The days of humble mutterings and cautious modesty appear be to over for the Flyers.
As they embark on a pandemic-shortened 56-game season, players, coaches and management have set their sights high.
Gone are thoughts of “we’re headed in the right direction’’ and “we think we’re good enough.’’
They might not come right out and say it, but the feeling seems to be: “We can win this thing.’’
Namely a Stanley Cup.
Followers of the team have no problem with that.
The last parade down Broad Street was a generation or two ago (1975 to be exact) and the other three major sports in Philly have all had at least one since that year.
Coach Alain Vigneault certainly isn’t pulling any punches.
He’s been to the Stanley Cup Final with two other teams – the 2011 Vancouver Canucks and the 2014 New York Rangers – so he knows what it takes to at least reach the big dance.
Perhaps the returns of Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom from health issues and the arrival of free-agent defenseman Erik Gustafsson give him cause for bold optimism.
Or maybe it’s knowing the players got a taste of success in last season’s playoffs (a seventh game in the Eastern Conference semifinals) to whet their appetite even more.
“I believe that after being with this group for a year and coming in obviously in a different type of format, different type of circumstances because of COVID that I do believe that there is a strong belief within this group that we can be a Stanley Cup contending team,’’ Vigneault said.
There had been questions about the Flyers’ leadership after failing to win a playoff series since 2012. Those were somewhat answered last season and now there appears to be a new wave of leaders, headlined by players such Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny and Scott Laughton.
Going from a team collective minus-37 in 2018-19 to a plus-36 in 2019-20 showed Vigneault this group of players has the right stuff to play the game the proper way.
“Everybody understands that we took a step forward last year and that we need to take another step forward this year,’’ Vigneault said. “The confidence that goes with learning experiences, and that is what we had last year, should help us moving forward this year. I like the vibe around our team right now. I like the internal competition that is there for ice time and I think it is going to enable us to put our best on the ice.’’
A number of players agree with Vigneault’s assessment, including veteran Michael Raffl.
“I think we have a strong group and I think we still have something to prove,’’ said Raffl, who’s been a Flyer since 2013. “This year, we want to go big, make the playoffs and make a real good push for it (a Stanley Cup).
“I think we have the group for it, and we are up for the challenge this year.
Here’s an outlook on aspects of the Flyers’ 2020-21 season:
Getting Patrick and Lindblom back improves the Flyers depth and allows Vigneault the opportunity to compose three scoring lines: Patrick centering James van Riemsdyk and Jake Voracek on a third line; Lindblom playing a wing on a first line with center Sean Couturier and Konecny; plus a second line of Kevin Hayes centering Claude Giroux and Joel Farabee.
Giroux needs a bounce-back year after falling to fourth in team scoring, plus just one goal in the playoffs. Likewise, Konecny hopes to put an 0-for-16-playoff-game drought behind him.
Couturier, coming off a Selke Trophy for NHL’s best defensive forward, can just keep doing what he has the past few years. Hayes might be the second-best two-way player on the team. The Flyers finally have a decent fourth line, with 13-goal scorer Scott Laughton centering Raffl and Nicolas Aube-Kubel.
Stanley Cup champ Tampa Bay was a plus-50 and Boston a plus-53 last season. Those are the numbers to shoot for.
When everything shakes out, No. 1 defenseman Ivan Provorov could wind up with veteran Justin Braun as his new partner, replacing the retired Matt Niskanen. The second tandem of Travis Sanheim-Phil Myers likely remains intact and the two Swedes – Robert Hagg and Gustafsson – might start the season together. That leaves Shayne Gostisbehere as the wild card.
This bunch has skill, smarts and depth. Barring a major injury, it can match up with just about anybody in the NHL.
Good move by GM Chuck Fletcher bringing back Brian Elliott to play behind starter Carter Hart. Elliott, a former Jennings Trophy winner (best goals-against average in 2011-12), can continue to mentor Hart, who boldly states he wants to be “the best goaltender in the NHL.’’ Hart’s dismal road record from a year ago should improve for no other reason than there won’t be any hostile fans to worry about.
Aside from the playoffs, the power play and penalty kill made big strides last year under assistant coaches Michel Therrien and Mike Yeo respectively. In regular-season play, the PP jumped up from 23rd in 2018-19 to 14th last year. The PK enjoyed similar success: 26th in 2018-19 to 11th last year.
Hayes tied for the NHL lead in shorthanded goals with four. The Flyers, led by Couturier and Giroux, have been the strongest faceoff team in the NHL the past couple years and that helps a lot on special teams.