Could the Flyers become surprise Stanley Cup contenders this season?

Flyers' Claude Giroux
Flyers’ captain Claude Giroux

The Philadelphia Flyers are 38 days away from beginning the season at home with the Vancouver Canucks. There is no better time than now to make a case for Stanley Cup dreams.

In making this case, last season remains relevant. It bears repeating to understand how Chuck Fletcher shaped the culture and rebuilt the defense in one offseason. The Flyers roster, as it stands, will not yield the same results from 2020-2021. Last season, the entire lineup lacked stability.

Heading into 2021-2022, Philadelphia is more familiar with their system at the NHL level. Alain Vigneault will not be afraid to call upon prospects like Cam York or Egor Zamula if necessary. He can rely on Wade Allison in the bottom six while the 4C battle sorts itself out. There’s more structure and freedom for Vigneault to create a balanced lineup. The Flyers aren’t married to their expensive players, as evident from the aggressive nature Fletcher executed trades to afford an upgraded roster.

Inside and out, Philadelphia isn’t afraid to adapt. Franchises need to change what doesn’t work to compete for the Stanley Cup. Fletcher did his job during the offseason, but could the Flyers finish 2021-2022 with a Stanley Cup ending?

Taking a look the Flyers defense

Thankfully, the Philadelphia Flyers cannonballed from the high dive this offseason because they didn’t make a splash before 2020-2021. Seriously, could they even be bothered with addressing the defense by bringing in Erik Gustafsson? Chuck Fletcher received my praise at the deadline for receiving a 2022 seventh-round pick in return for Gustafsson.

Fletcher fleeced the Nashville Predators in a trade for Ryan Ellis. The Flyers’ top pair has, undisputedly, received an upgrade. Beside Justin Braun is Keith Yandle, making a veteran pair who, together, are more than capable in sheltered minutes. There’s one pair, in particular, that raises eyebrows because they need an excessive bounce-back season from 2020-2021.

Travis Sanheim and Rasmus Ristolainen do provide a sort of false security on the second pair. Everyone will tell you that, for the last eight seasons, the Buffalo Sabres plagued Ristolainen.

Part of that makes sense. Laughter wouldn’t be inappropriately thrown into a television show if someone said, “you need defensive help, so you called the Sabres!?” Buffalo has been bad for a long time, but Ristolainen wasn’t the best defenseman on a bad team. Last season, he arguably wasn’t more effective than Rasmus Dahlin, Henri Jokiharju, or Colin Miller. Shayne Gostisbehere, by comparison, was more effective.

Ristolainen brings a physical brand of hockey to Philadelphia, which complements Sanheim. He needs to prove that his defensive prowess is better than what Philippe Myers or Gostisbehere contributed to the second pair.

What will help the Flyers defense is the influx in veteran leadership. Ristolainen is a part of that influx with Ellis and Yandle. Combine those three with Ivan Provorov, and Philadelphia suddenly has four alternate captains from around the NHL within the last two seasons in the same unit.

Samuel Morin will begin the season as the seventh defenseman. It’ll be his second season as a defenseman split into a fourth-line left-wing role. Pending on how Vigneault wants to use him, there’s room for Cam York or Egor Zamula to receive more NHL experience. At the end of 2022-2023, the Flyers defense feature three players at the expiration of their contract. Substantial implications regarding the mentoring of prospects and the formation of the personnel depend on performance in 2021-2022.

Flyers Goaltending

Being completely transparent, watching the Tampa Bay Lightning signing Brian Elliott hurt. He was more than what the Philadelphia Flyers asked him to be in 2020-2021. As a Flyer, he proved he can still compete in place of Carter Hart. The idea of saving $1.1mil on the salary cap instead of signing Martin Jones at $2mil reinforces my uneasiness heading into 2021-2022. Jones is a former Stanley Cup champion, however.

Hart and Jones fit because of a familiar link. That link is the current goaltender coach in Philadelphia, Kim Dillabaugh.

Dillabaugh coached Jones during his early years in the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings. In 2013-2014, Jones contributed to the Kings winning the Stanley Cup as a backup goaltender to Jonathan Quick. His usage in a tandem role, versus being a designated backup, optimizes goaltender depth. Jones has the durability to take on a starter’s share, which is necessary with Hart’s checkered injury history.

The Flyers are stressing the relationship shared between Hart, Jones, and Dillabaugh. It’s another “culture” acquisition by Chuck Fletcher. Goaltenders are a different breed, where their mental focus around the right coaches is crucial.

Both goaltenders are walking in the same shoes, needing a rebound from 2020-2021. Behind an upgraded defense, there’s room to believe that Hart and Jones could work together in Philadelphia.

Giroux enters a Contract Year

Expect Claude Giroux to compete with a mean streak in 2021-2022. There’s no indication that he wants to move on from the Philadelphia Flyers. In a contract season, he’ll compete for an extension and a longer lease as team captain.

Throughout his career, Giroux has performed well in contract seasons. Back in 2010-2011, he had his best season, under Peter Laviolette, since arriving in the NHL. His 2013-2014 performance under Craig Berube remains the third-best overall season of his career. With a complete season ahead, Giroux is under precise assessment in 2021-2022.

If 2020-2021 played out at full length, Giroux could have scored at least twenty more points. Estimating a 65pt season isn’t an exaggeration. Against the same stout competition eight times each in a single season, those numbers replicate his performances under Dave Hakstol. Regression is showing, but Giroux has plenty of hockey left to play. Against a typical season schedule, Giroux season should seem a bit higher than 65pts.

Ideally, Giroux remains with the Flyers on a team-friendly extension. If Sean Couturier or Joel Farabee’s extensions show a trend, it’s how Chuck Fletcher can negotiate effectively while not overpaying.

Giroux is the leader in Philadelphia, and we’re asking him to play every shift as if Sidney Crosby lined up against him.

2021-2022 Prediction

It is not realistic to call the Philadelphia Flyers a Stanley Cup contender. In the same vein, Chuck Fletcher separated the Flyers from the teams labeled as in a rebuild. The veterans acquired make Philadelphia a little more advanced than most teams who missed the playoffs in 2020-2021. An accurate portrayal of the 2021-2022 Flyers earns a pretender label. That isn’t so much a bad thing.

Sure, being a pretender comes with a negative connotation. It’s the notion that Philadelphia seems like they could make a deep run in the postseason before facing elimination before the Stanley Cup Finals. The beauty of postseason hockey is that all of those labels go right out of the window.

Back in 2019-2020, the Flyers were one win away from the Eastern Conference Finals. They were the underdogs to the New York Islanders who eliminated them, never defeating them in the 2019-2020 regular season. On paper, this defense is more impressive than the lineup Alain Vigneault first took to the playoffs. Philadelphia has every reason to strap in for another postseason run. In the Metropolitan Division, I predict them to finish as low as third place.

The Flyers could surge up the power rankings immediately in 2021-2022. After all, they didn’t make the playoffs last season, so it’s only science they do this time around.

In 2021-2022, Philadelphia could surpass its potential from 2019-2020. Fletcher seemingly addressed everything this offseason, revising his successful blueprint that nearly led his franchise to the Eastern Conference Finals. Once a team is that deep into the playoffs, they become a threat to compete for the Stanley Cup. Suddenly, a case for the Stanley Cup isn’t as unlikely for the Flyers.

Prediction: 49-25-8

Photo Credit: Alex McIntyre