It has turned into a yearly question that never seems to have an easy answer. Just how good are the Flyers?
On any given night, during any given stretch, they can either look like the best team in the world, or a team that is steamrolling toward doom. They can win 10 games in a row just as easily as they can lose 10 in a row, and either outcome seems equally likely. We have seen it time and time again.
Once one of the most consistent franchises in the league, the Flyers have spent the past nine years alternating between making the playoffs and missing the playoffs in a decade long run of mediocrity.
It has been 10 seasons since they have put together consecutive playoff appearances. Will that change this season?
Entering the 2020-21 NHL season, there is reason to be both optimistic and concerned about what this season could bring.
Let’s start with the positives
• They finished the 2019-20 season near the top of the league.
Their overall record was sixth best in the NHL at the time of the March pause, a finish that was driven by a 25-game stretch to end the season where they had the best record in hockey (18-6-1), had the best goal-differential (plus-31), scored the most goals (91), and allowed the second fewest goals (60).
They went into the playoffs as the hottest team in the league, won all three Round-Robin games to secure the top-seed in the Eastern Conference, then beat the Canadiens in six games. They were a Game 7 loss to the Islanders away from making their first trip to the Eastern Conference Final in more than 10 years.
• They have a nice mix of established top-line players, as well as young up-and-coming talent. Sean Couturier is one of the best two-way players in the league and while they are no longer elite scorers, Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek are still strong contributors. Travis Konecny, just now entering his prime, is turning into a sensational player, while Joel Farabee and Philippe Myers are coming off strong rookie seasons and should be ready to take big steps forward this season. Add in veterans like Kevin Hayes and James van Riemsdyk and there is a lot of talent here.
• Most importantly, they finally have a goalie in Carter Hart.
So what are the concerns?
• The late season success and playoff run produced fantastic results. But results are not always the best indicator of what is going to happen next. The process behind those results matters as well, and that is where there might be a little bit of concern.
While the Flyers were stacking up wins late in the season and in postseason, there is reason to believe that it was simply one of the Flyers’ patented hot streaks that may not be sustainable.
• During that 25-game stretch to end the regular season they scored on more than 10 percent of their shots during 5-on-5 play and close to 12 percent of their shots in all situations. Both numbers led the league. That, simply, is not a sustainable number. No team — not even Tampa, or Toronto, or Washington, or Pittsburgh, or any other elite offensive team — scores on that many shots over a full season.
For example, only one team finished the 2019-20 with a shooting percentage of more than 11 percent (Tampa) in all situations, and no team finished with a mark higher than 9.7 percent during 5-on-5 play. Those numbers for the Flyers are going to regress.
While their skaters were shooting the lights out, they were also getting an insane level of goaltending from Hart and Brian Elliott.
Those two factors made up for the fact that the Flyers’ underlying numbers (shot attempts, scoring chances, expected goals) were only middle of the pack across the league. The process was not exactly matching the results.
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• In the playoffs, the underlying numbers became even worse. They were outshot, outchanced, and at times outplayed on a consistent basis even as the wins continued to pile up.
How did they keep winning and go as far as they did? Hart played his butt off in the playoffs.
The twist here being that after otherwise great Flyers teams were sabotaged by sub-par goaltending for two decades come playoff time, this team was almost certainly carried by its goalie.
• At the moment the only significant change to the roster has been Erik Gustafsson coming in to replace the retired Matt Niskanen on defense. That is probably a downgrade, but it should allow for Myers to take on a bigger role. Which is promising based on his rookie season.
So what is the outlook?
You should be hesitant to put much stock into any team’s playoff results or process from this past season. It was a unique set of circumstances where teams had to come back after not playing for months and jump right into the most competitive games of the season in an unprecedented setting. Things were weird. Weird stuff happened.
It is probably far more worthwhile to look at how they finished the regular season and the way they were playing then. As mentioned above, the process was not exactly matching the result. It was necessarily bad, it simply was not what you would expect to see from a team that was putting together the best record in the league. That run may have been a small mirage.
The reality is this season seems to be setting up for another year of madness in Philadelphia. There is enough talent to make this a playoff team, and maybe even a very good one, especially if Hart keeps progressing and young players like Farabee and Myers take another big step forward. That does not even take into account the complete wild card that is Nolan Patrick.
But there are also enough variables (shooting regression; will the goaltending hold up; defense?) that could make things go in a completely different direction.