TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 03: Carter Hart #79 of the Philadelphia Flyers stops a shot against the New York Islanders during the third period in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena on September 03, 2020 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
The Flyers can hope for improvement this season only if left winger Oskar Lindblom and center Nolan Patrick make strong comebacks. If not, the Flyers will be hard-pressed to duplicate a coronavirus-shortened season in which they had 89 points in 69 games. Pro-rated, that translated to an impressive 106 points in a normal 82-game season.
The experience gained from winning their first playoff series since 2012, they hope, will benefit them this season.
“I think it’s going be huge for us to have that experience moving forward,” said Ivan Provorov, the Flyers’ No. 1 defenseman. “And it’s going to be a second year of having the same coaching staff and basically the same team.”
Winning a playoff round, veteran left winger James van Riemsdyk said, gave some younger players a “small taste of what it takes to win at that time of year. I remember getting my first taste of it [in 2010] and then going into my second time around, you feel so much more confident and comfortable with the style of play that happens at playoff time.”
After a 41-21-7 regular season in which they won nine of their last 10 games and had a .645 points percentage under new coach Alain Vigneault, the Flyers “didn’t play our very best in the playoffs, but we still had a good experience,” Provorov said. “I think it’ll help us have a really good start this season.”
The Flyers beat Montreal in six games in Round 1, then lost to the Islanders in the conference semifinals, taking New York to seven games.
“The intensity in the playoffs is a lot higher,” said defenseman Phil Myers, who won Game 2 against the Islanders with an overtime goal. “Everything is on the line and you can’t afford to make mistakes. Obviously, we were disappointed with the way it ended, but we learned from it. It was definitely a step in the right direction for the team.”
Lindblom, now 24, missed most of last season after being diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer and undergoing chemotherapy treatments. When he was diagnosed in December, he shared the team lead with 11 goals. In September, the left winger gallantly returned and played in the last two playoff games.
Patrick, 22, missed all of last season with a migraine disorder. The Flyers are hoping he can return and fulfill the potential he had when he was selected No. 2 overall in the 2017 draft. He had 13 goals in each of his first two seasons.
“Those are guys that are very capable and have had some success so far, and obviously are on the younger side of their careers, so they’ll continue to get better and develop,” van Riemsdyk said.
Lindblom and Patrick, along with Joel Farabee, Myers, Travis Sanheim, and Carter Hart, have loads of talent and are still blossoming. Ditto prospects like Morgan Frost, Linus Sandin, Connor Bunnaman, Wade Allison, Tanner Laczynski, and Carsen Twarynski.
Hart, who had a 24-13-3 record with a 2.42 goals-against average and .914 save percentage last season, is regarded as the team’s cornerstone. He’s only 22, but has the potential to be among the league’s elite goalies, maybe even at the top of the list in upcoming seasons.
“We have quite a few young players coming into the best part of their careers,” Vigneault said.
Vigneault also noted that many veterans in their 30s, guys like Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, van Riemsdyk and Justin Braun, “are in the evolution of their games and I can help them get their games better.”
In 2019-20, the Flyers had a terrific regular-season but were just so-so in the postseason.
After winning the three game round-robin tournament and becoming the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed, they huffed and puffed to beat heavy underdog Montreal in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, four games to two, and capture their first playoff series since 2012. The Flyers then lost to the New York Islanders in seven games in the conference semifinals.
The Flyers forced Game 7 with overtime wins in Games 5 and 6. They were dominated in Game 7, dropping a 4-0 decision.
The Islanders, bolstered by a relentless forecheck, controlled most of the series and made it difficult for the Flyers to make quick exits out of their own zone. The Isles’ core group thoroughly outplayed the Flyers’ big guns. In addition, the Flyers’ power play was 0 for 13 against the Islanders, and a hard-to-fathom 4 for 52 (7.7%) in the postseason.
“Montreal and the Islanders were two teams we had trouble within the regular season, and it’s kind of funny how it turned out that we played them in the playoffs,” Provorov said. “Overall, we were a little inconsistent in responding after we got scored on in the playoffs. We weren’t like we were in February and March when we were in that winning streak and playing our best hockey. No matter what was happening in those games, we had a feeling that we knew we were going to win the game. In the playoffs, we didn’t really have that, and it was harder for us to come back when we got behind.”
“Still, we did a great job of not giving up after going down 3-1 in the series [against the Islanders] and tying the series at 3-3,” Provorov said. “It said a lot about this team and the character we have.”
The team lost some character when Provorov’s defensive partner, Matt Niskanen, unexpectedly retired after the season at 33. Niskanen was a stabilizing force for Provorov, who had a strong bounce-back season and collected 13 goals, 36 points and a plus-11 rating in 69 games. Niskanen was also the only player on the Flyers who had won a Stanley Cup, a feat he accomplished with Washington in 2018.
“With Nisky retiring, some other guys will have to take on a bigger role,” Provorov said. “But I think we should be OK moving forward. Some guys got experience in the playoffs and are going to get better.”
Young defenseman Myers and Sanheim will take on expanded roles. Their maturation will be vital to the team’s success.
The Flyers signed free-agent Erik Gustafsson, an offensive-minded defenseman, in the offseason, and they are hopeful he will help pick up some of the slack. But Niskanen was a much better defender than Gustafsson, and his leadership will be missed.
“Nisky was a huge part of what we were doing as a team and obviously had a big impact,” van Riemsdyk said. “Just his game and what he brought to the table, I don’t think it could have been a better fit for what he brought to our team.”
Besides Niskanen, the Flyers lost hustling winger Tyler Pitlick, who signed as a free agent with Arizona. Trade deadline acquisitions Derek Grant (signed with Anaheim) and Nate Thompson (signed with Winnipeg) also signed elsewhere.
With those players gone, here is how the team could look, assuming Patrick and Lindblom return:
Top line: Sean Couturier centering Giroux and Travis Konecny.
Outlook: Couturier (22 goals, 59 points), the team’s MVP, is coming off a season in which he won the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. Giroux and Konecny (team-high 24 goals) will try to show their playoff performances—they combined for one goal and each played 16 games—was a fluke.
Second line: Kevin Hayes centering Lindblom and Jake Voracek.
Outlook: If Lindblom is back to his old self, this could blossom into the Flyers’ No. 1 line. Voracek can play on either the first or second lines. Hayes (23 goals) is solid in all situations.
Third line: Patrick centering van Riemsdyk and Joel Farabee.
Outlook: The key to this line’s success is Patrick’s health. Van Riemsdyk is a proven scorer, and Farabee has a high upside.
Fourth line: Scott Laughton centering Michael Raffl and Nic Aube-Kubel.
Outlook: Call it the Lunch Pail Line, a group of relentless players who will not get outworked and can contribute secondary scoring.
Defense: Provorov and Myers; Sanheim and Gustafsson; Robert Hagg or Shayne Gostisbehere and Braun.
Outlook: The defense improved markedly last season, lowering its goals-against from 3.41 (29th in the NHL) goals per game in 2018-19 to 2.77 (seventh). Will it take a step back without Niskanen, or will the maturation of Myers and Sanheim help cover up the loss?
Goalies: Carter Hart and Brian Elliott.
Outlook: Hart, who turned 22 during the playoffs, took a major step toward being one of the league’s elite goalies last season. He was very good in the regular season and even better in the playoffs (2.23 GAA, .926 save percentage). Elliott is an extremely capable backup, which is important because the condensed schedule will have lots of back-to-back games.
So what is the bottom line on the Flyers’ season?
It’s an interesting lineup, and if Lindblom and Patrick return healthy and veterans like Giroux, Voracek, and van Riemsdyk show they are not yet on the downside of their careers, the Flyers should make the playoffs and challenge for their first Stanley Cup since 1975.
Will they be able to end their long drought?
To do that, they will have to play much better than they did in last season’s playoffs, but the good news is this: They have a terrific coaching staff and a nice blend of proven veterans and on-the-rise players. They also have a difference-maker, Hart, an unflappable goaltender who will make the Flyers a very dangerous team when the playoffs roll around.