On September 7, 2019, the Philadelphia Flyers started their journey for the 2019-20 NHL season. Rookie Camp started one year ago today, and here we are just two days removed from the end of the Flyers’ season. It was a long and winding road, with nearly five months between the regular season and postseason, and there were plenty of ups and downs along the way.
The season didn’t end the way that anyone had hoped. Sure, only one team wins the Stanley Cup and the rest walk away empty handed, but the final game of the Flyers’ 2019-20 season left a sour taste in our mouths. Hell, the whole playoffs did. But the Flyers came a long way this season and that shouldn’t be forgotten.
The 2019-20 season was finally going to be the year that the Flyers took that next step to be true contenders after several years of mediocrity. Chuck Fletcher made quick work after being hired in the middle of the previous season to get rid of some of the dead weight on the roster and set himself up for an active offseason. He knew what he wanted to do and he went out and did it.
Fletcher quickly targeted Alain Vigneault to be the head coach of the Flyers, and added some experienced bench bosses to fill out his staff. He then addressed the Flyers’ need for a second-line center by trading for and signing Kevin Hayes. That helped stabilize things in the top six for the Flyers and improved their overall team defense. Another step to improve the defense was trading for veteran defensemen Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun.
The offseason had barely started and Fletcher had the Flyers primed to contend in his first full season as general manager.
With Fletcher’s new acquisitions in tow and a new voice behind the bench, excitement was pretty high for the Flyers heading into the season. There was no five-year plan. The only players on the roster with a “veteran presence” deserved to be there. The Flyers were hungry and ready to show it.
Expectations weren’t too high for the Flyers after missing the playoffs, but the changing of the guard brought new life to hockey in Philadelphia. Missing the playoffs again would be unacceptable. A playoff berth in good position would be a step in the right direction, with a series win being high hopes for some. Anything past that would mostly be gravy, with the Stanley Cup or even a Cup Final berth as a pie in the sky.
Those expectations were what most had for the team at the start of the season and throughout most of the year.
The schedule makers didn’t do the Flyers any favors with their first three games being played in three different countries. They were slow out of the gate with a 2-3-1 record in their first six games and 5-5-1 record to finish the month of October. It wasn’t the start that anyone had hoped for, but the Flyers were just figuring things out with their new coach and offseason additions, and things started to change.
The Flyers went on a seven-game point streak (5-0-2) to start November and won 16 of 26 games (16-6-4) between November 1st and the holiday break. Many people only remember the Flyers’ second-half surge to the top of the standings, but it started way back in November. The Flyers were tied with the Washington Capitals for the second-most points (36) from Nov. 1 to Dec. 23.
They hit a speed bump on the dreaded Disney on Ice trip, but the Flyers rebounded after returning home and went on a run that propelled them through the end of the regular season.
From November on, only the Boston Bruins had more points (80) than the Flyers (78) in the entire league. They were also second in the league in wins during that span with 36, behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning (37), who also had 78 points.
Looking at just the final 26 games of the season, no one had more wins or points than the Flyers from January 8th on. Both the Flyers and Bruins went 19-6-1 for 39 points in 26 games. The Flyers had more regulation wins (16 to 15), however.
Then, the season came to an abrupt halt. The Flyers were on fire, fresh off a nine-game winning streak that the Bruins ended. They had catapulted toward the top of the Metropolitan Division and had a chance to use the final month of the season to tweak some things for the playoffs. But that never happened.
Let’s go back to the expectations. A playoff berth was the baseline for a “good” season in September, and that likely rose up a bit as the season moved along. As the Flyers continued to win games and leapfrog contenders in the standings in the process, the bar rose from playoff berth to series win, and possibly more. They showed they were one of the best teams in the league and it’d be nice to see them do it in the playoffs as well.
Coming into the Toronto bubble, those expectations were probably similar. Hopefully win a game or two in the round-robin tournament, win a series, and see what happens in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. On paper, the Flyers did pretty well in executing that.
The Flyers swept through the three round-robin games rather easily, earning the No. 1 seed and raising some expectations in the process. They beat the Canadiens in six games, which was probably a game too many, but the more troublesome issue is how that series went. Beating the Canadiens in six games would’ve been fine if they handily won some of the games, but they were all close – too close. In the end, however, the Flyers won the series, which is what many people hoped for throughout the regular season. Now, everything else would be a bonus, right?
Unfortunately not. Yes, the Flyers showed some fight to come back from a 3-1 deficit and force a Game 7, but it was much of the same against the Islanders as it was against the Canadiens: Lackluster efforts, periods chasing the puck and playing from behind, and ultimately the team ran out of gas in a listless Game 7.
The Flyers clinched a playoff berth as the No. 4 seed, earned the No. 1 seed in a round-robin tournament, won a playoff series, and took their second-round series to seven games. That is a fantastic first season for Fletcher and Vigneault.
It certainly doesn’t feel fantastic right now, especially given how things went down, but you have to remember where the Flyers are in their process. Ron Hextall’s process is over. The long, patient plan is gone.
This is Chuck Fletcher’s team now. He knows that the Flyers have a window for the next few years. They have the core veterans still in their prime (even if its the downturn of their prime) and the young core under team-friendly contracts as they ramp up to their peak.
Fletcher’s moves since he has taken over as general manager have been building toward a bigger goal: winning the Stanley Cup. This was only Year 1.
All of Fletcher’s moves appear to be with the early-2020s Cup window in mind. Hayes is under contract for the foreseeable future. Niskanen played well in the regular season and, even with a poor postseason, should be able to handle a bottom-four role next year. Justin Braun, like Niskanen, hit some rough patches in the playoffs, but he was a great third-pair defenseman in the regular season and is now an unrestricted free agent. If the Flyers want to bring him back on a team-friendly deal, they can do that. They could also let him walk and give that role to Robert Hagg, Mark Friedman, or one of the other young defensemen vying for a roster spot; Egor Zamula perhaps?
It was known that Niskanen and Braun are past their prime, but their contracts made sense given the Flyers’ defensive picture. Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers are still 24 and 23-years old, respectively. They took big strides this season in more ways than one. Sure, they took some bumps in the playoffs, but that’ll happen to young defensemen.
Overall, however, they should still be able to take that next step as top-four defensemen with Myers potentially moving up to the top pair with Ivan Provorov, who is still only 23-years old. Niskanen and Braun weren’t long-term solutions, but rather a bridge to get to the point where the kids can fully take over top-four roles. When that happens, the Flyers have several defensive prospects – Zamula, Wyatte Wylie, Cam York, Linus Hogberg – that may be in Sanheim and Myers’ shoes.
Adding Hayes was another smart move by Fletcher that definitely paid dividends in the first year of his contract. It solidified the Flyers’ top two centers with Sean Couturier, and allowed Claude Giroux to primarily play on the wing to help prolong his career. Having two strong centers also helps the growth of wingers playing on those lines, as we saw with various players this year.
First and foremost, Travis Konecny had a breakout season. He made his first All-Star Game, tied his career-high in goals (24) in just 66 games, and set a career-high in assists (37) and points (61) in 66 games. The 23-year-old winger has a very bright future ahead of him, even if he wasn’t able to find the back of the net in 16 playoff games. He is also locked up with a cap hit of $5.5 million per year until the end of the 2024-25 season, which was another one of Fletcher’s offseason dealings.
Joel Farabee and Scott Laughton were two of the wingers that played the most with Hayes and Konecny on the second line. Farabee moved up and down the lineup throughout the season, but most of his best play came on that line. The same goes for Laughton, who won the most-improved player award as he seemed to come into his own as a role player for the Flyers.
Even Nicolas Aube-Kubel saw some time with Hayes. The 24-year-old forward had a great season in the bottom six after clearing waivers prior to the start of the season. NAK worked hard to show that he belongs, and he should be an important part of the Flyers’ bottom six.
Almost all of the Flyers’ key pieces are under contract or restricted free agents. If the Flyers went into the 2020-21 season with only in-house improvements, they’d still be a pretty strong contender in the Eastern Conference.
Last, but certainly not least, is the play of Carter Hart. All of Philadelphia’s goalie hopes have been put on the shoulders of Hart since he was drafted in 2016, and it looks like he is the real deal.
After some early-season nervousness in the fanbase, Hart went on to have a fantastic sophomore season. He finished with a 24-13-3 record and .914 save percentage. Most importantly, however, was his play in the playoffs. Some outsiders questioned Hart’s mental capacity to go up against his idol in the first round, but Hart won that battle. Hart finished the postseason with a 9-5-0 record and .926 save percentage, including back-to-back shutouts to take control of the series against Montreal.
The Flyers’ 2019-20 season is now over. The playoffs ended with a whimper instead of a bang. The regular season seems like a distant memory, but it’s important that we don’t forget about it. How a team played for a month after several months off should not overshadow how well they played for the five months before that.
Some issues reared their ugly heads in the playoffs – power-play inefficiency, lack of scoring, defensive-zone turnovers, questionable player usage, etc. –, and we certainly can’t forget those either. There are some changes that may need to be made to the roster, coaching staff, or simply in game-planning. However, the main pieces are in place for the Flyers. They have more than enough forwards to fill out a dangerous top six (or nine) with depth players to boot, three great young defensemen with stop gaps in between, and, most importantly, a goalie.
With all of that and a savvy general manager at that helm, the Flyers are set up for success in the very near future.