In his 13-plus months on the job, Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher still has not made the signature trade that his bosses seemed to want his predecessor, Ron Hextall, to make. And since he’s now up against the salary cap, it will be even more difficult to pull the trigger on that type of deal.
But make no mistake: Fletcher has dramatically changed the Flyers and made them better by adding Matt Niskanen (trade with Capitals) and signing prospective free agent Kevin Hayes.
The best move he has made, however, was signing a guy who about now is sitting in his pontoon boat in South Florida, presumably sipping a martini and forgetting about hockey for a few days.
Alain Vigneault, the Flyers’ new coach, deserves some R&R after directing his team to a 27-17-6 record at the All-Star break, including recent wins over NHL heavyweights Washington, Boston, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh. They have 60 points, one point out of a playoff spot in the ultracompetitive Eastern Conference.
The Flyers have 12 more points than at a corresponding time last season. They are on pace for 98 points, 16 more than they collected a year ago.
Under Vigneault, the Flyers are better in virtually every area.
The offense has been good but not great, which is understandable because it is missing key forwards Oskar Lindblom and Nolan Patrick.
Lindblom, the blossoming left winger who was tied for the team lead with 11 goals when he was found to have a rare form of bone cancer, hasn’t played since Dec. 7 and will miss the rest of the season. Patrick, expected to produce around 20 goals as the third-line center, has been sidelined all season with a migraine disorder, and no one knows if he will play in the final two-plus months.
That has scrambled the lines and created a patchwork lineup. To his credit, Vigneault has done a nice job of creating balance among the four lines and spreading out the minutes and the scoring.
The Flyers are 15th in the NHL, averaging 3.06 goals. That number is similar to last season, when they finished 18th with an average of 2.94.
It wouldn’t be shocking if Washington and Colorado ended up playing for the Stanley Cup. But you might be surprised that the Flyers are tied with both those teams for 10th in the NHL in goals allowed per game, 2.90 — about a half-goal less per game than in 2018-19.
This is the area in which the Flyers have made the most strides.
Some of it is because last season was the Year of Eight Goalies, and many of them were ineffective. The Flyers allowed 3.41 goals per game last season, 29th in the NHL.
Niskanen, a veteran who won a Cup with the Capitals, has solidified the defense and helped his partner, Ivan Provorov, to regain his footing after a disappointing season. And the fact that goalies Carter Hart and Brian Elliott have been relatively healthy has also been an important factor.
Vigneault seems to have found the right defensive pairings, and the Flyers have gone 5-2 since Shayne Gostisbehere left the lineup because he needed arthroscopic knee surgery. He might be ready return Jan. 31 against Pittsburgh, and his name will be tossed around before the Feb. 24 trade deadline because the Flyers have some insurance in the minors (Mark Friedman) and could use another productive forward if Patrick can’t return this season.
The Rangers’ Chris Kreider, Minnesota’s Jason Zucker, Los Angeles’ Tyler Toffoli, Nashville’s Mikael Granlund, and Chicago’s Brandon Saad are among the forwards who could be available.
If the Flyers need another offensive piece, Fletcher might have to deal Gostisbehere and/or a draft pick to put the team over the hump. A draft pick alone might not be enough, however, because the Flyers would probably need to trade a player to free up some needed cap space.
Hart has been great at home (1.69 GAA, .940 save percentage), awful on the road (4.01, .850). After missing four games because of an abdominal injury, he is expected to be ready when the Flyers return from their break Jan. 31 in Pittsburgh.
Elliott (2.89, .904) will probably start that night, based on his road play and the fact he blanked the Penguins, 3-0, on Tuesday.
But the Flyers need Hart to start some of the remaining road games. They desperately need him to take control and finish strong if they are going to get into the playoffs and become a factor.
The special teams are improved from last season, but the power play has been inconsistent over the last thee months. The power play needs solid end-of-season contributions from James van Riemsdyk (three power-play goals) and Gostisbehere (one power-play goal), if he remains with the team. That would go a long way toward securing a playoff spot.
The power play, directed by new assistant Michel Therrien, is 18th in the NHL (19.5% success rate), but it has improved over last season (22nd, 17.1%).
The penalty kill, bolstered by the additions of Hayes and Niskanen, has been arguably the Flyers’ most pleasant surprise. The PK is ninth in the NHL (82.2% success rate), a marked improvement from last year (26th, 78.5%).
Mike Yeo, another new assistant, has helped make the penalty kill one of the team’s strengths since the start of the season.
Vigneault has created a winning culture in the first 50 games. Players know if they don’t produce, they will be moved down in the lineup or benched. That has created a sense of urgency that, in a league filled with parity, can be the difference between winning and losing close games.
Aside from a recent 1-4-1 road trip, the Flyers rarely have had a disastrous period in games. That trend will have to continue, too, if the Flyers are going to play past the April 4 regular-season finale in Buffalo.
One trend that can’t continue: the Flyers’ dismal road play (10-13-2). Of the 16 teams in playoff spots, only one, Vancouver, has a losing road record.
Vigneault has pressed most of the right buttons, but he must find ways to get his team out of its road funk. As it stands now, just three points separate the four teams — the Islanders, Columbus, Carolina, and the Flyers — vying for the last three playoff spots.
Half of the Flyers’ remaining 32 games will be on the road. The good news: 14 of their 16 road games will be against Eastern Conference opponents, and the Flyers have an NHL-best 19-6-4 record against the East.
Vigneault will pour another martini if the dominance against the East continues.