What do most of the 15 teams that missed the Stanley Cup playoffs last season, including the Flyers, have in common? Awful defense.
Twelve of the 15 were in the bottom half of the league defensively. The bottom 10 defensive teams watched the playoffs on TV. The Flyers were 29th out of 31 teams, allowing a whopping 3.41 goals per game — about a goal per game more than the surprising New York Islanders (2.33).
That’s why general manager Chuck Fletcher’s emphasis was on defense in the offseason. He signed center Kevin Hayes, who plays both ends of the ice and is a skilled penalty killer. He acquired two veteran defensemen, Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, with the hope they can provide leadership and stabilize the relatively youthful group of blueliners.
You can argue that the second acquisition, Braun, was a gamble that shouldn’t have been made because he is an unrestricted free agent next season — and because the price was steep (second- and third-round draft picks) for someone whose play declined with San Jose last year.
You can also argue that the $3.8 million they are paying Braun, who played solidly in this year’s preseason, could have been better used on a productive third-line right winger like Ryan Dzingel or Micheal Ferland. Both were free agents last summer who signed for less than Braun’s annual cap hit.
But you can’t argue with the fact that defense is the key to winning a Stanley Cup championship, as St. Louis demonstrated last season.
“You obviously want to be in the top half of the league offensively, but you can have success and make the playoffs — and have success in the playoffs — if you’re not elite offensively,” Fletcher said early in training camp. “But you have to keep the puck out of your net. Every move we made this summer was designed to improve that.
"If you look at our team last year, we were 11th in the league in even-strength scoring [which was higher than Stanley Cup finalists St. Louis and Boston], so we can score goals. Considering how often we had to defend last year, it’s pretty remarkable that we even finished that high. We have a lot of talent, but we spent too much time defending.”
The hope is that the rebuilt defense and Hayes will make the Flyers harder to play against, and having goalie Carter Hart from the start of the season may be even more important than the players who were added.
The brass believes new coach Alain Vigneault, who has a winning track record and brings a strong presence that the Flyers haven’t had behind the bench since Peter Laviolette was here, will also make them a lot better than last season, when they managed just a 37-37-8 record and missed the playoffs for the fourth time in the last seven years.
“Our theory is if we defend less, and defend better, not only will we give up fewer goals, but we should have the puck more often and score more often,” Fletcher said.
He thinks he has the right coach for his plan.
“His teams have always played fast, have always been hard to play against, and have always been teams that have controlled the play,” Fletcher said of Vigneault’s work with the Canadiens, Canucks, and Rangers. “I think the foundation of a good attacking team is a strong defensive structure.”
The Islanders hired Barry Trotz last year and they promptly went from the worst defensive team in 2017-18 to the best last season.
No one expects Vigneault to work such miracles, but a climb from the 29th-best defensive team to one in the top 10 would suit everyone just fine. For that to happen, the Flyers need bounce-back years from Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere and continued development from Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers.
They also need newcomers Niskanen and Braun to show that they still have a lot left in the tank, that their decline last year was an aberration.
In training camp, the Flyers had more young players pushing veterans for jobs than usual, a sign that the farm system is producing. The Flyers have more depth than in recent years, meaning quality players will be recalled from the AHL’s Phantoms when the inevitable injuries surface.
Fletcher’s expectations are high.
“Last year was unacceptable,” said Fletcher, who replaced the fired Ron Hextall last December. “We’re changing the structures, changing the systems, we’re trying to work on details and habits of the players. It’s going to take time. It’s a process. The quicker we can get there, the quicker we’ll get where they want to be.”
In other words, it may take a few weeks, or longer, before the Flyers totally grasp Vigneault’s system.
Fletcher was asked if he thought the Flyers were a playoff team.