With the Flyers' training camp potentially starting in about a month – the NHL has not given a date yet because of the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus – is the team better than the one that finished second in the Metropolitan Division last season and won its first playoff series since 2012?
There are two ways to view the answer:
1. The Flyers are not as good as the team that finished 41-21-7 because they did not add someone to effectively replace the retired Matt Niskanen, the top-pairing defenseman who played in all situations and was a veteran leader who instilled an air confidence to his teammates.
2. The Flyers will be better than last season if young forwards Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom make strong recoveries. Patrick missed all of last season because of a migraine disorder, while Lindblom played in just 30 regular-season games after being diagnosed with a rare bone cancer. They have the potential to combine for 50 goals and give the Flyers a jolt of energy.
General manger Chuck Fletcher obviously believes in the two forwards because he did little to upgrade the offense in the offseason, even though free agents like Mike Hoffman and Anthony Duclair were available – and are still available.
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Washington (90 points in 69 games) finished one point ahead of the Flyers (89 points in 69 games) and won the Metro in the pandemic-shortened regular season. But the Flyers were peaking – they had won nine of their last 10 games when the regular season was stopped and eventually ruled finished. If the season had gone to 82 games, it was easy to envision the Flyers climbing past the Capitals.
The same teams should be strong Metro contenders in 2021, but the Caps had a better offseason than the Flyers. Washington will be the team to beat when the season tentatively starts Jan. 1.
Washington improved its defense by signing Justin Schultz. More importantly, the Caps hired highly successful Peter Laviolette as their head coach.
Coaching probably means more in hockey than any of the other major sports, especially in the first year, when players are trying to impress their new boss.
Look at what Laviolette did in his first year with the Flyers, taking the team to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010.
Look at what Alain Vigneault did last year in his first season with the Flyers, who made the league’s biggest improvement from 2018-19.
If the Flyers are going to win the Metro, Patrick and Lindblom will be the key. Ditto the development of Phil Myers, who seems destined to replace Niskanen on the top pairing.
Here is how the Flyers' lineup may look whenever the season does resume.
Line 1: Sean Couturier centering Claude Giroux and Travis Konecny.
Comment: Giroux and Konecny will be playing with chips on their shoulders because they are trying to bounce back from awful postseason performances. Couturier’s play also slipped in the postseason. Call it the Redemption Line.
Line 2: Kevin Hayes centering Lindblom and Jake Voracek.
Comment: If healthy, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Lindblom replace Giroux on the top line after he gets about a month of games under his belt. Remember, Lindblom had 11 goals and was tied with Konecny for the team lead when he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma last December.
Line 3: Patrick centering James van Riemsdyk and Joel Farabee.
Comment: Fletcher says Patrick, who denied an interview request last week, has been scrimmaging and making great progress. Farabee had some good moments as a rookie last season (eight goals in 52 games) and 15 goals isn’t out of the question.
Line 4: Scott Laughton centering Michael Raffl and Nic Aube-Kubel.
Comment: This is a quality fourth line. Laughton has the ability to play as high as the second line (at wing), Raffl is versatile and does lots of little things well, and Aube-Kubel is one of the team’s most physical forwards.
First defensive pairing: Ivan Provorov and Myers.
Comment: Provorov is one of the league’s most underrated defensemen and is the centerpiece of the blue line. But he will miss his stabilizing partner, Niskanen. Myers, who had a very good rookie season but struggled in the playoff loss to the Islanders, has great upside, but is he ready to face opponents' top forwards all the time?
Second defensive pairing: Travis Sanheim and Erik Gustafsson.
Comment: Sanheim and Myers had a comfort level with each other and it figures to take some time before the new duo develops chemistry. Sanheim seems on the verge of a breakout season. Both players have lots of offensive talent, but their ability to play shutdown defense will be critical.
Third defensive pairing: Robert Hagg/Shayne Gostisbehere and Justin Braun.
Comment: Gostisbehere could still be traded, but if he stays, he and Hagg figure to battle for a regular spot on D. Based on how Vigneault used the players in the playoffs, Hagg is the favorite to be paired with Braun.
Goalie: Carter Hart.
Comment: Hart took a huge step toward being among the NHL’s elite last season. There’s reason to believe he will continue his climb. Brian Elliott is his solid backup.
Others to watch: center Morgan Frost; wingers Linus Sandin, Wade Allison and Tanner Laczynski, and defenseman Mark Friedman.
Comment: If Gostisbehere is traded, Friedman figures to be the No. 7 defenseman. Sandin, who is currently playing in Sweden and has six points in 12 games, has a decent shot to make the team as an extra.
A little over a month after free agency started, there are still some intriguing players available, including wingers Hoffman (29 goals last season, 36 the previous year), Anthony Duclair, Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula, and Andreas Athanasiou; and defensemen Travis Harmonic, who reportedly has stirred the Flyers' interest, and Sami Vatanen.
Hoffman would give the Flyers a needed sniper and boost a power play that went 0 for 13 in the playoffs against the Islanders and 4 for 52 (7.7%) in the postseason.
The Flyers have about $4.8 million in cap space and still must re-sign Myers. Fletcher would not comment on how negotiations were going with Myers.
Why has it been 45 years since their last Cup? Can you describe three reasons other than the obvious “they didn’t win enough games?”
(@theashcity) via Twitter
Answer: The Cliff Notes version: Goaltending, goaltending, goaltending. Or the lack of it in most seasons, though 1987 was an exception as Ron Hextall was the Conn Smythe winner as the best performer in the playoffs.
The good news: The Flyers finally have a goaltender, the unflappable Hart, who can steal playoff wins and outplay the opponent’s goalie. If the 2020 version of Hart was the Flyers’ goalie in the 2010 Finals, they would only have a 10-year Stanley Cup drought. If Fletcher can surround Hart with the right personnel, and the team has a little luck, the drought should end at some point during the Hart era.