7 Reasons Why The Philadelphia Flyers Will Be Good...and 7 Reasons Why They Won't Be
In my preview of the 2019-20 Flyers a couple weeks ago, I said I believe the Flyers will make the playoffs and win at least one round. That's a pretty bold prediction, especially for a team that hasn't won a playoff series since 2012. But there are plenty of reasons to feel confident about this year's squad.
However, there are also plenty of red flags concerning this year's squad that could hold them back. After all, I made a similar prediction last summer, only for the Flyers to fall flat on their faces and miss the playoffs. And based on what I've seen from Twitter, a large portion of the fanbase isn't very bullish on the season to come.
So, with the Jekyll and Hyde Phillies the only thing to keep my attention until fall, I wanted to address both sides of this coin. Here's why the Flyers could be great next year, and also why they might be bad again.
Category #1: Goaltending
Good: They've got a goalie! A real one! For the first time in about 30 years. Carter Hart was the only reason the Flyers even got within striking distance of the playoffs down the stretch. Not too many 20-year old goalies even sniff the NHL, and not only did Hart reach the big leagues, he recorded a .917 save percentage in 31 games. If he puts up a similar number in 50-60 games, and the Flyers are close to a lock for the playoffs.
Bad: Have you taken a look at how under-20 goalies play in their sophomore season? It's usually not great, regardless of how well they played their freshman year. There's a reason to worry about the stability of the Flyers crease, if not because of talent, then because of health (or lack thereof). Hart missed two weeks last year. Brian Elliott has missed over 60 games in two seasons as a Flyer. The options below them - unproven Alex Lyon, career AHLer J.F. Berube, and North American rookies Felix Sandström and Kirill Ustimenko. Good luck if they have to combine for more than five games at the NHL level.
Category #2: Right Defense
Good: Right-handed defenseman come at a premium in the NHL. It's a big reason why the Flyers best right-handed defenseman of the decade is probably going down as Radio Gudas. It's hard to find good ones, but Chuck Fletcher took his shot at a couple. Matt Niskanen has played solid in top-four minutes in five years as a Capital. Justin Braun is a sturdy defensive defenseman who should improve the PK. His advanced metrics aren't great, but keep in mind he played with Brendan Dillon against top competition with all of the d-zone starts. He could thrive in a more balanced role in Philly.
Bad: You do realize both of those guys are 32, right? Niskanen's advanced metrics were flat out ugly last year, and he doesn't have any of the excuses that Braun does. And in an NHL focusing more on speed and skill, can a burly defenseman with mediocre puck skills like Braun really handle tough minutes anymore? Sure, Phil Myers has some upside on the bottom pair. But as we've found out the hard way over the years, the Flyers shouldn't be dependent on him becoming a top-four defenseman by season's end, which it feels like they kinda are.
Category #3: Top-Six Centers
Good: Both Claude Giroux and Nolan Patrick spent significant chunks of the 2018-19 season centering the first or second line. But with the acquisition of Kevin Hayes, they can return to more comfortable roles. Giroux should spend the whole season on wing, and Patrick can develop on what should be an outstanding third line until he's truly ready for top-six minutes. Hayes is coming off a career-high scoring season a year ago. Voracek and van Riemsdyk or Lindblom would be arguably his best linemates over his career. And he's got experience playing under Vigneault in New York. This was another area Fletcher identified as a weakness and promptly addressed. Mission accomplished.
Bad: If you want to buy a house, but wind up paying an extra $500,000 for it than you could have, did you really make a smart decision, even if the house is everything that you wanted? That's what the Kevin Hayes signing seems like. Seven years at $50 million dollars is a lot to commit to a forward who has never scored 60 points. The Flyers very well may have the most expensive second line in hockey next year (van Riemsdyk-Hayes-Voracek carries a total cap hit of just over $22 million). And what will they do if Patrick is ready for 2C in a year or two? Move Hayes to wing, or have the most expensive third line center in the world. It feels like the Flyers just put their 2C under the knife when a simple band-aid would've done the trick.
Category 4: Forward Depth
Good: The Flyers bottom-six was a mess last year. Tyrell Goulbourne, Justin Bailey, Jori Lehtera, Corban Knight, Phil Varone, and Dale Weise combined to play 152 games last year, which is about 152 more than they should have. This year, the Flyers have plenty of good players set to fill out their third and fourth lines. Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom scored 30+ points last year at 20 and 22, respectively. They'll likely start on line three, with the chance to move up as the season progresses.
Scott Laughton did the same, and can play both center and the wing. Michael Raffl is a solid PKer and can drive play. Newly acquired Tyler Pitlick brings physicality, tenacity, and a bit of scoring touch. That leaves one spot, and with the number of nearly NHL ready prospects the Flyers have, there is surely one in that group who can contribute at the NHL level in October.
Bad: At this stage in his career, it feels like Nolan Patrick should be higher up in the lineup. Player growth isn't linear, but it's a little disappointing Patrick will likely begin this season in the same role he had as a rookie. His defensive game is strong, but the offensive consistency hasn't been there. Lindblom is a solid support player, but lacks the elite speed and skill to drive a line by his own. Raffl was actually negative in Corsi relative to teammates (the Flyers had a higher percentage of shot attempts compared to opponents when Raffl was off the ice than on it). Pitlick is worse than Ryan Hartman and was only acquired to clear cap space. And Laughton may have been overpaid considering his unspectacular advanced numbers.
That final bottom six spot isn't guaranteed to go to a productive kid. Last year, Mikhail Vorobyev made the team out of camp, but was unable to hold down a permanent spot in either of his two call-ups. And there are plenty of uninspiring veterans (Andy Andreoff, Kurtis Gabriel, Chris Stewart) that the coaching staff could fall in love with instead. The old dead weight may be gone, but it may not be forever.
Category 5: Coaching Staff
Good: Last year, we began with the emotionless Dave Hakstol as head coach, which lasted 31 games too long. Scott Gordon was better, but the Flyers were one of the worst possession teams under his reign and their success was largely driven by special teams and goaltending. Now, the Flyers have Alain Vigneault as the main man behind the bench. AV had two very successful stints in Vancouver and in NY with the Rangers, going to the Finals and winning the President's with each. He has shown the ability to create a style to perfectly his team's strengths, and he lacks the inexperience, goalie and game management concerns that plagued Hakstol's tenure. He should be an upgrade.
The assistants are more experienced, too. Kris Knoblauch never improved the Flyers power play as he was expected too, perhaps even harming it by moving Claude Giroux to the right boards. Ian Laperriere is still here, but is being moved to a pre-scouting role that is perfectly tailored to his hard work and player's coach reputation. Mike Yeo and Michel Therrien will run the PK/defense and PP/forwards, respectively. Both also bring very successful resumes to the table. All three command respect and are committed to excellence, an area where the previous coaching staff was having their efforts called into question.
Bad: Therrien clashed heavily with P.K. Subban, who is basically a right-handed Shayne Gostisbehere. Yeo was mediocrity defined during his tenure with the Wild. Vigneault has some Hakstolian qualities in him, as he treated Tanner Glass the same way Hak loved Chris VandeVelde. He was known for constantly shuffling his lines in New York, a strategy that didn't work very well for Scott Gordon when he was in Philly. They may just be stereotypical "old hockey men" unwilling to adapt to the modern NHL.
Category 6: Front Office
Good: While Ron Hextall did a tremendous job restocking the prospect pool and clearing up a messy salary cap situation, he proved that he was not ready to grow with the team. Hexy's passiveness in player transactions and independent mentality lead to his demise last fall.
In his place stepped Chuck Fletcher. So far, Fletcher has been solid. Most of his moves haven't blown the socks off of the fanbase, for better or for worse. But they have all made sense, and all of his offseason transactions have been carefully made to fix a problem with the roster. Fletcher was always a solid GM in Minnesota, but didn't have the elite talent to win a Cup (sorry Suter and Parise). He inherited that in Philadelphia - now, he just needs to find the remaining pieces to solve the puzzle.
Bad: Fletcher's Wild never made in past the second round of the playoffs, always losing to superior teams (mostly Chicago). He was responsible for assembling that group, and should deserve a large chunk of the blame for their failure. The Wild are regarded as one of the most mediocre teams in the league, much like the Flyers have been for the last half decade. Though they have been making some respectable moves, who knows if the Flyers are truly ready to shed that label.
To add to that, each of Fletcher's big moves have had glaring problems. The cap implications of the Gudas trade were frustrating, Braun cost too much considering the Sharks' own cap situation, Hayes cost too much for too much term, Elliott is a ticking time bomb in goal, and Pitlick is worse than Hartman and that trade was only made because of the cap failures of the Niskanen and Braun acquisitions. Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny also remain unsigned, and while I don't believe either will hold out, it's definitely still on the table.
Category 7: The Team as a Whole
Good: Elite top-six forwards in Giroux, Couturier, Voracek, van Riemsdyk, Hayes, and Konecny. Developing youngsters in Lindblom, Patrick, Sanheim, Myers, and maybe more ready to take the next step. Bounce-back candidates on defense in youngsters Provorov and Ghost as well as vets Niskanen and Braun. A legitimate belief that an elite goalie has been found. The holes are small in both number and magnitude. If there is ever a year the Flyers are ready to take the next step, THIS IS IT.
Bad: It's the Flyers, so expect an eight-game losing streak before Thanksgiving, one-two major injuries, someone seeing their point total cut in half and a season probably between 86 and 96 points, right back on the playoff bubble where we belong. Admit it, you wouldn't have it any other way.