For the first time since the 2013-14 season, the Philadelphia Flyers have made it clear that the team will be expected to contend for more than just the playoffs. But after a four-season retooling not everything’s perfect and there are plenty of question marks on the roster.
And like with any team there are the x-factors among the players that will help determine how far a team may fly. These are the ones for the Flyers heading into the 2018-19 season.
Honorable Mention: Nolan Patrick
Patrick’s likely to take hold of the second-line center spot between James van Riemsdyk and Jake Voracek in this upcoming season. There’s plenty riding on the sophomore to take the next step in his development and help the Flyers’ top six become one of the most lethal in the league.
But I left him off as an x-factor because even if Patrick plays like he did in the first half of last season, I think there’s enough talent between JvR and Voracek to help the 19 year old contribute positively. That doesn’t mean Philly won’t need Patrick to succeed, but there are other players that will need to do more.
Although the Flyers have made the playoffs twice out of the past three years, they’ve done it largely with just two above-average puck-movers on the blue line. In 2015-16, Shayne Gostisbehere and Michael Del Zotto handled those duties. Last year, Ivan Provorov joined Gostisbehere to push the pace.
Sanheim should give them three premier mobile defenders, just like he did at the end of last season. Now it’s just a question of how much can he do?
When Sanheim started the year in the NHL, he did commit some errors and didn’t play with full confidence, which can mostly be blamed on the coaching staff. By the end of the year, after a demotion to the Phantoms, the Calgary Hitmen product seemed to regain the necessary confidence, but was still scratched for the final two postseason games.
It’s probably fair to assume Sanheim brushed that off and he’ll enter training camp with more experience after playing 53 total NHL games last season.
That’s a lot of positives adding up and if Sanheim progresses, the Flyers will have no issues moving the puck into the offensive zone when he’s on the ice. But should he struggle to begin the year and Dave Hakstol loses trust, the team could be in trouble.
Third Line Center
Since this is still a blank on the depth chart, I didn’t put Scott Laughton, Jordan Weal, Morgan Frost or any other player’s name. What’s clear is whoever wins the role will have to make an impact.
Most roster projections figure Oskar Lindblom and Wayne Simmonds will be the wingers, signalling that the third unit will be expected to score goals. Lindblom is still adjusting to the NHL and Simmonds, while deadly on the power play, wasn’t a great 5v5 player last season. The pair will need help from their yet-unnamed center.
There are plenty of options within the organization for that spot but none with much of a track record.
Laughton showed he’s an NHL player last year, but it might just be at a fourth-line level. Weal has more offense, but was one of the bigger disappointements last season. That leaves Frost, Mikhail Vorobyev and Mike Vecchione as longshot options in the prospect pool and lead-footed veteran Jori Lehtera.
The point, though, is that one of the listed above has to step up and produce to give the Flyers a constant scoring threat in the bottom six.
Gudas wasn’t always seen favorably around the NHL since he arrived in Philly; suspensions and playing a physical game will do that. But Flyers fans typically saw the value through his intimidation and strong underlying statistics.
That changed last season.
After a 10-game suspension in November for slashing the Winnipeg Jets’ Mathieu Perreault, Gudas came back a much more hesitant player in the physical department. As a defenseman known for protecting the blue line with his body, Gudas’ game was severely trimmed.
It also didn’t help that Gudas was paired with Brandon Manning. The Czech native formed a strong pair with Sanheim, but the Gudas-Manning pairing often suffered coverage issues and lacked a plus-puck mover.
Manning’s gone now, but the defensive pairings are up in the air. If Gudas ends up with Robert Hagg, there could be similar issues, especially in making a first pass. The biggest question, though, is what game Gudas plays next year: a physical one or a passive one?
I actually thought Elliott had a strong season last year, but that his best stretches of play usually came at the worst time.
For example, in the first three games of the Flyers’ ten-game losing streak, the 33 year old let in just four goals. Had Elliott got any scoring support and the Flyers won all three, he would have finished with a 26-9-6 record and Philly would have accumulated 103 points.
But life isn’t anywhere near perfect and Elliott learned that even more toward the end of the season.
After suffering a core muscle injury that required surgery in the middle of February, Elliott returned early just before the start of the playoffs when the Flyers were in need of goaltending help. The former Calgary Flames netminder finished with just three more wins in six games and 17 goals against. To make matters worse, Elliott needed surgery again after the season.
A couple years ago, that wouldn’t be too big of a deal with Michal Neuvirth as the backup. At this point, though, the more frequently injured goalie can’t be trusted for much more than 20 games. Alex Lyon showed potential as a possible backup, but he’s played just 11 games in the NHL and never looked like a long-term dependable option in any of them.
Often, the goalie situation in Philadelphia is overblown by the outside media, but this year there’s plenty of cause for concern. If Elliott falters or maybe isn’t even at the level he played at in the first half of last season, there will be issues.