After failing to qualify for the playoffs for the second time in the last three seasons, the Philadelphia Flyers had to make changes. Enter head coach Alain Vigneault, who took over the gig after Scott Gordon took over the gig from Dave Haktstol. Gordon will return to coach Lehigh Valley in the AHL.
The Flyers finished last season with a 37-37-8 record, giving them 82 points. That put them 16 points behind the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference and well out of the picture. Closing the season on a five-game losing streak did not help.
Mediocrity seemed the order of the day for the whole of last season. The Flyers were on the outside looking in with respect to most significant categories. Philly scored 244 goals and allowed a terrible 281 goals against, making them the second-most porous hockey club in the Eastern Conference. Even then, goal-scoring kept their differential out of the basement entirely.
For Vigneault, that amounts to some serious building blocks. The acquisition of Kevin Hayes in June as part of a trade helps matters. The former New York Rangers coach is familiar with the big centre and will know how to incorporate him with the Flyers’ young lineup.
Claude Giroux took a step back last season and put up just 85 points in 82 games. Of course, his 2017-2018 run was a tough act to follow. He put up 102 points that season, including a career-high 34 goals, and many assumed he’d reached a new peak. If Giroux finds that form again under Vigneault, he could see another points explosion.
Jakub Voracek finished strong and continues to be among Philadelphia’s most reliable offensive threats. The right winger had 34 points in his final 36 games last season and spent most of his time on a line with Sean Couturier and Oskar Lindblom. If Vigneault decides to combine Voracek with Hayes this season, you can count on more.
Couturier put up a career-high 33 goals last season and tallied 76 points for the second season in a row. He also scored eight goals on the power play, where he benefitted from playing with Giroux, Voracek, James van Riemsdyk, and Shayne Gostisbehere. Couturier covers a lot of classifications, registering big digits in shots on goal, blocked shots and a host of offensive categories.
Winger van Riemsdyk was solid last season with 27 goals and a total of 48 points. He did finish a minus-10, the second-worst plus-minus number in his career, but he was limited to just 66 games due to injury. That averages out to make 2018-2019 among his most productive and effective seasons to date.
The Flyers were active this summer and picked up a few defencemen to thicken up the blueline. Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun bring veteran presence and that counts for an awful lot when you have such a young core. Philly had five defencemen under the age of 26 skate in at least 20 games last season.
Gostisbehere would’ve had a better year had it not been for a terrible minus-20 rating, but that was just part of life last season. They’re hoping for a reversal of fortune, but the 26-year-old tends to get more than a few points at his position anyway. The man known as “Ghost Bear” scored nine goals last season and is capable of more.
Ivan Provorov is likewise capable of carving out an offensive slot for himself. The 22-year-old from Yaroslavl had seven goals last season, following up a 17-goal run from 2017-2018. Provorov, like Gostisbehere, had disappointing defensive figures and did not score on the power play, but he averages 1.6 hits per game.
The Flyers are betting big on Carter Hart. The netminder was the sixth of eight starters Philadelphia went with last season and he seemed to right the ship when he debuted in December. Hart posted 16 wins, putting him second among NHL rookie goalies, and went 11-4 in games where he saw 35 or more shots.
The hope is that Hart will be able to handle an intensified workload and bring some permanence to the sticky situation in the Philly crease. Veteran Brian Elliott signed a one-year deal to essentially mentor the Sherwood Park native, so he should see somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20 starts.
This will be a year of transition for the Flyers, who’ll have to get used to life with Vigneault and could transition to a more offensively-oriented hockey team. If they can cool down the situation in goal and tighten up defensively, the wins will come with as much consistency as the goals.
Photo credit: Derik Hamilton/Associated Press