Alain Vigneault’s first season with the Flyers was a success: a 41-21-7 record, a second-place finish in the Metropolitan Division, the biggest one-year improvement of any NHL team, and the franchise’s first playoff-series win since 2012.
So what do the genial coach and his players do for an encore? Will Vigneault get to lift the Stanley Cup for the first time in an 18-year coaching career? Will the Flyers be champs for the first time since 1975?
Well, some national oddsmakers have them as the NHL’s fifth-best team, behind Colorado, Vegas, Tampa Bay, and Boston.
It also says a lot about this team’s makeup: a solid blend of veterans and youth. The Flyers were one of only three three NHL teams (Boston and and Colorado were the others) to be in the top seven in both goals scored and allowed last season.
“We’ve taken a step forward in the last year,” Vigneault, a coach-of-the-year finalist last season, said earlier in the week, “and our intentions are to take another step forward this year.”
Last season, “we put our name on the map,” center Kevin Hayes said. “I think everyone kind of relished it. They were really excited with how our season went.”
Fast-forward to this season. This is a team that needs to at least reach the third playoff round to make the season a success. And with Boston added to their division, the Flyers will be among several high-quality teams fighting for four playoff berths.
Boston, whose defense has been weakened; Washington; the Flyers; and Pittsburgh look like the division’s Big Four, but the Islanders could also be in the mix, and the up-and-coming Rangers might be a year ahead of schedule.
In other words, it will be a nasty year in the East Division, especially with the teams facing each other eight times. There will be bitterness, yes. Think George Bailey against Mr. Potter. Fifty-six intra-division battles, with no guarantee of a happy ending like It’s a Wonderful Life.
“It’s going to be a challenge to get into the playoffs,” Vigneault said. “We expect to get in, but we’re going to have to be at our best.”
The Flyers didn’t do much in the offseason, but the team was weakened by the unexpected retirement of defenseman Matt Niskanen, who played his one Philly season on the top pairing with Ivan Provorov.
Niskanen couldn’t have been a more perfect fit, left winger James van Riemsdyk said.
“Just his style of play; he complemented Provy really well,” van Riemsdyk said. “Just that presence that he brought to the locker room and things like that. All those intangible things sort of meshed well with the group, and he was definitely what we needed. He’s certainly a tough guy to replace.”
The young defensemen like Phil Myers (23 years old), Travis Sanheim (24), and Robert Hagg (25) are going to have to keep progressing. Shayne Gostisbehere and free-agent pickup Erik Gustafsson need to have bounce-back seasons, and Justin Braun will have to become the veteran leader of the defense. And Provorov, who is among the league’s best all-around defenders despite his lack of respect nationally, has to play like last year’s version.
“There’s opportunity for other guys to take on a bigger role and get more responsibilities,” van Riemsdyk said. “I’m sure there’s some guys excited for that opportunity. We’ll see how things shake out in training camp and into the season.”
The Flyers added the puck-moving Gustafsson — who does not have Niskanen’s defensive ability but is more involved in the offensive end — in the free-agent market. They lost Tyler Pitlick, a hustling winger who signed as a free agent with Arizona, along with trade-deadline acquisitions Derek Grant (signed with Anaheim) and Nate Thompson (signed with Winnipeg).
Still, they could be better than last season if left winger Oskar Lindblom, cancer survivor, and Nolan Patrick are healthy and ready to blossom; if the power play regains the mojo it lost in the playoffs; and if the aforementioned defenders lessen the sting of losing Niskanen.
Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt if captain Claude Giroux, the left winger who turns 33 just before the season, shows he still has lots of gas left in the tank.
“We like a lot of the pieces we have,” van Riemsdyk said. “We think we can do some things to build on some of the success we had last year. We’re super excited to get started.”
“I signed with the Flyers last year because I knew they had a great team,” said Hayes, who played a major role in the turnaround. “Some could argue that we did a little better than expected, [but] I thought we were going to be a great team. Now, we’ve kind of put our names out there for the league. Everyone knows when they enter our building ... it’s a tough building to get two points in.
“Philly is a sports town when your team is winning, and I don’t see anything different this year.”
And if vaccines help get the pandemic under control, fans might be able to attend Flyers games later in the season, might be able to see Giroux hand the Stanley Cup to a teammate who was getting chemo treatments around this time last year.
Now that would be an ending that would rival the one in It’s a Wonderful Life.