Is this the year the Flyers snap their Stanley Cup drought?
After a slow start to the season, the Philadelphia Flyers were among the hottest teams in the league in March, garnering attention as a possible Stanley Cup contender in the Eastern Conference.
That was just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The Flyers were on a stretch that included 12 wins in 15 games, highlighted by an impressive nine-game winning streak days before the NHL suspended its season.
The NHL has since announced plans for a return to play with a new playoff format, and dates and venues will be released soon. The Flyers ended the regular season with the fourth-best points percentage in the Eastern Conference, earning a spot in the round robin portion of the new format.
The Flyers have not won a Stanley Cup since 1975. They’ve since been to the Stanley Cup Final on six different occasions, only to come away empty-handed. Is this the year the drought ends?
Carter Hart faces new test in postseason
Goaltending is vital to a team making a run at the Stanley Cup, and the Flyers certainly appear to have a good one for the future in Carter Hart.
Selected in the second round of the 2016 NHL Draft, Hart has burst onto the scene with a relatively quick ascension. He’s still only 21 years old, which is young for an NHL starting goaltender since the average age of entry for goalies into the NHL is 23 years old.
This is Hart’s second season with the Flyers. As a rookie, he posted 16 wins in 30 starts with an impressive .917 save percentage. This season, he had a record of 24-13-3 in 43 games and a .914 save percentage.
Hart has been lights out at home, with a 20-3-2 record and a whopping .943 save percentage. On the road, however, it’s been ugly, with a 4-10-2 record and .857 save percentage. He was also sidelined with an abdominal injury earlier in the year.
The bigger test will come in the playoffs, which are expected to begin at the end of July.
Hart has never played an NHL postseason game, but despite a lack of experience in that aspect, he’ll be on equal ground with others in his goaltending fraternity; none of them have experienced a sudden suspension to a regular season due to a pandemic, or faced so much uncertainty about a return to play while adjusting to a completely new format.
Flyers flying under the radar?
It's hard to imagine this phrase applying to a team that earned the nickname Broad Street Bullies, but the Flyers might not be on everyone’s radar when it comes to being one of the legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
The Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Washington Capitals are all ahead of Philadelphia in winning percentage, and will play against each other in the round robin format.
The Bruins were Stanley Cup finalists a year ago, and are at the top of BetAmerica Extra's NHL power rankings released earlier this month. The Tampa Bay Lightning won the 2019 Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top regular season team, and the Capitals are Stanley Cup champs from two years ago.
These are teams that have been at the top of the conference for some time, while the Flyers only now seem poised to re-emerge from the up-and-down days of the Dave Hakstol era.
Vigneault has Philly moving in the right direction
Under Alain Vigneault, a veteran NHL bench boss in his first year in Philadelphia, the Flyers are tied for seventh in total goals-for (227), they’re tied for the seventh-best goals-against rate (2.77), and sixth in goals-for per 60 minutes at five-on-five (2.79). They’ve managed to score at decent rates, despite not having a single player in the top 30 for points, or in the top 40 for goals.
The Flyers have been decent defensively, allowing only 2.44 goals-against per 60 minutes at five-on-five, and they’ve allowed the fewest shots-against per game in the league.
To win in the playoffs, the Flyers would likely also need an uptick on special teams. They have the 11th best penalty kill and 14th best power play – both of which are not bad. But in the playoffs, one, if not both, needs to get hot at the right time.
The turnaround in Philadelphia has pushed Vigneault’s name into the conversation as a possible frontrunner for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.
The future is bright
There is plenty to like about the direction the Flyers were heading in before this season was put on ice. They should be considered a Stanley Cup contender when the season resumes and the new 24-team format gets underway. Winning it all, however, requires many elements that will need to fall the Flyers’ way.
The opportunity could be there, and they should not be easily dismissed for the three powers above them in the East, but it’s likely the drought will continue for at least another year.