It’s no secret this NHL season wasn’t a good one for the Flyers. Entering the season with high expectations, things crashed and burned, smoldered throughout the year, and ended with more questions than answers. To see where the Orange and Black go from here we first must (yes, we must) examine just how bad the 2020-21 season was for the Flyers, and why it may have been worse than you think.
Groundhog Day: 2020-21 Season Wasn’t an Outlier
While this past season felt like long, slow torture for Flyers’ fans, it’s not an unfamiliar feeling.
A few years ago, a now-former head coach in Philadelphia shouted “This is our new norm!” While we won’t delve into how that played out, across the street at the Wells Fargo Center, the norm for the Flyers is far from new, and it continues to this day.
We’re talking about nearly a decade of futility here.
Now, say what you want about the Flyers – yes, they haven’t hoisted the Stanley Cup since the Ford administration, but for the majority of their history, they’ve been a contender more than not. We haven’t seen this organization go through such a prolonged period of treading water or worse since the Flyers failed to make the playoffs from 1990 through 1994.
Over the past 10 seasons, the Flyers have made the playoffs as many times as they’ve missed them. However, during that time they’ve failed to make the postseason in back-to-back seasons and haven’t played in a playoff round beyond the second since 2012.
Comparing that to the previous 10 years, the Flyers made it to the conference semifinal or further four times and missed the postseason just once.
Oh, that one missed playoff year? It just happened to be the worst team, points-wise, in Flyers’ history. What did the organization do for a follow-up? Reach the conference finals in what would be the first of five consecutive playoff appearances.
No, this isn’t new. This is called a trend and it’s not a good one.
Carter Hart’s Struggles, On and Off the Ice
Heading into this season, the hype for Carter Hart was off the charts. He was the name, the crown jewel at a position that had seemingly alluded the Flyers for decades.
Fast forward to now, and things have changed from bright and sunny to murky at best.
Hart, like much of the team, struggled to find his game. This eventually led to the Flyers shutting down 22-year-old netminder after suffering a mild MCL sprain. While the injury ended Hart’s season on paper, it was clear there was a lot going on, perhaps beyond hockey.
Throughout his growth as a goaltender, Hart has been lauded for his composure, especially for his age. Fair or not, that will be tested now.
Of course, it is far too early to push the panic button or give up on Hart, though there is cause for concern. Considering how the rest of the team played this season, looking into statistics may be a futile exercise. However, when looking at Hart’s numbers, one is particularly alarming. In his first two seasons, Hart posted .917 and .914 SV% respectively. A number that dropped to a .877 SV% this season. That’s drastic, no matter how you slice it.
Given the Flyers’ historic issues when it comes to finding the right guy between the pipes, making sure Hart is right, on the ice and off, might just be one of the more important things on the docket for the team moving forward. The hope is Hart returns next season with a clear head, healthy, and ready to get back on the path that had everyone so excited a year ago.
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The Kids Aren’t Alright: Flyers Youth Struggled Mightily on Defense
The Flyers’ prospect cupboard, stocked to the brim with enticing future possibilities had some believing now would be the time those future possibilities would start to become a reality.
However, while many dreamed the Flyers’ crop of young players would make a dramatic jump forward, this season offered a different reality, a wake-up call. Perhaps most glaring was the play from the Flyers’ young defensemen.
Yes, Matt Niskanen’s abrupt retirement undoubtedly hurt the Flyers. Losing such a key piece along the blue line would impact any team. Though the Flyers had a chance to do something about it and their answer was, unfortunately, Erik Gustafsson?
The Flyers foresaw a big leap from their core of young defensemen. That didn’t happen.
When it comes to highlighting which young Flyers’ defenseman had a down year, it’s hard to know where to start.
The much-maligned Shayne Gostisbehere arguably had one of the better seasons among the defense unit, and he found himself placed on waivers during the year. Yeah, that paints a pretty accurate picture of the state of the Flyers defensive right now.
Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, and Philippe Myers all seemed to be stuck in neutral this season.
Provorov often looked lost in his own end, and that trickled down on the other end as well. While you can point to his 26 points, tied for a career-low, it’s more of an eye-test thing with Ivan. This was yet another lackluster year for a guy who we all thought would be leading the blue line. Maybe it’s a lack of a consistent partner, but it’s clear everyone expects more from him.
Sanheim posted a respectable 54.1 CF% this season but was largely invisible despite his 6’3″ frame. There’s not much else to say, really. When you look at a guy like Sanheim and then see how he plays, it just doesn’t match up. From a first-round pick, you just need more.
Like Sanheim, Myers’ possession numbers were good (54.0 CF%) and he was decent on the penalty kill. While he did seem to bounce back a bit back late in the year, he wasn’t the well-rounded defenseman we’ve seen flashes of in the past.
The Kids Aren’t Alright II: Uncertainty at Forward
It gets better! Wait, no it doesn’t. Do you see a trend yet?
Joining the group of young D-men who weren’t able to meet expectations this year is an equally depressing list of Flyers’ forwards. Among guys 24 or younger on the Flyers, Travis Konecny, Nolan Patrick, Oskar Lindblom, and Nicolas Aube-Kubel are the standouts for all the wrong reasons.
Konecny was unspectacular, finishing sixth on the team in scoring with just 11 goals. Konecny, a liability in his own zone last season, also lacked a scoring touch in the offensive zone much of the year (S% Down from 17.0 S% to 11.0 S%).
Patrick was invisible, tallying just 9 points in 52 games. Also, finished an ugly -30 on the year. We all know what Patrick has been through, and maybe that’s still factoring in a bit. Though he was healthy enough to play 52 games, and he’s a former No. 2 overall pick.
Lindblom is another player with obvious (and warranted) excuses for his poor play. However, the stats show he had just 14 points in 50 GP.
Lastly, Aube-Kubel was another player who went backward. After posting 15 points in just 36 GP a year ago, Aube-Kubel tallied only 12 points in 50 GP this season. Also, he simply couldn’t stay out of the box, finishing with 44 PIM.
While Patrick’s future is still up in the air, the Flyers are likely counting on production from these three, somewhere in the lineup, making their recent play a worry.
The Direction of the Flyers’ Organization Isn’t Clear
One of the best things to happen for the Flyers over the last decade or so has been Gritty. While few would dispute Gritty’s greatness, having your mascot be the standout isn’t the best look.
In short, the Flyers have been widely inconsistent, both on the ice and in the message they send to the fans.
Most among the Flyers’ faithful fall into one of two extremes; either you’re still on board with the youth, or you’re ready for a semi-rebuild, a re-tooling.
Many would argue that this team has too much talent to be so up-and-down, placing blame on the players’ side.
Meanwhile, some would scream about the team’s coaching as well. That Alain Vigneault’s lineup decisions and the non-existent power-play led mostly to the lackadaisical play this year. And with all that talent, it has to be coaching, right?
There’s a lot going on in a lot of different directions.
One can only surmise that the problems go much deeper. There isn’t one thing you can zero in on, there are multiple.
Yes, the pandemic has impacted everyone – NHL teams included. The Flyers also dealt with injuries as well.
However, every team faced COVID issues and worry, some were hit rather hard. And when it comes to injuries, several teams ahead of the Flyers in the standings were far greater victims of the injury bug.
The excuses have piled up over the years, and while no team will outwardly come out and admit to failure or mistakes, the Flyers have to decide where they’re going.
There are some big decisions coming and the choices they make will help mold the next decade of Flyers’ hockey. Will we see some more band-aids or actual change? Only time will tell, and the clock is ticking.
Photo Credit: Alex McIntyre