The overarching question surrounding the Philadelphia Flyers heading into the 2021-22 season is which version of the team are we going to see?
It’s a bit of an unfair question considering this was a team that technically is in the third year of a rebuild under head coach Alain Vigneault. Granted, a COVID-shortened 2019-20 season aligned perfectly with a Flyers hot streak, allowing them to unexpectedly nab the top spot in the Eastern Conference before advancing to the second round.
The core of youngsters that blended with the old heads offered the promise of perennial playoff contention, considering they were able to do so at an earlier-than-expected point.
But last season saw the regression of those youngsters — most notably in goaltender Carter Hart — as the Flyers collapsed in March and finished the campaign with a whimper; not really challenging for a return to the playoffs.
The Flyers haven’t played postseason hockey in consecutive seasons since a four-year stretch between 2008-2012, and it doesn’t seem like the NHL world is giving them much of a chance to at least put down a starting marker for such a streak this season.
The Metropolitan Division is one of the toughest in hockey. The New York Islanders have made back-to-back appearances in the Stanley Cup semifinals. The Carolina Hurricanes are poised to take the next step toward Cup contention themselves, even though they lost a valuable defenseman in Dougie Hamilton while making a puzzling switch in goal away from last year’s star rookie goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic.
The New York Rangers have taken steps forward, adding grit to a team flush with skill while the traditional powers of the Metropolitan Division — the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins — will still very much be in the thick of a top-three spot, too.
So, where does that leave the Flyers?
A resurgence like the one experienced two seasons ago would mean they’re in the thick of it. Anything else, they’re well on the outside looking in. So let’s see just how good this team can be:
The Flyers certainly are not lacking potential scoring or playmaking depth amongst its ranks. Once this roster is fully healthy, they can roll three skilled lines at you to create a relentless attack.
The acquisition of Cam Atkinson only helped that as the 32-year-old right-winger — who scored 41 goals three years ago with the Columbus Blue Jackets — is expected to feature on the top six either alongside Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier, or Kevin Hayes and Joel Farabee.
Couturier has arguably been the Flyers’ most valuable player in recent years, posting 82-game averages of 30 goals over the last four seasons. Giroux might not be a point-per-game player anymore, but his 82-game average of 64 points over the last two seasons still indicates that he can help orchestrate an imposing trio.
There will be some question marks surrounding the second line as Kevin Hayes continues to work back from his recovery from abdominal surgery this offseason. Derick Brassard could slot into the second-line center role for the time being after he was acquired this offseason while either Atkinson or Travis Konecny could be at right-wing.
Konecny and Hayes’ output will be under close watch this season. As forwards who can score up around 25 goals in a season — they struggled in the shortened campaign last year. Hayes posted just 12 goals in 55 games while Konecny had 11 in 50.
Joel Farabee—the 21-year-old star in the making was one of the Flyers’ MVPs last year—posted 20 goals and 18 assists in just 55 games. He should at least flirt with 30 goals as he should be getting top-six minutes.
Thankfully, a healthy Oskar Lindblom should see time on the left wing of the third line where he can finally solely focus on hockey — as any 25-year-old should. Lindblom scored eight goals with six assists in 50 games last year, but the hope is that he’ll be able to regain his scoring touch from a few seasons back where he put up 17 goals in 2018-19 and 11 goals in 30 games two years ago.
Veteran James van Riemsdyk also packs a punch on that third unit. He posted 43 points in 56 games last year, including 26 assists that were the most he’s had in four years.
Flyers Opening Night Projected Lines
Claude Giroux – Sean Couturier – Travis Konecny
Joel Farabee – Derik Brassard – Cam Atkinson
Oskar Lindblom – Scott Laughton – James van Riemsdyk
Patrick Brown – Nate Thompson – Nicolas Aube-Kubel
The Flyers’ defense was one of the main issues that contributed to the team yielding a league-worst 201 goals last season — and general manager Chuck Fletcher made a concerted effort to rectify those issues.
They made a big splash by acquiring Ryan Ellis from the Nashville Predators, providing a first-pairing blue liner that provides veteran leadership, including Stanley Cup Final experience, and a solid two-way game.
He’s the perfect sort of leader to pair with Ivan Provorov, who still has a high ceiling, but has struggled with inconsistencies unbefit of a first-pairing defenseman. Much of that derives from the partner he’s playing with — meaning big things should be expected alongside Ellis.
The second unit does provide some skepticism as advanced analytics don’t shine a favorable light on both Travis Sanheim and Rasmus Ristolainen. Sanheim’s expected on-ice goal differential at five-on-five of 52.74% has brought about his fair share of detractors, but the hope is that pairing him with Ristolainen will improve things.
Ristolainen was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres where he was overused and over-managed, playing top-pairing minutes for a team with no structure, organization, or hope. In Philadelphia, his minutes will be managed — even limited — and he’ll have an opportunity to flourish alongside a defender in Sanheim who still has a reasonably high ceiling.
Philadelphia’s third pairing should feature a blend of style that — in theory — could create a well-rounded bottom unit. Keith Yandle, another new arrival, should be given more creative freedom in Philadelphia compared to his time with the Florida Panthers. The veteran has long been touted as an offensive defenseman and someone who could quarterback a power play.
Next to him will be Justin Braun, a stay-at-home defenseman who played top-pair minutes with Provorov last season.
Flyers Opening Night Projected Defensive Pairs
Ivan Provorov- Ryan Ellis
Travis Sanheim – Rasmus Ristolainen
Keith Yandle – Justin Braun
There is really nowhere else to go but up for Carter Hart, who experienced an absolute freefall of a regression last season. After going 40-26-4 with a .915 save percentage and 2.59 goals-against average in his first 70 career starts, the 23-year-old went 9-11-5 with an .877 save percentage and 3.67 goals-against average.
For the Flyers, there is no other thought process to have other than chalking up last year as an anomaly — blaming a shortened season in the midst of a pandemic. Hart himself said those factors impacted him.
A bounce back would provide a sigh of relief, but continued struggles could see the Flyers’ proverbial ship crash and burn. Especially because there is enough uncertainty surrounding their backup netminder.
Martin Jones has a chance to re-establish himself as an NHL-caliber netminder. Once a backup to Jonathan Quick on a Stanley Cup-winning Los Angeles Kings team, Jones took the reigns in San Jose and led the Sharks to a Western Conference title in 2016. From 2015-2018, his .914 save percentage and 2.40 goals-against average was stellar.
Since then, his save percentage has plummeted to .896 with a 3.04 goals-against average over the next three seasons.
What should we expect from the Flyers?
The Flyers certainly have attacking prowess, but they’re in a division against resolute defensive teams that have shut down far more lethal opponents. It will make Metropolitan Division play a slog, but the root of Alain Vigneault’s team’s issue will still be keeping the puck out of their own net.
If Philadelphia’s defense is a middle-of-the-road unit, they’re at least in the conversation for a wild-card spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Anything less and they’re flirting with the bottom of the standings.
Expect a mid-table finish in the Metropolitan.
Metropolitan Division Predictions
- New York Islanders*
- Washington Capitals*
- Carolina Hurricanes*
- Pittsburgh Penguins**
- New York Rangers
- Philadelphia Flyers
- New Jersey Devils
- Columbus Blue Jackets
* Denotes playoff team
** Denotes wild-card team