[EDITOR’S NOTE: This was written for The Broad Street Bully website.]
As we begin another Flyers season, it’s important to review their keys to success. The Flyers made the playoffs last year but were eliminated after getting a series to six hard fought games with the back to back Stanley Cup champs. But, with a lineup infused with youth and a coach that Flyers fans are split on, here are the keys to their success this season.
Flyers 1st Key to Success: The Star Players Continue Their Star Play
Prior to last year, Claude Giroux had been trending downward. His season point totals for the Flyers between the 2014-2015 season through the 2016-2017 season were 73, 67, and 58. Amidst rumors that the Flyers were actively listening to proposals for a Giroux trade, he entered the 2017-2018 season with a chip on his shoulder. He also began the season with a new role in the lineup: winger.
Whether it was a decrease in defensive responsibility, or being fully healed from his hip surgeries with enough offseason time to train, Giroux regained his old form for the Flyers last season. He lead the team with 102 points (34 goals, 68 assists. That was good enough for second most points in the entire league. The only player to top his points total was Edmonton’s Connor McDavid. While Giroux can afford to regress slightly this season, his play can’t fall off completely. As his point totals go, the Flyers playoff chances go.
Another Flyers player that has to keep their upward trend going is top line center Sean Couturier.
At this point, everyone knows the story: During the preseason last year, Couturier went to Dave Hakstol and told him he wanted a more offensive role in the lineup. Hakstol moved Giroux to the wing and gave Couturier a chance at the top line center spot. And Couturier has not disappointed since that time.
While Couturier racked up 96 points in back to back seasons in Junior hockey with the Drummondville Voltigeurs, he spent a majority of his time with the Flyers in a defensive role prior to last season. In his first year as top center, he had career highs in goals (31), assists (45), and, naturally, points (76).
Couturier should only continue to get more comfortable with his top line role and, with Giroux still playing on his wing, there’s no reason why Couturier should slow down with his point production.
Jakub Voracek should also continue to put up a very decent amount of points. For all the flack people gave Jake last year, his numbers were as good or better than they’ve been in his entire career as a Flyers player. His 85 points last year (20 goals, 65 assists) are 24 more than he had in 2016-2017 and 30 more than he had in 2015-2016.
If line projections shake out like everyone is assuming they will, Voracek will spend a majority his time playing with a healthy Nolan Patrick and a shoot first player in James van Riemsdyk. If he stays healthy all season, it’s not unreasonable to assume he will end up north of 85 points.
Shayne Gostisbehere used his first season with the Flyers to dazzle the league with his offense. Last season, he still produced (52 assists and 65 points) but also showed people that his defensive game has improved. While he shot to the spotlight because of his offensive capability, he’s slowly rounding out his overall game. That makes him even more of a threat for the Flyers. Couple that with him being signed to a very manageable contract, and the Flyers have an extremely solid asset for a very reasonable cost.
Flyers 2nd Key to Success: The Players Ready to Take the Next Step Actually Take the Next Step
Nolan Patrick has spent the summer after his first NHL season being completely healthy. This allowed him to train at a higher level and come into this season stronger than he’s ever been before. After fully recovering from his surgeries last offseason, he didn’t have much time to train for the jump from the Junior to the NHL. Luckily for Flyers fans, that isn’t an issue this year.
Patrick collected 30 points his rookie year. He even made Dale Weise look like a serviceable offensive player. Look for him to be a much more dangerous offensive threat if he secures the second line center position. With van Riemsdyk and Voracek as potential linemates all year, Patrick would have to do his best to avoid racking up points.
Ivan Provorov ended last season playing through a separated shoulder in a crushing series loss to the Penguins. And in last season’s exit interviews, Provorov told the reporters he wants to take on more of a leadership role in the locker room. He has very quickly developed into the best defenseman on the Flyers and it shows a lot of character that he also wants to become one of their vocal leaders.
While he isn’t widely noticed by the national NHL media yet, he’s slowly working his way into the casual conversations for best defenseman. This year could catapult his name into the NHL elite.
Provorov’s draft year buddy, Travis Konecny, also had a bit of a breakout season for the Flyers last year. After being elevated to the top line, and consistently playing with Giroux and Couturier, Konency ended the season with 24 goals and 47 overall points. And some of his goals include highlight reel quality plays.
If Konecny starts the year on the top line, his play should continue at a high level. His points will go a long way to helping the Flyers stay at the top of a strong Metropolitan division.
As a rookie, Robert Hagg played 70 games. His points (6 assists, 9 points – nice) won’t blow anybody away. But he spent the entire season playing a steady, consistent brand of defensive hockey. While certainly not flashy, his play was definitely serviceable.
When paired with the right partner, Hagg is a solid bottom pair defenseman for the Flyers that could help take some of the minutes off the top guys.
Finally, Travis Sanheim played 49 games and amassed 10 points. Last year was a tough year for Sanheim, because he found himself as the odd man out to the likes of Brandon Manning. However, Manning is gone this year and MacDonald is injured going into the season. That’s lead everyone to believe Sanheim is almost guaranteed a roster spot with the Flyers to start the season. He narrowly avoided serious injury after getting hit by Matt Martin already this preseason and he should be ready to go for the season opener.
Flyers 3rd Key to Success: James van Riemsdyk Creates Offense
When free agency opened on July 1st, the Flyers went ahead and brought van Riemsdyk back into the fold. And it’s a smart move because he was arguably the best winger to make it to free agency this year.
He’s had at least 25 goals in four of his last five seasons. Depending on who he plays with should determine how fast he replicates, and then surpasses, those numbers. Whether he plays on a line with Patrick and Voracek, or gets moved up to play with Giroux and Couturier, the sky’s the limit for the amount of goals he could score.
Another added bonus to signing van Riemsdyk is that it bolsters the power play units. Hakstol expects to use him as a net front presence but didn’t specify which unit he’d be on. Either way, his potential emergence on the powerplay could soften the blow of potentially losing Wayne Simmonds to a midseason trade or impending free agency.
Flyers 4th Key to Success: Figure Out What To Do With Wayne Simmonds
This is the last season on Wayne Simmonds’ contract and could be his last season with the Flyers. Hextall will either have to sign Simmonds or move him before they risk losing him for nothing in the offseason.
Last season had a lot of people ok with Simmonds’ departure until he let everyone know of his bevy of injuries that hampered his play. You can argue that, in order to help the team, maybe Simmonds shouldn’t have forced his way into the lineup and played 75 games. However, you can’t argue his resolve and his will to battle.
With the emergence of Nolan Patrick on the powerplay towards the end of last season, and the addition of van Riemsdyk this offseason, the Flyers may find they don’t need Simmonds on the powerplay. And, as an aging power forward with the expectation to start the season on the Flyers third line, his diminished playing time may lead Hextall to make a trade sooner than later.
While he’s a player who is big in the locker room guy and everyone on the team loves him, it may be more prudent for Hextall to get value for him and avoid tying up cap space that could be handed out to more important players.
Flyers 5th Key to Success: Avoid Goalie Injuries
Last year, the Flyers found themselves in goalie trouble. Again. And not because either goalie played terribly awful. It was only because they literally couldn’t stop hurting themselves. The inability to stay healthy even forced Hextall to facilitate a trade for former Red Wings goalie, Petr Mrazek. That trade ended with an uneven Mrazek not being extended an offer in free agency by the Flyers and eventually signing a new contract with the Carolina Hurricanes.
A healthy Brian Elliott played great at even strength and even helped get the Flyers to first place in the division for a brief period. In 43 games played last season, he managed 23 wins, a 2.66 goals against average, and a save percentage of .909. Surprisingly enough, the .909 save percentage puts him ahead of goalies that include Braden Holtby, Matt Murray, and Corey Schneider. His goals against average was also better than Henrik Lundqvist’s.
You can argue that games played had an effect on his numbers but the point I’m trying to make is Brian Elliott was more than serviceable for the Flyers.He gave the Flyers a chance to win almost every game he played in.
Meanwhile, Michal Neuvirth continued the Michal Neuvirth trend. When Elliott went down, Neuvirth had a solid chance to cement himself as the Flyers starter. Instead, he hurt himself 28 minutes into the first game after Elliott was injured. This offseason, Neuvirth has switched trainers again – his third in three years – in order to try to stay healthy for more than 28 minutes in a row.
Both Elliott and Neuvirth have contracts expiring this year. Depending on how they play this season, it could make it easy for Hextall to determine which one he’s going to resign.
The wildcard here is that Carter Hart will start the season with the Phantoms and has a chance to be called up if consistent goalies are a problem again this year. IN order to see Hart, though, there would have to some pretty extenuating circumstances.
Alex Lyon is also a potential callup but after watching his time with the Flyers last year, I’d rather see them go with Carter Hart. Getting Hart a couple games at the NHL level could do him a world of good for gaining some experience and helping him adjust to the NHL game speed. Hart may have made WHL history last season but he lacks valuable NHL experience.
And while he got some starts during this preseason run, these games aren’t a good indicator of NHL play because the rosters are constantly fluctuating and the level of team the Flyers are playing against is always questionable.
Flyers 6th Key to Success: Figure Out the Bottom Two Lines
The Flyers have a bunch of players that are available to fill out their bottom and an offseason where they weren’t quite sure who wasn’t going to make the cuts. Off season reports were mixed. Training camp reports were also mixed.
Hextall has been quoted saying he hopes Jordan Weal makes some strides to secure a roster spot as a Center. Seeing as Hextall drafted Weal when he was an Assistant GM with the Los Angeles Kings, it makes sense that Hextall expects Weal to finally assert himself.
More recently, on September 17, 2018, Hextall also pointed out the superb play of Mikhail Vorobyev and he’s also a part of the third line center race. Additionally, Vorobyev’s play in the preseason games have helped hype his chances to steal a spot on this team from a guy like Jori Lehtera or Dale Weise.
Scott Laughton is also floating around. He’s even played some wing in the preseason. There’s a chance he secures a bottom line spot. He was a pretty efficient penalty killer last season and flourished in his role as a bottom line player once he revamped his game and focused less on point production.
For the first time in years, the Flyers may not have a third and fourth line that instill fear and dread in Flyers fans everytime they touch the ice. It’s looking more like they might have a 3A and 3B line, instead of a true fourth line. If these bottom two lines can score, while also supplementing the two top lines, the Flyers could be looking at a very successful, and deep, roster.
And even if one line is relegated to a true fourth line role, it’ll still be miles better than one that includes names such as Bellemare and VandeVelde. Nothing against Bellemare personally. The Flyers just don’t need that kind of play in their lineup when they have much better options available.
Flyers 7th Key to Success: Make the Penalty Kill Better
The Flyers ended last year with the 29th ranked penalty kill. Out of 31 teams. A polite way to describe that is “awful”.
This season, the potential penalty killers that Hakstol has at his disposal have gotten better than last year. But, last year the penalty killers that Hakstol had at his disposal had gotten better than the year before.
If the players can’t start executing on the penalty kill, you have to imagine that Hextall won’t allow the subpar execution to continue for too long. To date, he’s stayed silent on Ian Laperriere’s job security. Laperriere, of course, is responsible for the Flyers penalty kill.
Any good General Manager won’t willingly throw their staff and players under the proverbial bus. But, if the Flyers are at the bottom of the league again this year, then Laperriere will have probably assistant coached his last game as a member of the Flyers.
Players always fluctuate, especially in the salary cap era. But if the system is fundamentally flawed then that’s an issue that needs to be addressed. And, regardless of staffing, the penalty kill has been consistently bad since 2013-2014. During the 2013-2014 season, they finished 7th in the league. Since then? 27th, 20th, 19th, and, most recently, 29th.
An anemic penalty kill isn’t going to cut it if the Flyers expect to make some waves in the playoffs this season.
Flyers 8th Key to Success: Andy “I’ll Be Back”-donald
To clarify: the details of this will need to work out perfectly. But, if they do, the Flyers will be free and clear of his salary.
To begin, autonomous killing robots travel back in time in order to end Andy MacDonald’s life and prevent him from leading a revolution against the robots.
With that piece of background information, MacDonald has to go to the mall to play arcade games, or buy clothes, or literally do anything. Then, this killer robot, surprisingly made of a mimetic poly-alloy (commonly referred to as “liquid metal”) shows up in present day, attacks a police officer to assume their identity, and then starts systematically hunting MacDonald in order to eliminate him from the Earth.
MacDonald, whose future self already knows this is going to happen, manages to reprogram an older model killer robot to ALSO travel back in time and then protect his present day self from the liquid metal killer robot.
The older model robot eventually helps MacDonald fight off the liquid metal robot and they end up escaping together and end up traveling across America trying to figure out a way to prevent the liquid metal robot from succeeding in it’s murderous quest. The journey also allows MacDonald to learn about the future from the older model robot. They go on a tour of the United States and end up breaking MacDonald’s mom out of a mental hospital.
Together, the three of them team up to eliminate the liquid metal robot. The older model robot, after teaching Andy life lessons and showing him what a true friend can be, kills itself since it achieved all of its programmed goals.
MacDonald is so distraught by this that he has to retire from hockey forever. His sadness is at an all time high but, hey, at least he’d be retired and his salary would be freed up.
You could say his salary would… not be back. Because it would be… terminated.
Please don’t sue us, James Cameron.
(This article was researched using NHL.com, hockey-reference.com, and the links used in the article.)