The Philadelphia Flyers limped through two of the worst seasons in franchise history in 2020-21 and 2021-22. They failed to meet the high expectations of a return to Stanley Cup contention after the 2019-20 season looked like the start of a new and promising chapter in Philadelphia.
The disappointment means that Flyers fans will miss out on seeing their team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the sixth time in the 10 seasons and the first time in consecutive seasons since 1992-93 and 1993-94. The focus will shift to a crucial offseason that will determine the long-term direction of the franchise, but fans should allow themselves to enjoy the best playoff tournament in professional sports with an eye on what each series says about the Orange and Black.
Florida Panthers vs. Washington Capitals: All Eyes on Giroux
Claude Giroux, the longest-tenured captain in Flyers history, played his 1000th and final game with the organization on March 17. He finished second in franchise history in points, assists, and games played. His emotional exit landed him on one of the NHL’s top teams with better talent surrounding him than he had at any point during the entire tenure of his captaincy. Most Flyers fans will be happy for Giroux as an individual if he is ultimately able to lift the Stanley Cup this year, but the overall situation is more complex. Nobody will be able to overlook the reality of the team’s overall failure during the 14-year span of one of the franchise’s greatest all-time players.
The Panthers have a roster full of former Flyers. Radko Gudas, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Robert Hägg will all play varying roles for the Presidents’ Trophy winners this postseason. Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette also became a fan favorite in Philadelphia in parts of five seasons behind the Flyers’ bench that included a memorable run to the 2010 Stanley Cup Final.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Tampa Bay Lightning: The Hunt for Top-End Talent
General manager (GM) Chuck Fletcher boldly admitted the most glaring flaw of the 2021-22 Flyers during his January press conference. “I don’t think there’s any question we need more top-end talent,” the veteran executive told the Philadelphia media.
The Maple Leafs and the Lightning play in a different tier of the NHL than the Flyers. Both teams boast exactly the type of offensive skill players that the Flyers lack. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares have helped Toronto become an offensive juggernaut in recent seasons. The four stars helped lead the league’s top-ranked power play to a 27.3% success rate while the Flyers finished 32nd with a dismal 12.6%.
Tampa Bay has overwhelmed opponents with offensive firepower on their way to consecutive Stanley Cups. The ability to assemble talent using the first-overall pick to get captain and centerpiece Steven Stamkos while finding outstanding talent like Nikita Kucherov in the second round and Brayden Point in the third round has made them the class of the NHL. Players like Sean Couturier, Joel Farabee, and Travis Konecny help make up a long list of Flyers with great potential as supplementary pieces. However, they can’t fill the void of top-end talent that true Stanley Cup contenders possess.
Carolina Hurricanes vs. Boston Bruins: Nothing Is Quite What It Seems
The Hurricanes finished first in the Metropolitan Division this season, 55 points ahead of the last-place Flyers. The disparity in the goal differential of the respective opponents reached 163 in favor of the division champs. However, Charlie O’Connor interestingly shed some insight during his analysis of why the plan under former GM Ron Hextall never materialized into Stanley Cup contention.
“If you squint, you can see how the Flyers right now could be the Hurricanes.”
The Flyers missed badly with the second-overall pick in 2017 by selecting Nolan Patrick. The Hurricanes got top-line production this season from Andrei Svechnikov, the second-overall pick in 2018. Sebastian Aho, their leading scorer and a former second-round pick, exceeded expectations in his development in a way that no Flyers draft pick from the Hextall era could.
Hockey is a weird sport, and sometimes the blend of luck and skill can converge to produce ideal circumstances. If Flyers fans are looking for consolation, they should keep in mind that the difference between winning and losing isn’t always as incredible as it seems.
New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins: Clash of Rival Teams
The Penguins have become the modern-day arch-rival of the Flyers, with the most significant period in the rivalry’s history starting with Sidney Crosby’s emergence as an NHL superstar in 2006. The Rangers, however, played the part of arch-nemesis in past eras. The Flyers became the first expansion franchise to defeat an Original Six franchise by knocking off the Rangers in 1974, and the two teams remarkably battled in playoff series in seven of nine seasons from 1978-79 through 1986-87.
This Metro clash features two teams on different paths. The Penguins are trying to continue a run of dominance with aging superstars Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. The Rangers have fast-tracked their supposed rebuild and entered contention sooner than expected thanks to the acquisition of Artemi Panarin and the emergence of Igor Shesterkin and Adam Fox as foundational pieces. This matchup will allow Flyers fans to see the state of two division teams who will continue their roles as the Philadelphia’s enemies in the coming seasons.
Calgary Flames vs. Dallas Stars: The Dream of Johnny Gaudreau
When Johnny Gaudreau entered the NHL in 2014, he became the ultimate envy of the Flyers fan base. The South Jersey native grew up rooting for the Orange and Black, and he maintains connections to the Philadelphia area with family ties and a summer home at the Jersey Shore. He is an impending unrestricted free agent, and a player coming off a season in which he shattered his career high with 115 points could certainly help the Flyers fix their lack of top-end talent.
The subject will not go away as long as Gaudreau stay in the league. However, the likelihood that he lands in Philadelphia in 2022-23 is not high. The Flames don’t intend to allow a high-caliber player like Gaudreau to walk away. The assumption that he would prefer Philadelphia as his destination reportedly isn’t accurate. Even if it was, the Flyers would struggle to clear the necessary salary space for a high-priced free agent. It doesn’t hurt to dream though, Flyers fans.
Edmonton Oilers vs. Los Angeles Kings: Retool, Rebuild Debate
The Oilers and the Kings took opposite paths to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the Flyers should take note of the trajectory of both franchises. Edmonton bottomed out and picked first in the draft three consecutive times from 2010-2012 and again in 2015. They pose an example of a franchise that used premium draft capital to select top-end talent in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
Meanwhile, the Kings have kept key veterans from their Stanley Cup teams in 2011-12 and 2013-14 intact while restocking their roster with young talent. They now find themselves in position to compete using a mix of accomplished veterans like Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick, an infusion of young talent led by Adrian Kempe, and outside acquisitions Viktor Arvidsson and Phillip Danault.
There are many ways to build successful teams in the NHL. The demand for bottoming out in a long-term rebuild from some Flyers fans is incredibly oversimplified, and the hope to “aggressively retool” the roster to contend in 2022-23 is farfetched. The Flyers need to find the best mode of roster construction specific to their individual circumstances, and the topic will be a point of discussion long after this opening-round playoff series.
Colorado Avalanche vs. Nashville Predators: The Ultimate NHL X-Factor
The Avalanche enter the postseason with arguably the most talented roster in the NHL. The Predators are heavy underdogs with significantly less firepower. However, both teams earned their playoff positions with the help of the sport’s great equalizer and the ultimate x-factor of the Stanley Cup Playoffs: goaltending.
The Avalanche entered the season with questions between the pipes, as Darcy Kuemper replaced reigning Vezina finalist Philipp Grubauer. The 31-year-old veteran shined this season, finishing fifth among all goaltenders with 21.0 goals saved above expected (GSAx). While the highlight-reel offense will get all the attention in Denver, the Avalanche wouldn’t have earned the top seed in the Western Conference without quality goaltending. Juuse Saros finished just behind Kuemper with 20.7 GSAx in 2021-22. He figured to be Nashville’s best weapon against Colorado, but injuries are keeping him out of action early in the series.
The value of quality goaltending can’t be overstated. The rebound effort of Carter Hart was the biggest positive of the 2021-22 season for the Flyers. The 23-year-old still has a high ceiling in the NHL, and an advantage in the crease can fast-track the path to success for any team in the NHL.
St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild: Irony of Berube, Schenn Means Nothing
Flyers fans will undoubtedly gripe when they see the team’s former head coach Craig Berube and former forward Brayden Schenn playing the same roles for a more successful Blues team. When the two won the Stanley Cup together in 2019, it brought up reminders of players like Justin Williams and Patrick Sharp who got away from the Flyers too soon.
While the irony might sting some fans, it has very little to do with the future of the Flyers. During the salary cap era, players switch teams through free agency and trades more commonly than ever. Every Stanley Cup winner has players who left other organizations under circumstances much worse than Schenn’s. Berube has done an excellent job with his second opportunity as a head coach, but it’s doubtful that he would’ve led the Flyers to a Stanley Cup if he did get a longer tenure behind the bench in Philadelphia.
Flyers fans who want to think more positively should pay attention to the Wild’s list of key players drafted by Fletcher prior to his exit from Minnesota in 2018. Kirill Kiprizov, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Kevin Fiala help make up the core of a competitive Central Division contender.
Flyers fans unquestionably wish the regular season had turned out differently for their team, but the Stanley Cup Playoffs offer the best entertainment in sports every year regardless of which teams qualify. The opportunity to enjoy world-class talent on the sport’s biggest stage shouldn’t be ruined because of Philadelphia’s inability to earn a playoff spot.
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 forgotten journeymen like Andy Delmore and Branko Radivojevič. Colin also covers the Philadelphia Eagles and works for 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia.