The Hockey News’ annual standings prediction meeting produces exactly the types of blustery arguments so many of our readers have asked about over the years.
This summer, I was a stick in the mud when it came to the Philadelphia Flyers. I knew they enjoyed a great late-season surge to make the playoffs in 2015-16, led by transplanted college coach Dave Haktsol and sensational rookie blueliner Shayne Gostisbehere, but I couldn’t see them duplicating their effort in 2016-17. General manager Ron Hextall, extremely conservative so far in his tenure, only brought in Dale Weise and Boyd Gordon at forward and T.J. Brennan on defense as off-season upgrades. I just didn’t understand how that would suffice in the Metropolitan Division opposite the likes of Pittsburgh and Washington. The Montreal Canadiens with a healthy Carey Price were an overwhelmingly obvious choice to rejoin the playoff picture after missing last year. Someone would have to slide out for that to happen, and I focused my crosshairs on the No. 8 seed of last spring: the Flyers.
It was the D-corps. Philly was set to roll with aging Mark Streit, overpaid Andrew MacDonald and enigmatic Michael Del Zotto in crucial roles and, while a truly elite prospect, Ivan Provorov wasn’t guaranteed to stick with the roster out of camp. I thus predicted a slide out of the post-season for the Flyers.
Here we are in mid-December and they own a nine-game winning streak. They sit nine points up on their closest Eastern Conference rival for the last wildcard spot, albeit they’ve played a league-high 31 games. I’ve devoured so much crow that I'm growing my own feathers. So how have the Flyers become a legit force in the East?
The most obvious theory: they were a force for much of last year and have simply maintained that level of play. Philly finished the season 26-12-7 over its final 45 games after a 15-15-7 start. Coach Hakstol, who joined us on the THN podcast this week, believes this year is a continuation of what his team started last year. Over the past two seasons combined, the Flyers rank fourth in the NHL in 5-on-5 Corsi For per 60. They do a phenomenal job pelting opponents with shot attempts. The likes of Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn were monsters in the second half last season and have carried over their efforts. A big difference this year: Jakub Voracek is back to his old self. The star right winger had a career-best 81 points two seasons ago, earning himself an eight-year, $66-million extension, then slipped to 55 points in 73 games last year, including a measly 11 goals. It took Voracek just 30 games score his 11th this season, and his numbers have shot right back up to where they were in 2014-15.
“That’s all Jake’s inner drive,” Hakstol said. “A lot was made of his down year last year. He didn’t get off to the start he wanted to, and maybe that snowballed a little bit with some of the attention it drew in and around the league. In reality Jake still had a pretty good year numbers-wise. At a critical time of year, he was very good for us. But I think he came with a mindset this year to make sure he got off to a good start, and he did that from Day 1 of training camp coming back after the World Cup. He was at a very high level, and he’s maintained that all the way through. That was just his inner pride, his inner drive. He’s obviously in a pretty good groove right now, but he’s worked for it. He’s getting everything he deserves.”
Hakstol is right about Voracek’s down year being overblown. He quietly finished with 39 points in his final 43 games and, like so many other players on this team, has simply carried over the effort.
The only flourishers from last spring who didn’t maintain their pace, at least at first: goaltenders Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth. Neuvirth, who was unbelievable in first round of the playoffs last April versus Washington, has endured a horrible year. He posted an .859 save percentage over his first nine appearances and has been shelved since November with a knee injury. Mason has shaken off his bad start, however. Before the team’s streak, he was 5-8-3 with an .892 SP. He’s won seven of the nine games in the current run, posting a .930 SP. It seems he’s back.
What about the Flyers defense corps, though? Well, all the Provorov hyperbole turned out to be legit. He’s already a phenom, he leads all the team’s skaters in ice time, and he’s made a real impact with his outstanding all-around skill and hockey sense in every zone. The Flyers’ future on defense was never a problem, as they had Provorov and ‘Ghost Bear,’ with prospects Travis Sanheim, Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg also on the way. It was a matter of surviving with the motley crew of veterans until the youngsters were ready. Provorov is ahead of schedule, and that’s changed the face of this team’s blueline. Not that the Flyers are perfect on ‘D,’ of course. They still sit 20th in 5-on-5 Corsi Against per 60. “I evaluate over our last 18 to 20 games, and we’ve been a pretty consistent hockey team,” Hakstol said. “We’ve been better without the puck, not just in terms of the number of goals we’ve given up, but more importantly the opportunities we’re giving up. I’m very happy with our effort defensively. We certainly can continue to get better. One of the things right now: we can be better defensively by simply being better with the puck. We’re giving it up a little too easily right now and having to expend a lot of energy on the defensive side of the puck.”
So the Flyers obviously aren’t a perfect hockey club. They aren’t yet an elite one, either. But they’re far better than I anticipated, they do a lot more things right than wrong, their forward corps is deep and dangerous, their young D-men are impressive, and their No. 1 goalie is back on track. There is a lot to like here. It’s time to acknowledge the Flyers as a contender in the East. I was wrong.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin