It has been seven years since the Philadelphia Flyers won a playoff series, and that streak stayed in the spotlight last season when the team missed the post-season for the fourth time in that span. Considering Philadelphia has only failed to make the playoffs 12 times in its 52-year history, the current drought is significant.
Along the way last year, GM Ron Hextall was replaced by Chuck Fletcher and three coaching changes eventually resulted in Alain Vigneault’s hiring. Fletcher waited until the off-season to make noteworthy changes – trading for right-shot defensemen Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, and overpaying center Kevin Hayes after acquiring his rights from Winnipeg. All this with the hope of returning to playoff contention and maybe even advancing beyond the first round. Flyers fans have their arms crossed and their feet tapping.
Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek have been the Batman and Robin of the offense for nearly a decade. But now younger players such as Sean Couturier, Travis Konecny and Oskar Lindblom are beginning to share the load. The Flyers need more from James van Riemsdyk, who failed to reach the 30-goal or 50-point plateaus after signing a long-term deal last summer. More output from the power play – particularly the second unit – and from the bottom six is sorely needed.
On defense, Travis Sanheim’s big second half nearly saw him eclipse Shayne Gostisbehere as the Flyers’ leading point-producer among blueliners. Ivan Provorov’s goal total dropped from 17 to seven, and he collected 15 fewer points last year than in his sophomore season, but the 22-year-old should bounce back and resume his ascent.
With the arrival of Niskanen and Braun, there promises to be a healthy internal competition for ice time. Gostisbehere, Provorov, Sanheim and Robert Hagg are locks, leaving Philippe Myers and Samuel Morin to battle for the seventh spot.
Niskanen and Braun are upgrades over exiting Radko Gudas and Andrew MacDonald. That should help reverse last year’s goal differential of minus-39, the club’s biggest red number since 2006-07. Sanheim and Myers showed a lot of potential toward the end of last season. Couturier, a Selke Trophy finalist in 2017-18, and his linemates will be tasked with shutting down opponents’ top lines.
Carter Hart didn’t need much time to prove he’s a bona fide NHL goalie. He seems to have the personality to handle the pressure of bringing a proud franchise back to respectability. Incumbent Brian Elliott was re-signed to insulate Hart. Eight goaltenders took turns standing in the Flyers’ net last season, and no one played more than 31 games, so establishing a stable tandem is critical.
When Vigneault was hired, he was quick to address special teams, as both ranked in the NHL’s bottom 10 last year. Couturier is pivotal on both units. Philadelphia could use improved work on the penalty kill from Scott Laughton. Assistant coach Michel Therrien will oversee the power play and assistant coach Mike Yeo will run the PK.
In the leadership department, bringing in a couple 32-year-olds in Niskanen and Braun with Stanley Cup final experience will be a positive, as should the retention of Elliott, who has a big voice in the dressing room. The Flyers also have Vigneault, who has been to the Cup final twice. He’s the first coach with that type of experience since Peter Laviolette. Losing Wayne Simmonds at the trade deadline hurt the Flyers’ toughness and chemistry, so others have to step up.
While they might not make the opening roster, first-round picks Joel Farabee (14th overall in 2018), Morgan Frost (27th in 2017) and German Rubtsov (22nd in 2016) all have a shot at seeing action up front. Technically, Myers is still a rookie, and the Flyers like his size and strength. Morin, recovered from ACL surgery, can be a factor.
The Flyers need a fast start for a change. They’ve found themselves practically out of the playoff race by Christmas in recent years. The onus is on the veteran core of Giroux, Voracek and Couturier to lead by example.
Paul Holmgren stepped down from the role of president in July, moving to a senior advisor position. Last fall, Holmgren replaced Hextall with Fletcher to speed the team’s development process, acting on the wishes of Flyers’ ownership. Fletcher has made several bold moves, including the hiring of Vigneault, who said he believes the Flyers can be true contenders.
– Wayne Fish
Stanley Cup Odds: 35/1
Prediction: 3rd in Metro
The Flyers weren’t the only team hoping to land D-man Cam York, but they got to him first at the 2019 draft. A Michigan commit who led the NTDP defense last year, York is an excellent skater and a modern-style puck-mover. College is also where Joel Farabee (Boston U.) had been developing prior to turning pro, while fellow 2018 first-rounder Jay O’Brien is trying to rebound from a tough 2018-19. On the pro front, Isaac Ratcliffe arrives coming off a monster final OHL season.
1. Joel Farabee, LW
Age 19 Team Boston University (HE)
Hard worker with good hockey IQ. Was a point-per-game player in his only NCAA season.
Acquired 14th overall, 2018 NHL ’20-21
2. Morgan Frost, C
Age 20 Team Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)
Reads the game well and is known for his superb playmaking. Led the OHL in assists.
Acquired 27th overall, 2017 NHL ’20-21
3. Cam York, D
Age 18 Team U.S. NTDP (USHL)
Michigan commit uses his mobility and smarts to create offense. Rarely gets caught out of position.
Acquired 14th overall, 2019 NHL ’22-23
4. Philippe Myers, D
Age 22 Team Lehigh Valley (AHL)
Big-body defenseman went undrafted in 2015 but has been making steady progress ever since.
Acquired Free agent, Sept, 2015 NHL ’19-20
5. Isaac Ratcliffe, LW
Age 20 Team Guelph (OHL)
Uses his enormous frame to his advantage. Topped 100 penalty minutes and hit 50 goals.
Acquired 35th overall, 2017 NHL ’20-21
6. Wade Allison, RW
Age 21 Team Western Michigan (NCHC)
A power forward with an edge to his game. Has 74 points across three seasons in the NCAA.
Acquired 52nd overall, 2016 NHL ’21-22
7. German Rubtsov, C
Age 21 Team Lehigh Valley (AHL)
Missed most of last season due to shoulder surgery. Known for defensive side of his game.
Acquired 22nd overall, 2016 NHL ’20-21
8. Jay O’Brien, C
Age 19 Team Providence (HE)
Left Providence after one season. Has struggled with injuries. Will try to regroup in Penticton.
Acquired 19th overall, 2018 NHL ’23-24
9. Bobby Brink, RW
Age 18 Team Sioux City (USHL)
Denver-bound gifted playmaker sees the ice well. A below-average skater but good hockey sense.
Acquired 34th overall, 2019 NHL ’23-24
10. Wyatt Kalynuk, D
Age 22 Team Wisconsin (Big Ten)
Back-to-back 25-point seasons at Wisconsin a great NCAA start for puck-moving blueliner.
Acquired 196th overall, 2017 NHL ’22-23