The numerous rumors and reports of a return to play were finally confirmed by the NHL and Gary Bettman late in the afternoon on May 26th, 2020 and there was a lot to break down. There was news on everything from the new playoff format involving 24 NHL teams, potential HUB cities that could be used to host the potential playoff games, potential brackets and reseeding of playoff teams, and how long a series might go. It was a lot of information crammed into a fifteen minute press conference, but I am here to try and break it all down and let you know how the return to play might help the Philadelphia Flyers once play resumes.
The NHL had to strike a balance when it came to picking the teams that would be able to compete for the Stanley Cup and it did so by rewarding the top 4 teams in each conference and taking the remaining 8 teams in each conference and making them compete in a best-of-five series to determine who will fill out the other 4 spots. The top 4 teams in the each conference will compete in a round robin style tournament to determine the order of the 4 teams in terms of seeding and who they will play in in the first round of the playoffs. This means that the Flyers will compete against the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, and Tampa Bay Lightning to determine who will be ranked #1, #2, #3, and #4 and go on to face the winners of the qualifying round. The Flyers will play against their opponents once for a total of 3 games. This is good news for the Flyers because they are guaranteed a top 4 spot in the Eastern Conference and wont have to fight in a 5 game qualifying series where anything can happen. The Flyers are helped by the new playoff format because they only have to play the usual 4 rounds of playoff games to win the Stanley Cup instead of having to play an extra round and risk potential injury or becoming exhausted earlier.
The other bit of good news is that because the Flyers are starting out as the fourth seed in the conference before round robin games are played, they can only improve their playoff position by beating the other 3 teams and potentially take the top spot in the East. The Flyers are essentially playing with house money. However unlikely that would be, being the top spot in the East would guarantee home ice advantage (in whatever form that takes) until the Stanley Cup finals and give the team an advantage in playing the weakest teams each round. It is a lot better to face a team that (based on the results of the qualifying round) might not have even been in the playoffs if COVID19 hadn’t put a pause on the season, as opposed to having to face a good team like the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. The Flyers do face an uphill battle in that round robin stage though because the other 3 teams will hold a tiebreaker over the Flyers should the teams tie in any way. That tiebreaker is determined by the regular season record and the Bruins, Lightning, and Capitals all ended the season with better records than the Flyers.
Another advantage the Flyers have in the competitive playoff format is that they will have a fully healthy roster and a bit a depth coming from the Phantoms. When the season was put on hold, there were a few Flyers dealing with some significant injuries. Philippe Myers was dealing with a fractured patella, James Van Riemsdyk had a broken finger, and Nate Thompson had a sprained left knee. Those are key injuries to a power play forward and depth scorer, a second pair defenseman, and a player adding a bit of grit to the bottom of the lineup. The pause in the season allowed all of these players to get fully healthy and the round robin stage of the playoffs will allow the Flyers to ease all of these players into the lineup without the added pressure of a do-or-die playoff scenario. Those round robin games are going to be crucial for the Flyers to find their team chemistry and get the players comfortable playing with one another in time for their actual playoff series whenever it starts. Even though it would be highly unlikely, the potential of Nolan Patrick, if he can be cleared for play, would be a huge addition to the center depth. Plus, with the cancellation of the AHL season, having players like Carsen Twarynski, Morgan Frost, Connor Bunnaman, and Mark Friedman up with the club and all having some NHL experience this season is a nice boost to a club looking to make a deep run in the playoffs.
The biggest advantage the Flyers gain from the return to play format the NHL announced is that it gives the three veteran NHL coaches the Flyers have behind the bench time to study and prepare for any potential opponent they may face and come up with a game plan to stop them. The Flyers have something that no other team in the NHL can claim…the head coach and the two assistant coaches are all made up for former NHL coaches who have spent time coaching in the league and coaching teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That’s a lot of experience behind the bench and it has paid dividends throughout the course of the regular season.
Head coach Alain Vigneault has taken two separate teams to the NHL finals, Mike Yeo lead the Wild to three playoff appearances in 4 years and was part of the Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, and Michel Therrien has taken the Pittsburgh Penguins to the playoffs multiple times and took the Montreal Canadians to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2013-2014. That’s a lot of coaching experience behind the bench and a lot of playoff knowledge to help the Flyers get ready for the big games that await them.
The coaching staff is going to help the younger players like Farabee, Myers, and Frost get in the right head space to make sure they know what top expect from an intense format that they have yet to experience. The coaching staff is going to lean on the veteran players like Giroux, Voracek , and Niskanen to help steady the team through these intense games and help calm the team down if things don’t start get away from them. It takes time for NHL players to get ahold of a coaches system of play and, ever since the Flyers returned from the All-Star break, we saw them grasp that system and start playing with speed, tempo, and possession. There is not telling that if and when the NHL playoffs resume that the Flyers will be able to find the same type of energy, chemistry, and swagger they had when the pause happened, but I do know that out of all the remaining teams in contention for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Philadelphia Flyers coaching staff is one of the most poised to help the players regain that momentum.
No one knows how the rest of the NHL playoffs will play out if and when play resumes in the summer months, but I believe that the Philadelphia Flyers hold a few advantages over a slew of other NHL teams. The round robin format, roster depth, and coaching staff are all poised to help the Flyers regain that momentum and swagger on full display in late February and early March and help make the team a true contender for the Stanley Cup whenever that happens.
By: Steve Appleman
Photo Credit: NHL.com