(Photo by Amy Irvin/38 Photography)
As the Flyers look to bounce back from a disappointing 2014-15, most analysts and bookkeepers are projecting that they will miss the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since 1993-94. The reasoning is fairly obvious; They are bringing a very similar roster to the table this year against a difficult Metropolitan division. While those concerns are without a doubt legitimate ones, there are several reasons to remain confident.
Ron Hextall was able to make a couple important tweaks to a roster that was already strong in some areas. Whether those tweaks will be enough to propel them to a playoff birth remains to be seen. Either way, lets take a look at why you should be optimistic about the Flyers’ postseason chances this season.
In hockey, goaltending can truly be the great equalizer. Just last year, we saw Carey Price lead a team that was behind the Flyers in raw possession stats to a 110 point season.
In 2014-15, the Flyers finished 19th in team Sv% despite getting .928 goaltending from Steve Mason. Poor play from the backup tandem of Ray Emery and Rob Zepp hurt the Flyers dearly, especially as Mason missed time throughout the season. After bringing on Michal Neuvirth to back up Mason this year, backup goaltending will not be a concern for the Flyers. The career .912 goaltender will be a very clear improvement over Emery and Zepp.
If Mason is able to come even somewhat close to his stellar numbers from last season, the Flyers should stand firmly in the top 10 league-wide when it comes to save percentage. If both Mason and Neuvirth perform to their full potential, they could be one of the better tandems in the league. That type of performance is what puts borderline teams over the hump. We saw it happen it Ottawa last year, and there’s no reason it can’t happen in Philadelphia this year.
2. THE POWER PLAY
Over the past few seasons, the Flyers biggest strength has arguably been their power play. Philadelphia’s power play has not finished lower than 7th league-wide since 2010-11. That will not be changing this fall. In fact, we should see the power play take a small step forward.
It’s no secret that the first power play unit is going to be deadly. Claude Giroux is one of the best special teams players in the game. Jakub Voracek is getting there. Schenn, Simmonds and Streit all bring a lot to the table with the man advantage.
This time around, it’s the improvement of the second unit that should be taking the power play to the next level. While the success of the first unit drove the Flyers to a 23.4% success rate last season, the second unit struggled through most of the season. The addition of both Sam Gagner and Yevgeni Medvedev will be extremely helpful. A mended Matt Read and an older, wiser Sean Couturier should both be able to improve on their man advantage play from last year. The unit could also get a boost if Shayne Gostisbehere and his lethal slapshot return to Philadelphia later this season. If the Flyers can get this second unit to click, they could be looking at the most successful power play in the league.
Since the 2000-01 season, 48 different teams have been amongst the top 10 league-wide in both power play percentage and save percentage. 43 of them have made the playoffs. We’ve seen teams like this in the past who would routinely frustrate opponents by winning games despite being dominated at even strength. If the Flyers can put both of these strengths together, they could become that team this season. It might just be enough for them to snag a postseason birth.
3. YEVGENI MEDVEDEV
A couple weeks ago, we looked at the defensive unit and how they might have trouble suppressing shots. The loss of Braydon Coburn is a devastating blow to a unit that already struggled in that regard.
It’s too early to say it with complete certainty, but it looks like Yevgeni Medvedev could go a long way towards filling the void that Coburn left behind. In preseason action (yes, it’s preseason), Medvedev has clearly stood out as one of the top defensemen. The 33 year old KHL all star makes sound decisions with the puck, plays aggressively in the neutral zone, and contributes on both the power play and the penalty kill.
If these games are any indication of Medvedev’s value to this roster, he will be a vitally important addition. A defenseman that can handle a top 4 role while contributing on special teams could absolutely be the difference maker on a borderline playoff team.
4. IMPROVED DEPTH SCORING
Aside from the obvious defensive shortcomings, secondary scoring at even strength was the Flyers’ biggest problem last season. While the composition of their forward corps is largely the same as last year’s, some small changes should help the middle six take a step forward this fall.
First off, the addition of Sam Gagner will help. Gagner produced more at even strength last year than all but 2 Flyers forwards. The 26 year old will assuredly be an improvement to the middle 6 as they look to increase production with Giroux and Voracek off the ice.
A pair of forwards returning from injury should also give the Flyers a boost. Various injuries to both RJ Umberger and Matt Read greatly limited their production last season. The result was a Couturier-centered third line that struggled to produce consistently at even strength. If those two (especially Read) can return to their form from previous seasons, it will help both their own production and Couturier’s as well.
The fourth line should be a small step up from what it was last year. Ron Hextall demonstrated his commitment to a productive fourth line this summer, resigning both Ryan White and Chris Vandevelde while saying goodbye to Zac Rinaldo. A full season of reliability from the fourth line and some occasional production will help the team.
[NOTE: If this piece has you feeling too optimistic, please stay tuned for the next piece, entitled Reasons That The Flyers Will Miss The Playoffs. Thank you.]