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Checking in: Three big remaining questions for the season

These may be the things that swing this season in one direction or the other for this team.

Philadelphia Flyers v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

On Monday, we talked a bit about three things that have gone really well for the Flyers so far through the first third of the season. On Tuesday, we took a look at the other side of the coin, at three things that we thought were going to (or at least might) go well that mostly haven’t.

Today, we meet in the middle and look at some things that have been somewhat inconclusive but are going to be absolutely huge in determining just how good this team can be the rest of the way this season (and beyond?). Consider these their big “ifs” — if these work out, this team is going places; if they aren’t, we might all be in trouble.


1. Which Ivan Provorov do we get the rest of the way?

Before the season began, this was one of the key questions the Flyers faced: can Ivan Provorov replicate his career 2019-20 season and prove that he is the number-one defenseman that the Flyers think he is? Provorov’s breakthrough last season was one of the biggest driving forces behind the team’s drastic year-over-year improvement, and as we discussed in that piece, his play has tended to be a good barometer for the team’s as a whole. (Not too surprising when you play as much as he does.)

That hasn’t quite been the case this season as much as it has in seasons past, and it kind of feels as if the Flyers’ best chance at raising their ceiling as a team this year may rest in finding that version of Provorov again.

It hasn’t all been bad for Provorov, not at all. He’s still taking on huge responsibility for this team, one which as we know has had to deal with A Lot in the early going, and his on-ice numbers are roughly in line with team averages despite the fact that he’s asked to do more in terms of tough minutes than anyone else. He’s been solid.

At the same time, it’s felt like something is missing. There have been more head-scratching moments, the way there were in his 2018-19 to forget. He’s generally been decent, but if the standard you’re holding him to is that of a number-one defenseman, it’s tough to argue he’s been there.

The biggest unknown surrounding Provorov entering the year was who the Flyers would put next to him on the top pair, one year after he spent nearly all of his time in a successful partnership with Matt Niskanen. And to be clear, the options he’s been given haven’t been great. Phil Myers was inconsistent and then got hurt, Justin Braun has been rough for most of this season, and while Shayne Gostisbehere’s been better, on aggregate he hasn’t played at the level that you’d hope for if you’re placing him in the nominal No. 2 defenseman spot. (Last night’s loss in Pittsburgh was not a banner performance for either of these two.)

Which brings the conversation back to Provorov. Maybe it’s unfair to ask him to be his 100% best self when the guys he’s played with haven’t been able to follow suit. But the job description of a top-of-the-lineup defenseman isn’t always fair, and one could reasonably have hoped that the one the Flyers have would track a bit closer to that description than he has.

The question, then: can things turn? With or without an add from the outside? It seems like the Flyers are going to try their hardest to add another defenseman before the trade deadline, and if that gets Provorov back to where he was last year, it unlocks a new level for this team.

Of course, if that’s what it takes to get Provorov back to that level, it opens up a question of what his ultimate ceiling is as a player, and that will come to the forefront if the Flyers can’t bring in a difference-maker on defense and are going to have to hope Provorov can organically step it up. It’s possible — he more or less did in the 2017-18 season after an inconsistent first half of the season — but are you, knowing how often Provorov tends to be a bellwether for the Flyers’ play as a whole, willing to make that bet? Are the Flyers?

2. Can the Flyers handle the twists and turns this season is going to throw at them?

Well, they’ve already taken on some of them. A number of teams have had extended absences and players missing stretches of time due to COVID, and the Flyers are of course in that group. That turmoil led them to a few games where they were without basically half of their forward corps, which let us to nearly draw some silly conclusions about a team that for all intents and purposes is not the same as the one we’re looking at now.

Nonetheless, the wrench has definitely been thrown into the plan already, and it would not at all be surprising to see COVID either directly or indirectly force some further changes on this team this season. It’s already forced them into a pretty brutal schedule; the Flyers have 37 games in the regular season’s remaining 69 days, and they have more back-to-backs (nine) than they do stretches with more than one consecutive day off (only three!). Teams with similarly difficult schedule setups have already had concerns raised; the Flyers are a bit better off there as they don’t have to travel very far for any of their games, but a hockey game’s a hockey game at the end of the day and these guys are going to be tired as hell by the time the playoffs roll around.

Even if there aren’t any additional games moved or rescheduled (and is anyone really betting on that being the case?), the challenge in front of the Flyers the rest of the way is real. They’re already jostling for playoff position in a crowded East division, and while every team is dealing with something of a tough schedule this season, any little disadvantage can make a difference.

In the end, it’s pretty hard to say what will happen here. Ideally, this is the place where having a deep group of forwards can be an advantage. Alain Vigneault has already suggested that he’s going to rotate guys a bit more than he normally does with the way the schedule is set up; if the Flyers can give guys, even big names, a day off here and there to keep them fresh, that may add up in a big way.

Of course, the “how” of it all in terms of navigating this is tricky, which leads us to our final question.

3. Can Alain Vigneault keep pressing the right buttons?

At this time exactly a year ago, the Flyers were in the middle of what would end up being a nine-game winning streak, one which would just about cap off one of the most successful regular seasons this franchise has had in a long time. And it would be foolish to pretend that Alain Vigneault wasn’t a big part of that success.

Vigneault saw this team through what was a relatively drama-free season on the ice last year, getting his team to buy in to his system while largely making sensible decisions with his lineup and in net. He was a Jack Adams finalist and had a pretty good case to win the award, and it seemed like the Flyers were in good hands with him behind the bench.

Then the playoff bubble happened, and Vigneault’s work there received much more scrutiny. The Flyers were largely outplayed by two teams that they, on paper, had advantages over, mostly making it as far as they did on the strength of Carter Hart’s play in net. Vigneault’s attachment to certain players in his lineup burned him in ways it never really did in the regular season, and his counterparts on the opposing benches seemed to have the upper hand on him.

But through most of last season, Vigneault rarely made big, attention-grabbing moves with his lineup. This time around, in his second season in charge of the team, Vigneault’s sometimes been a bit more direct and surprising with his lineup decisions. Travis Konecny was scratched for a game against the Islanders in late January, and Phil Myers was sent to the press box for one last week against Buffalo.

You inject truth serum into Vigneault and ask him who his top three forwards and defensemen are on this team, and both of those names are coming up. (No truth serum needed on one of those, in fact — Vigneault straight-up said exactly that about Konecny when he scratched him.) Those are scratches sent to send messages, whether to the individual (as Myers’ felt like it was) or to the team as a whole (which Konecny’s felt more like).

This is the tightrope that Vigneault will have to walk in his second year, and through 19 games the returns are mixed. Last season, the Flyers — who on paper had a pretty similar roster than they did the previous year beyond the additions of Matt Niskanen and Kevin Hayes — were coming in as a team that made a bet that coaching could solve a lot of their problems from the previous year. It’s tough to say with certainty that they won that bet — a lot of things went right for the Flyers last season beyond coaching — but when you go from 10th-worst team in the NHL to sixth-best and a conference semifinalist, it’s impossible to say they lost it.

The terms of the bet have now changed, as the step forward that the Flyers have to make is from “playoff-caliber team” to “contender that can win a Cup with a few breaks”. That requires pressing a different set of buttons than the ones Vigneault had to press last season, and we’re already seeing that in some of his decisions this year. He’s got good teams to this point before, but that success only means so much with this group.

Can he manage the turbulence of this schedule and, if necessary, rotate guys in and out of the lineup in a way that makes sense and is communicated well to them? Can he hold steady with the right decisions in net (something he largely was perfect on last year after October), even as his starter has stumbled a bit out of the gate? If he has to keep going to the scratch-a-good-player well, is that message going to get stale?

Those are just a few of the questions we’ll have to keep an eye on. Vigneault’s job isn’t easy, and especially not this year, but no one ever said it was going to be. His first season in Philly gave us a lot of optimism about where this team was headed long-term. His second season needs to do the same.