The 2019-20 Philadelphia Flyers season told a story of growth and resilience. When the season started the team had a fresh, reinvigorated feel under new head coach Alain Vigneault and fresh faces Kevin Hayes, Matt Niskanen, and Justin Braun. The team was shaky out of the gate until tragedy struck in December when forward Oskar Lindblom was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. The team went into a tail spin and it took over a month to recover. But their talent shone through and the team was able to string together a nine-game win streak before the covid-19 pandemic ended the regular season. When the team reconvened in July they entered the playoffs with a strong showing in the round robin, but couldn’t find the same momentum in the actual playoffs and were eliminated in the second round by the Islanders, but not before Oskar Lindblom returned to the lineup just nine months after his diagnosis.
Overall, the Flyers are very deep at the forward position. The veteran core remains in place, with Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, James Van Riemsdyk, Kevin Hayes and Sean Couturier all returning and the possible full-time returns of Oskar Lindblom and Nolan Patrick as well as the potential of Morgan Frost making the jump to the NHL, they may be set from within.
Thank God for Kevin Hayes. When news broke during training camp that Nolan Patrick would miss time, originally for an unknown reason, it was a big blow to the lineup. Luckily their big free agent acquisition Kevin Hayes was a rockstar and took over the second line center role. He was a great compliment to Sean Couturier, who picked up where he left off from the previous season. The depth was suspect, as Scott Laughton, Connor Bunnaman, Morgan Frost, German Rubstov, Michael Raffl, Misha Vorobyev, all tried their hand at three or four C at some point during the season. The organization ended up trading for Nate Thompson and Derek Grant at the trade deadline as an insurance policy for the postseason. Even though it ended up being a miserable failure, so far Chuck Fletcher has not brought in exterior help for the depth centers via free agency or trade, instead putting faith in Nolan Patrick’s return and Morgan Frost’s jump to the pro level. Time will tell if that ends up being the right move.
The left wing posed a bit of a weakness for the Flyers last season. Claude Giroux’s play steeply declined, James Van Riemsdyk posted his worst non-injury season since his sophomore year, and Oskar Lindblom, who was in the midst of a breakout season, was lost in December with a cancer diagnosis. Scott Laughton stepped into the second line left wing spot later in the season and formed a lethal line with Kevin Hayes and Jake Voracek. Lindblom defied the odds and returned to action during the playoffs, though obviously played limited minutes in his two games back. With a full offseason to rebuild his strength, the big question is whether or not he can return to his breakout form from early in the 2019-20 season.
The Flyers secret weapon on the left side will be Joel Farabee. Mostly playing third line right wing last season, the only way he’ll see increased minutes will be on the left wing, as Voracek and Konecny have the top spots on the right locked down. With seemingly little in his way, it’s not impossible he sees top six minutes out of the gate and could possible replace Giroux on the top line if he can’t re-find his game.
Other than that, they’re stuck with James Van Riemsdyk, who may slot in on the third line, but Vigneault showed during the playoffs that he wasn’t afraid to sit his $7 million dollar ass in the press box if he doesn’t perform. The rest will be determined by the play Claude Giroux. After a steep decline during the 2019-20 season, we’ll have to see if he can recover at all. If not, it will be all about preservation. Limiting his minutes and taking him off the penalty kill will be crucial to the long-term preservation of his career.
Much like the left wing, the right side was crowded, though saw much more competition within than the left did. Travis Konecny and Jake Voracek split the top line duties for much of the season and the bottom six role was filled by rookies Joel Farabee and Nicholas Aube-Kubel, as well as veteran Tyler Pitlick. Aube-Kubel won the battle of the two and was re-signed while Pitlick walked in free agency. It’s looking like the fourth line RW spot will be assigned to Michael Raffl out of the gate, though it wouldn’t be surprising if rookies Linus Sandin or Wade Allison get shots there at some point in the season. The biggest question is the ceiling of Konecny, who posted his third-straight 24-goal season. He did post a career high of 61 points in 2019-20, but it’s time to see Konecny take a bigger role offensively with the team.
Voracek played like a man possessed after the Christmas break, though still posted his worst statistical season in four seasons, a number that would’ve been hard to hit even if the season never ended. He’s not really known for his consistency, but he tends to play much better when he’s inspired, so maybe if one of Lindblom or Farabee line up on his opposite side, he will show up out of the gate and mount a Jake Voracek revenge tour.
What seemed like a budding flower last season got thrown into disarray when Matt Niskanen announced his retirement right before the entry draft. It’s like removing the bottom part of a pyramid, everything else crumbles around it. While that may be a tad dramatic, the real issue is they went from a sure thing to a big question mark in one fell swoop. After Fletcher didn’t really address the issue during the free agency period, only signing 28-year-old Erik Gustafsson to a one-year deal, they’re putting a lot of eggs in the baskets of Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers to make a huge leap in their development.
Travis Sanheim’s overall potential is still relatively murky. He has his good days and bad days and that’s not ideal for a top defenseman. Now three seasons and 200 games into his career, not to mention his contract is up at the end of next season, it’s time for Sanheim to put up or shut up. Phil Myers seems like the heir to the number two defenseman throne, but with just 71 NHL games under his belt it may be premature to thrust him into that role just yet.
The psudo-twins Shayne Gostisbehere and Erik Gustafsson are two players that are a tad surprising to see on the roster. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that Ghost would’ve been dealt in the offseason, but instead Fletcher put his verbal faith in Ghost’s ability to bounce back. Now three seasons removed from his 65-point campaign, it seems like a needless risk to once again rely on Gostisbehere, but it looks like they’re going to try. That makes the free agent signing of Erik Gustafsson even more baffling. Gustafsson recorded a 60-point season two years ago, but was traded at last year’s trade deadline to the Calgary Flames from the Chicago Blackhawks. It seems like a strange decision to have two reclamation-project offensive-defenseman on the roster at the same time. It’s possible they are relying on those two as fixes for the powerplay, and if either of the two can find their previous form, it’d be a big help. But with the retirement of Matt Niskanen, who was a defense-first kind of player, replacing him with two players who don’t exactly excel defensively is a strange choice.
The rest of the defense doesn’t pose much surprise. Everybody knows Ivan Provorov is great, and that the expectations for Robert Hagg and Justin Braun are relatively low at this point in their respective careers. The only two wildcards are Samuel Morin and Yegor Zamula, who are both likely to start the season in the AHL. Though if Morin can stay healthy, and Zamula can prove he’s ready for the NHL they may be called up early. That leaves Mark Friedman really as the odd man out on the main roster. After re-signing with the team in the spring it seemed like he’d get a crack at the NHL level on a full-time basis, but with Hagg and Braun both returning and Gustafsson brought in, who knows if he sees much NHL time this season.
One of the other areas the Flyers remained the exact same is in net. They obviously have 22-year-old stud goaltender Carter Hart, who will man the crease for the foreseeable future. Behind him, they re-signed 35-year-old Brian Elliott and soon-to-be 28-year-old Alex Lyon to one year extensions to be the backup and third string, AHL starter respectively.
Elliott is entering his fourth years in the Flyers organization. Even though his play has declined slightly every year, they must still believe he is a serviceable backup. Though there’s a good chance they brought him back specifically because he came on a cheap one-year, $1.5 million deal.
Lyon has been with the Flyers organization since signing as an undrafted free agent in 2016. He has spent most of his time playing with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, occasionally getting called up to the Flyers roster as a replacement for an injured player. His 16 NHL games have been relatively disappointing, posting a 3.15 goals against average and .893 save percentage in that time.
Carter Hart is obviously the shining star here as he’s getting ready for his third NHL season. He really put the team on his back during the playoffs, posting a 2.23 goals against average and a .926 save percentage in 14 games. That followed a regular season where he played 43 games, winning 24, and posted a 2.42 goals against average and .914 save percentage.
The Flyers’ powerplay was similar to a wet fart on taco night- just a disgusting mess. The powerplay during the regular season was ranked 14th in the league at a 20.8% success rate, but that didn’t carry over to the playoffs when they managed to score just four times on 52 opportunities, a measly 7.7%, the worst in the playoffs, with only the Rangers, who were eliminated in the play-in round, doing worse. They were blanked on 13 chances during the Islanders’ series. The Flyers more-often-than-not found themselves in the bottom-half of the league over the last few seasons, and even with a coaching change last summer, it had little effect on the product. The Flyers basically ignored the problem as a whole, as no coaches were replaced or any powerplay specialists were brought in during the offseason. Fletcher alluded that defenseman Erik Gustafsson will help the cause, but that seems like a stretch. Gostisbehere is still hanging around as well, so if either of those two can find their previous form, the Flyers may get some help, but even if they do, it was the stale setup that really did them in, especially in the playoffs.
Again, thank God for Kevin Hayes. He almost single-handedly revived the Flyers penalty kill during the 2019-20 season, bringing their percentage up to 81.8% from last season’s 78.5%, jumping from 26th to 11th in the league. Not having Andrew MacDonald or Jori Lehtera around probably had something to do with the improved success as well. It will be interesting to see how things shake out on the PK next season. Will they limit Giroux’s minutes? will Nolan Patrick return and see PK time again? How big a hole will Niskanen’s absence leave? There may be a bit of a learning curve this season with the changes, but as long as the proper players are deployed they should at least be able to finish in the middle of the pack again.
With minimal moves in the offseason, it seems like the Flyers are banking on lots of improvement from within. It’s a very high-risk, high-reward plan. If Nolan Patrick returns and can be at least the player he was in 2018-19, If Lindblom can find his pre-cancer form, if Morgan Frost can make a clean jump to the NHL, If Joel Farabee can take the next step in his development, if Giroux has anything left in the tank, If Gostisbehere can find his 2017-18 form, if Myers and Sanheim can continue fill Matt Niskanen’s shoes, if Brian Elliott can still be a serviceable backup, then they’re good to go, but that is a whole lot of “ifs”.
On the flip side, if some or all of those “ifs” come to fruition, they’re going to be just fine. Even if Lindblom can’t find his scoring touch, he is still a great two-way player and would be a welcome addition to the bottom six. All signs point to Nolan Patrick at least joining the team during training camp. He’s been scrimmaging with former Flyer Ryan White for weeks, and while that doesn’t mean he’s cleared at the NHL level, it is a good sign that he’s amking progress toward a possible return. the defense is still overall puzzling, but both Myers and Sanheim have shown glimpses of brilliance in the past and hopefully they can refine their style enough to replace Niskanen by committee.
The important thing to keep in mind is that this can’t be a throwaway season for the Flyers. it’s easy to chalk up a question-filled season to Covid and the delays and issues it is causing within the NHL. But for the Flyers, the clock is still ticking. Their core is still getting older and it’s time to make a real push if they want to win Claude Giroux a Stanley Cup. There should be more than enough talent on the roster to easily cruise to a playoff spot, but it’s reasonable to wonder if this is a Cup-caliber team. Hopefully if there’s some magic in the air around the trade deadline, whenever that may be this season, Chuck Fletcher will do what is necessary to give the Flyers the best chance to capture their first cup in 45 years.
By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)
photo credit: @NHLFlyers twitter page