10 Storylines for the 2020-21 Flyers Season
The start of a new season is finally upon us. The Flyers make their return on Wednesday night when they host the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Before they do, let’s take a look at 10 storylines that will be worth watching as the season progresses.
1. Nolan Patrick
For months, it felt like the second storyline on our list would never be topped. Then training camp started, Nolan Patrick made his return to the ice as a regular member of Flyers practice for the first time in nearly two years, and never looked out of place. GM Chuck Fletcher called it the biggest story of camp.
Patrick’s return could mean a ton of added depth and potential offense for the Flyers. The former second overall pick has carried a lot of expectations in his career, and much like a season ago, before he was out with migraine syndrome, there were questions of him needing a show-me season to warrant a contract that provided him with a long-term future in Philadelphia.
That hasn’t changed, but if Patrick can both perform and stay on the ice in good health, it could be a game-changer for the Flyers both now and in the future.
2. Oskar Lindblom
It’s hard to believe that Oskar Lindblom’s return is at No. 2 on this list, but perhaps his return in the bubble signaled this happening. Lindblom has always had a warrior’s mentality and a positive and optimistic outlook on life. He battled Ewing’s sarcoma with conviction and grace.
When he officially made his return in September for Game 6 and Game 7 against the Islanders, he had conquered the disease. The Flyers may not have won the series and advanced in the playoffs, but Lindblom had won.
Now, Lindblom gets a real chance at an offseason and has regained a lot of the muscle and weight he lost during treatments. He looks strong and has fallen right back into a natural spot for him in the lineup, on the top line with Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny. If he can get the offensive side of his game back to where it was before his diagnosis in December 2019, look out NHL.
3. The 56-Game Sprint
Beyond the two feel-good stories on the team, this is the biggest storyline that goes team-wide. Playing a 56-game season will require a lot of consistency.
There is no room for a slow start. There is no room for long losing streaks. Every game will hold significant meaning.
As is such, the Flyers will need to treat every game that way on the ice. They will be tested throughout this season in their durability and their stamina to complete this sprint. As Alain Vigneault said, making the playoffs is non-negotiable. They are expected to be one of the four teams in the East Division to be there at the end of the regular season.
That means surviving the sprint against a lot of challenging and deep opponents.
4. Rivalry Night
Certainly another great storyline to this shortened season is the unique schedule structure that will make every night feel like rivalry night.
Playing strictly against the same seven opponents within the division, there should be no shortage of bad blood. There will be times that regular season games take on a playoff vibe. It should all set the stage nicely for when the playoffs take place.
Of course, playing within the division regularly magnifies the results even further, makes every point in the standings count and makes the challenge of reaching the playoffs steeper. The Flyers were among the NHL’s best teams in the weeks leading up to the pause in March, and it will take a similar showing to be among the top teams in arguably the toughest division in hockey this year.
5. Filling the Defensive Void
Perhaps the biggest question that surrounds the Flyers came up in the middle of the offseason. When Matt Niskanen announced his retirement, it was certainly quite a surprise. He still had a year remaining on his contract and had been such a key addition to the team in the previous season.
It’s easy to look at the Flyers roster then, defensively anyway, and say they were much closer to being a true contender then than they are now. They will try to fill the void with the addition of Erik Gustafsson, a potential revival of Shayne Gostisbehere, and by bringing back Justin Braun to be the grizzled veteran on the blue line.
Depending on the growth from within by the younger members of the blue line like Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers or the continued growth of top defenseman Ivan Provorov, the Flyers could find out that they are just fine or perhaps better in this area. Or it could end up being their Achilles’ heel.
6. Power Play Improvements
It’s no secret that the Flyers struggled to score in the playoffs and especially on the power play. It is an area where they need to be more successful to be a better team. Great teams find a way to make the opposition pay for taking penalties.
The Flyers will use a lot of similar pieces as part of the power-play units, though having Nolan Patrick back for this part of the game and bringing Gustafsson in could help the second unit. It still comes down to execution. If the Flyers can show that they made the necessary changes and start to cash in more often, it could make for a dangerous offense. The team had success scoring at even strength and even took advantage in some shorthanded situations. Really boosting the power play could put the offense over the top.
7. Sean Couturier’s Encore
Finally, Sean Couturier was recognized as one of the top two-way players in the NHL by winning the Selke Trophy last season. It was a much-deserved award for a player that has always put the defensive side first and watched his offensive game evolve.
So what does Couturier have in store for his encore act? The Flyers need Couturier to be their best forward, to lead the way with strong defensive play and turn it into offense. Couturier has been right at the top of the offensive categories for the last three seasons. The Flyers will need him to maintain that pace to help them take another step in 2020-21.
8. Production for the Captain
Happy Birthday, Claude Giroux! The Flyers captain turned 33 on Tuesday, and questions about his age and his preparation for the game from a physical standpoint have come up during the offseason. The thing is, when Giroux starts to get questioned for these things – his best years are behind him, he’s too old, he’s too slow – he has delivered some of his best seasons.
The Flyers could certainly use a motivated captain to help navigate the season. Giroux has been here before. He knows how important every game is in a shortened season and that losing with any consistency can completely transform a season. When he is most motivated, it can lead to some unforgettable offensive performances.
If Giroux can be a steady player and provide more than his fair share of points, it could be the driving force behind a successful season for the Flyers.
9. Year 2 of AV
Alain Vigneault quickly endeared himself to Flyers fans with his no-nonsense style and infectious personality. He continues to guide the team by making key decisions that sometimes elevate younger players and say things that should be translated as attempts to motivate veteran players to be at their best.
Can Vigneault replicate that in his second season? He’s no longer the new guy in town. In fact, in a matter of 21 months, he’s become the longest-tenured coach in Philadelphia among the four major sports teams. There is no indication that his style or message is old hat. Many of the players have talked about his motivation and desire to win as something that helps them stay focused on the task at hand.
But if things turn sour at any point, could it affect the way the head coach does some things with his systems or lineups? There will also be a lot of room for flexibility in the lineup. Vigneault pulled a lot of the right strings in his first season and had the Flyers back near the top of the standings. He may need to do it again to deliver the Flyers a playoff spot and guide a long playoff run.
10. Goaltending Balance
In speaking to constant flexibility and lineup rotations, keeping your goaltenders fresh and capable of being prepared for a lengthy playoff run can go a long way.
Just like last season, there was really no question who the Flyers would turn to in net. They have a budding superstar in Carter Hart and a reliable veteran backup in Brian Elliott. As much as everyone loves to see Hart and what he gives the Flyers – because he does give them a chance to win every single night – there’s no question that Elliott has been fully capable of helping the team win when needed.
Having the ability to turn to both goaltenders and create a balance in goal will certainly be beneficial for Hart. It’s no question he’s the go-to guy, especially when the key games down the stretch start to arrive, but maintaining this balance leading up to the final few games in late March, April and early May will make Hart better in the long run.
If the Flyers keep Hart fresh for the playoffs, it could be the ticket to a longer playoff run this time around.
Kevin Durso is Flyers insider for 97.3 ESPN and Flyers editor for SportsTalkPhilly.com. Follow him on Twitter @Kevin_Durso.