With the first month of the 2020-21 NHL season having come to an end, the Philadelphia Flyers currently sit atop the MassMutual East Division with a 7-2-1 record. Despite their placement in the standings, there are many mixed emotions in Flyerland.
A quick glance at their record might convince you that the Flyers got off to a red-hot start with little need to worry, but things haven’t been that simple. While their position in the standings is exactly what the team had hoped for, the route taken to get there has been anything but smooth sailing.
With the luck that they’ve had and their horrendous play at even strength, it’s a near miracle that the Flyers have managed to string together as many wins as they have. Their position at the very bottom of the league in possession metrics such as Corsi (CF%), Fenwick (FF%), and expected goals (xGF%) indicate that the Flyers have seldom been the team controlling the play in their games so far this season. They don’t fare much better in terms of impactful chances, sitting 23rd in the league in high-danger chances allowed, indicating that the Flyers have conceded a significant number of scoring opportunities directly in front of their net.
While the team’s shortfalls have been masked by hard-fought victories, they are still there and will need to be rectified going forward if the Flyers hope to compete for the Stanley Cup. Fans should hold off on panicking, though, as there is plenty of time for the team to return to form, and a healthy Sean Couturier rejoining the lineup will most likely help to right the ship. With that being said, there have been numerous bright spots for the team, the brightest of which are the Flyers’ three stars for the month of January.
3. Brian Elliott
What a relief it is to have a capable backup like Brian Elliott, especially when Carter Hart isn’t playing at his best. Gone are the days where Flyers fans would break out into a cold sweat at the thought of Michal Neuvirth or Calvin Pickard stepping between the pipes for a game or two.
Playing in four of the Flyers’ first 10 games of the season, one of those being in relief of Hart, Elliott has posted a 3-0-0 record with a .932 save percentage, and a goals against average of 2.22. He provided exactly what his team needed of him and more over this four-game run, which included a 40-save shutout against the Buffalo Sabres.
With the Flyers having faced the third-most shots in the league this season, a poor performance by their backup goaltender could have left the team finding themselves in a deep hole. Elliott’s above-average play has taken the pressure off Hart, giving his team the opportunity to win games whenever he’s in the net.
2. Claude Giroux
In the opening month of the season, Claude Giroux reached a monumental milestone, surpassing hockey legend Bobby Clarke as the longest-tenured captain in Flyers history. For years Giroux has been a player that the Flyers heavily relied upon, and in a month where the team has struggled, he has been playing some of his best hockey.
Highlighted by a three-assist performance in a win against the New Jersey Devils, Giroux has had himself an excellent start to the season. With 10 points in as many games, he’s been a driving force behind the team’s offence, and through stellar defensive play, he’s looked like a Selke Trophy contender in the opening month of the 2020-21 season.
While the Flyers as a whole have had difficulties at 5v5, leading to the scratching of Travis Konecny against the New York Islanders, Giroux hasn’t seen such struggles. Half of his points have come from 5v5 play, but what is more impressive is his impact on puck possession. Without their captain on the ice, the Flyers have an xGF% rate of 40.14%. However, with him on the ice, this number shoots up to 57.38%. For reference, the Anaheim Ducks currently have the lowest xGF% in the league, currently sitting at 41.37%, while the Minnesota Wild have the highest total, at 57.24%. Thus far, Giroux has outperformed the majority of his teammates, not only in xGF% but also in CF% and FF%, sitting near the top of the league when looking at relative rates.
1. James van Riemsdyk
James van Riemsdyk is usually a pretty controversial player amongst Flyers fans. Despite producing at a first-line rate last season, he drew the ire of many a fan, eventually leading to him being benched for stretches of the team’s playoff run. He has always been a streaky player, but when he’s hot, he’s hot, and during the month of January he’s been on fire.
Starting the season off with five goals and 13 points in 10 games, van Riemsdyk has been an offensive juggernaut. While his reputation of being an extremely dangerous net-front presence has proven true, his improved playmaking ability is what has really shined this season. His last six points have come in games where he did not register a shot, including a four-assist performance against the Islanders in his most recent game. Always a key contributor on the power play, his team-leading five power-play points have been key in revitalizing a unit that struggled all through last season.
His impressive play was recognized by the league, as they bestowed upon him the honour of being the Star of the Month for the MassMutual East Division. If he can continue to drive the Flyers’ offence, van Riemsdyk will silence his critics and help the Flyers remain at the top of the league.
Players to Watch in February
As the Flyers look to improve over this next month while maintaining their position in the standings, a healthy Shayne Gostisbehere will most certainly be someone to watch, as he has impressed next to Ivan Provorov since returning to the lineup. Couturier is also expected to rejoin the lineup within the next 10 days, looking to make an immediate impact. Forwards Joel Farabee and Konecny are also ones to keep an eye on moving forward. They each registered a hat trick in January but were far from consistent performers over the rest of the month. With a dynamic Flyers roster having plenty of room for growth in February, there are many players that could play a big role this month.