As the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs approach, NHL teams will start getting mathematically eliminated from contention. PHT’s “What Went Wrong” series aims to analyze why each team missed the playoffs. The “What Went Wrong” series continues with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Here’s something you might not have noticed. From 2011-12 and on, the Flyers have rotated seasons when they’ve made the playoffs, then missed the postseason. If the season ended in an even year (2011-12, 2013-14, and so on), they were in the playoffs. If it ended odd, like in 2012-13 or, say, 2020-21, then the Flyers missed out.
Such ebbs and flows were easier to stomach when Ron Hextall was painstakingly rebuilding a roster that had been dilapidated by a reckless (albeit, fun-for-bloggers) Paul Holmgren regime.
After a nice push to Round 2 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the future looked pretty bright for the Flyers, including in 2020-21.
You could argue about how soon GM Chuck Fletcher might deliver a true contender, but it seemed like things were on the upswing.
Instead, the 2020-21 season was a jarring faceplant for the Flyers. Carter Hart went from being the second coming of Carey Price to, perhaps, the Carey Price that many mainstream hockey people sometimes refuse to see.
(OK, even the 2017-18 Carey Price didn’t struggle like Hart did for the 2020-21 Flyers.)
Let’s dive in on a massively disappointing 2020-21 season for the Flyers.
What went wrong before the Flyers’ 2020-21 season
If you’ve followed a decent proportion of Flyers people, they’d devote multiple paragraphs to the surprise retirement of Matt Niskanen.
Should the Flyers have worked harder to find a replacement, though? By forfeiting his 2020-21 salary, the Flyers had about $8.6M in cap space to work with after Niskanen retired.
Fletcher didn’t totally rest on his laurels, although even an optimist would’ve found it a stretch to say that Erik Gustafsson was more than a Band-Aid. In hindsight, maybe the Flyers should’ve been more aggressive in seeking a trade?
Regardless, that was definitely a tough situation for the Flyers. There were other decisions that might have given the Flyers more leeway in 2020-21, though.
Rather than hoping Brian Elliott would work out better than previous seasons, would the Flyers have been better off forking over more dough for a more established backup? Such a plan would have made it seem a little bit less like the position was Carter Hart or bust.
It’s possible that the Flyers played over their heads at times last season, creating a mirage heading into 2020-21. But few saw this level of misery coming.
What went wrong during the Flyers’ 2020-21 season
Woof, it’s hard not to pin a lot of the blame on Carter Hart, or the Flyers’ goaltending as a whole.
Consider this. In 69 games in 2019-20, the Flyers allowed 196 goals. Through 55 games in 2020-21, the Flyers gave up 199 goals.
Again, a lot of that straight-up falls on the goalies.
Based on Hockey Reference’s version of Goals Saved Above Average, Carter Hart was the worst this season (-22.71 GSAA), and Brian Elliott ranked second worst (-14.45). Allowing essentially 36-37 more goals than expected? Yeah, that’s not going to do your team many favors.
Now, by a wide variety of advanced stats, the 2020-21 Flyers weren’t necessarily a “dominant” team. But the numbers indicate that they should have at least been more competitive.
No doubt, it’s not fair to place all of the blame on Hart and the Flyers goalies. Some, for instance, believe that Alain Vigneault didn’t handle Hart’s struggles very well.
I heard @KevinWeekes speaking about this today in regards to the way Carter Hart has been handled. @KevinWeekes, I agree with you 1000%. #athletesarepeopletoo pic.twitter.com/Hf0l4wptwn
— Ben Meisner (@ben_meisner) March 31, 2021
But there’s also a cutoff point where goaltending sinks enough to throw a team off balance. That definitely happened at times in 2020-21 for the Flyers, and they need to find answers. Maybe it boils down to investing in a heartier backup? (Frankly, it was a mild upset that Brian Elliott remained in the NHL, at least beyond being a third goalie option, like Aaron Dell in Toronto.)
What went right
The good and bad news is that some veteran Flyers played very well in 2020-21.
While Claude Giroux won’t prompt Peter Laviolette to call him the best player in the world any longer, he ranked among the best Flyers players in 2020-21. James van Riemsdyk also enjoyed a better season than expected. Injuries limited Sean Couturier a bit, but he still delivered.
Consider where those players ranked on this GAR chart for the 2020-21 Flyers, via Evolving Hockey:
Now, ideally, Ivan Provorov‘s value would match his reputation. And maybe Nolan Patrick would inspire a bit more, um, hope.
Yet, even positives like that come with caveats. It must feel like a waste to squander late-prime years from Giroux (33), JVR (32), and Jakub Voracek (31). Even Couturier (28) and Kevin Hayes (29) might need to think about hiding Father Time’s glasses soon.
But, hey, at least Giroux and other veterans might still bring something to the table. That could make trades possible. More realistically, it could also allow them to raise the Flyers’ ceiling — if others can start to step up.
Follow the Push for the Playoffs to keep track of the Flyers’ 2021 NHL Draft Lottery odds. This offseason figures to be a big test for Chuck Fletcher, and easy answers aren’t especially abundant.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.