The spread of COVID-19 forced the NHL to put its season on hold beginning on March 12. At the time of the shutdown, no team in the NHL was as hot as the Philadelphia Flyers. They had won nine of their last ten games and seemed poised for a lengthy playoff run. With the fate of their most successful season in the last decade hanging in the balance, the team may be robbed of a legitimate chance at hockey’s ultimate prize.
If the NHL is unable to resume the campaign this summer, the hockey world may have to move on to next season. Based on the team’s success this year, the discussion then shifts to who was the most valuable player for an ascending franchise.
Provorov’s role on the Flyers was set in stone from day one. He has played the most minutes per game on the team since his debut in 2016 as a 19-year-old rookie. His pro career has seen a few peaks and valleys, but he has still managed to remain the centerpiece of the team’s burgeoning defense. This season, his game has reached new heights. At the time of the shutdown, he was on his way to a new career-high in points and had formed a formidable top tandem with veteran Matt Niskanen.
Defense has been a problem for the Flyers since Chris Pronger’s career-ending eye injury; having a true shutdown pair is half of the battle to building a strong back end. They are not an elite defensive team overall, but a jump to the middle of the pack from the bottom has gone a long way toward achieving group success. His status as the most important player on the defense alone makes Provorov a contender for team MVP.
For the last two-plus season, Couturier has fully realized his potential as a top ten center in the league. He has been an effective player since his rookie season but his offensive output has skyrocketed since then. Now a regular 70-point threat, he is locked in as the Flyers’ top center. This year, his overall impact on both ends of the ice has been astounding.
Regularly tasked with shutting down some of the league’s most elite forwards, Couturier boasts a Corsi-for % of 56.25, a faceoff % of 59.63, a shots-for % of 55.30 and an expected goals-for % of 55.54. He was the leader in Selke Trophy voting at the half-way point of the season and may also have the best bargain contract in the NHL. Frankly, his case would be strong even if his point totals were less than what they are.
Goaltending has been the Achilles heel of countless Flyer teams over the years. Even their deepest post-season runs have been carried by either the offense or inspired play by a goalie who would eventually come crashing down to earth. The 21-year-old Carter Hart is considered the remedy to this problem. In what would’ve been his first full NHL season, he looked the part of a franchise savior, but only in spurts.
As with many young players, consistency was his main issue; He was dominant in his home starts with a 20-3-2 record, a goals-against average (GAA) of 1.63 and a save percentage (SV%) of .943 but shaky at times on the road with a 4-10-1 record, a GAA of 3.81 and a SV% of .857.
The overall numbers averaged out to a GAA of 2.42 and a SV% of .914, which translates to eighth in the league in GAA and 24th in SV%. The Flyers were not an elite team at keeping the puck out of their net, but it cannot be overlooked how much even just solid goaltending has done for team success.
The case for Kevin Hayes has as much to do with his intangibles as it does his appreciable on-ice value. Much of the fan base had their doubts when the terms of his contract were announced in the offseason, but Hayes has endeared himself to the city with vocal leadership in the locker room, strong play on the second line and, most importantly, winning. He is a staple on the penalty kill, was on pace for around 50 points this season, and is already one of the team’s alternate captains.
His leadership goes far beyond being well-liked by his teammates as well. He has shown this season that he has a penchant for big moments. Through 69 games, he was tied for the league lead in shorthanded goals with four and was second on the Flyers in game-winning goals with five. Sometimes, you’re paying for more than points when you sign a player to a big contract, and Hayes is a prime example.
It would remiss to not mention Konecny in the team MVP conversation. After signing a six-year, $33 million contract in the offseason, TK made quick work of validating the team’s commitment to him. He was the team leader in goals (24) and points (61) at the time of the Flyers’ last game on Mach 10 and was Philadelphia’s lone All-Star selection this season.
He has been a spark plug all year, now proving that he is capable of carrying his own line when necessary. Despite his small stature, Konecny also brings some much-needed sandpaper to the lineup with his competitiveness and fearlessness. His emergence has contributed greatly to the Flyers’ status as a contender this season and beyond.
Verdict: Sean Couturier
All five players have been key cogs on the buzz saw team the Flyers iced this season but none more so than Couturier. Keeping star players in check is always the biggest challenge in today’s NHL, and he has done more than just a fair job, he has shined.
His ability to impact a game at both ends of the ice gives his coaches an edge when trying to get advantageous match-ups, especially on the road when the opposition gets last change. He is firmly in his prime and is likely to see some hardware from the league this year, as well as from his team.