All NHL schedules are not created equal. Sure, every team must face each other at least twice per season. You can’t hide from the Anaheim Ducks all year just because you’re based in Buffalo. The NHL is not college football. But success over the course of an 82-game season can be dictated just as much by timing as it can be by performance.
Timing plays an important role for a number of reasons. Are you playing a fully healthy opponent when your team is weighed down by injuries? How many back-to-back games do you have to play and when? Against who? How many extended road trips do you have? How many extended home stands? Are you playing a normally good team in a slump, or a normally bad team on a heater?
For a borderline playoff hopeful like the Philadelphia Flyers, this timing element of the regular season can have a significant impact, more than it would for some of the more consistently elite teams in the league. And since we’re trudging through the doldrums of August, now seems like the perfect time to take an in-depth look at Philly’s 2017-18 schedule. Will they be helped or hurt by the way it is laid out?
Note: I’m going to analyze the schedule more-so in chunks than in individual games, so if you’d like to follow along with a visual reference, here is a link to the Flyers’ full 2017-18 schedule.
Brutal First Two Months
Suffice it to say we are not going to have to wait long to see what kind of resolve the Flyers have this season. Of their 25 games during the months of October and November, 17 of them will be played against 2017 playoff teams.
Philly starts the season with a four-game Western Conference road trip during which they will play the San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, Ducks and Nashville Predators. Their welcome-home present upon returning from that challenge is a showdown with the Washington Capitals.
For the remainder of this two-month stretch, the Flyers will finish up their season series’ against San Jose, Anaheim and Nashville. They will also play the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild twice each. Sprinkle in some match-ups against the Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames and there is no denying that the Flyers will be up against it right out of the gate.
For Flyers fans, this could be a double-edged sword. There are clear disadvantages to this difficult first quarter of the season, but there are a few perks as well.
Bad news first: you can’t exactly get eliminated from the postseason in November, but this schedule lends itself to the possibility that the Flyers will have a hole to climb out of early in the season. It’s hard to imagine them playing above .500 hockey throughout this stretch unless a few of their opponents get off to slow starts.
The Flyers figure to ice a relatively young and inexperienced lineup this season as well, and with opponents like the ones they’ll face in the first two months, there won’t be much of a chance for their youth to ease into the pace of the NHL.
The good news: Philly’s young players might as well cut their teeth against the best competition hockey has to offer. Whether the Flyers emerge from November as a team with playoff ambitions or not, the kids will have been battle-tested. A difficult first two months could help set them up for success in the second half of the season.
Also on the positive side: barring a slew of training camp injuries, the Flyers should get to start the season with all hands on deck. Dave Hakstol won’t have to mix and match pairings and combinations to account for wounded players, and he will be able to face these teams with the lineup he wants.
The last bit of good news regarding the Flyers’ tough autumn is that it is by far the most difficult portion of their schedule. If Philly does struggle, at least they have it out of the way. It’s better to start playing catch-up before the calendar turns to 2018 than it is to be hovering somewhere in the middle of the wild card hunt in March with your most harrowing sequence of games yet to come.
All Downhill From There?
The Flyers’ schedule doesn’t get “easier” once December rolls around, but the next stretch isn’t quite as rigorous. After playing 68% of their first 25 games against 2017 playoff teams, the Flyers will only face five of last year’s postseason qualifiers in 13 December contests.
The first full week of the month offers a three-game road trip through western Canada where Philly will face Calgary, Edmonton and the Vancouver Canucks. The rest of December is riddled with tough match-ups like the Dallas Stars, Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Flyers will also get to play the Buffalo Sabres (twice) and the Detroit Red Wings as 2017 comes to a close. This manageable month includes a five-game home stand where Philly should be able to pick up some points.
January will be a crucial month as the Flyers begin to posture for a postseason run, as 11 of their 12 opponents are from the Eastern Conference. Of those 11 games, seven will be played against Metropolitan Division teams. The Flyers will face Washington and the New Jersey Devils twice each in January, along with one game each against the Penguins, New York Islanders and New York Rangers.
February brings much of the same, with 11 more games against Eastern Conference foes. The most important thing to note here, though, is that the Flyers will play 13 games between Feb. 1 and Feb. 26. Only twice in the year’s shortest month will the Flyers have more than one day off in between games. Philly will even play back-to-back road games out west against the Arizona Coyotes and the Vegas Golden Knights. Good thing the NHL isn’t sending players to the Olympics, though. That would really condense the schedule.
If Philly’s first 25 games are their toughest from a competition standpoint, then the 13 games they’ll play in February are the most difficult in the sense that their bodies are going to be absolutely worn down when the month is over. The Flyers will more or less play every other day for five weeks, as they will play on three of the first four days in March as well.
To assess the impact this trying portion of the schedule could have on Philadelphia’s playoff hopes, we must revert back to the probability that they will be deploying a handful of rookies and second-year players. Would anyone fault the Flyers’ youngsters for hitting a wall somewhere in the middle of February?
No matter what kind of emphasis a player or his organization places on conditioning, battling through a stretch like this in the latter part of the season is going to take an undeniable toll on some of the young players who simply haven’t had to endure anything like it before. If the youthful Flyers are still standing in the postseason hunt when the calendar strikes March, they’ll deserve a tip of the cap from the rest of the league.
Will the Flyers “Spring Ahead?”
The Flyers will play 15 games in the season’s final full month, including four separate back-to-backs. They will round out their schedule with four games in April. Among their final 19 games, 10 of them will be played against Metropolitan Division teams, giving Philadelphia one final shot at picking up crucial playoff points within their division.
The question is: will they still be in it at this point in the season? On paper, in August, it seems like a tall task. Every NHL team is going to be victimized by a difficult stretch of scheduling at some point. Every team will go on a prolonged road trip when they least want to, every team will have a jam-packed couple of weeks. It’s just that some of them are better equipped to handle it than others.
Of course, nobody thought the Columbus Blue Jackets would rack up 108 points at this time last year. The parity of the NHL is such that all hockey fans will be asking each other sometime in the middle of next season, “Can you believe how good the [insert expectation-exceeding team here] are?” I’d be shocked if the Flyers follow this trajectory in 2017-18, but as the old saying goes, that’s why they play the games.
Given what the Flyers figure to be as a team, I’d issue a pretty high difficulty grade to their schedule. How it ultimately plays out boils down to one key factor at two important stretches: how will the Flyers’ youth respond to the first 25 games, many of them on the road against stiff Western Conference opponents? And, how will the young players respond to that brutal 13-game sequence in February when they’re playing every other day for weeks on end?
I’ll hold off on a concrete prediction for now, and leave you with this: those 38 combined games will determine whether or not the Flyers make the playoffs. Let’s check back here in March to see how they fared, and see if they are still alive in the spring.