After a strenuous season rife with disappointment, momentous changes have finally arrived in the City of Brotherly Love. The Philadelphia Flyers enter this season with almost half of their starting lineup composed of new players or more established roster pieces looking to bounce back from declined production in 2020-21. This fact makes it difficult to project where the Orange & Black will land within the unforgiving hellscape that is the Metropolitan Division, but that won’t stop us here at BSH from trying.
Strap on your prognosticating goggles and get ready to talk storylines, players to watch, and predictions for the long trek that lies ahead. It’s your 2021-22 BSH season preview.
Hard goodbyes, new arrivals
As mentioned above, the main narrative surrounding this roster entering a new campaign is the amount of turnover that occurred in the offseason. Last season, 34 players suited up for Philadelphia in at least one game. Of those 34 names, 12 are no longer under contract with the franchise. After a stunningly successful 2019-20 season, expectations were high for the act to follow for Chuck Fletcher, Alain Vigneault, and company. When the Flyers instead delivered one of the most miserable performances of any NHL team last year, heads were bound to roll.
Still, to see this many high-profile departures in one offseason is a legitimate rarity. Jakub Voracek ranks 10th all-time in points by a Flyer; Nolan Patrick was hailed as the cornerstone of Ron Hextall’s arduous rebuild, a special talent gifted to the franchise at second overall; Phil Myers still has ample potential to be an impactful second pair defender in the NHL. It wasn’t unanimously heart-wrenching for fans to say goodbye to these faces, but the jettisoning of these pieces undoubtedly signaled a changing of the guard within the organization.
Looking at the subsequent acquisitions made by Fletcher, it’s clear that he and others within the front office felt that there was a need for an influx of quality leadership and “grit.” Ryan Ellis, Keith Yandle, Cam Atkinson, Derick Brassard, and Nate Thompson are all experienced players, with the first three in that list having been elite players in the league at one point or another. With younger talent still burgeoning from the pipeline into competition for roster spots, having proven veterans who could instill an identity in this long-adrift locker room might not have been the worst approach to adjusting team chemistry.
Fletcher, Vigneault, and many of the players also expressed a desire to be “harder to play against” at numerous points, and feel that they have satisfactorily addressed that need via the addition of capaciously bodied defender Rasmus Ristolainen from Buffalo in exchange for Robert Hägg, a 2021 first, and a 2023 second round pick. Bringing in Brassard and Thompson also feeds into the grizzled, battle-tested image change that we’ve seen.
How do the pieces fit?
With all of this turnover comes question marks, especially given that the team will begin the year without second line center Kevin Hayes and could miss middle six winger Wade Allison indefinitely. The Flyers are arguably the biggest enigma in the NHL this year due to their lack of proof of concept.
The defense could be good; there’s certainly enough talent between Ellis, Provorov, Sanheim, Ristolainen, and prospects like Cam York and Egor Zamula to form the nucleus of a solid unit. It could also be a massive tire fire; Ellis hasn’t been the most durable player over the course of his career, Ristolainen might remain an analytical black hole who struggles with positional play, Sanheim in tandem with another overaggressive defender could be a catastrophe, and the Yandle/Braun pairing is a gamble on veterans not completely falling off a cliff due to age.
The offense might be entertaining and good enough to win hockey games. Anybody looking at this set of wingers could envision a reality where Philadelphia has four, five, or even six 20-goal scorers. Sean Couturier remains one of the best centers in the game, and once Morgan Frost gets his legs back under him he might join an already intriguing group up front. Then again, none of these players have ever scored at the same time, on the same team. We have no idea what the chemistry or attack will look like outside of an atrocious preseason where the team averaged two goals per game.
The goaltending rests almost entirely on the shoulders of a 23-year-old who is coming off of one of the worst seasons by any netminder ever. Carter Hart is immensely gifted, but it’s still too early to tell what he is and/or will be. Martin Jones hasn’t done anything to prove that he’s an NHL-caliber starting or backup goalie in his recent past outside of being durable.
In short, this is going to be a watershed year, and that doesn’t just extend to the players. If this group fails, Chuck Fletcher and Alain Vigneault will likely be held responsible as the Flyers plummet to the bottom of the standings in search of a Shane Wright or Connor Bedard to save them. For Vigneault, whose coaching tenure has been incredibly uneven, he needs to get these pieces to coalesce into something resembling a playoff team. That means fixing a stationary penalty kill, putting players in positions to succeed on the power play and at even strength on offense, and not throwing a young goaltender who was dealing with an awful mental health situation under the bus for “not working hard enough.”
The Flyers are banking on reclamation projects, youth, and bounceback seasons to make this thing work. You have to wonder if that’s a great way to construct a roster, but given how the general fanbase felt heading into 2019-20 (a year in which they made four iffy additions in the massive Kevin Hayes deal, the Justin Braun trade, the Matt Niskanen trade, and choosing Alain Vigneault as the head coach) and the way that stretch of success played out, it’s not impossible.
Players to watch
- Carter Hart. The Flyers will live or die by the hand of their young goalie, barring a scenario where Chuck Fletcher discovers the Fountain of Youth and dunks Martin Jones in it like a screaming infant getting Christened. The often-proclaimed “savior of the franchise” had an undeniably putrid season last year, but that can be chalked up to a lot of outside factors, namely with mental health struggles, poor communication, and a lack of practice time to blame. If the team defense isn’t any better this year (a realistic possibility), Hart will need to be a well-above-average goalie for the Flyers to make a run to the postseason. If he’s merely average, though, it’ll be a huge improvement. No. 79 has looked sharp in the preseason; let’s see if he can replicate that appearance when the games count.
- Oskar Lindblom. After playing a tough season last year hampered by a short turnaround time recovering from cancer, Lindblom finally looks like the play-driving, “does the little things” player who was on track for a breakout season in 2019-20 before his diagnosis. Lest we forget, in his last healthy and well-rested season Oskie Boy paced for a 49 point, 30 goal season through 30 games in a reasonably sustainable manner. While it may be lofty to expect true second line production out of a guy who is still finding his legs again, what we’ve seen in the preseason has been exciting. Don’t be shocked if he ends up cracking 45 or 50 points with 15-20 goals.
- Rasmus Ristolainen. We all know the different stances on Mr. Risto here: the more analytically inclined fans tend to hate him, the traditionalists love him, and the moderates just hope he’s good. After getting his skull crushed in for eight years in the Phantom Zone/Nightmare Realm that is Buffalo, the Flyers paid a pair of valuable draft picks to add the big Swede to their blue line. Ristolainen finding improvement in a reduced role is critical to Philly having a strong year. If he flops and drags down Travis Sanheim’s already fragile defense even further, the Flyers will probably be about as enjoyable as pneumonia. If that pair or some other combination sees him replicate the break-even results he briefly found with Jake McCabe, then the team will be fine or better. Much of the integrity of this roster rests on his very, very broad shoulders.
This is what you all came here for: the takes. Unfortunately, we will not be getting particularly spicy here today. Here’s what I’ve got:
- The Flyers make the playoffs as the final wild card. The Metropolitan Division is going to be insanely competitive and Philadelphia is terrifyingly reliant on Carter Hart for things to pan out. Still, looking at this roster when Kevin Hayes gets back, I think the team has one of the better forward corps in the division and enough talent on defense to survive the adjustment and learning period. The wingers here have the ability, it’s just a question if they can all click at the same time. The Flyers manage 94 points and sneak into the playoffs as a bubble team.
- Ivan Provorov and Ryan Ellis are one of the five best pairings in the league. This feels like a lofty goal given the competition, but the talent and chemistry between these two guys is promising enough for me to go out on a limb here and throw it out there anyways. If the pair crashes and burns or even underwhelms, it’s probably going to be due to Ellis getting hurt or suffering age-based regression. I’m banking on neither of those issues derailing what should be the best season of Ivan Provorov’s career thus far. The Flyers may still be shaky in terms of team defense, but they’ll finally find the rock-solid top pair they’ve been searching for since Pronger’s injury.
- Joel Farabee improves upon his 2020-21 breakout. Farabee has always been a fascinating player to me because he’s not particularly bad at anything and has a few talents that are well above average in the NHL. He projects as a guy who should be propelling a line all by himself when he peaks; the scary part about last year is that he wasn’t a player who elevated the play of those around him by most advanced metrics and models. If he’s taken another step in adding strength and stamina to that wiry frame of his and wins more puck battles, the sky is the limit. Consider that he scored 17 of his 20 goals last year at even strength. Even if the shooting percentage regression monster munches on his luck a little bit, a top power play slot and a full season with high-end deployment should assist his complete emergence as one of the better young wingers in hockey.
This concludes our preview for this season — make sure you have ESPN+ so you can watch the Flyers this season! As the excitement (or apprehension and terror, depending upon who you ask) surrounding the return of hockey builds, be sure to stick with us at Broad Street Hockey for all the recaps, previews, updates, and other stuff that you need. Hop on in folks; it’s gonna be a wild ride.