The NHL’s pause didn’t hurt many more teams than it did the Philadelphia Flyers
Before the league went on hiatus beginning on March 12, the Flyers had just seen their nine-game win streak snapped at the hands of the Boston Bruins on March 10 while the team had not lost consecutive games since dropping four in a row from Dec. 31 to Jan 7.
In the process, the Flyers were shooting up the Metropolitan Division standings, nipping at the heels of the first-place Washington Capitals, ultimately finishing just one point back of the Caps, but also sporting a superior +36 goal differential that was the best in the division and third-best in the Eastern Conference.
In a span of three and a half weeks, the Flyers went from fighting tooth and nail for a postseason position to fighting for home ice advantage in the postseason. It was a dramatic turn for a team that had a productive offseason and one I believed put them in a position to deliver significant value in potentially taking home the 2020 Stanley Cup.
Of course, that didn’t happen as the Flyers lost their Eastern Conference Semifinal series to the New York Islanders in seven games, but the team appears to be in similar shape heading into next season, whenever that may be.
All that said, let’s take a look at the 2020-21 Philadelphia Flyers, their season preview and odds before diving into some predictions on how this season could shake out in the City of Brotherly Love.
2020-21 Philadelphia Flyers Season Preview & Odds
- Last Season: 41-21-7 (2nd in Metropolitan Division)
- Key Additions: D Erik Gustafsson
- Projected Salary Cap Space: $4,811,148
- 2021 Stanley Cup Odds: +1500
- 2021 Eastern Conference Odds: +800
The Flyers’ offense clicked at one of the league’s better paces last season, ranking seven while averaging 3.29 goals per game, getting production up and down their lineup in the process. Their power play was more middling, finishing 14th with a decent 20.8% clip, but their even-strength offense was one of the better groups in the NHL.
The team was able to solidify their center ice position when they acquired the rights to Kevin Hayes from the Winnipeg Jets last offseason and signed him to a seven-year, $50M contract shortly thereafter. Some screamed overpay, however Hayes turned out be an excellent 200-foot contributor that played in all situations for new bench boss Alain Vigneault, giving the club nice value on their dollar. There are far worse contracts out there and Hayes is more than a useful player.
Of course, it wasn’t all peachy for this Flyers offense. Claude Giroux slipped to fourth in team scoring with 53 points in 69 games after back-to-back seasons in which he was in excess of a point-per-game. James van Riemsdyk, in just the second year of a five-year, $35M contract, tallied just 40 points on the season and was delegated to bottom-six duty at times.
Of course, there was also the heart-breaking cancer diagnosis of Oskar Lindblom that of course means much more than hockey, however to see Lindblom appear in two postseason games was a major success in itself. He also recorded a hefty 11 goals as well as 18 points in 30 games before the diagnosis.
However, once again, this team got things done as a group as the sum of their parts were far greater than the individual pieces.
For example, Travis Konecny took his game to a new level and led his team in goals (24) and points (61). Hayes chipped in 41 points of his own and the team received quality contributions from the likes of Ivan Provorov and Matt Niskanen on the back end. The bottom-line duo of Michael Raffl and Tyler Pitlick tallied eight goals apiece, as did youngster Joel Farabee who moved up and down the lineup and fared well in doing so.
KONECNY DOING THAT HOCKEY!
That's two goals tonight for the 🌟🌟. pic.twitter.com/1kUfUThbA0
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) January 19, 2020
The lone personnel change up front could be the addition of prospect Morgan Frost to the lineup on a full-time basis after the 2017 first-rounder notched seven points in his 20-game debut last season.
Other than that, with largely the same offensive group as last season, more of the same can likely be expected from this Flyers offense next season.
In total, the Flyers’ defense was a good one, tying the Tampa Bay Lightning for seventh with 2.77 goals per game, a major improvement on their work from the previous season. While the bottom-line number is important, so is consistency and the Flyers did not have that all season long, especially in terms of their splits which were some of the widest in the league.
At home, where they went 25-6-4 on the season, the Flyers were the best defense in the NHL while allowing an even 2.00 goals per game. They also ranked fourth with an 85.6% penalty kill at home as well.
However, on the road where they went 16-15-3 on the year, they ranked 29th with 3.56 goals against per game and tied for 21st with a 78.1% clip on the penalty kill.
Indeed, they allowed a whopping 1.56 more goals per game on the road than they did at home.
Now, those are the surface numbers, the Flyers weren’t nearly as bad defensively on the road than those numbers will show as they ranked second with just 28.5 shots against per game away from the Wells Fargo Center, but were the recipients of a ghastly .875 road save percentage from their goaltenders as well.
Still, it’s not often you see a defense that bad on the road competing for a division title, but that’s just how good they were at home as well.
Overall, at 5v5 action, the Flyers’ defense ranked fifth in terms of scoring chances against and eighth in terms of high-danger chances against. You’ll take that all day long.
They also led the league with just 28.7 shots against per game overall in all situations, so this was indeed one of the better defensive groups in the league a season ago.
However, it’s also a group that lost an important piece.
I noted earlier that Niskanen was a significant offensive contributor from the back end, but was also a reliable defender and penalty killer. He’s also now a retiree after hanging up the skates in the offseason despite having another year left on his contract. The Flyers are off the hook for his $5.75M cap hit, however.
Still, it’s a notable on-ice loss. He was a key piece acquired last offseason by general manager Chuck Fletcher. The team added another right-handed blueliner in Erik Gustafsson on a cheaper, $3M deal in free agency, but Niskanen’s defensive play is superior to that of the former Blackhawk and Flame.
We’ll see just how significant the loss is. From a personnel standpoint, the Flyers have the depth and the bodies to sustain that blow, especially with Gustafsson in tow. The team can adequately fill its top six even without rostering the volatile Shayne Gostisbehere. The development of names such as Travis Sanheim, Robert Hagg and Philippe Myers allow them to do that, and add in Provorov and they have four bodies 25 and under on this blueline.
Ivan Provorov called game. Decent goal. pic.twitter.com/0PtbtTSPMh
— Spittin' Chiclets (@spittinchiclets) November 30, 2019
The inexperience could hurt and the loss of Niskanen’s experience could further complicate matters.
We’ll see, but I don’t see the Flyers’ defensive play falling off a cliff despite losing a valuable piece of that top four from a season ago.
The Flyers received quality goaltending last season… at home.
Indeed, a lack of goaltending on the road, for whatever reason, was the reason the Flyers’ meddled with the likes of the Red Wings and Senators – the two worst teams in the NHL last season – at the bottom of the road defense category.
Carter Hart’s splits largely followed that of his team. See for yourself:
It’s hard to determine why a player would struggle so much away from home, but it’s not unexpected for a young goaltender such as the 22-year-old Hart to feel more comfortable at home, even without fans. After a while, the mental aspect of struggling so badly on the road likely played its part, as well.
In sum, Hart posted a nice 2.42 GAA and .914 Sv% across 40 starts and 43 appearances last season. You’ll also take that all day long, although you’d like the consistency to be there across the board.
SAVE OF THE YEAR?! 🙌🙌🙌
— theScore (@theScore) December 12, 2019
It didn’t take long for the Flyers and veteran backup Brian Elliott to reunite as the team and player signed a one-year contract extension on October 3 to allow the mentoring of Hart to continue.
The 35-year-old had his own bout with the home/road splits as he worked to a nice 2.42 GAA and .910 Sv% at home but scuffled to a 3.04 GAA and .896 Sv% on the road. Given Hart’s ongoing struggles away from home, Elliott’s starts were weighted heavily on the road side where he made 19 of his 27 starts. As a result, his 2.96 GAA and .899 Sv% on the season is largely a reflection of work on the road.
With another year of development under his belt, Hart should be just fine moving forward and we should certainly witness tighter splits while he continues to lean on the experience of Elliott into next season.
2020-21 Philadelphia Flyers Predictions
It’s not the flashiest team on paper to be sure. Giroux is considered a superstar, but he’s also volatile from season-to-season. His production can rank among the game’s best, but it can also slip as it did a season ago.
Sean Couturier remains one of the best two-way pivots in the game and Kevin Hayes is about a quality as an all-round No.2 center as it gets.
The Flyers’ bottom-six contains some youth and experience while Pitlick’s spot as the fourth-line right-winger now belongs to Nicolas Aube-Kubel, a 24-year-old ferocious forechecker who contributed seven goals and 15 points in 36 games last season.
There doesn’t appear to be any holes up front and I would expect the production to continue up and down that lineup.
I have a minor concern about regression on the back end with the Niskanen loss. Not only that, but Myers will be thrust into a full-time role as a right-shot defender and he’s played all of 71 career NHL games and averaged just 17:06 of ice time in 50 games last season. He’ll require some protected minutes at times, but there’s also a hole on the penalty kill where Niskanen played a big part last season.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Flyers’ defensive numbers regress a little bit without the underrated Niskanen.
While Hart’s splits were eye-popping last season, we’ll see those tighten and there’s not a single member of that organization worried about their goaltending situation. Even when the Flyers struggled defensively in the 2018-19 season, Hart posted a .917 Sv% while seeing a ton of rubber.
He’s now played 74 NHL games across two seasons and while growing pains are a part of every young goaltender’s NHL journey, Hart is going to be an elite netminder in this league and he is well on his way.
The Flyers were a middling team last season before turning it on in the season’s second half. They weren’t as bad as they were early and they’re not as good as they were late when they were winning every night they took the ice.
That said, I believe this team has plenty more good than bad mixed in. The forward group and goaltending is going to be just fine and the back end looks the part of a solid group even if their overall defensive numbers dip some.
To me, this is absolutely a postseason club, even in the deep Metropolitan Division that I’ve mentioned throughout these season preview pieces, and most recently here. However, it’s a team that could also bow out early or make a deep run. It could depend on the matchup. I don’t believe they’re among the best one or two teams in the east, but more of a 4/5/6 team in the conference.
As a result, I’ll take a similar path to their success from last season. They get into the postseason and they win a round before enduring their second consecutive second-round exit.