After Wednesday evening’s game against the Washington Capitals, the Flyers bumped themselves within one point of 1st place in the Metropolitan Division. Thursday night, they promptly picked up another two points, Washington grabbed one in an OT loss, and just like that, the Flyers are in first place. However, it’s not as though the Flyers haven’t been here before. And, after a fair amount of criticism for how current Flyers ownership has handled everything, from free agency to ticket prices, plus the overall team performance and coaching over the past few years, Flyers fans have many reasons to be skeptical. Is this team for real? Is this a mirage? Will the team crash and burn come playoff time? Let’s take a look at the current state of the Flyers and see if we can hope, or if we should be cautious.
The Case for Hope
1) Alain Vigneault
As I’ve mentioned in the past, Vigneault’s teams tend to respond well to his system and coaching style in the first two years of his tenure. The Flyers had a bit of a bumpy start in his tenure and had a few moments where they looked like a team lacking structure, but that has changed drastically. They are excelling at special teams and look like a team energized game in and game out. From motivation to structure, the team is solid.
2) Low goals against
Of all the teams in the league, the Flyers have the second least goals against. The Flyers’ goaltending, statistically speaking, has been below league average, but it hasn’t mattered considering how few shots against the Flyers are allowing. Yet, the Flyers are not like the Devils teams of the ’90s. They are high flying offensively, yet super-tight defensively. This will be a huge positive once the playoffs hit, especially considering the Flyers can outscore teams based upon a balanced offense, but can also stifle teams through their defense.
3) High expected goals and analytics endorsements
Moneypuck.com recently pegged the Flyers as their Stanley Cup favorites. This is a huge endorsement, and mostly due to their high underlying numbers, stingy defense, and similarity to last year’s champion, the St. Louis Blues. Unlike the Blues last season, who were the worst team in the league until January and made a run with a rookie goalie and new coach from January until June, the Flyers have some higher consistency to their game. This should mean they are less likely to fall off come playoff time.
4) Getting “hot” at the right time
Like the Blues of last season, the Flyers are hot at the right time. From late January to present, the Flyers have been the best team in the NHL. This momentum could carry them into a long playoff run and build off of this success. Momentum isn’t measurable or quantifiable, but there is something to be said for a team’s ability to win in the postseason with late-season success.
Overall, this mix is a good reason to have hope! The Flyers have the makings and win records currently of a contender.
The Case for Skepticism
1) The Tampa Bay Factor
The Lightning notoriously went from the team with the highest point total of any team in NHL history to being swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 4 games last season. The playoffs are basically a reset, like a “new” season for those that qualify. Therefore, playoff success is never a guarantee. Rarely does the best team in the regular-season win the Stanley Cup championship. While this isn’t necessarily the case for the Flyers yet (they are a good team, but not with the most points), the wrong matchup could easily lead to the wrong result (like Toronto’s inability to surpass Boston in the first round three years in a row). An experienced team like Pittsburgh, who they may have to face in the first round, could be a difficult proposition. The playoffs bring no guarantees, even if the Flyers are trending in the right direction.
2) Below league average goaltending
While the future is bright with Carter Hart, the present is a bit average. In fact, it’s below average. While Hart’s numbers have surged on this current Flyers run, the team’s average save percentage is pretty low. As mentioned above, they have the second least goals against of any team in the league, but that is a testament to their defense more than their goaltending. The Flyers have found a way to persevere, but below-average goaltending will become an issue come playoff time. Hart is likely to have a long leash, and in the past, Elliott has been great insurance, but overall, Flyers goaltending could easily falter in a short series. In the playoffs, the Flyers can’t afford to give up a bad goal and will need Hart and Elliott to give them at least average goaltending to remain competitive.
So are the Flyers legit?
The 2019-2020 Flyers look like they are for real, and while there are some reasons to be skeptical, both the data and eye test show that the Flyers are certainly a playoff contender and likely a Cup contender this year. It’s a bit of a surprise but a welcomed one. While fans have a reason to be skeptical, they would also be right to have hope.