NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders. Flyers-Islanders stream coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
From a mathematical standpoint the Philadelphia Flyers still have some sort of playoff hope for this season. But it is fading, and fading fast. Realistically speaking, they should be looking ahead to next season, and based on their approach at the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline, they are already doing exactly that.
They enter Sunday’s game against the New York Islanders (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in sixth place in the East Division, four points back of the fifth place New York Rangers and eight points back of a Boston Bruins team that still has two games in hand. The Flyers not only have almost no margin for error within their own games, they are going to need some major help along the way. Even worse, they only have two games (both against the Rangers) against the two teams directly ahead of them.
Given how good the Flyers were a year ago when they finished with the sixth-best record in the league and the fourth-best goal differential, their 2020-21 performance has to be considered a massive disappointment on both an individual and team level. Entering Sunday, they are in 18th place in the league standings this season and 25th in goal differential.
There were injuries to key players (Konecny, Sean Couturier).
Then the biggest issue of them all — goaltending.
A common occurrence and problem with the Flyers over the past three decades. Carter Hart was supposed to be the player to change that, and after showing a ton of promise during his first two seasons — and even early this season — his season turned into a massive disappointment with injuries, poor play, and some questioning from his coach.
But it is not just Hart that has struggled in that area. Brian Elliott has also had a rough season, and when combined the Flyers rank 31st in both 5-on-5 save percentage (.890) and all situations save percentage (.878). It does not matter what the rest of your team looks like, you are going to have zero chance of competing for a playoff spot, let alone a championship, with that level of play in net. It just does not work. It ruins everything else on the roster.
While the Flyers do have some issues in their own zone, statistically speaking their defensive metrics have been solid for most of the season, at least as it relates to limiting shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances. It is worth asking what this team would look like with the version of Hart that we saw over his first two seasons in the league. It probably looks a heck of a lot better.
That has to be issue No. 1 for the Flyers going into next season — get Hart back on track.
He is the focal point of the next chapter of Flyers hockey, and the player that the whole thing is going to be built around. If he falters, the team is going to falter. If he success, well, guess what? The team is going to succeed. The talent level is absolutely there. He has shown flashes of being able to play at a high level, and he is still only 22 years old. It is not uncommon for young goalies to go through early struggles and then bounce back with great careers (Carey Price, Marc-Andre Fleury as some more recent examples).
But the Flyers can also help him by insulating him a little more with the defense in front of him.
Matt Niskanen’s retirement was a major development for the Flyers’ blue line coming into this season, compounded by the fact they did nothing to really address it in terms of an outside addition despite having a healthy amount of salary cap space. When you look at this Flyers defense it is pretty obvious they do not have that No. 1 guy that every Stanley Cup team has that can play a third of the game and excel in every possible situation. Shayne Gostisbehere never became that player. They sometimes treat Ivan Provorov like he is that player, but he is not. They are still useful players, and even very good players. But they are not the players that are going to lead a Stanley Cup caliber defense. At least not on their own.
Now, that is a difficult player to get. There are not many of them in the NHL, and they do not become available very often.
On the free agent market, Dougie Hamilton is the obvious choice but there are going to be 31 other teams (including his current team, Carolina) that are going to be lining up to try and sign him for major money.
Maybe Nashville explores a Mattias Ekholm trade again. Perhaps Columbus puts Zach Werenski on the market given his contract situation. Neither player is a true “No. 1,” but they would still represent a major upgrade to a unit that needs it.
No matter who it is or where they get it from, those are the two biggest factors that can get the Flyers back to where they should be.
Fix the goalie. Help the goalie get fixed by giving him more help in front of him.