(Photo by Amy Irvin/38 Photography)
Last week, we took a look at reasons to remain optimistic about this year’s Philadelphia Flyers. Despite being an obviously limited team, the Flyers are strong in several areas and could feasibly ride those strengths to a playoff birth.
This week, we are going to explore reasons to agree with the much more commonly voiced opinion that the Flyers are not a playoff team this year. Several barriers, only some of which are under their control, will stand between the Flyers and a postseason birth. Defensive limitations and strong opponents are amongst several reasons to think that this spring will find the Flyers on the outside looking in.
1. THE DEFENSIVE UNIT
Okay, this one was extremely obvious. Anybody who follows the team with even the slightest bit of regularity could tell you that the defensive unit will be the Flyers main drawback this year.
The unit features only one defenseman who has proven that he can serve in a top pairing role at the NHL level. That player is 37 years old. The consensus 2nd best defenseman on the roster has not played an NHL game yet in his career. Every other defenseman on the roster is arguably a bottom pairing guy on a contending team.
As you can clearly see below, the unit is extremely lacking when it comes to defensemen who can suppress shots.
Statistics via Puckalytics.com
At best, this unit is one that can maximize it’s offensive strengths while allowing a strong forward group to cover for it’s weaknesses. At worst, it’s a bottom 5 unit that will simply drag the team out of playoff contention entirely. “Able to be carried” is probably the nicest thing you’ll hear me say about the defensive unit this fall, and that doesn’t bode well for the Flyers.
2. THE METROPOLITAN DIVISION
While the Flyers are seemingly icing a better group than they did when the puck dropped last October, it’s difficult to say that they’ve surpassed any of their Metropolitan Division opponents. The Pittsburgh Penguins added Phil Kessel and will be getting Olli Mattaa back. The Washington Capitals added TJ Oshie and Justin Williams to an already-strong roster. The Columbus Blue Jackets, who were one of the top teams in the NHL over the final few months last season, added Brandon Saad. Both the Rangers and Islanders are returning nearly every important piece from their strong rosters of last year.
It’s a huge improbability that the Flyers will finish on top of PIT, NYR, NYI or WSH. Even if they can finish on top of the Blue Jackets, they’ll have to also top the fourth team in the Atlantic Division, which will probably be Boston, Florida or Ottawa. It won’t be an easy task.
The Flyers did get marginally better this offseason, but I’m not sure they did quite enough to bridge the gap between themselves and the division’s top teams.
3. STEVE MASON WILL PROBABLY TAKE A STEP BACK
Last week, we discussed how the Flyers only real way into the postseason would be to ride strong goaltending and an elite power play unit. Steve Mason, who is coming off of a career best .928 save percentage, would obviously be a huge part of that.
The problem here is that we simply cannot expect Mason to achieve those numbers again. As elite as Mason was last season, the odds greatly favor him taking a step back towards his career averages. That certainly is not to say that Mason will be bad; Even his career averages have climbed to a respectable level over the past two seasons. It’s surely still a possibility that he will put up the same elite numbers he did last year. Chances are, however, that he will put up ‘average’ or ‘good’ numbers during a season when the Flyers will simply need better to sneak into the playoffs.
4. THE FLYERS ARE A GIROUX OR VORACEK INJURY AWAY FROM BEING E x t r e m e l y B a d
I’ve already established that the Flyers are a team who will need to really ride their strengths if they want to be in contention. Aside from Steve Mason, their biggest strengths come in the form of dual superstars Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. Both at even strength and on the power play, a huge amount of the Flyers’ offense ran through Giroux and Voracek last season. Only two duos in the NHL combined for more points. And they still came up short of a playoff birth.
Now pretend that one of those guys is out of the picture for a significant timeframe. Oof. The thought of the Flyers trying to contend without either Giroux or Voracek is shuddering.
Luckily this is a problem that the Flyers did not need to face last season. Giroux and Voracek played 163 out of 164 possible games between the two of them. Things went well for basically the entire season. While there’s no reason to expect either of them to get hurt this year, their health isn’t something that can be taken for granted. We saw what injuries did to a strong Blue Jackets team last season. When dealing with a limited and top-heavy roster, health becomes just one more star that has to align in order for them to be in the mix.