Have the Flyers done enough to change their fortunes in 2021-22?

NHL: MAY 08 Sabres at Penguins
PITTSBURGH, PA – MAY 08: Buffalo Sabres Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (55) looks on during the second period in the NHL game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres on May 8, 2021, at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

Over the last decade, the Philadelphia Flyers have made the playoffs every other season. The good news is the Flyers are due to make a playoff appearance in 2021-2022. Previously, bubble hockey and strange division realignments have stagnated otherwise smooth hockey operations across the league. As the NHL strives for normalcy, Philadelphia does the same. As the locker room culture changes, so must the postseason fortune.

It is easy to be overly critical of last season. Notable players, such as Carter Hart, Travis Sanheim, and Kevin Hayes, hope to bounce back from a down year. The Metropolitan Division will be stubborn. If the young players can retake the 2019-2020 form alongside the newly acquired leaders, the Flyers will play meaningful hockey after 82 regular-season games.

Acquiring locker room leaders like Keith Yandle, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Ryan Ellis are critical. A season ago, Erik Gustafsson wasn’t the correct replacement for a newly retired Matt Niskanen. Following a defensive overhaul, the hope is that Chuck Fletcher constructed an effective defense in front of Hart and Martin Jones.

Speaking of Jones, he’s back with Kim Dillabaugh. Also, Cam Atkinson improves a bottom-feeding penalty kill from a season ago.

Just ahead, these aren’t the same ol’ Flyers.

Team Metrics

Numbers are a pretty reliable indicator of how a team performs in different hockey scenarios. Look at the special teams’ metrics, the frequency of goals scored, and the ones surrendered in 2020-2021. You don’t have to be a member of an NHL front office to understand the Philadelphia Flyers had glaring weaknesses.

The Flyers were ranked 18th on the powerplay and 30th on the penalty kill. With a man advantage, James van Riemsdyk and Shayne Gostisbehere contributed often. Both could be considered elite at their respective positions during powerplay scenarios in 2020-2021. Gostisbehere has since been traded to the Arizona Coyotes, replaced later by Rasmus Ristolainen. Along the blue line, Philadelphia isn’t sacrificing powerplay production.

Unfortunately, the penalty kill was abysmal. The NHL average in 2020-2021 was just over 80%. The Flyers were well below at 73.1%. Again, Chuck Fletcher went out of his way this offseason to emphasize a defensive restructure.

Overall, Philadelphia was an average team in team scoring. They lingered with the 15th most goals scored in the NHL.

Fletcher was right to concentrate on the defense this offseason because the Flyers allowed the most goals of any team in the league in 2020-2021.

Breaking the Cycle

The span between 2010-2012 denotes the last time the Philadelphia Flyers appeared in the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. Every other season has to stop sometime. Chuck Fletcher and Alain Vigneault hope to break the cycle positively. They certainly don’t want to guide the franchise into their first back-to-back seasons without a playoff game since 1992-1994.

Under Vigneault, the Flyers have finished second in the Metropolitan Division and sixth in the Mass Mutual Eastern Division. As Philadelphia settles back into the former, this new cast of players under Vigneault could thrive. The Metropolitan Division is arguably as tough as the Mass Mutual Eastern Division was a season ago.

Instead of facing the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres regularly, the Flyers welcome the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets. The Bruins remain one of the top teams in the NHL, but the Sabres are freefalling from their already abysmal state into something worse. Alone, Buffalo would make Philadelphia’s strength of schedule less harsh in 2021-2022 without realignment. The return of the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets offers more competition as a whole. In saying that, Fletcher designed the Flyers to bounce back from a horrid 2020-2021 season.

Consistency is key. Vigneault and Fletcher experienced that consistent success just before 2019-2020 cut short.

For my money, I bet Philadelphia returns to the playoffs to reverse the fortunes of a nightmarish previous season.

2021-2022 Prediction

Team success will ride and die on the back of the defense. Chuck Fletcher set that tone by aggressively seeking Ryan Ellis, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Keith Yandle. This group is unproven together, especially Ristolainen alongside Travis Sanheim. If the Philadelphia Flyers can limit goals against, they have the tools at the forward position to score with the best teams. The mantra is “defense wins championships.”

The Flyers will receive points from the blue line. Ristolainen, Sanheim, and Ivan Provorov can offer offensive production at a high level. Yandle and Ellis are more defensively sound but contribute along the blue line too. With Justin Braun, Yandle may be the perfect veteran partner to defend the crease in front of Carter Hart and Martin Jones.

Claude Giroux is in a contract year. It makes all the sense in the world for him and the recently-extended Sean Couturier to explode in 2021-2022.

Then there are prospects with the itch to play. Morgan Frost stands out among the players who may be receiving their final opportunity with the Flyers.

In my mind, Philadelphia finishes third in the Metropolitan Division behind the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals, but the New York Rangers will hope to spoil that.

Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire