The Flyers looked like strong Stanley Cup contenders when they had the league’s sixth-best regular-season record and then swept the round-robin tournament last August and took the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed.
It was a mirage.
When the real season started, they seemed out of sync as they huffed and puffed to beat Montreal in Round 1 before losing to the relentless New York Islanders in the conference semifinals. Yes, they forced the Islanders to seven games, but New York was clearly the better team.
So how can a Flyers team that lost top-pairing defenseman Matt Niskanen to retirement make improvement and be a stronger contender when this pandemic-shortened season hopefully begins next month?
Here are five ways:
1. Oskar Lindbom and Nolan Patrick return to good health.
Lindblom, now 24, played in only 30 games last season because of his stunning cancer diagnosis in December. After a long, grueling recovery that included chemotherapy treatments, he heroically returned for the last two playoff games. If he is healthy, he figures to be the team’s second-line left winger and is capable of 25 goals. Or more. He was tied with Travis Konecny with a team-high 11 goals when he was hospitalized.
Patrick, 22, missed last season with a migraine disorder. Signs are positive that he can play this season. He has been working out and scrimmaging in Manitoba, and a source said his headaches have diminished and he is sleeping better.
The No. 2 overall selection in the 2017 draft, Patrick would get much more favorable matchups as the No. 3 center than he did when he was anchoring the second line (before Kevin Hayes’ arrival) two seasons ago. That means his production -- 13 goals in each of his first two seasons -- should rise if he is healthy.
The Flyers were seventh in the NHL is goals per game (3.29) last season. That number could increase if the two forwards get back to form.
2. Young defensemen Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers make huge gains in their maturation process, helping to offset the unexpected loss of Niskanen.
The loss of Niskanen is the Flyers’ biggest hurdle in their quest to win their first Cup since Gerald Ford was in the White House and gas was 57 cents a gallon. (Yeah, it’s been a while.)
Niskanen not only played solidly in all situations, but his poise and veteran presence -- he was the lone Flyer to have a Stanley Cup championship (with Washington) on his resume -- spread to his teammates. In addition, he stabilized the play of his defensive partner, Ivan Provorov, who had an outstanding bounce-back season.
The Flyers, oddly, signed an offensive-minded defenseman, Erik Gustafsson, in the offseason, even though they already had a similar player, Shayne Gostisbehere, who had a difficult time getting into the lineup in the playoffs. Like Gostisbehere, Gustafsson has holes in his defensive game.
That makes it even more imperative that two-way players like Sanheim and Myers take a step forward. They were very good as a second-pairing duo last season, and Myers is expected to get a chance to become Provorov’s partner.
If Myers and Sanheim continue their trajectory, the loss of Niskanen won’t sting as much.
3. Carter Hart becomes one of the league’s top five goalies.
In his first full NHL season, Hart, who turned 22 during the postseason, lived up to his billing. He was very good in the regular season (2.42 GAA, .914 save percentage) and even better in the playoffs (2.23, .926). His potential is off the charts.
The addition of veteran defensemen Niskanen and Justin Braun helped greatly last season, but Hart’s emergence keyed the Flyers’ defensive turnaround – from 3.41 goals allowed per game (29th in NHL) during the Year of Eight Goalies to 2.77 per game (seventh in NHL) in 2019-20.
4. Add some wrinkles to the Michel Therrien-run power play, one that has very good personnel but not-so-good production.
The Flyers were slightly above the middle of the pack with an 18.1 power-play success rate in the regular season. They can live with that. But they were awful (7.7%, 23rd out of 24 teams) in the postseason, including 0-for- 13 in the seven-game playoff loss to the Islanders, and it was a big reason they were eliminated.
They became predictable, passed too much, and looked for the perfect shot. Tweaks are needed – perhaps getting a player below the goal line more often? – to get the power play where it needs to be.
5. Use last season’s playoffs to their advantage
The postseason experience gained -- the Flyers won their first playoff series since 2012 – gives the players a truer sense of what it takes to win the franchise’s first Cup since 1975
To better understand this theory, go back to the Flyers’ first Cup championship in 1974. The players on that team will tell you the seeds were planted the previous year, in the 1973 playoffs. In ’73, the Flyers beat Minnesota in the Stanley Cup quarterfinals – triggered by Gary Dornhoefer’s famous overtime goal in Game 5, which inspired a statue that was erected of the right winger’s heroics – and won the first playoff series in franchise history. In the semifinals, they lost to Montreal in a tough, evenly played best-of-seven series that the heavily favored Canadiens won in a misleading five games.
The experience proved invaluable, however, and set the stage for the 1974 title.
Can this year’s Flyers follow a similar path?
Winning a playoff round last season, veteran left winger James van Riemsdyk said, gave the younger players a “small taste of what it takes to win at that time of year. I remember getting my first taste of it [in 2010] and then going into my second time around, you feel so much more confident and comfortable with the style of play that happens at playoff time.”
“The intensity in the playoffs is a lot higher,” said defenseman Phil Myers, who won Game 2 against the Islanders with an overtime goal. “Everything is on the line and you can’t afford to make mistakes. Obviously, we were disappointed with the way it ended, but we learned from it. It was definitely a step in the right direction for the team.”
How big of a step? Well, that will be determined by how far this team goes.