The Flyers face a new division with familiar foes in a shortened season that sees them facing a unique set of challenges.
The New Format
The NHL has abandoned the traditional division alignments this season in favor of more regional play to cut down on travel as they attempt to hold a season during the time of COVID-19. The Flyers are now being grouped into the Eastern Division. The New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Pittsburg Penguins, and Washington Capitals have returned as usual division foes. Joining the fray are the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabers. The Flyers will play 56 games against these 7 teams, 4 at home and 4 on the road, and would face an opponent from the division in rounds 1 and 2 of the playoffs. The top four teams from each division will advance to the playoffs. The season still projects to finish sometime in early May. The scheduled opener is against the Penguins at home on January 13th. Right now The Flyers have a two-game set with the Caps scheduled to be their closer on May 7th and 8th.
With so many games against rivals, the action may be repetitive but should carry some extra added intensity. The team also plans to use its full roster of 23 players and mix in the 4 to 6 player taxi squad to help keep guys fresh and avoid injuries as much as possible. Coach Alain Vigneault has left some hints, but the player combinations and roster will be the subject of speculation heading into training camp, which is slated for January 3rd. Here are some of the burning questions as they head into camp.
What Will the D-Pairings Be?
Ivan Provorov is your #1 defender. Outside of that everyone’s placement is up for some debate. Travis Sanheim would presumably continue to anchor the 2nd pair, but his former partner Phil Myers is the player most discussed when it comes to filling the hole left in the lineup by Matt Niskanen’s retirement. It is possible you see other players get a shot in that role, like a Sanheim or maybe newcomer Erik Gustafsson.
The bottom pair defensively will also be fluid. Justin Braun will be a fixture, but Robert Hagg and Shayne Gostisbehere again seem poised to battle for time on a game to game basis. When you imagine that Provorov, Sanhiem, and Gustafsson will all get powerplay time, Gostisbehere’s situation with the team seems even more untenable. Adding to that mix will be the likelihood that Mark Friedman is close to the squad and will have an increased likelihood of getting time. Expect changes early as the coaches look for the right fits.
How Will The Forwards Be Grouped?
With the Flyers getting Oskar Lindblom back and maybe Nolan Patrick, the forwards are looking at a possible roster reshuffle.
Sean Couturier, Travis Konecny, Kevin Hayes, Jakub Vorachek, and Claude Giroux will be 5/6ths of the first two lines. Oskar Lindblom has the potential to join that group as we saw last season, but it seems unlikely that he’d start in that position. Joel Farabee could be a candidate, and we saw Scott Laughton garner some time there as well. James van Riemsdyk was there and lost his spot in the top six but could always make a comeback. Not too much will change there but we may see a few different groups made up of those players, especially depending on matchups.
Among the bottom six forwards Michael Raffl and Nicolas Aube Kubel are the guys who project to be every game players in those spots. Whoever loses out on the 2nd line spot will be bumped down, so for the sake of argument let’s include JVR and Laughton in these spots. That’s 4. You’d have to imagine that if Nolan Patrick gets the nod from the doctors to be cleared to play the Flyers have to use him. That’s 5 spots up, and Connor Bunnaman, Carsen Twarynski, and Morgan Frost, who all saw time last year, to battle for one spot. Then add-in newcomers Tanner Laczynski and Wade Allison and the competition to suit up will be fierce. Again though this will likely also mean we see game-to-game changes in this group. Considering the NHL will be ahead of the AHL by about a month the first group of games will be a bit chaotic with roster changes.
Goalies…Refreshingly Not An Issue
Well almost. With only 56 games and each win now being at a premium, Carter Hart is going to have to play on the road, and play well. He’ll face new challenges during the season and will have to make adjustments, especially with him living up to the hype in his first full year. The 2020-21 season will be one where Hart looks to maintain consistency.
Brian Elliot will continue on in his veteran mentor role and as the spot starter. With as many back to backs as the Flyers will face and several 3 in 4 and 4 in 5 situations Elliot will have to be ready, willing, and able when the Flyers call his number.
How Is The Playoff Outlook?
The Flyers are better than the Devils, Sabers, and Rangers from the jump. The Bruins are expected to be good and should figure into the playoff spots. The Flyers, Capitals, Penguins, and Islanders will likely be the teams duking it out for the final three spots. If the Flyers remain healthy and Carter Hart is who we’ve come to expect then the regular season should see the fun Flyers we got used to pre-COVID. Of course, playing each team 8 times presents different challenges than a regular schedule would, but it would be a major disappointment if the Flyers were to finish outside the playoff picture. The race will be close, but the Flyers should be a postseason team this year.
When camp opens on January 3rd we may see some questions answered and new questions raised. When that happens we’ll be ready to report on them or provide answers. It’s going to be a heck of a year.