How close are the Flyers to ending their championship drought?

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Alex McIntyre

Alain Vigneault’s inaugural season as the Philadelphia Flyers head coach acts as another accolade in his coaching resume. His ability to start strong with a plethora of franchises ranks him in the top third of NHL coaches. In the Flyers last season under Dave Hakstol, they were denied a playoff spot while counting on eight different goaltenders. Philadelphia improved significantly from finishing sixth in the Metropolitan Division in 2018-2019 to second in 2019-2020. A jump from a non-playoff team to a top-five team in the league is just the beginning of a championship run.

During the regular season, the Flyers were a formidable opponent no matter where they played. At home, Philadelphia owned a 25-6-4 record, finishing 8-2-0. On the road, the Flyers were 16-15-3, finishing 7-2-1. When the COVID19 pandemic caused the NHL regular season pause, Philadelphia proved to be a borderline elite team. In the last ten games of the 2019-2020 regular season, the Flyers finished 9-1-0.

Attributing to this high level of success was the outstanding play of goaltenders Carter Hart and Brian Elliott, who will act as a one-two punch in 2020-2021. On defense, Ivan Provorov solidified his top-twenty defenseman status in the NHL before the season finished early. Additionally, Travis Sanheim and Justin Braun provided additional offense from the blue-line. To finish out the regular season, Travis Konecny was very consistent. Philadelphia was set for a playoff run.

The state of the NHL is a strange one during this pandemic era. In 2019-2020, the delay from the end of the shortened regular-season to the beginning of the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs disrupted the momentum. The Flyers were the league’s hottest team. Still, Philadelphia managed to defeat the Montreal Canadiens and almost rally against the New York Islanders. There are positives to build off of in 2020-2021 en route to a potential championship run.

The Flyers have a Hart Foundation to build on

Playoff teams have a strong foundation of rotating goaltenders. The Flyers check that box with an elite starter in Hart and an excellent backup veteran in Elliott. Last season, Elliott proved to hold his own on the road while Hart remained dominant at home. During the playoffs, Hart put to rest the idea that neutral ice would take away from his dominance. It can be said with ease that Hart turned the elite corner in games away from the Wells Fargo Center.

That acknowledgment is critical in the current state of NHL hockey. Technically, Philadelphia will play games at the Wells Fargo Center, but there will not be any fans. Fans in attendance are what gives teams a home-ice advantage. The reality of playing seven teams eight times will allow Hart and Elliott to become familiar with opposing player shooting tendencies. Both goaltenders proved they could pick up the pace and steal wins against playoff-caliber opponents.

The Flyers, from the talent of Hart, clawed back into the series against a tough New York Islanders team in the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs. During a time where key forwards were not producing, goaltending saved Philadelphia. If they are to captivate the NHL audience in 2020-2021, both Hart and Elliott will have to build on their success towards the end of the 2019-2020 season.

Finishing The Job

The “finishing the job” mantra takes dual meaning. One, the Flyers will be determined to show they can break the glass ceiling of an Eastern Conference Semifinal appearance. Reaching the Eastern Conference Finals or Stanley Cup Finals will show progression in year two under Vigneault. Two, veteran forwards need to disrupt opposing teams with their presence. The younger players will feed off the energy of superstar players.

Veteran leadership faded during the postseason. Claude Giroux scored one goal throughout the entire 2020 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs. Sean Couturier, who won the Frank J. Selke Trophy, only tallied two goals. Between those two alone, that’s the current captain and a potential future captain. Not off the hook is Konecny, who published a team-leading stat sheet during the regular season but never found the back of the net in the postseason.

Philadelphia cannot rely on any single player to get the job done. Lines need to work cohesively as a unit. Vigneault does a great job in motivating players to spark one another. Look for bottom-six depth, such as Michael Raffl and Scott Laughton, to bring life to the Flyers this season. Against a deep Eastern Division in 2020-2021, it takes a collective effort, especially when opposing teams adapt to coaching systems by game three of eight.

Flyers will lean on defensive dominance

Chuck Fletcher deserves praise after his 2020 offseason. It was easy to say that Philadelphia didn’t make the right moves. After the rest of the offseason played out, a corrective statement is “the Flyers didn’t over commit.” Signing Erik Gustafsson was a curious decision when it happened, but it makes much more sense when Philippe Myers agreed to his contract extension. Now, Philadelphia has balanced defensive pairings.

In the postseason, a concern on defense was speed. The first two lines have improved in that area. The third pairing remains the same but can change with the team’s taxi squad available. The Flyers were able to hang tough against teams who were not predicated on speed. As close as Philadelphia is to contending for a Stanley Cup, they need to be ready to match up against teams like the Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Fletcher helped Vigneault out on the powerplay for 2020-2021. On the blue line, Gustafsson is a powerplay standout. Extending scoring chances beyond forwards will bring the Flyers closer to the Stanley Cup. The best teams in the league are ones that can get it done in extra-man opportunities. Philadelphia showed they could in man-down scenarios with Hayes but somehow struggled when they had more skaters on the ice.

Maturing Through Development

Vigneault’s sophomore season means that the current crop of players is more comfortable in his system. After one season, Philadelphia went from massively underachieving to potentially overachieving. The locker room meshed nicely together, maturing into a close family. The leadership inspired rookies like Joel Farabee and Morgan Frost to develop quickly. This season, Farabee is itching to shoot into the top-six forwards while Frost could find his mark in the bottom-six.

Last season, the Flyers nearly reached the Eastern Conference Finals without Frost, Nolan Patrick, and Oskar Lindblom. While Lindblom returned for two games against the Islanders, his arrival boosted the team chemistry more than it did on the scoreboard. They could feature in Philadelphia’s starting lineup on January 13th, 2021. Out of the gate, the Flyers improve drastically.

Philadelphia is so close to ending their Stanley Cup drought. The missing pieces could be Patrick and Lindblom. Including Patrick in the lineup makes the Flyers offensively deeper than they were last year. Lindblom turned into a bonafide scorer. Couple those returning contributors with powerplay emphasis and Hart’s trajectory, and Philadelphia has a hockey team tagged for a championship.

Photo Credit: Alex Mcintyre

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