How Close are the Flyers to Being Contenders?
The slow and steady build of the Flyers under GM Ron Hextall is starting to show progress, at least on paper in the roster makeup.
Depending on how training camp progresses and the roster truly shakes out, the Flyers will have a dangerous combination of veterans -- Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier, James van Riemsdyk -- and young, up-and-coming stars -- Travis Konecny, Nolan Patrick, Oskar Lindblom. That right there is nine forwards, creating a formidable top nine.
On the blue line, Ivan Provorov is already a defined No. 1 defenseman at age 21. Shayne Gostisbehere is regarded as one of the best offensive defensemen in the game. Travis Sanheim and Robert Hagg managed to get their feet wet in the NHL last season. Phil Myers is not far behind.
Similar to Myers, goalie Carter Hart is about to begin his professional career, putting him one step away from the NHL as well.
Hextall’s goal from the day he took over as GM has been to build the Flyers into a Stanley Cup contender. With the roster where it is now, how close are the Flyers to being a true contender?
It’s no secret that the Flyers probably aren’t there yet, though anything can happen come playoff time. That said, the Flyers are certainly closer to being a contender than the recent performances indicate.
Matt Larkin of The Hockey News did a series reviewing the Stanley Cup windows for all teams in the league. On par with current evaluation, he does not have the Flyers in win-now mode just yet. He labels the Flyers as a team with a window just opening now.
“Goaltending is, as always, the Flyers’ hang-up, and it’s currently the only thing keeping them from immediate Cup contention and “window wide open” status,” Larkin writes. “The minute prospect Carter Hart gets his NHL chance, though, Philly should enter its prime years. He’s that good. Don’t be surprised if this is the Metro’s alpha-dog team by 2019-20.”
Is Carter Hart really that much of an answer? Is he the only missing piece separating this team from deep playoff runs into May and the current level of mediocrity that has been on display over the last six seasons?
If that is all that is separating the Flyers from being a contender, then the Flyers are already closer to reaching that status this season, even without Hart. It’s an indicator that the team has the offensive talent and overall depth at every other position to be a clear-cut playoff team, not a team on the bubble into the final week of the season.
That’s the first step to showing true progress. In each of the last two playoff appearances for the Flyers -- in 2016 and 2018 -- the Flyers clinched their spot in the postseason on the season’s final weekend in Game 81 and 82 respectively.
It’s fair to look at the roster on paper and the team’s track record and be skeptical. It turns out that the Flyers are the masters of mediocrity over the last five seasons.
According to an algorithm used by FiveThirtyEight Sports, which references points percentage, goal differential, goals per game for and against vs. average and shots per game and shooting percentage for and against vs. average, the Flyers were the most mediocre sports team among the four major sports in the last five seasons.
“For fans seeking long-term mediocrity, the Philadelphia Flyers might be a good option, having finished with between 39 and 42 wins in four of their last five seasons. (And in the one season they didn’t, they still racked up points for a league-leading 18 overtime losses, which could easily have turned into ties — aka the best possible outcome for fans of .500 play — under the NHL’s old standings system,)” writes Neil Paine. “According to our algorithm, no team in major pro sports has been more consistently mediocre over the past five seasons than the Flyers.”
Truth be told, the last five seasons have been a struggle for the Flyers. The Flyers managed to recover from a terrible start to the 2013-14 season to finish with 42 wins and a .573 points percentage, losing in the first-round of the playoffs in seven games to the Rangers.
In 2014-15, they finished with 33 wins and 18 overtime losses and a .512 points percentage, missing the playoffs.
In the three seasons since Dave Hakstol was hired as head coach, the Flyers have made the playoffs twice, but averaged 40.7 wins per season and a .573 points percentage, the exact same points percentage they had in the first season of the five-season period. That’s consistency for you at the very least, but it’s a far cry from the 45-win seasons and .600+ points percentage seasons they had over the better part of the previous two decades.
So it’s understandable that it would be hard to see a team closer to contending without tangible proof in the standings or visual proof on the ice. For many, that question won’t be answered until October.
Regardless of what an algorithm may say, the Flyers have been following Hextall’s plan to build from within for the last five seasons. Signing James van Riemsdyk to round out a formidable top-nine forward group was a push forward for this team. With more prospects coming, especially the likes of Myers and Hart, the final push is coming soon. At that point, it’s on the team to perform.
Consider this upcoming season one of the more intriguing ones in recent memory. There isn’t nearly as much dead weight on the Flyers roster as there was a season ago and more and more prospects are arriving full-time year by year. The window is starting to open and it’s up to the Flyers to start to take advantage of the opportunity.
Kevin Durso is Flyers insider for 97.3 ESPN and Flyers editor for SportsTalkPhilly.com. Follow him on Twitter @Kevin_Durso.