The Flyers are going to be good this coming season, we think. But how good? A legit contender? The same team they were last year? A bubble team? Worse? Every team faces some questions that will determine just how good they’re going to be, and we’ll be looking at 10 key ones between now and puck drop on January 13.
The 2020-21 NHL season is going to be a 56-game sprint to the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the truncated timeline of the end of last season to abbreviated training camps should benefit teams who return many of the same pieces they finished with a few months ago.
Hello, the Flyers.
GM Chuck Fletcher and coach Alain Vigneault — barring anything unforeseen — stand to return the vast majority of the same team that finished second in the Metropolitan Division during the regular season and won seven games during the playoffs to finish off the 2019-20 season in the Toronto bubble.
You can count the Flyers’ new additions on one hand (just Erik Gustafsson, really), and many of those challenging for a roster spot (Morgan Frost, Egor Zamula, Wade Allison, Connor Bunnaman, Carsen Twarynski, and Tanner Laczynski) are names known to the organization in camp the last few go-arounds. There’s Derrick Pouliot, too, but by and large there aren’t any surprises here for the Flyers as they gear up for the 2020-21 season in a few short weeks.
Returning are the likes of Selke Trophy winner Sean Couturier, Ivan Provorov, Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Travis Konecny, James van Riemsdyk, Scott Laughton, Philippe Myers, and Travis Sanheim. That includes seven of their eight top scorers from a year ago as well as both goalies in Carter Hart and Brian Elliott.
Despite the overwhelming return of most of last years’ team, there aren’t without some sore spots for Vigneault’s club. There was Matt Niskanen’s surprise retirement post-bubble, leaving the Flyers without Ivan Provorov’s trusty defensive partner that ultimately helped lead him to a breakout season. Gustafsson is one of the very few new faces, but the flat salary cap didn’t empower the Flyers’ GM to do much else in free agency or via trade, so the veteran puck-mover might find himself acting as a de-facto Niskanen replacement — even if roles are adjusted and he doesn’t actually replace Niskanen’s exact pairing spot.
Teams always talk about how important continuity and chemistry is, often citing linemates and defensive pairings, and that’ll be even more important given the shortened offseason and lack of real training camp and preseason time to get up to speed and on the same page. Though the circumstances around the end of the league year and financial constraints certainly factored into teams’ planning this offseason, not having to incorporate several new pieces into the fold certainly should be an advantage for the Flyers at the outset.
Others teams haven’t been as lucky thus far. Whether via losing key players to injury or having to
circumvent the salary cap due to other teams refusing to bail you out
The last time the NHL season was shortened was the lockout of 2012, where just 48 games were played and the Flyers finished out of the playoff picture after reaching the second round of the playoffs the previous season. A big reason for the drop off was a slew of changes that offseason, including major departures and major additions — hello, Bryz — that couldn’t get up to speed with the delayed start and truncated schedule.
And if you want to go back even further, the Flyers bucked the trend in the lockout shortened 1994-95 season, winning the Atlantic Division after finishing seventh to end the 1993-94 season a year earlier. Some big changes accompanied that team with the additions of John LeClair and Eric Desjardins paying big dividends as the Flyers got deeper without up front and on defense without Mark Recchi.
A change for the 1994-95 team was behind the bench as Terry Murray replaced Terry Simpson, but the 2020-21 Flyers won’t experience such a change as Vigneault returns for his second season as bench boss for the Orange and Black after finishing as a finalist for the Jack Adams Award a year ago in helping return the club to the postseason. Not only does Vigneault return, but so do all his assistant coaches in Mike Yeo and Michel Therrien to give the Flyers continuity on the coaching staff in addition to player personnel.
But not only do the Flyers benefit from continuity in the form of returning players, they also stand to benefit by adding a player to the fold who knows the team and system in the form of Nolan Patrick. Patrick missed all of last season with lingering migraine issues but has been skating and the team is hopeful he can rejoin the lineup. The former No. 2 overall pick has high-end offensive talent and has shown flashes in his two seasons prior to being sidelined. Even if Patrick doesn’t live up to his billing as the No. 2 overall pick, his game in his two seasons was better than what the Flyers were provided at third line center last season with a mix of veteran options with little upside. The presence of Patrick in any form would solidify the Flyers’ top nine forwards and give them a high upside lottery ticket to add to an already balanced scoring attack.
Not only does Patrick stand to add a potential spark to the Flyers, they’ll also get promising forward Oskar Lindblom back after missing the bulk of last season due to cancer treatment for Ewing’s carcoma. Lindblom returned in their second round series, but will be back at full strength after working out and adding back lost weight and muscle in the shortened offseason.
With a largely full complement of returning players and coaching staff, the Flyers should benefit from the shortened season — at least in theory.