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Did we overrate the Flyers’ forward depth?

Maybe not, but there are some follow-up questions that need answers fast.

NHL: JAN 21 Flyers at Bruins Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Through six games, believe it or not, there’s room for both a glass-half-empty and glass-half-full look at what the Flyers have done so far in the 2021 NHL season. The pessimist’s view is that the team’s vaunted forward depth is more or less absent, the defense as a unit has been as bad as anyone could realistically have expected, the franchise goaltender has got out to a rough start, they’ve already had three fairly important injuries, their team-level metrics at 5-on-5 are so bad that they’d have been the worst in the NHL last season, and their makeshift division looks every bit as competitive as we all thought it would be, meaning that they don’t have as much time as they usually would to turn all of this around.

The optimist’s view is that ... well ... they’ve won as many games as they’ve lost, and it can’t keep being this bad, can it?

No, for whatever the team’s record may say it is, it is fairly evident that the Flyers are simply not playing well enough. Not well enough to do much of anything — forget being the fringe Cup contender that many of us thought they could be if a few things broke right; it’s going to take a drastic turn upward from what the Flyers have been so far just to make the playoffs. And while yes, some sort of dead cat bounce feels inevitable, the Flyers’ play so far in almost every game they’ve participated in (other than maybe the season opener against Pittsburgh) has been poor enough that there’s a conversation to be had here.

How much of a conversation, though? Conventional wisdom suggests that in hockey terms, six games is not nearly enough to try and draw real conclusions about what a player or team is. It’s certainly not enough to override whatever your prior beliefs about a player or team were coming into the season. 365 minutes of hockey really should not be enough time to change your minds much.

It is, however, enough time to force you to at least start asking questions, which is what we will be doing here.

Now, for as bad as things have looked, there’s really only one group for which things have gone drastically worse than a logical observer probably could have thought they would. It’s not the defense — it’s been clear since the Flyers more or less elected not to replace Matt Niskanen that it was possible that this defense would be a problem, and Phil Myers’ injury and new addition Erik Gustafsson’s bad-ness have exacerbated that problem. It’s not even the goaltending — Carter Hart, in aggregate, has not been great by any stretch of the imagination, but he started both of his other two professional seasons poorly and those both ended up alright, not to mention showing concern about a goalie with a good track record after 4.5 games would be silly.

That brings us, of course, to the forward group.

Think back, what feels like four years ago, to about two and a half weeks ago, when the Flyers had that practice where they showed us their forward lines. You remember the one. This one?

Oskar Lindblom – Sean Couturier – Travis Konecny
Claude Giroux – Kevin Hayes – Joel Farabee
James van Riemsdyk – Nolan Patrick – Jakub Voracek
Michael Raffl – Scott Laughton – Nicolas Aube-Kubel

What was your first thought when you saw that? I’m gonna guess it was along these lines:

“Holy crap, this is a deep group of talented forwards.”

Deep. That’s the key word here. And it’s the one that, six games into this season, is the one that’s most come into question.

Now, when you talk about a team’s depth, often that tends to mean (intentionally or not) that they’ve got good players in the bottom part of their lineup. And that certainly seems to fit with that forward lineup up there. The implication in talking about the depth of the Flyers’ forward group was that, basically, this team was never going to give you a break. That every line was one you had to take seriously, and some of them were going to be among the best in the league at their respective spots.

How many other teams had a third line with a second overall pick from three years ago and two wingers who were on 67 and 50-point paces when last season paused? Which other team has a fourth line with three guys on it that could feasibly fit on a good team’s third line? No disrespect to the top-6, which has the better group of players in it, but what made this group really exciting was how it really had the potential to run without any obvious weaknesses.

Fast forward a couple weeks, to now, and the idea that “the Flyers have a ton of good forward depth” is being tested. That’s not to say it’s wrong, but a couple of points need to be made as we scrutinize it a bit.

1. The team’s enviable forward depth still had one blind spot where the thing could fall apart, and it immediately did.

For everything we’ve seen so far that suggests a potential long-term problem, we’ve made it this far without really acknowledging that this team’s biggest gap right now is a short-term one that is probably not going to be one for a whole lot longer. Sean Couturier has played one game and 45 seconds of another one, and it feels noteworthy that that one game he played in was far and away the best game the Flyers have played so far.

It’s not to excuse the poor play of everyone else, because the difference between what even the biggest pessimist could expect this team to be without Couturier and what it’s actually been without Couturier is still pretty big. But any long-term forecasting that’s taking place based on the first two weeks of the season that doesn’t account for the fact that the Flyers are missing — say it out loud, folks — their best player is short-sighted. Because not only is Couturier the Flyers’ best player, he’s maybe the one that they’re least-equipped to lose, and he’s far and away the forward that they’re worst-off without.

If the Flyers lose ... any winger? Any two wingers? They can move Aube-Kubel and Laughton up in the lineup and still have six functional top-nine wingers. If any non-Couturier center, even Kevin Hayes, has to miss some time? There are worse backup plans than recent first-round pick Morgan Frost, and you can still kind of make the matchups work. (Oh, oops, he’s hurt too.) But without Couturier? There’s no reshuffling you can do to not make that a significant loss. That doesn’t make the Flyers special — very few teams can lose their first-line center and not be worse off for it — but his absence is really the one that the team’s extensive “depth” doesn’t have an answer for.

That’s the way it goes. Sometimes you find the exhaust port in the Death Star, or the one tile in the Jenga stack that makes the whole damn thing fall over. Does that mean we were wrong that the Flyers have great forward depth? No, I don’t think so.

If you want to make that case, though ...

2. The Flyers having elite forward depth relied on some assumptions that are very much being tested.

Those lines from earlier, and even the lines as they are now without Couturier and Frost, feature a lot of forwards that seem like they’re good to us. Guys who we look at and think that, in some role or another, they should be good contributors on any NHL team, not just the one we happen to root for. Forget “no weaknesses” — there were strengths everywhere.

Compare that to the way things look now. The closest to a consistently good line that the Flyers have had is Kevin Hayes’ line, which has primarily featured him alongside Claude Giroux and Joel Farabee. Those three are far and away the team’s leaders among forwards in most on-ice metrics at 5-on-5, and they’re the ones that seem to least frequently find themselves on the ice when there’s a breakdown taking place.

To think, in hindsight: that was the line that had the question marks entering the season. Could Hayes recreate his magic from last season? Did Farabee have a step forward in him? Can Giroux stave off the aging curve for another season? We’ve still got 50 games to get the full answers there, but so far those three have been among the team’s best players.

Think for a second about each of the other eight forwards who have played in every game. And not just about what they’ve done now, but what you could have said about them entering the season:

  • Oskar Lindblom and Nolan Patrick are the two guys who get something of a pass here, given that they’re both coming off of extended absences due to out-of-the-ordinary health concerns. It shouldn’t be surprising that they’re taking a bit of time to get back into game shape and speed. Nonetheless, they were both penciled in as top-nine pieces as soon it was clear they’d be able to play, and they’re just not quite playing at the levels they were before their respective health scares yet.
  • Jakub Voracek and James van Riemsdyk have both put up points, and they each had a game in that Boston twofer where they looked like the best player wearing orange, so I’m not pouring dirt on either of their graves. But it’s not a secret that they’re both on the wrong side of the aging curve, and while they’ve both clearly still got offensive abilities, their two-way game could be enough of a problem to wipe those pluses on offense out.
  • Travis Konecny, similarly, has questions to answer about whether he’s the kind of guy who is an elite winger or a good offensive winger. It looked like those questions may have been answered in what looked like his breakout year last year, and he’s still been scoring at a nice clip so it’s masked some shortcomings elsewhere, but if he wasn’t shooting (/double-checks notes) 41 percent so far this year, how much scrutiny would be on him?
  • Michael Raffl is a fourth-liner, he was a fourth-liner last year, and he’s 32. Him getting worse was always a possibility — part of what has made him so versatile is his speed — and there isn’t a whole lot of room for him to fall before he becomes a guy who probably shouldn’t be more than a 12th forward.
  • Scott Laughton is coming off of a career year, and he was excellent last season, but what was looked at by many as a breakthrough season could possibly have been an outlier year where his shooting percentage was double that of his career average. He’s a competent bottom-sixer, but maybe on the fourth line he’s just “good” rather than the real matchup nightmare we thought he could be when compared to other fourth lines.
  • Nicolas Aube-Kubel had a great start to his NHL career. Was a play-driver, a tenacious forechecker, and a guy who could chip in offense. But he hasn’t looked the same since that opener, and he would not be the only player in NHL history to come out of the gate strong in a limited role only to fade with more time.

Now, that’s surely the pessimist’s lens on this whole thing — I’m not entirely sure that I believe everything I wrote in that list. And again: we are six games into the season. There is zero doubt whatsoever in my mind that when we write our season reviews for these guys in June or August or whenever, some of them will be much more positive than they would be if we had to write them based just on what we’ve seen so far.

But there were questions if you looked hard enough for them, and you don’t have to look very hard to find them now.

Back in October, when it was clear that the Flyers did not have a big move in them this offseason, I wrote about how not taking any sort of real risks in order to make the team better was, in and of itself, its own risk. And the biggest reason that was the case is because believing that the Flyers were a Cup contender without any significant adds basically required guessing that a lot more things are going to go right than go wrong.

Is that unique to them? No, not really. But when you look like one of the best teams in the NHL the way the Flyers did for basically four months last season, you convince yourself that you can get to that next level. When you nearly make it to the conference finals despite clearly not having everything clicking right, you don’t leave that experience ending up believing you’re that far off.

But even that puts them on the fringe of contender status. The Flyers losing two of their exciting young forwards to horrifying illnesses clouds the picture here, but purely from an on-ice perspective, more things went right than went wrong last season. If we’d put that same glass-half-empty bulleted list from above together 6 games into last season and looked at it 50 games later, we’d have all had a good laugh about how ridiculous it looked.

This team clearly can make us look back at this article a few months from now and have a good laugh about how ridiculous it looks. But what if it doesn’t?