The Philadelphia Flyers emphasized the timeless hockey cliché of becoming “harder to play against” throughout the offseason. General manager Chuck Fletcher discussed the notion on the Jeff Marek Show just before the season started. He pointed to becoming harder to play against as a major key to a turnaround season in 2021-22.
What does this subjective idea truly mean? Winning teams are by definition, harder to play against than losing teams. What characteristics define the cliche, and what is Fletcher fixated on in his pursuit of reshaping the Flyers as a hard team to play against?
Flyers Toughness Called into Question
Former NCAA forward Peter Krieger attempted to define the “hard to play against” cliche in 2019 when asked by The Athletic. He said, “Being hard to play against, it’s not fun. When you’re up against guys who are hard to play against, (it’s) a complete, honest 200-foot game, or just hard-nosed in the corners, being fast, physical, simple, strong” (from The Athletic, What exactly makes UMD ‘hard to play against’? Here’s our quest for an answer, 2/22/19). Hockey players pride themselves on these characteristics. They believe in the need to protect teammates and play with intensity to do what it takes to win.
It was no secret that opponents didn’t fear the Flyers last season. Their division rivals embarrassed them with laughable blowouts on a regular basis. Sportsnet insider Elliotte Friedman even went as far as to say that the organization “really hated their mix” and felt that “last year’s group didn’t play for each other.” He also revealed that the organization felt that they lost the right blend of character and commitment last season. Fletcher wasn’t satisfied with the collective qualities that defined the Flyers on and off the ice in 2020-21. He recognized these mistakes and took measures to correct them during the offseason.
Flyers Looking for Grit, Intensity
Head coach Alain Vigneault noted at the beginning of training camp that he hopes for some of his new players to bring the “characteristics that you need to have a winning team.” Many of Fletcher’s offseason acquisitions bring reputations as dedicated teammates with strong character off the ice and reputations for being hard to play against.
Cam Atkinson, Ryan Ellis, and Rasmus Ristolainen all have reputations that align with the qualities mentioned in the quote from Krieger, who won a national championship with the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2019. Depth signings Nate Thompson, Nick Seeler, and Derick Brassard also bring veteran experience and a similarly gritty style.
“You want to make sure that other teams come into Philly and they’re going to know it’s going to be a hard game because we have a good team and we can be all over them.”-Derick Brassard
Brassard’s statement came just after Thompson and Seeler both dropped the gloves against the Seattle Kraken on Monday night. Vigneault echoed the same sentiment.
“I mean, any team that has success in this league has got that ‘I’ve got your back’ mentality, and there’s no doubt that everyone had their back, from Seels (Seeler) doing what he had to do, to Tommer (Thompson), I mean that’s a tight-knit group and that’s what you need to have to have success.”-Alain Vigneault
Thompson’s fight came against Nathan Bastion, who had taken liberties on a play against Flyers captain Claude Giroux earlier in the game. Seeler fearlessly squared up with 6-foot-7 Jamie Oleksiak. Ristolainen has already proven he can play a similar style in just two regular season games. The attitude expressed by the team mirrors the pack mentality that helped the Flyers to two Stanley Cups during a long-lost era in the 1970s.
Adding Character and Chemistry to Flyers Dressing Room
The Flyers also prioritized adding character players and leaders to their dressing room. Many of their offseason acquisitions wore letters as alternate captains with their former teams. Atkinson and Keith Yandle bring reputations as players who can energize a group and inspire team chemistry. They also had preexisting relationships with Kevin Hayes, who brought a similar breath of life in his first season in Philadelphia in 2019-20.
Team chemistry enables players to work for each other with the hard-nosed mentality that Fletcher desired. Atkinson stressed the positivity surrounding the team and the “good vibe” that makes it “fun to be a part of this group” after their victory over the Boston Bruins on Wednesday. Giroux stayed true to Atkinson’s words following the Flyers’ first regulation loss of the 2021-22 season against the Florida Panthers on Saturday night.
“I think the intensity, the compete level, the way we play as a team. I think if we keep doing that, good things are going to happen.”-Claude Giroux
He knows the characteristics that Fletcher wants to see from the team this season, and he will likely continue the positive emphasis on his team’s efforts to demonstrate them. Through the first four games, they’ve stayed true to their goal of being harder to play against. They will need to continue that progress if they hope to develop the cliché into a true team identity.
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 also writes fictional sports stories and covers the Philadelphia Eagles.