What's at Stake: Flyers Stretch Run Is Their Biggest in a Decade
We've got 'em right where we want 'em. Or something like that.
If you asked most people where they thought the 2019-20 Philadelphia Flyers would be 59 games into this season, their answer probably would have been correct. With a record of 32-20-7, good enough for 71 points, the Flyers currently hold the fifth spot in the Metropolitan Division and the second wild card in the Eastern Conference (despite holding one more point than Toronto, who is 3rd in the Atlantic). They are one point ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes, who have a game in hand. They are also just one point behind the New York Islanders (three games in hand), who are 3rd in the Metro. In short, the Flyers are right where they've been for most of the past eight seasons: right on the bubble.
But asking someone to predict how the Flyers would arrive at this point would be like throwing darts blindfolded. This season has been a pendulum, rapidly swinging from good to bad and back again on a weekly or biweekly basis. The Flyers haven't won more than five straight, but they also haven't lost more than four in a row. They have been decimated by injuries at every spot in their lineup and one point or another this season. Eleven rookies have made their way into the lineup. Philly is just outside the top 10 in goals for and against per game. The penalty kill has been revived. The power play has gone full galaxy brain (thanks for that line, Charlie O'Connor). Goaltending has been a stealth struggle (.897 team save percentage, 23rd in the NHL). There's been a little bit of everything so far this season.
With just three games remaining until the February 24th trade deadline, the Flyers fate is still very much up for grabs. Realistically, there are four teams (Washington, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and Boston) that will make the playoffs. There are three (Detroit, Ottawa, and New Jersey) that have no shot. Three more (Buffalo, Montreal, and the New York Rangers) are in the hunt, but heavy underdogs. That leaves six teams in the thick of a fight for four playoff spots - Toronto, the New York Islanders, Columbus, Carolina, Florida, and Philadelphia.
The Flyers have undergone an identity change under Alain Vigneault. Most of the offseason moves by Chuck Fletcher have worked. Kevin Hayes has been a tour-de-force on the PK and produced offensively. Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun have stabilized the Flyers defense on the right side. Tyler Pitlick has been a big part of the Flyers bottom-six, which has never been better. Likewise, other depth players like Scott Laughton, Michael Raffl, Brian Elliott, and even Robert Hagg have struggled at times, but mostly held their own.
The youth movement has largely been a success this year. Philadelphia came into the season knowing that several players under 25 would need to make an impact for the team to be successful. Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov have led the charge. The former is the Flyers leading goal scorer; the latter has returned to form as a true top-pairing defenseman. Joel Farabee was called up after four AHL games and hasn't looked back. Connor Bunnaman has looked like a legit-4C in his second NHL stint. Nicolas Aubé-Kubel is developing into an incredible bottom-sixer. Phil Myers is starting to round into form as a future top-four blue-liner. His current partner Travis Sanheim has followed a similar trajectory, just slightly faster. Carter Hart has had growing pains, but the 21-year old is well on his way to being the best Flyers goalie since the guy that drafted him.
Each veteran has their own unique story. James van Riemsdyk and Jake Voracek have found themselves in AV's doghouse at times this season, but have produced at decent clips and are driving play. Sean Couturier is a beast, and was the PWHA's midseason pick to win the Selke Trophy. Shayne Gostisbehere has struggled mightily, being healthy scratched multiple times, and is currently recovering from knee surgery. Captain Claude Giroux is on pace for his third lowest point total in a full season, but that's in part due to befuddling power play formations and spending a handful of games at center.
But this season won't be remembered for what has happened so far. Not the 1-4-1 post-holiday road trip, the NHL lead in points in November, the last-minute loss in Brooklyn, the epic overtime finish in Montreal. The first 59 games of the Flyers season have been exhilarating, never letting up for a second. It has been a battle. The Flyers remain a resilient team, albeit one that probably relies on that trait more often than they should.
February 24th, one week from today, is the NHL's trade deadline. Chuck Fletcher will likely look to add, but because of the Flyers tight cap situation (just over $2 million of deadline cap space, per CapFriendly), he will likely only make a minor move, if he makes one at all. The only potential reinforcements coming are likely in house, either via a promotion of 2017 1st round pick Morgan Frost from the Phantoms, or the return of 2017 2nd overall pick Nolan Patrick, who has missed the entire season with migraine disorder. It's most likely that the group the Flyers have now is the one that will be tasked with getting it done, whatever you consider "it" is.
And here lies the greatest mystery of this season - what will it take for this year to be a success? The answer is different for everyone. Some people refuse to accept anything less than a Stanley Cup. Others are already satisfied with the progress the Flyers have shown; after all, they need just eleven points to reach last season's total. Most are somewhere in the middle. Making the playoffs is goal number one right now; you can't win anything big unless you get in. Missing the playoffs certainly isn't unfathomable with where the Flyers are in the standings. But they are also in good enough position and have a good enough roster that it's certainly a realistic goal, if not an expectation, the Flyers will be playing in mid-April.
This is the best team the Flyers have had since the last team that won a playoff series back in 2012. Both they and the 2011 squads were elite in the regular season, finishing with over 100 points - they knew they would be in the playoffs this time of year. None of the teams the Flyers have had since qualified as serious contenders just to win a round, let alone the whole thing. This year's Flyers aren't the latter, but if they make it, they'd definitely be in the former. But they have to make it first, and the uncertainty of where the Flyers will be on April 4 is what makes this stretch run so exciting. And terrifying. Honestly, what's the difference?
In the beginning of the season, I said that for this season to be a success, the Flyers had to win a playoff round. I predicted they'd do just that (in fact, I picked them to win two - no, I'm not biased, why do you ask?), prophesying they would end their drought by beating the Hurricanes in seven games. Based on where the Flyers and Canes are in the standings, it would be a statistical miracle for that matchup to happen in Round 1. Can the Flyers beat the Penguins, Capitals, Lightning, Bruins, or Islanders in a playoff series? Even the biggest Flyers fan wouldn't answer a definitive yes. Each of those teams are elite in at least one area. The Flyers may have the edge on them in some ways, but it's hard to argue they're a better team than any of them. As the Blue Jackets taught us last year (and others have before), that doesn't always matter. But the odds aren't in our favor.
Then again, maybe that's for the best. Philadelphia teams are historically known for thriving as underdogs. The 2018 Eagles are the most popular and recent example. But no one thought the Phillies would win the World Series in 2008. Their two most magical seasons prior to that were 2007 (winning the NL East after being down 7 games with 17 left) and 1993 (a stunning run to the World Series). The 76ers most satisfying season in the last two decades was 2017-18, which they followed two seasons with a combined total of 38 wins with 52 victories, then added five more in the playoffs. There's no reason why the Flyers, massive underdogs to reach the 2010 Finals after clinching a playoff spot on the last day of the season, can't add to that legacy.
It would certainly be a much-needed boost to their popularity. It's no secret the Flyers are the fourth most popular team in Philadelphia. Sports radio seldom mentions them. The Flyers are selling an average of 93% capacity, 22nd in the NHL (per ESPN). The lack of recent on-ice success is a major (albeit not the only) reason for that.
Here's the bottom line. With roughly 75% of the season completed, the Flyers are in good position. They control their own destiny. They are a good team and will continue to get better, regardless if they receive supplemental help. Play these last 23 games for number 23, and the Flyers will be able to make this a season to remember for all the right reasons.
Let's go, Flyers.