After a long 2019 offseason filled with questions, the Philadelphia Flyers put forth one of their best regular seasons in a decade during the 2019-20 campaign before winning their first postseason series since 2012. Although there aren’t nearly as many questions regarding the skill level of the Orange and Black heading into this season, there are still expectations that the team will take another step forward. With most of last year’s squad returning an improvement for the club overall means a few players will have to bounce back to expectations, perform above expectations, or just be present. Whether it’s for the better of the team or their NHL careers, here are five members of Philly’s hockey team who have a lot to prove in 2021.
For a handful of reasons Myers might be the Flyer with the most to prove this season. Following a campaign that started with the blue liner struggling to earn a spot in the lineup to averaging 20 minutes of work a night in the postseason, Myers pocketed a three-year bridge deal with an annual cap hit of $2.55 million a year. After his progression in 2019-20 Myers will need to stay on track to prove he’s a high-end three/top-pair rearguard to argue for a payday in the summer of 2024.
Phil Myers’ first two NHL seasons
The unexpected decision by Matt Niskanen to hang them up a few months ago threw the former QMJHLer into this situation, but the defenseman is more than capable of answering the call. As seen above his stats and underlying numbers improved from his first season in the league to his second. On top of that he is set up to either be on the top pair with Ivan Provorov or saddled on the middle pair with Travis Sanheim, a tandem that was arguably the team’s top pair for a chunk of the 2020 playoffs. In terms of his tool box there isn’t much to dislike about Myers’ game. That being said he’ll have to keep making strides in minimizing lapses in defense coverage and discipline in the team’s own zone while potentially helping to fill the Niskanen-sized whole on the penalty kill if he wants to start sharpening his case for A Large Amount of Money in a few years.
James van Riemsdyk and Shayne Gostisbehere
These skaters play different positions, but they are in the same predicament: Flyers with polarizing (mostly seemingly pessimistic) receptions among the fanbase and contracts that help fuel the hopes that the Seattle Kraken will grab one of them in this year’s NHL Expansion Draft.
Last season wasn’t the best for either van Riemsdyk or Gostisbehere. After he pumped 27 goals into the cage in 66 tilts in 2018-19, JVR saw his expected-to-drop shooting percentage sink from 16.2 percent that season to 12.6 in 2019-20 in the same number of contests for 19 tallies. He also saw his goal totals on the man advantage drop from eight two years ago to four last year highlighted by the play Michel Therrien loved setting up last season where the power forward would set up next to the post and receive a pass down low before providing a low-percentage attempt that never paid off. Despite scoring goals in Games Five and Six of the team’s series against the New York Islanders in the second round of the 2020 postseason, JVR didn’t find the scoresheet any other time in the bubble. The combination of last year’s woes, the likelihood he sees third-lines minutes, and the fact he’s on a big contract due to the previous general manager means JVR needs to prove he’s that 30-goal guy Ron Hextall signed.
As for Gostisbehere he followed up his clunker of a season in 2018-19 with an underwhelming 2019-20. Not only did his point production drop, but his Expected Goals-for percentage at 5-on-5 dropped from 49.67 in 2018-19 to 45.49 this year and his 2.63 Expected Goals against-per-60 at 5-on-5 was the highest rate among the seven regulars on the Flyers’ blue line. Poor play, a knee surgery that put him out of the lineup for weeks, and Robert Hagg’s performance in 2019-20 made Gostisbehere the odd man out. With Niskanen now out of the picture and Erik Gustafsson not exactly a surefire top-four skater, the 2016 Calder Trophy runner-up will have an opportunity to put forth his first successful season since 2017-18.
Both JVR and Gostisbehere already seem destined to be left unprotected in the Expansion Draft, but perhaps performing way above their heads makes general manager Chuck Fletcher think twice about his protection list.
This one goes without saying. The second overall pick of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft has missed the last 87 Flyers’ games yet he might be the player who has generated the most conversation on the team over the last few seasons. There’s been a lot of chatter as to whether or not the forward is a bust, and a lot of that conversation is based around the fact he’s suffered some injuries over the first few years of his career.
When he’s been on the ice Patrick has shown flashes of the elite skill that promote promise he can live up to his pre-draft hype, but thanks to migraines and only seeing him be utilized by former head coach Dave Hakstol it’s easy to forget what the Flyers have with Patrick’s potential. A lot around the team has changed for the better since Patrick’s last game on April 2, 2019 in Dallas against the Stars. There were a lot of questions surrounding the talent, depth, and coaching all of which have drastically improved during his absence. With better surroundings and his migraines seemingly behind him, Patrick is in line for a noteworthy comeback in 2020-21 and should help to relieve Flyers’ fans’ concerns about the team’s future down the middle. All he has to do to prove it is stay in the lineup.
Of the 24 teams that entered the bubble in the summer of 2020 the Flyers were one of seven clubs that drew 50 or more penalties with 52. Of those seven teams the Flyers were the only team that didn’t cash in on at least 10 of those opportunities, as they only converted on four man advantages. To make matters worse Philly was the only unit that produced under 10 power-play goals (again, just four) with 35 power plays or more in the 2020 playoffs. Combine those atrocious numbers with the fact the Flyers may have been able to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals with just an average power play and you end up with Therrien needing to prove he can get the most out of this man advantage.
Although he improved the overall numbers of the power play (17.1 percent on 234 chances in 2018-19 to 20.8 percent 226 opportunities in 2019-20) Therrien utilized questionable schemes during the regular season, such as setting up Claude Giroux opposite his usual spot with JVR down low by the side of the net. Kris Knoblauch was given two years in the position to fill Joe Mullen’s shoes before being let go and he posted 20.7 percent on the power play in his first year behind the bench. If the team takes another step forward this season and the man advantage remains stagnant (or worse, costs them at the most important time of the year again) Therrien may be looking for work this summer.
*Stats courtesy of NHL.com, Evolving-Hockey, Hockey-Reference, and Natural Stat Trick.