off.
They decided to let their rich prospect reserves make an impact on the NHL club, as they made lots of space for up-and-coming players ranging from their goalie to their forwards to the blueline. And with a proper mix of contributing veterans and players in their early 20s, the team hired Alain Vigneault to captain the ship. It all came together.
The result, in 2020, was a quicker-than-expected burst into contention with a hot end to the COVID-shortened regular season and surprisingly potent showing in the bubble in Canada last summer. Now, in 2021, the Flyers are expected to be one of the best teams in hockey, though it depends who you ask as to just how good.
The sports gambling world has them conservatively slated with the sixth best Stanley Cup odds and third best chance of winning the Eastern Conference, behind only the Bruins and Lightning — two teams they happened to upset to earn the No. 1 seed in the bubble.
So what main storylines will be consequential in determining just how high these Flyers can fly? (Forgive the pun, it just kind of wrote itself.) Here are five to be mindful of as the puck drops against the Penguins on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. at the Wells Fargo Center:
There's a lot to unpack here so let's dive right in.
• The 2021 season is only 56 games long. The Flyers have been a team notorious for having ugly, slow starts in recent seasons. Last year, it was an 10-7-4 start (which doesn't look bad on paper but it's essentially 10-11). In 2018-19 they were 9-10-2 over the same span, and the year before that, 10 early losses in a row had Philly stuck in the mud at 8-11-7. A start like that could really hurt with just 68% of the regular season games this year.
• Another effect of COVID-19 is that the NHL has broken the league into four regional divisions, and each team will play teams only in that division. Does this help or hurt the Flyers? With the team in 2021 almost exactly the same as last year's squad (save for Erik Gustafsson instead of Matt Niskanen and a few other tweaks), lets take a look at their record in 2019-20 vs. their 2021 opponents:
So in the shortened season, the Flyers went 13-5-2. Not too shabby.
"To be honest, it’ll be the first time for everybody to do this," Claude Giroux said during the preseason. "I’m not too sure what to expect. I’m sure it will be intense hockey. Teams are going to be fighting for playoff spots. You won’t have games against other divisions or other conferences. Every game is going to be huge."
• COVID-19 threatened the NFL's season back in the fall, and it's a flat out miracle the season is close to being finished on time. The NBA has had issues with players testing positive and it's only been a few weeks, as a handful of games have been postponed and the poor Sixers have had to play games as few as seven available players.
"You can’t just bury your head in the sand." James Van Reimsdyk said to media members last week. "You have to realize there are things going on in the world, things going on obviously in our league in regard to some of this stuff. First and foremost, with some of these protocols, we are just trying to maintain the safety of everyone and their families and that sort of stuff. We are doing what we can as far as wearing masks around the rink and maintain distance from people as best we can and do stuff like that. Obviously when you see these things happen, you just want to hope that everyone and their families are staying safe and that sort of stuff."
The NHL has also given each team a "taxi squad" of between four and six players to give them a little more runway than typical 23-man rosters, but it seems unrealistic to expect the pandemic not to affect hockey as it has the other major sports. If the Flyers can stay healthy, both on the ice and amid the virus, it'll go along way toward giving them an advantage this season.
Claude Giroux has been a Flyer for 13 seasons. He has played under six different coaches and has remained the team's captain and elder statesman. But the elder part is catching up with him. While Giroux is by no means in any kind of severe decline, he and nine-year Flyers vet Jakub Voracek used to be two of the top scorers on the club — something that is at risk of ending in 2021. Each has seen three seasons in a row of decreased production and neither is projected to be on the team's top line to start the year, with Sean Couturier, Travis Konecny and Oskar Lindblom expected to be the first liners.
|Giroux||102 (1.24 ppg)||85 (1.04 ppg)||53 (0.77 ppg)|
|Voracek||85 (1.04 ppg)||66 pts (0.85 ppg)||56 (0.81 ppg)|
"I’m not worried about my age right now," Giroux said, deflecting questions about his recent decline. "You can keep asking me those questions. I feel great right now and I’m excited for the season."
The two being a little less dynamic after eclipsing age 30 would not be such a big concern if they weren't combining to make more than $16.5 million in 2021 — or more than 20% of the team's entire cap number. Philadelphia fans are seeing first hand from their beloved Eagles what can happen when older players are retained for way too long. Giroux will be in Philly (he has a no-movement clause) until at least 2022, when he is close to age 35. Voracek is inked through the 2023-24 season when he too will be nearing 35. With young stars like Nolan Patrick, Travis Sanheim, Carter Hart and others getting closer to free agency each year, the Flyers could be approaching their own kind of salary cap hell. Will Giroux and Voracek make convincing enough cases that they are worth the dough? Stoping their decline in production would be a good start.
The Flyers' 22-year-old goalie looked good last year, putting together a stellar regular season and an even better postseason performance. There is no doubt he's the team's franchise player, but just how good is he? And how good can he be?
“Yeah, I want to be the best I can be,’' Hart via zoom during training camp. “I don’t want to just be another NHL player; I want to be the best and I want to be the best NHL goaltender. That is something that I strive for every day."
With just two seasons behind him, he's already being put in pretty elite company. The Athletic (and yardbarker.com as well) have Hart ranked sixth of all 31 starting NHL goalies. They have him at the top of their "Tier 2." Over at ESPN, he's already ranking in as the 34th best player in all of hockey, and the fourth best goalie on their top 100 players list.
If you're worried about the pressure of living up to those expectations, you don't know Hart very well. Last season he had back-to-back shutouts, in the playoffs, as a 21-year-old. Hart will be fine. His play should speak for itself.
Last season, the Flyers were without two of their best young scorers due to relatively rare and bad luck health issues. Oskar Lindblom fought and successfully defeated bone cancer (Ewing sarcoma) and made an incredible return after less than one year, in the playoffs back in the summer. Nolan Patrick missed the entire season due to advanced issues with migraines.
"I’m very excited and I am sure he is excited," Vigneault said this past weekend of Patrick. "I am sure he is also a little bit nervous. He came here in phenomenal shape. Since Day 1 he has been one of our best players on the ice."
Both he and Lindblom are expected to be on the ice Wednesday, and at 22 and 23 years old respectively, they could be the future Giroux and Voracek for this team, as each boasts a ton to talent and leadership ability.
In limited playing time over parts of two seasons, Patrick has 26 NHL goals. He could be a bigger contributor in what could be a beast of a third line, alongside Van Reimsdyk and Voracek. Lindblom, meanwhile, had an impressive 18 points through 30 games last season before he got sick, and will have ample opportunity to find the back of the net if he stays with the team's top line throughout 2021.
Veteran defenseman Matt Niskanen retired this past offseason, and the Flyers will have to somehow replace the following blue line production:
|33 pts||+15 (3rd)||21:54 (2nd)||84 (2nd)||124 (3rd)|
*Niskanen's rank on the Flyers
Those are big shoes to fill, particularly his 33 points, second only to Ivan Provorov among Flyers' defensemen. The Flyers quickly addressed the problem with their only big free agent signing, bringing in Erik Gustafsson — who had a ridiculous 60 points in Chicago just two seasons ago (and 29 last year), to fill the void. The Flyers led all NHL teams in scoring from defenseman, and having that continue in 2021 would obviously be a huge lift for a team with one of the league's best offenses as a whole in 2019-20.
"I think it’s going to be a huge part of my game too, to be on the rush and get up in the play," Gustafsson said. "Trying to make those easy plays in our own zone, to get up and get the puck to forwards and then follow up. Getting used to it right now. We played it back in the time in Chicago. I like this system we have here."
Gustafsson and veteran Justin Braun will be the experienced anchors on a defensive line that will include four starters aged 24 or younger. The future is bright everywhere on the Flyers, but their defensemen could be the best unit in the entire league within a few years. Seeing little to no drop-off (or even improvement) with this unit this coming season is something for fans to hope for.
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