The Philadelphia Flyers will begin the 2021-22 season with question marks throughout their roster. Preseason storylines include the play of top prospect Morgan Frost, the expectations for goaltender Carter Hart, and early injury concerns. Success in the NHL frequently depends on how teams handle the adversity they face throughout an 82-game season more than how they appear on paper in October.
Making long-term projections about preseason storylines can sometimes require a leap of faith. The purpose of “bold predictions” is to take that leap of faith based on small nuggets of information as potential indicators for future outcomes. Therefore, a small indicator can lead to a lofty prediction.
Morgan Frost Contributes to a Late-season Playoff Push
The Flyers sent Frost to their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, on Wednesday. The 2017 first-round pick is widely considered the top prospect in the organization, and he was the presumed choice to fill in for the injured Kevin Hayes as the second-line center to begin the season. Frost suffered a dislocated shoulder in his second game of 2020-21. The brief stint was his only meaningful hockey since March 2020. His attempt to readjust to game speed led to a less than outstanding effort during the preseason.
General manager Chuck Fletcher spoke optimistically about the 22-year-old on Thursday. He said, “it’s not a rush to get him playing here. He’s going to play here.” He also hinted that the coaching staff thought highly of Frost’s play during training camp and the preseason. The final decision, however, aligns with Fletcher’s emphasis on the value of veteran experience and the need to avoid overreliance on young players in roles they’re not used to.
Frost scored over 100 points in consecutive seasons in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) after being drafted 27th overall in 2017. He showed brief flashes of excellence in 20 NHL games in 2019-20. Once he readjusts to game speed and gains confidence following the injury, he will be able to use his talent as a contributor for the Flyers during the second half of the season.
Considering the number of injuries the team is dealing with and the organization’s continued positivity about his development, he should get a spot in the lineup when he’s ready. There is a reason he skated with reputable wingers Joel Farabee and James van Riemsdyk in preseason and training camp. The organization clearly believes in his offensive ability, and his potential will materialize once he gets an extended NHL look. I expect Frost to find himself a home on the third line as a notable offensive contributor by the later months of the season.
Martin Jones Loses Backup Role to Felix Sandström
The attention will focus on Hart in 2021-22. The 23-year-old is the biggest key to the Flyers season, but the backup goaltending position will also be important in revitalizing a team that underperformed drastically last season. Martin Jones signed a one-year deal with Philadelphia this offseason. His past connection with goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh was a key factor in the decision to bring in the former Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks netminder. However, a reunion with a former coach won’t in itself fix one of the worst statistical goaltenders in the NHL over the past three seasons.
Swedish goaltender Felix Sandström played with the Flyers during the preseason. The former third-round pick has finally gained some traction within the organization at age 24. He will likely play as the top AHL goaltender this season. According to Bill Meltzer of NHL.com, he is in line to be called up first in the event of an injury or poor performance. The Flyers will also be cautious in assigning heavy workloads to their goaltenders because of the return to an 82-game schedule, which increases the likelihood of Sandström getting an opportunity.
There was very little doubt that Hart and Jones would make the NHL roster to begin the season. However, if Sandström gets a fortuitous opportunity to play in the NHL at some point, a strong showing could entice the organization to give him a more extended shot, especially if Dillabaugh’s reclamation project with Jones doesn’t work out. While it doesn’t seem likely right now, the fickle nature of goaltending depth charts leaves plenty of room for surprises.
Travis Konecny Leads Flyers with 30-Plus Goals
A prediction for Travis Konecny to lead the team in goals is admittedly not all that bold. He finished third on the team with 24 goals in back-to-back seasons in 2017-18 and 2018-19. He led the team with 24 in 66 games in 2019-20, which projects to just under 30 over an 82-game span. However, the significance of the prediction comes from the need for Konecny to rebound from his inconsistent play since the COVID-19 pause in March 2020. He didn’t score a goal in three round-robin games or 13 true playoff games during the 2020 Playoffs in the Eastern Conference bubble. He finished sixth on the team with 11 goals in 2020-21.
The Flyers will count on Konecny to restore some of the energy they missed last year. The 24-year-old will work on the first power-play unit to begin the season. Veteran defenseman Keith Yandle has looked like a capable distributor at the point on this unit during the preseason. Konecny will have the opportunity to rack up numbers if the unit can find strong chemistry early.
He was also able to resume a more customary offseason training schedule this summer after the pandemic limited options for many Canadian players in 2020. A fresh start removed from the chaos of the 2020-21 season will benefit Konecny, and it will help him compete for the lead on a team with a deep list of goal-scoring talent.
Nicolas Aube-Kubel Doesn’t Finish the Season With Flyers
Nicolas Aube-Kubel made excellent contributions as a rookie in 2019-20. He provided scoring depth in the bottom six and brought tremendous energy as a nasty forechecker who could wear down and frustrate opponents. The team was 24-10-2 in his 36 regular-season games. Like many Flyers under the age of 25, his contributions dwindled in 2020-21. His impact on the forecheck wasn’t as strong, and his tendency to take careless penalties continually hurt the team at inopportune moments.
Aube-Kubel showed some energy during the preseason, most notably with strong offensive rushes in Monday’s victory over the Boston Bruins. However, he got away with a borderline cross-check and took two minor penalties the following night against the New York Islanders. Jason Myrtetus bluntly called the careless penalties “a good way to find yourself in a coach’s doghouse” on the Flyers Daily podcast.
Wingers in the bottom six don’t have much job security in the NHL. If Aube-Kubel can’t demonstrate a more disciplined approach early in the season, head coach Alain Vigneault will likely look for other options. Wade Allison is currently out indefinitely, but he could replace Aube-Kubel and bring similar elements to the game if he returns at some point during the regular season. Jackson Cates or Garrett Wilson could also make the opening night lineup in the bottom six. All three make minimally less money than Aube-Kubel for a team that will look to conserve every possible dollar in salary cap space this season. Don’t be shocked if he is involved in a mid-season trade.
Olympic Break Galvanizes Playoff Push
The 2007-08 Flyers rebounded from a dismal effort the previous season to advance to the Eastern Conference Final. Their team-building strategy was similar to Fletcher’s offseason roster turnover because of common characteristics like the amount of moving pieces, the addition of reputable veterans, and the expectation that new players would take time to build chemistry.
The 2021-22 team should strive for a similar turnaround while also keeping in mind that the two playoff series wins in the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs came after a wildly inconsistent regular season. The 2007-08 lost 10 consecutive games from Feb. 6-23. They finished sixth in the Eastern Conference only after a 7-1-1 stretch to close out the regular season. The Flyers should not expect to sit atop the Metropolitan Division standings right out of the gate in 2021-22. Question marks in net, undetermined center depth, and injuries will all affect the early part of the season.
The NHL will pause for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing from Feb. 3-22. The Flyers will likely send a few participants, but most of their big names will stay in North America. During Vigneault’s first season in Philadelphia in 2019-20, the team didn’t begin to hit its stride until January. They reached their true peak in late Feb. and early March. If the Flyers can remain in striking distance of a playoff spot, the Olympic break in 2022 could become a point for a middling team to regroup and gain momentum for a run to the postseason.
Flyers Look for Major Turnaround
The Flyers will have to overcome their fair share of obstacles in hopes to return to the postseason. Some of the questions they face entering the season will turn out well, and others will not. The NHL is an extremely fluid league.
How do you predict the Flyers will handle the question marks that face the team in 2021-22?
Colin Newby is a freelance journalist from Delaware County, PA covering the Philadelphia Flyers for The Hockey Writers. He is an encyclopedia of useless sports knowledge with an uncanny ability to rattle off Flyers goaltending stats from 2004 and every Stanley Cup winner during his lifetime. The depths of his knowledge stem from spending his entire life following the Flyers and the NHL, from fan favorites like the Legion of Doom and Claude Giroux to no-namers like Andy Delmore and Branko Radivojevič. Colin is also the co-host of “THW’s Focus on the Flyers” podcast and an author of fictional sports stories.