The Metropolitan Division is very much up for grabs.
You could reasonably argue that any three of the five teams in it have a decent shot at finishing top-three in it. The top five teams in that division, in any order you prefer, are probably something like the Capitals, Penguins, Hurricanes, Islanders, and Flyers. You can make a reasonable argument for any of them to make the post-season.
But the team that appears most likely to be on the outside looking in from that group is the Flyers. That’s mainly because they’re starting from a position of great disadvantage: Whereas the Islanders lost some talent this summer and aren’t likely to repeat the goaltending performances of last season, there’s a big swing from their plus-32 goal difference last season and Philadelphia’s minus-37. That was worth a swing of 21 standings points last year, and while one suspects the Islanders lost at least a good chunk of that positive goal difference, it’s hard to see where the Flyers really added nearly enough to their own.
The key difference, of course, is the benefit of a full season of Carter Hart, who was excellent at a .917 save percentage in just 31 appearances versus what the other seven(!!!!!) goalies the Flyers used brought to the table. Those guys combined for an .890 save percentage, and the best of them was Brian Elliott’s .907, right around the league average.
Like a lot of questionably competitive teams, the Flyers added little in the way of game-changing talent this summer, even if they definitely added talent. If Hart plays somewhere around 50 games instead of 30-something and delivers similar results, that alone helps this team a ton, as long as Elliott holds up his end of the bargain as backup.
The other big change, obviously, is that Alain Vigneault is going to be the coach for the full season. While the overall expected-goals numbers say the Flyers were ranked slightly better than average offensively and solidly below-average defensively for the full 82 last year, things actually got a little better in attack and even worse on the back end after Scott Gordon became the coach.
That likely tells you the team’s problems were mostly a personnel thing. The Flyers went out this summer and added Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun to the back end in an attempt to shore things up defensively, but it’s hard to be optimistic that either one turns things around. They also acquired the rights to Kevin Hayes and dramatically overpaid him.
Hayes will likely be used as a stabilizing force, insulating Nolan Patrick from a No. 2 centre role for which we have little evidence that he is ready. Hayes can be a solid second centre, but you probably shouldn’t expect him to be the guy to kickstart James van Riemsdyk’s offence or get Jakub Voracek back to where the Flyers apparently think he should be.
That’s the entire problem with the Flyers offence, such as it is: They would need a number of forwards to step up their game at both ends of the ice to get a top-10 offensive output; they weren’t a one-line team last year, but they were pretty close. And they’re not an in-his-prime van Riemsdyk away from making up that difference. They would need Patrick to take a big step, probably Oskar Lindblom and Scott Laughton as well.
They would also need more offence from the defence once again, requiring a much better season from Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov in particular. You can probably write Niskanen, Braun, and Robert Hagg off as guys who aren’t likely to take steps, but in the right situation it seems Niskanen might be useful again. Overall, though, there are as many good defenders on this team as actively bad ones, meaning you can’t hide anyone’s deficiencies to the extent you probably need.
And if you thought it was a coaching problem last season, you can be encouraged by the fact that Vigneault usually does quite well early in his tenures with new teams. The bigger issue, though, is that the Flyers missed the playoffs by 16 points, and in both Vancouver and New York, Vigneault inherited rosters loaded with high-end talent. How do the Flyers measure up even if you quite like some of their players?
Even if you’re expecting steps back — to whatever degree — from the Blue Jackets, Islanders, and Penguins (the three teams immediately ahead of the Flyers in the Metro standings), it’s hard to see where they clear that gap, especially if the Hurricanes are anywhere near as legit as they looked after that rough start. The Rangers, who finished four points back of Philadelphia, had one of the best summers in the league. That’s also true of the Devils, but they were 10 points shy of the Flyers’ total and that’s a hard gap to bridge.
Meanwhile, in a competition for the wild card, the Canadiens should be fine as well, and Florida seems to have taken a big step forward.
So where does that leave the Flyers? Because this is the NHL, you can never say for sure. But the odds of a return to the post-season do not seem to be in their favour.
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