Rebuilt Flyers open season against Canucks, ready to finally put last year’s disappointment in the rearview mirror
The Flyers “all have something to prove,” coach Alain Vigneault said a day ahead of the team’s opener at the Wells Fargo Center.
“We couldn’t bring the same group of players back and expect different results.” — Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher
Beginning Friday in their season opener against Vancouver at the Wells Fargo Center, the Flyers and their new-look lineup will be on display, hoping it’s the start of a journey that takes them back into Stanley Cup contention.
After an underachieving season in which the Flyers finished 25-23-8 and missed the playoffs for the fifth time in the last nine years, Fletcher redid half the defense, acquired a goalscorer (Cam Atkinson), a new backup goalie (Martin Jones), and changed the leadership by adding five players who were previously alternate captains: Atkinson, Ryan Ellis, Rasmus Ristolainen, Derick Brassard, and Keith Yandle.
Was it enough? Will it make the Flyers contenders in the tough Metropolitan Division and enable them to challenge for the Cup?
We are about to find out as the first of 82 chapters in the book of the new NHL season unfolds Friday.
“Last year doesn’t represent who we are,” coach Alain Vigneault said after a practice session Thursday in Voorhees. “And I believe this team is a playoff team and we all have something to prove.”
Gaining momentum from playing the first four games at home would be a good way to start that quest.
Will new-look lineup produce different results?
A rebuilt defense should complement goaltender Carter Hart as he attempts to rebound from an awful season. As a team, the Flyers allowed a league-worst 3.52 goals per game last season — much higher than the previous year (2.77, which tied for seventh).
“It’s a new year, a fresh start for a lot of guys,” said center Sean Couturier, the winner of the Bobby Clarke Trophy as the team’s MVP the last three seasons.
The Flyers’ offense will be a work in progress as they will be missing second-line center Kevin Hayes, until at least Nov. 10, as he rehabs from abdominal surgery. They will also be without promising right winger Wade Allison, sidelined indefinitely because of a high ankle sprain.
And the defense will be missing the injured Ristolainen (listed day-to-day) on Friday. So their lineup won’t be at its optimal level for a while. This is expected to be Friday’s lineup, with Hart as the goalie:
Top line: Couturier centering Claude Giroux and Travis Konecny
Second line: Brassard centering Joel Farabee and Atkinson
Third line: Scott Laughton centering Oskar Lindblom and James van Riemsdyk
Fourth line: Nate Thompson centering Max Willman and Nic Aubé-Kubel
The defense, when Ristolainen is back and providing physicality, looks much improved as all three pairings have been changed from last season. Ivan Provorov should return to form with Ellis as his partner. Ristolainen’s injury means Justin Braun temporarily moves to the second pairing with Travis Sanheim, and Nick Seeler enters the lineup and will play alongside Keith Yandle on the third unit.
Top pair: Provorov and Ellis
Second pair: Saheim and Braun
Third pair: Yandle and Seeler
Vigneault said he didn’t want to disparage the Flyers who were traded or left as free agents, but he believes the new additions will breathe life into the team.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to change the dynamics,” he said.
The Flyers’ special teams weren’t overly impressive in the preseason, but they believe once the units become acclimated to all the new players they will improve greatly from last season. The penalty kill, which finished next-to-last in the NHL, especially needs to make a Carl Lewis-type leap.
Numbers to know
As for season openers, the Flyers have an all-time record of 26-19-7-1, and they are 17-11-3 when they start at home.
Vancouver, which opened its season with a 3-2 shootout loss Wednesday in Edmonton, is coming off a 23-29-4 season in which it finished last in the North Division. The Canucks highlighted their summer by adding top-pairing defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and second-line right winger Conor Garland from Arizona.
Vigneault called Vancouver a “real solid team that played a real fast-paced game in Edmonton, so it should be a good test for us.”
For the first time in two years, a full house is permitted at the Wells Fargo Center, provided fans wear masks. The pandemic prevented the arena from allowing full capacity last season.
“To me, it’s the sport you really need to see in person,” said Harry Green, 60, a longtime fan whose family has had season tickets since the team’s first season in 1967-68. “We’re chomping at the bit, and the team has made what we think are hopefully great changes, and we have a young goalie who is going to bounce back. The place is just going to be jumping.”
“Everyone is looking forward to normalcy,” said Vigneault about the expectation of big crowds and the energy they bring.
Said Hart: “We’re all really excited. We haven’t played in front of a full house in a long time. Our fans are great; they’re loud, they’re passionate.”
Two years ago, the last time arenas were allowed to be filled, the Flyers had the NHL’s best home record at 25-6-4.
» READ MORE: In Carter Hart, the Flyers (still) trust
When the calendar flips to 2022, Lou Nolan will have been the Flyers’ public-address announcer for 50 years. He is the only person who has been with the club since its inception in 1967, having started out as an assistant to public-relations director Joe Kadlec. … Vigneault said the Flyers’ special teams were “like every teams’ now, they’re a work in progress.” ... Many Flyers have been wearing “Something to Prove” T-shirts during camp. ... Former Flyer Luke Schenn was a healthy scratch in Vancouver’s opener.