The Philadelphia Flyers will play their first official NHL playoff game tonight at 8 p.m. (well, as long as neither of the games in Toronto prior to that require five overtimes). They played well in their postseason round-robin games last week, but now the playoffs officially get underway.
Tonight will be the Flyers’ first playoff game in 843 days. Their last game was on April 22nd, 2018, an 8-5 loss in Game 6 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Two years later, the Flyers are back in the playoffs and this time they’re looking like a real contender.
It wasn’t an easy road for the Flyers. Former general manager Ron Hextall laid the foundation for the Flyers’ rebuild, but his patient approach wasn’t working. When Chuck Fletcher took over as GM in December of 2018 he went on a mission to take the next step in Hextall’s plan.
Fletcher brought in an experienced coaching staff and got rid of some of the dead weight on the roster. He keyed in on the team’s deficiencies and went out to fill those gaps.
Along with head coach Alain Vigneault, Fletcher brought in Kevin Hayes, Matt Niskanen, and Justin Braun as the Flyers’ three main offseason additions. All three have played a big role in helping the Flyers take that next step. He also made some nice depth additions in the offseason (Tyler Pitlick) and at the trade deadline (Derek Grant and Nate Thompson).
It’s been 843 days since the Flyers’ last playoff game and they’ve come a very long way.
The Flyers’ lines and pairs won’t be confirmed until closer to gametime, but we have a pretty good idea of what they might look like.
Let’s take a look at tonight’s projected lines compared to the lineup that Dave Hakstol put out there for the Flyers’ last playoff game, just for fun.
Then: Claude Giroux - Valtteri Filppula - Jakub Voracek
Now: Claude Giroux - Sean Couturier - Jakub Voracek
I know a lot of us probably blocked this from our memory, but yes, Valtteri Filppula was the top-line center for Game 6 against the Penguins.
Overall, the Flyers’ top line now is undoubtedly better. The 2018 version of Giroux is better than the 2020 version, and the 2018 version of Voracek is better than the 2020 version, but the gap between Filppula and Couturier is as wide as the Grand Canyon.
The top line is actually the one place where an argument could be made for the 2018 team. Giroux had a 102-point season and finished fourth in the Hart Trophy voting, and Voracek had a career-high 85 points.
Giroux and Voracek may have declined a bit in the past two years, but the gap between Filppula and Couturier is as wide as the Grand Canyon. Filppula had 33 points in 81 games in the 2017-18 season. Couturier had 33 points in 35 games to end the 2019-20 regular season. Filppula had no business being in the top six, let alone on the top line, and Couturier is one of the best all-around centers in the league today.
The first line from 2018 would probably be the second line on this year’s team, but only due to Filppula vs. Couturier.
Then: Michael Raffl - Nolan Patrick - Travis Konecny
Now: Scott Laughton - Kevin Hayes - Travis Konecny
This is another line from 2018 that doesn’t look all that great.
Raffl is more suited for the bottom six, preferably the fourth line, after recording just 22 points (13 goals) in the regular season. Patrick was in his rookie season and while playing him on the second line would be ideal, those wingers didn’t do him any favors. Konecny was starting to find his game in the NHL in 2018, and may have also fit on a better second line like Patrick, but it didn’t work out.
Fast forward to 2020.
Laughton had similar numbers to Raffl in the regular season (27 points, 13 goals), but did so in 27 less games. He has also gotten better as the season has moved along, especially recently.
Hayes has been just what the doctor ordered for the Flyers. They needed to add center depth, and he has provided that. He is relied on in all situations and has greatly improved the penalty kill.
Konecny is two years older and looks like a completely different player. He has rounded out his game to become an all-around threat. He matched his career high of 24 goals this season in just 66 games and added 37 assists for 61 points, both career highs. Konecny could easily play on the top line, but gives the Flyers a scoring threat on the second line.
The second line from 2018 would probably be the third or fourth line this season. On the other hand, this year’s second line could likely keep up with the Flyers’ top line with Filppula on it.
Then: Scott Laughton - Sean Couturier - Wayne Simmonds
Now: James van Riemsdyk - Derek Grant - Joel Farabee
This is probably one of the best looking lines from 2018. Laughton was in his first full year back with the Flyers as a solid role player, Couturier had his coming out party and finished second in the Selke Trophy voting, and Simmonds still had some left in the tank. Moving Couturier spread out the wealth, and oh yeah, Couturier played Games 5 and 6 with a torn MCL – scoring a hat trick in a five-point performance in Game 6.
The third line this season has seen plenty of different combinations. This isn’t the exact third line the team has used much and it may not be what Vigneault goes with tonight, but this it’s a decent conjecture.
Position by position, 2018 might have the edge. Laughton in 2018 was worse than van Riemsdyk is now, but the 2018 versions of Couturier and Simmonds may have the upper hand over Grant and Farabee. Well, Couturier definitely does. Simmonds likely does as well with 46 points (24 goals) in his final full season in Philadelphia. Farabee is hot after scoring on Saturday night, but he managed just 21 points (eight goals) in 52 games this season.
We finally found somewhere that the 2018 team has the advantage! That 2018 line would be neck and neck with this year’s second line.
However, if you swap the second and third lines from 2018, labeling Laughton - Couturier - Simmonds as the second line and Raffl - Patrick - Konecny as the third line, it’s a lot closer.
Then: Matt Read - Jori Lehtera - Dale Weise
Now: Nicolas Aube-Kubel - Nate Thompson - Tyler Pitlick
This one is really no contest. None of the members of 2018’s fourth line should have been anywhere near the ice in a playoff game, while the Flyers’ depth gives them a great fourth line this year.
Aube-Kubel is showing that he can be an asset, possibly as a middle-six forward rather than a bottom-six forward. Thompson has been good enough in his limited time, and Pitlick has been a nice depth addition that can play on the third line as well.
Let’s view those lines as a whole.
Giroux - Filppula - Voracek
Raffl - Patrick - Konecny
Laughton - Couturier - Simmonds
Read - Lehtera - Weise
Giroux - Couturier - Voracek
Laughton - Hayes - Konecny
JVR - Grant - Farabee
NAK - Thompson - Pitlick
The difference is huge, and doesn’t even include the extra forwards in Raffl, Connor Bunnaman, Morgan Frost, and Andy Andreoff.
It is also worth noting that Oskar Lindblom was scratched for Game 6 after starting the series on the second line.
The Flyers now have four lines that are threats to score while being reliable in the defensive zone as well. They don’t have to force someone like Filppula into the top six to try to spread the wealth around. Vigneault can confidently put together four lines and roll them throughout the game.
Now, onto the defense.
Then: Ivan Provorov - Andrew MacDonald
Now: Ivan Provorov - Matt Niskanen
Ivan Provorov has been the Flyers’ top defenseman for a few years. He was pretty good back in 2018, but he’s even better now. Not only is he better, but his defensive partner is worlds better as well.
MacDonald had no business being on the top pair. He didn’t start the series with Provorov, but after a healthy scratch later in the series (we’ll get to that next), he got moved up.
The “veteran presence” that he was there for is now actually being provided by Niskanen. Fletcher traded for Niskanen last summer and he has helped stabilize the Flyers’ blue line.
A pair of Provorov and MacDonald definitely wouldn’t happen in 2020 – or maybe it would, it is 2020 after all –, but if it did they’d likely be the Flyers’ second pair at best.
Then: Robert Hagg - Shayne Gostisbehere
Now: Travis Sanheim - Philippe Myers
Gostisbehere initially started the series on the top pair with Provorov, but slid down with Hagg as Sanheim was healthy scratched.
The pair of Hagg and Gostisbehere doesn’t actually seem too bad, until you realize they were the second pair. Gostisbehere had his best season as a pro with 65 points in 78 games, earning him a 10th place finish in the Norris Trophy voting. Hagg, while still being Hagg, was the lesser of a few evils back in 2018.
Now, the Flyers have the dynamic duo of Sanheim and Myers holding things down on the second pair. They have grown together into a formidable pairing that can be trusted in all situations. They showed what they can do in the round robin, especially early on, and could almost be called the top pair at times.
Sanheim, now one of the Flyers’ best defensemen, was a healthy scratch for Game 6 in 2018. He’ll have a little extra in the tank going into these playoffs.
Hagg and Gostisbehere would actually be a decent third pairing for this year’s team.
I don’t blame you if you want to avert your eyes for the 2018 third pair, however...
Then: Brandon Manning - Radko Gudas
Now: Shayne Gostisbehere - Justin Braun
Manning and Gudas, what a pair. Not only that, but Manning led the Flyers in 5-on-5 ice time with 17:51 in the game, with MacDonald (16:21) and Manning (16:16) behind him. This may have been impacted by Provorov’s Grade 3 AC separation, but it’s ridiculous to look back on.
Now, the Flyers have a very solid third-pair defenseman in Braun, and either Gostisbehere or Hagg to go with him. Gostisbehere played great on Saturday night and should earn at least another game. Even if Hagg plays, that’s a much better third pair than Manning and Gudas.
Manning and Gudas would be at least the eighth and ninth defensemen on this year’s team, behind the six in the lineup, Hagg, and possibly Mark Friedman.
Let’s look at the defense as a whole:
Provorov - MacDonald
Hagg - Gostisbehere
Manning - Gudas
Provorov - Niskanen
Sanheim - Myers
Gostisbehere - Braun
The Flyers could also use Robert Hagg or Mark Friedman, who are both arguably better than Manning and Gudas.
Then: Michal Neuvirth and Brian Elliott
Now: Carter Hart and Brian Elliott
Michal Neuvirth was great at times when he was healthy, but he wasn’t healthy very often. He was able to steal a game here and there – we all remember the 44-save shutout in the 2016 playoffs –, but he had a .915 save percentage in the regular season and couldn’t hold it down in the playoffs. Elliott was, and is, a good backup to have. He started a few games in that series but couldn’t make a difference.
The Flyers weren’t expected to win the series against the Penguins in 2018, but we were hopeful (for some reason). Looking back on it, it was good to get the younger players some playoff experience for when the Flyers are real contenders, which it looks like they are right now.