Opening Night of the 2021 NHL season is upon us, and the Flyers will battle the Penguins in the league’s first contest.
Teams have had plenty of time to adapt to the current circumstances, including strict health protocols, limited or no fans, and making sacrifices to keep players and staff healthy.
This season will be unconventional, and the Flyers will need to make the most of every game this season to capitalize on the momentum gained from their 2020 playoff run as the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Twenty-six fewer games this season can make a world of difference. All it would take is a short winning streak for a fringe team to qualify for the playoffs.
If Philadelphia can address the following topics, they are poised to be a force in the second straight season.
Get the Young Guns Involved Early
A group of experienced veterans has led the Flyers for much of recent history. Still, they cannot rely on Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and even Sean Couturier to be the only contributors. In this shortened season, the talented youngsters need to get going early. By all accounts, Travis Konecny and Joel Farabee are poised to make big leaps this year and are vital to the Flyers’ chances of contending.
Konecny, 24, was the team’s leading scorer during the regular season before entering a cold spell in the playoffs. Farabee, 20, only played 52 games in the regular season but came up clutch in a few big moments during the playoffs. The Flyers can draw upon lessons learned from the past in this unusual season- during the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season, 20-year-old Brandon Saad was the fourth-highest regular-season scorer for the Blackhawks and was a focal point for the offense as they went on their Stanley Cup run. Along with future Hall-of-Famers Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks offense was spearheaded by young players.
This season will be a test, as there is no time for inconsistency and limited development time. The under-25 core of the Flyers must adapt to the circumstances and get involved early. If early line projections prove true, Lindblom and Konecny should be boosted by Couturier’s production, and Farabee will see more action playing alongside Giroux and Hayes.
Two Words: Nolan Patrick
Ah, yes. This list would not be complete without the former #2 overall draft pick. He could have been included on the prior bullet point, but he deserves his own category. Being a struggling athlete with high expectations in the most intense sports city in the country is not easy- ask Carson Wentz, Bryce Harper, or Markelle Fultz. Patrick’s absence from the team last season due to a migraine disorder left many fans feeling that his time in Philadelphia was seemingly over before it even took off.
The Flyers gave a 1-year, prove-it deal to the youngster as a last-ditch effort to revive his young Flyers career. Even before his prior-season absence, his production was lackluster, and he often found himself lost in a new system, playing a 1-dimensional game that demanded much more from him. He will be compared for the rest of his career to the draft selections after him, players like Cale Makar, Miro Heiskanen, and Elias Pettersson, all guys who have thrived in the spotlight.
For this season, however, Patrick could have an immense impact on the team. If he can make a jump in development similar to Oskar Lindblom, he could see increased minutes and insert some more firepower into an already impressive Philly offense. Having him paired up with guys like Travis Konecny and Sean Couturier could help him grow confidence throughout the season as he recovers and retools. Seeing a massive jump out of Patrick is somewhat unlikely but is certainly worth watching for as the 2021 season rolls along.
Consistency Between the Pipes
Philadelphia has long been seen as the place goaltenders come to waste away their careers. Long gone are Bryzgalov and Mason’s days, however, and Carter Hart has proven himself as the future of the franchise.
Unlike last season where the bulk of the regular season was shared between Hart and Brian Elliott, this year will likely see Hart as the premier starter with far fewer starts for Elliott. Hart’s 2020 playoff performance should pay dividends this year, as not many young goaltenders are exposed to that level of action at such a young age.
Tied in with the work put in during the offseason, Hart could be poised for a top-5 season amongst goaltenders and could cement himself as the best in the division. If Hart can ride the momentum of his .926 save percentage and 2.23 playoff GAA, he could be the final piece needed for the Flyers to make a run. Additionally, as we learned last season, Brian Elliott can step in and assist the team when needed- but the 35-year-old shouldn’t be relied on.
The team cannot afford for Hart to fall into a slump this year.
Fill the Hole Left by Matt Niskanen’s Retirement
Matt Niskanen’s presence on the defense cannot be understated. His absence leaves a question mark as to how well the team will be able to piece together the remaining defensemen into a cohesive unit. The signing of Erik Gustafsson will likely go down as one of the most underrated offseason additions. His production could increase greatly this season, playing alongside Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, and Phil Myers.
Chuck Fletcher showed his confidence in Myers with a new contract, and Provorov proved last season that he is a true #1 defenseman. In the Flyers’ most successful seasons in recent history, including a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010, they had very few holes on the blueline.
Veteran D-men like Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen were the leading voices both in the locker room and on the ice, and the team needs to replicate that going forward. Look for Provorov and Sanheim to make big leaps in development this year and provide the spark this team needs.
The 2021 Season will be one of the most exciting in years.
Featured Image: The Canadian Press