The 2020-21 Philadelphia Flyers season tested the patience of the fans like no other, but started on what should have been a high note. The team was coming off a season where they made it to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in eight years and should have, theoretically, been ready to take another step forward. Though that just never happened. The Flyers opened the season with two commanding wins over cross-state rival Pittsburgh, but a flurry of injuries, including to Sean Couturier, ruined their early momentum. They did manage to go 8-3-2 before a bout with Covid shut them down for a few weeks in February. Things only got worse as the season went on and by the time March rolled around the team was regularly getting blown out of the water on a nightly basis. They stumbled their way to a 25-23-8 record and continued their streak of making and missing the playoffs for ten consecutive years.
The forwards were a problem, but also the least of their worries during the 2021 campaign. In an ironic twist of fate, it was the veterans that carried the load while the younger players struggled to find their footing. Van Riemsdyk, Giroux and Voracek finished the season in a three-way tie for the team lead in points with 43. Couturier was a close runner up with 41. Konency was hot out of the gate, but barely produced as the season went on, the returning duo of Lindblom and Patrick were throughly underwhelming, but they obviously had their reasons for the struggle, and Hayes played most of the season on a core muscle injury, which was reflected in his atrocious on-ice play. The lone diamond in the rough was Joel Farabee, who stepped up and lead the team in goals with 20.
Of all the moves Fletcher made during the offseason, the center position wasn’t touched. With Couturier and Hayes scheduled to take over the first and second line spots, there is a subtle, but intense, problem brewing down the middle. The 3C position, which has gone unfilled for years, wasn’t on Fletcher’s to-do list and will instead be battled over internally from a mix of Morgan Frost, Scott Laughton, Tanner Laczynski, Nate Thompson and whoever else is floating around in the bottom six. Considering they have tried that strategy for much of the past few seasons, it doesn’t seem like a great thing to try again.
But since they’re going down this road, may as well be optimistic about it. Morgan Frost is still struggling to live up to the level that is expected of a first round draft pick. He didn’t secure an NHL spot during his rookie campaign, and didn’t make the opening night roster last season either. He was a taxi-squad forward for the first few weeks of the season before making the Flyers’ roster, but a shoulder injury just four periods into his run caused him to miss the rest of the season. Now he has to start from square one yet again. To be fair to Frost, the depth on the wings should give him decent talent to play with if he does indeed make the opening night roster. Some combination of Van Riemsdyk, Atkinson, Allison or Lindblom will be flanking the third-line center, thus making his transition to the NHL a little easier.
As for Couturier and Hayes, they have their own issues to live up to.
Hayes underwent core muscle surgery during the offseason and is expected to be ready to go by the time camp starts. It was the source of his sour 2021 season, which made plenty question the investment they made in him just the year prior. It also didn’t help that he racked up a career year during 2019-20 while earning the love of the fans with his outgoing personality and quotes. Now he’ll have to rebuild the trust from the fans and return to the star level he was at before. The issue is, core muscle injuries aren’t easy to come back from. We’ve seen Claude Giroux, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Brian Elliott struggle to return to form immediately after surgery, so giving Hayes the benefit of the doubt out of the gate should be the way to go.
Couturier is entering the last year of his current deal and is going to turn 29 in December. While he’s still one of, if not the, most important players on the ice for the Flyers night in and night out, the need for a new contract mixed with his age will pose a tough question for the Flyers this time next year. But focusing on his play this season, he just needs to stay on course from his previous few seasons. He hasn’t quite been on pace to eclipse the 30-goal mark in either of the pandemic-effected seasons, but a high 20-goal, 60-70 point season shouldn’t be out of the question, not to mention his elite two-way play being the key to his success.
It’s also possible that Claude Giroux could be moved back to center at some point this season. As he continues to age, the best way to get the most out of him and squeeze the longevity out of his career will be to start limiting his ice time and deploy him in more favorable minutes. He did see some reps on the third line role towards the end of last season, centering Oskar Lindblom and either Konency or Aube-Kubel. It may not be the preferred path to start the year, but expect this transition to happen again soon.
The left side of the Flyers went pretty much unchanged over the summer. Claude Giroux, James Van Riemsdyk, Oskar Lindblom, and Joel Farabee are expected to return to their regular roles. Though, there is a fair amount of questioning when it comes to possible changes.
All eyes are on the soon-to-be 34-year-old Giroux and whether or not he has one more season as a top liner in the tank. He did get moved to the third line quite a bit during last season, but that was mainly due to Vigneault getting desperate and shaking up the lineups. But it is a thought that may soon be deployed more frequently as he continues to age. That’s where Farabee steps in. He is one of the few wingers on the team that can play either side and a move to left not only eases the congestion on the right side, but gives him a chance to be the top guy on the left. This is a changing of the guard that may not happen out of the gate this season, but could happen later on down the road, especially if the Flyers are playoff bound and want to give Giroux as much rest as possible.
Elsewhere, James Van Riemsdyk returns after a perplexing season. He registered 17 goals and 43 points in 56 games, on pace for one of his best seasons ever, but as usual with JVR, his numbers versus what really happened are two different stories. He scored 13 goals and 16 assists in 26 games to open the season and basically went ice cold after, only posting four goals and 10 assists in the team’s last 30 games, which included a 17-game goalless drought followed by one that extended nine games. Typically, Van Riemsdyk is a streaky scorer, recording points in bunches then going quiet for a week or two before the pattern starts again, he doesn’t usually disappear entirely like that.
Oskar Lindblom is the lifeblood of the Philadelphia Flyers. His battle and return from cancer should’ve been a rallying point for the Flyers this season, but it really wasn’t, though it didn’t stop him from stepping up and doing the dirty work himself. After a season of getting physically assaulted by headshots and cross-checks, he finally had enough and fought Oliver Wahlstrom during a late-March game against the Isles where the Flyers were once again getting blown out 6-1. On a more positive note, Lindblom is a player that can simply do it all. He’s a sneaky good goalscorer when called upon, a defensive stalwart when playing down the lineup, and a man who clearly isn’t afraid to face a challenge head on. With a full season to get reacquainted with the game and another offseason to train, expect Lindblom to be close to full strength when the season starts, which will be a valuable tool for AV to use where ever he sees fit.
With the exception of defense, there aren’t many positions the Flyers organization is top heavy on, but right wing in definitely one. Even after trading 10-year vet Jake Voracek back to Columbus, they still have an abundance of bodies on the right side. Travis Konecny, Cam Atkinson, Wade Allison, Joel Farabee and Nicholas Aube-Kubel are all familiar with the position. Even with Farabee on the left side, that’s still a deep pool of player to choose from, which will be great for Alain Vigneault’s ever-changing lineups.
Travis Konecny will be looking to bounce back to form after a personally disappointing 2021 season. What started as a lackluster playoff appearance carried over to plague him all regular season we as well. But it didn’t start that way. He had a hat trick in the second game of the season against the Penguins, and five goals in the first five games. That short hot streak ended up accounting for almost half of the 11 goals he scored all season long. What went wrong? It’s not an easy question to answer, but confidence and puck luck are probably a good answer. He was incredibly unlucky when it came to bounces this year. When things aren’t going your way, the confidence wanes and everything that should be simple becomes increasingly difficult. Hopefully that’ll all clear up for TK and he’ll be back to his usual 24-goal pace during the 2021-22 season.
Wade Allison may be one of the more exciting players to keep an eye on during the season, as he was one of the very few players that made a noticeable difference last season. The energy he brought was palpable and the gritty style of play was a breath of fresh air on a very stale team. He recorded four goals and seven points in 14 games for the Flyers after posting nine points in ten games with the Phantoms. With Voracek out of the picture, expect his role to increase provided his game continues to grow.
The new guy Cam Atkinson is one of those guys that when he’s on, he’s unstoppable. Before the pandemic threw the last two seasons into disarray, had posted a 41-goal, 69-point season with four shorthanded goals, 14 powerplay points, and just shy of 300 shots on goal. He hasn’t been on quite the same pace since, but the Blue Jackets as a whole have been on the downturn and the shortcomings aren’t directly on him.
Disappointing isn’t a strong enough word to describe the flaming dumpster fire that was the 2021 Flyers’ defense core. Matt Niskanen’s retirement and subsequent hole that wasn’t filled was a detriment out of the gate. Provorov struggled because of it, and when the foundational pillar is shaky, the rest is sure to collapse as well. The young duo of Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers was nothing short of a complete disaster, and the revolving door of third pair plug ins were all disappointing. Robert Hagg, Erik Gustafsson, and Nate Prosser were bigger hinderances than they were helpers. There was a bit of a cool story with Shayne Gostisbehere and Samuel Morin, who both got to play together and were probably the best pair on the team for a hot minute. Justin Braun was the unsung hero of the blue line. He rode shotgun with Provorov most of the season and was a sturdy option when paired with Sanheim as well. The issue was he was a bit over his head at this point in his career and it became more and more noticeable as the season went on.
It was also the position Fletcher gave the biggest facelift to. Adding Ryan Ellis, Rasmus Ristolainen and Keith Yandle to the mix, it’s a perfect mix of veteran leadership, physicality and overall talent.
The biggest win was acquiring Ryan Ellis to play alongside Provorov. The 30-year-old is a veteran on 562 NHL games over 10 seasons and was a key player on the stacked Nashville blue line. He’s signed for six more years at a $6.25 million cap hit, a very reasonable number compared to what free agents were managing to get paid this summer. He will be tasked with stepping into the Matt Niskanen role as a veteran calming presence for Provorov, but also as a top defenseman for the team overall. He’s the exact player the Flyers needed and Fletcher got him at the cheap price of Nolan Patrick and Phil Myers.
The Ristolainen acquisition was met with pushback from the fanbase, but his style of physicality was missing last season. A big, mean, physical defenseman who is capable of handling big minutes is exactly what the doctor ordered for the team. Now, there’s some concern about the level of play he’ll bring to the table, which is fair, but he won’t be the top guy on this roster. He’ll more than likely be partnered with Sanheim on the second pair, a duo which on paper can go one of two ways- a perfect offensive minded, defensive minded mix, or a complete disaster akin to that of two newborn baby giraffes.
The third pair of Keith Yandle and Justin Braun is definitely interesting. Yandle, soon to be 35, and Braun, 34, have obviously both seen better days, but should still be plenty effective on the third pair. Again, it’s a theoretical perfect mix of offense and defense-first players that, even in their advanced age, should be worthwhile players.
Samuel Morin was re-signed to a one-year deal and will probably be the seventh man to start the season. He was effective once he returned to his natural defense role last season and can handle a spot start or two every couple weeks. Having another physical defenseman on the roster can’t hurt either.
Cam York seems to be, at least for now, the odd man out. Chances are Alain Vigneault will want to give his new toys a look before giving York his shot. Even though he may be able to handle NHL minutes out of the gate this season, a couple extra months in the AHL to get some legs under him before showing up to the show won’t hurt his long-term development.
Of all the things that could’ve gone wrong during the 2021 season, low on that list was Carter Hart coming completely undone. Yet, it’s exactly what happened. He suited up for 27 games and posted an abysmal 3.67 goals against average and .877 save percentage with only nine wins before a knee injury ended his season prematurely. Brian Elliott did his best to carry the load, but it’s just not a role he could play anymore. He finished the season with a 3.06 GAA and .889 SV%. A Goaltender playing so bad is rarely a burden on their own. The team defense in front of them was just the dirt worst, especially late in the season. Though the netminders do share a fair amount of the blame as well. Neither had long periods of sustained confidence or even average play.
Chuck Fletcher’s remedy to the situation was to sign the recently bought out Martin Jones to a one-year, $2 million contract. Jones, the longtime Sharks goalie, has had his fair share of struggles over the last few years as well. He has posted three consecutive seasons of a .896 save percentage, and hasn’t had a goals against average below three since 2018-19 (2.94). He was certainly a very unsexy addition. Though, his numbers were better than both Hart and Elliott last season, and does not have the injury history that Elliott does, meaning Jones can be counted on to play multiple games in a row without risking his health.
The goal of the offseason should’ve been finding a player capable of forming a tandem with Hart, but that may be overkill.
In his young career, we’ve seen it all from Carter Hart. An unbeatable brick wall to a man who can’t stop a beach ball. Hart will turn 23 in August and has 101 NHL games under his belt. He’s a young goaltender who is still adapting to the NHL. Add on the issues the coronavirus has caused over the last two seasons and he does have a certain level of built in excuses. Does anybody remember the Carter Hart we saw during the playoffs? Nine wins in 14 games, two shutouts with a 2.23 GAA and .926 SV%. His home numbers during the 2019-20 season were more impressive. 1.63 goals against average, .943 save percentage, one shutout and 20 wins in 25 games. When Carter Hart is on his game he’s among the elite of the elite. So sure, there may be some doubt surrounding his game, but there is also plenty of reason to believe he will bounce back too.
A huge issue that torpedoed the team throughout the season was the struggles on special teams. The powerplay was a complete non-factor throughout most of the early parts of the season, and finished 18th ranked in the league at a 19.2% success rate. The penalty kill was a god damn disaster for the entirety of the season, and finished second from the bottom, 30th overall, with just a 73.1% kill. Only the New Jersey Devils were worse. The struggles on the PK can be attributed to the weak goaltending and ugly defense, but also to Kevin Hayes, who was a penalty killing master during the season previous, looking like a lost puppy for most of the year.
The penalty kill was addressed with the additions of Cam Atkinson and Ryan Ellis. Both have handled their respective roles for their previous teams. Atkinson had four shorthanded goals during the 2020-21 campaign, while the entire Flyers combined had zero. He has 16 over his career. Ellis is a man who can handle top minutes in any situation. Partner that with Hayes, who is returning from core muscle surgery and hopefully above-average goaltending and things should look much better on the penalty kill.
One of the cornerstones of the powerplay over the last decade in Jake Voracek is now gone. As is defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who handled duties on the point for much of the last five years. This will give the coaching staff plenty of new options to try. From using Wade Allison in an increased role, to giving both Yandle and Sanheim more time as the QB, things should hopefully improve up front as well.
Realistically, all eyes will be on the coaching staff for this one. Players aside, the powerplay and penalty kill last season were some of the most abysmal displays of coaching you’ll ever see. There was no changes going on, no adapting to bad systems, no swapping out players, nothing. Hopefully the new leadership in the locker room and improved players on the ice give Michel Therrien and Mike Yeo more confidence to freely make changes to the special teams. It’ll be the only way they truly succeed this season.
Chuck Fletcher worked some serious magic during the summer. From ditching Phil Myers and Jake Voracek to adding Ryan Ellis and Cam Atkinson, he was not afraid this time around to give his club a much needed facelift. There are obviously issues with each move, like can Ristolainen play better in a decreased role in Philly? How much does Atkinson have left in the tank? Will the moves he made be significant enough?
Regardless of those answers, the blood is no longer in Fletcher’s hands. He did his job as a general manager to inject new life into his team. The responsibility now falls on the coaches and players to put the reinvigorated team on the right path to success. If they do in fact succeed, great! If not, Fletcher has his answer as to the capabilities of the players he left standing and his coaching staff and sweeping changes will have to be made.
Though there are plenty of reasons to be positive. The voices in the room have changed. Every player Fletcher added wore and “A” with their previous team. Leadership was clearly his main target. Building up a positive environment in the room is just as important right now as adding a sniper on the ice, it’s just a deeper, less public aspect of the game.
There is a feeling of renewed optimism surrounding the Flyers. It’s the first time in at least a decade significant changes were made to the roster during the summer and, after how desperate things became last season, it was much needed change. Now the clock ticks to win Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier a Cup before it’s too late. Hopefully they enter the ice in October with fire in their eyes and never take their foot off the pedal. The 2021-22 season will undoubtedly be better than last year, I mean, it can’t possibly get worse… right?
By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)
photo credit: @NHLFlyers