I’ve been thinking about the Flyers more and more over the past two weeks. There’s nothing strange about that since a new NHL season is upon us tonight, but what I found odd was my changing stance on the post I would write about it. Most of it was initially going to be griping about how not that much has changed for the Orange & Black coming into this season. Having hockey around is always a good thing, but my excitement was a little tempered because I felt that this coming season will be more of the same. Make no mistake; there absolutely will be some of that sentiment in this post. Looking a little bit more into this organization though, the seeds have been planted for some changes down the road. We’re going to take a look at what is old and new on this team, and I’ll give my predictions on the Flyers and the league as a whole.
The Flyers occupy a different place in the Philly sports consciousness. They are not the Eagles, where coming into the season everybody was extremely excited and beating the drum for them as a serious championship contender. It might not feel that way now with how the Eagles have performed thus far, but just one short month ago so many of us were predicting a deep playoff run for the Birds, if not a Super Bowl victory. The Flyers also do not seem to have garnered the wildly diminished expectations that we have for the Sixers and Phillies. We know those teams are going to be bad for a little, so we’re willing to patiently ride out the storm while looking toward a brighter future.
It feels like the Flyers are somewhere in the middle. Are they a playoff team? Most people will say maybe, but probably not. They’re not a contender, but they’re also far from bottoming out to start over. The Flyers themselves will never admit to rebuilding, and that comes from the top down. Flyers’ owner Ed Snider was quoted last month as saying, “Quite frankly, I’m looking for big things. I think we’re going to turn things around. I think we’re going to be a playoff team this year.” On one hand, he’s the owner of the team, what do you expect him to say? On the other hand, I think these are the desperate hopes of an 82-year-old guy that is pleading for one last chance to hoist the Stanley Cup. I don’t mean that as a dig, either. Ed Snider has done just about everything you could possibly ask of an owner, from helping to bring a new franchise to Philadelphia, to making charitable contributions to city youths via the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, to constantly investing in the team to make sure it is a consistent contender. Snider deserves all the respect in the world, which needs to be stated. Yet, that doesn’t mean we should blindly stand by and assume his team is a contender.
On a national level, pretty much every website’s prognosticators are picking the Flyers to finish 6th out of 8 teams in the Metropolitan Division. Whether it’s Philly.com, ESPN.com, CBS Sports, The Hockey News, SB Nation, or Bleacher Report, all of them have the Flyers finishing 6th and missing the playoffs, finishing ahead of only Carolina and New Jersey. There are some developments that could occur that might bump the Flyers up a spot in the Metropolitan and get them closer to the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, but I just don’t know if I see it happening for the Orange & Black this year.
I try to guard myself against overreaction, but I have to admit that I was a little disheartened when the Flyers sent pretty much all of their promising prospects back down to the AHL or their respective teams in juniors very early in training camp. That was the beginning of the “Nope…same old, same old” feeling I had about this team in the preseason. Look, none of us are there, and we don’t see what needs to be worked on by certain players, but…man, give us something shiny and new to look at!
Yes, Scott Laughton has made the roster (we’ll be getting to that in a bit), but this group of forwards is almost identical to the group that led the Flyers to finish 21st out of 30 teams last season with 2.59 goals per game. Not that all of that is bad, of course, as Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek form what is obviously one of the NHL’s best one-two scoring punches. Wayne Simmonds is still a bull in front of the net and a lot of us are expecting to see more out of Sean Couturier under the new coaching staff.
With that said, there’s a lot to this forward group that should give Flyer fans pause. Yes, we all know the defense leaves a lot to be desired. At the same time, the offensive depth is just as much of a problem in my opinion. We’re now talking about a breakout year from Brayden Schenn for the third straight year. Will it finally happen? There is just not much that would scare me as an opponent on the 3rd or 4th lines. Matt Read and R.J. Umberger are healthy and can hopefully contribute a lot more than last year, but are these really guys that you envision when you think of a Cup contender that can roll out four dangerous lines? Are Chris Vandevelde, Ryan White, and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare legitimate bottom-six forwards on an actual Cup contender? Will Vinny Lecavalier spend the majority of this season as the NHL’s most expensive healthy scratch?
Defensively, this team is pretty much the same with the exception of a few guys, and that is not a good thing. We know that Mark Streit and Michael Del Zotto can move the puck and quarterback a power play, but are not what you would consider solid defenders. Luke Schenn is a slow, stay-at-home guy who is still only with the team because his contract comes off the books after this season (unlike Andrew MacDonald, who will be discussed later). Nick Schultz had a decent year last season, but is not somebody that should see substantial minutes on a bona-fide contender.
How about a returning facet of the game that should be looked at as a positive? Hi there, Steve Mason! In his second season as the Flyers’ goaltender, he finished third in the NHL in save percentage at .928 and sixth in goals-against-average at 2.25. You never really hear his name mentioned among the NHL’s elite goaltenders, but compared to what the Flyers have had previously in the net, Mason has been a godsend. I wonder a little bit about his mental state playing in front of this defense, especially at times when the offense is not scoring, but you can’t deny what he’s done for this team.
Well, the obvious big change for the Flyers this season will be seen on the bench, where Dave Hakstol makes the rarely-seen leap from heading up a college program to becoming a head coach in the NHL. I like a lot of what I’ve seen and heard about Hakstol so far. His style seems to focus on aggression, particularly when it comes to forechecking, which should make the team even more fun to watch. Unfortunately, Hakstol’s style seems like it needs more in the way of speedy players, which the Flyers don’t appear to have enough of at this point. That issue will more than likely be rectified by general manager Ron Hextall.
Speaking of Hexy, we’ve seen some pretty bold moves by him both in the offseason, and more recently when it came down to making roster cuts. The big news was that he put Andrew MacDonald and his massive contract on waivers. Not surprisingly, MacDonald went unclaimed, so he’s off to Lehigh Valley for the foreseeable future. In addition, highly paid players such as Vinny Lecavalier and Sam Gagner (acquired in an amazing deal that sent the statue that is Nick Grossmann and the contract of Chris Pronger to Arizona) will sit as healthy scratches to start the season. A lot of times, guys with bloated contracts eat up undeserved playing time simply because teams figure they might as well get something for their money. Under Hextall’s watch it looks like the best players will play, regardless of contract size.
As far as some of the new faces go, 2012 first-round pick Scott Laughton has made the team out of training camp for what will hopefully be a permanent basis. The Flyers have a bit of a logjam at center, but it appears that is where Laughton will start. He’ll be counted on to play a two-way game, possibly taking up some of the defensive center responsibilities that Couturier had handled in an effort to give Couturier more of a chance to take face-offs in the offensive zone.
The other big addition to the roster is defenseman Evgeny Medvedev, who makes his NHL debut after a career in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League that saw him make four all-star teams. I think there may be an initial adjustment period for the 33-year-old, but it would not surprise me in the least to see him become the Flyers’ best defenseman by the end of the year. He appears to be in the mold of Streit and Del Zotto, a guy that can skate with the puck and set up the power play. From what I’ve seen, he will start the season paired with Luke Schenn.
Defenseman Brandon Manning looks like he will start the season with the big club after impressing in an 11-game stint last season after he was called up from Lehigh Valley. He will start the season paired with Del Zotto. Radko Gudas, a defenseman who came over last year from Tampa in the Braydon Coburn deal but did not play due to injury, will start the season as a healthy scratch, but you may see him paired with Medvedev on nights he does play. Michal Neuvirth should provide an upgrade to Ray Emery as Mason’s backup in goal.
One more under-the-radar change for the Flyers (and the rest of the NHL) is the move to 3-on-3 play in overtime. This should increase the amount of ice space that players have to work with and, in theory, will cause more games to end in overtime. This would eliminate the need for the shootout, which is quite possibly the best possible thing for the Flyers. As we’ve all seen over the past two seasons, they are historically atrocious when it comes to shootouts, almost bordering on impossible due to the law of averages. Let’s hope that this rule change allows for the skill players that the Flyers do have to end games before we get to the dreaded shootout.
I think that there is a good chance this team’s play can be improved from last season without seeing any kind of gain in the standings to show for it. The Metropolitan Division should get the bulk of the Eastern Conference’s playoff entrants, and the division is just a little too stacked for the Flyers to keep pace. Can all of the experts really be wrong about this team? I don’t believe so, and I am going to take the easy road by throwing in with them and predicting the Flyers to finish sixth in the Metropolitan while missing the playoffs again. I have a fair amount of optimism for the Flyers in the coming years, but they are just saddled with too many unproductive big contracts to make a move in the standings just yet.
What about the rest of the league? After all, what good is a preview without predictions to put your name on? Here are mine (x denotes a playoff team):
Eastern Conference Finals: Tampa Bay over Washington
Western Conference Finals: Anaheim over LA
Stanley Cup Finals: Tampa Bay over Anaheim
Hart Trophy (most valuable player to his team): John Tavares, NY Islanders
Art Ross Trophy (league leader in regular season points): Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh
Norris Trophy (top defenseman): Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay
Vezina Trophy (top goalie): Henrik Lundqvist, NY Rangers
Rocket Richard Trophy (league leader in regular season goals): Alexander Ovechkin, Washington
Calder Trophy (rookie of the year): Jack Eichel, Buffalo
Selke Trophy (best defensive forward): Jonathan Toews, Chicago
Lady Byng Trophy (best sportsmanship): Anze Kopitar, LA Kings
Jack Adams Trophy (best coach): Barry Trotz, Washington