PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The Philadelphia Flyers are going global as they embark on a new era with a familiar goal in mind: capture that elusive Stanley Cup they’ve been looking for since 1975. More importantly, though, the Flyers are in search to snap another drought.
The Flyers haven’t won a playoff series since 2012. It’s been 10 years since they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final. All went wrong last year.
Now they open the 2019-20 season against Chicago in Prague, Czech Republic, at 2 p.m. ET on Friday in the 2019 NHL Global Series.
Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher made sweeping changes on the coaching staff and added a few fresh faces onto the roster but mostly stayed the course.
With that in mind, how much better are the Flyers this season and will they finally win a playoff series? Let’s take a look at what to expect in the 2019-20 season.
The Flyers’ offseason didn’t bring the type of changes many may have expected after how last season went. Fletcher didn’t blow up the core, didn’t really shake things up too much. Instead, he made marginal upgrades on defense and solidified the team’s top-six.
Fletcher’s biggest move was acquiring Kevin Hayes’ negotiating rights and then signing the 27-year-old to a seven-year, $50 million contract to be the team’s second-line center. Hayes allows the Flyers to move 20-year-old Nolan Patrick, when healthy, to the third line.
Patrick’s development last season didn’t take the step forward the Flyers banked on. Hayes’ presence in the top six gives the Flyers a bona-fide top-six forward.
With Patrick dealing with a migraine disorder the team knew about since June, Hayes’ addition becomes even more important. Patrick will miss the start of the season, and it could be a lingering issue throughout the season — if not longer.
On the blue line, Fletcher traded bruising defenseman Radko Gudas to the Washington Capitals for veteran Matt Niskanen, and also acquired Justin Braun from the San Jose Sharks in a separate trade.
Niskanen and Braun, both right-handed defensemen with a laundry list of experience and accolades, serve upgrades around the margins while not blocking the youth movement. Niskanen is expected to partner with Ivan Provorov, while Braun should play mostly with either Shayne Gostisbehere or Travis Sanheim.
Braun has one year left on his contract with a $3.8 million cap hit. Niskanen has two years left at a $5.75 million cap hit. Neither are long-term solutions, but both bring a lot of qualities the Flyers’ defense has lacked in the past few seasons.
The defensemen should help the Flyers on the ice as well as help push along the development of Provorov, Sanheim and the other young defenders. Braun doesn’t play a sexy game, but his leadership and experience will bring more to the table than advanced stats will show.
What should excite Flyers fans was Fletcher’s willingness to allow their highly-touted prospects to compete for the bottom-six roles in training camp, and the competition resulted in two rookies cracking the opening-night roster.
Connor Bunnaman, a 2016 fourth-round pick, and Carsen Twarynski, a 2016 third-rounder, made the team as fourth-line players.
Joel Farabee, the 14th overall pick in 2018, soon could join them too after an impressive preseason. Farabee was sent to the AHL on Tuesday, but that may simply be for the Flyers to become cap compliant. If Farabee does start the year in Lehigh Valley, he probably won’t be there long.
Veteran Tyler Pitlick is another newcomer. Pitlick has flashed some offensive upside in the past, scoring 14 goals and 27 points in 80 games with the Dallas Stars two seasons ago but was hampered by injuries last season.
Pitlick missed most of training camp and preseason with a wrist injury, so expectations should be tempered a bit. When he returns, he could push Bunnaman or Twarynski to the AHL.
The most important changes Fletcher made this offseason were to the coaching staff by bringing in a head coach with a rich history of success and then filling up the rest of the staff with two former NHL head coaches. It’s a dynamic that will be interesting to watch as it unfolds.
Alain Vigneault brings a winning pedigree to the Flyers. The 2007 Jack Adams Award winner has taken two teams to the Stanley Cup Final and his teams have won the President’s Trophy three times. There’s no debating the success Vigneault-coached teams have had, and that should be welcomed.
If history repeats, then Vigneault should have this Flyers team competing quickly. Throughout his career, Vigneault teams have had success almost immediately.
What turned heads was how Vigneault and Fletcher divvied up the rest of the staff. The Flyers hired Michel Therrien and Mike Yeo — Therrien will handle the forwards and power play while Yeo will coach the defense and penalty kill. Ian Laperriere remains on staff, but in a different role.
The interesting aspect of bringing Therrien and Yeo on board is that both have reputations of being hard on players at times with old-school philosophies. But again, they both bring experience to the table with track records of success.
Therrien brought the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008-09. Yeo has made the playoffs in five of his eight seasons as a head coach.
With Vigneault, Therrien and Yeo, Fletcher is banking on their experience unlocking another level that much of this core hasn’t been able to achieve yet. If these coaches can’t do it, then perhaps Fletcher will have to push that nuclear button and blow it up completely.
Can This Core Win?
When examining this roster, the Flyers have a good, young nucleus coming up through the ranks and on the NHL roster. But the core of the team remains the same. Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier have been together since 2011-12, with Giroux being around even longer.
Giroux sits firmly as one of the best Flyers of all time, and if he stays in the orange and black for the rest of his career, he very well could surpass Bobby Clarke as the team’s all-time leading scorer. At the very least, it’s probable he’ll finish second all-time.
But as is the case with any team sports, winning is the ultimate decider. Giroux was part of the Flyers team that made the Cup run in 2009-10, but he hasn’t been able to get back since. How much of that falls on the superstar’s shoulders is a debate for another day.
Fletcher’s faith in the current core is evident by his personnel and coaching decisions thus far as GM. There was a strong case for Fletcher to come in and clean house from the top and start over. Instead, his moves have signaled he believes the Flyers can win with Giroux and Voracek.
If the Flyers don’t take a leap forward this season, though, then that question very well could become a very real possibility. If this team doesn’t return to the postseason and at least compete in a series, Fletcher may have to shake things up by breaking the core up.
That’s a long way from now, and this team does have promise even if the general feel around it isn’t all that exciting. The Flyers can win with the core, and while this might not be the season that ends the Stanley Cup drought, there is reason to be optimistic.
Hart Of Gold
The optimism surrounding the Flyers has much to do with goalie Carter Hart. The 21-year-old netminder showed he belonged last season once he received the call-up, and now the Flyers appear to have that goalie they’ve been searching for since bungling the Sergei Bobrovsky situation and, well, well before that too.
After the circus the Flyers went through last season in net — partially bad luck with injuries, partially goaltending malpractice by the previous front office — any stability this season will be welcomed. The Flyers went through five goalies last year before calling up the prized prospect in December. They finished with eight.
Hart helped steady a crease and proved that the excitement around his storied junior career was for real. He won 16 games while appearing in 31 games and posting a .917 save percentage with a 2.83 goals against average.
Make no mistake, Hart has the potential to be as good as a goalie this franchise has had since Ron Hextall — and the preseason didn’t do anything to quiet the hype train. Hart finished preseason action against NHL teams with a .982 save percentage, stopping 56 of 57 shots.
Hart isn’t going to start 65 games — that’s just not how hockey is anymore — so he’ll share the net with Brian Elliott, but he’ll receive the brunt of the workload.
This season will likely come down to this: The Flyers will go as far as Hart takes them.
Many pegged the Flyers as a playoff team last season with the potential of winning a playoff series. Then everything went wrong. The general manager was fired. Then shortly after, the head coach. The Flyers made a run, but ultimately couldn’t dig themselves out of the ditch they dug themselves.
The Flyers finished 11th in the Eastern Conference with 82 points — a far cry (16 points) from the final playoff spot.
Last season is behind them. With a new coaching staff, an upgrade at 2C and what should certainly be an upgraded defensive unit with an actual goalie, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the 2019-20 season.
Hart is the real difference maker here. If he is what many believe he is, then the Flyers very well will be in the mix for a playoff spot. Then who knows. Get to the dance, anyone can win it — just look at last season’s St. Louis Blues.
But the one clear area the Flyers absolutely must improve is cutting down on goals against. They had a minus-37 goal differential last season, with 244 goals for and 281 goals against — which was the third most in the NHL.
Special teams are another aspect the Flyers have to improve. Their penalty kill finished 26th in the league at a 78.5% kill rate and has been a problem over the past five seasons. The power play also took a step back, finishing at 17.1% — roughly three percentage points lower than 2017-18.
The view from here, though, is the Flyers will be a playoff team again. Vigneault has a strong track record and with Hart, anything is possible.