There are 11 games remaining in the 2018-19 season, and the Philadelphia Flyers much closer to the playoff bubble than most thought they would be at this time. On Dec. 17, they were last in the Eastern Conference and most fans were thinking whether they preferred Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko, two highly-touted prospects in the upcoming draft. Yet now the question has shifted to, “Can they make the playoffs?”
Even sniffing the playoffs was an afterthought in December, a pipe dream at best. Yet the Flyers were able to trim their playoff deficit to as close as three points. How did they do it? By playing at a level on par with the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team on pace for the best NHL season since the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings.
The Flyers' pace since mid-January has been ridiculous; they've essentially matched the league-best Tampa Bay Lightning, who themselves are pacing for the best single-season record since 1995-96. That and more in today's 10 Things. https://t.co/AJ5QGWA7S0 pic.twitter.com/SqAO7dFX4a
— Charlie O'Connor (@charlieo_conn) March 12, 2019
Unfortunately, back-to-back losses to the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs dealt a harsh blow to their playoff chances, and they now sit seven points back of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Although the Flyers’ odds of getting in are slim, the fact that they came so close after being as far as 15 points out is remarkable.
The Flyers could still squeak into the playoffs, but regardless of the outcome of their season, the way they’ve managed to reach this point is enough to evoke optimism heading into next season.
Youngsters Propelling Success
The most encouraging aspect of the Flyers’ second-half surge – and the reason for optimism about the team’s trajectory for next season – has been the play of their young core. Young players who were expected to make strides in their development this season faltered early. Those players, most noticeably Nolan Patrick, Travis Konecny, Ivan Provorov and Oskar Lindblom, either did little to impact games or outright struggled, producing poor results.
Since January, each of them has significantly upped their game, and with their resurgence, the Flyers have risen with them. The recent addition of Philippe Myers to the club has given the defense corp a needed shot in the arm whilst also pushing the much maligned Andrew MacDonald into the role of the seventh defenseman.
The most impactful addition came with the call-up of 20-year-old net minder Carter Hart. The addition of the young goaltender, accompanied by the departure of head coach Dave Hakstol, energized the club.
Goaltending a Major Strength
Aside from Hart’s Herculean efforts, which included wining NHL Rookie of the Month in January by posting a 6-2-1 record with a 2.33 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage, as well as a February when he tied the NHL record for a win streak by a goalie under the age of 21 (eight straight wins), veteran Brian Elliott has been extremely steady since his return from injury.
Elliott took over the crease starting with the Stadium Series game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 23 and has been rock solid since, posting a 5-0-1 record to go along with a sterling .929 SV% in six starts. Make no mistake, the lack of strong goaltending was the biggest reason for the Flyers’ putrid first half, poor goaltending will sink even the best teams. Conversely, great goaltending, like the Flyers are getting now, can mask a lot of deficiencies.
With all due respect to Elliott, his strong play does nothing to impact Flyers fans’ outlook on the future of the club. Hart’s pedigree and potential to be a franchise-altering talent however, has the Flyers’ goalie depth chart looking very promising heading into next season and beyond.
Second Half’s Effect On Offseason
The pessimists say that reaching the playoffs would be a waste of time for the Flyers. Sure, an early first-round exit is likely considering they would have to play the powerhouse Lightning, but there are perks hidden just below the surface if you look hard enough.
First, turning it on down the stretch and making things interesting will go a long way toward coaxing a free agent, or two, to sign in Philadelphia this offseason. Big names searching for a payday – as well as the chance to win a Stanley Cup – such as Artemi Panarin and Erik Karlsson, will have much more faith in the Flyers’ ability to provide both after seeing them, and their young core, battle back to nearly claim a playoff spot in the face of such adversity.
Then again, superstar players won’t be the only free agents management will be chasing this offseason. The Flyers will assuredly be chasing three-time Stanley Cup champion head coach Joel Quenneville. Theres a strong chance that Quenneville will look at the first-half Flyers and come to the conclusion they aren’t worth his time. A peek at the second-half Flyers, however, should catch his attention.
Playoff Berth Carries Added Bonus
The most unique opportunity the Flyers would gain by clinching a postseason berth, is the chance to bury a division rival for the foreseeable future. The Blue Jackets decided to push all their chips into the center at the trade deadline by doling out picks and prospects to acquire pending free agents Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Adam McQuaid.
The thought process for general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen was that if the Blue Jackets could manage a deep playoff run, it would sway Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky from leaving for greener pastures in the offseason.
Should the Blue Jackets whiff on the postseason entirely, Panarin and Bobrovsky will likely be gone, and there’s no guarantee that any of Duchene, Dzingel, or McQuaid will re-sign. If the team re-signs Duchene and Dzingel their asset dump won’t hurt nearly as much but make no mistake, these players are not of the same caliber as Panarin and Bobrovsky.
There is word today Artemis Panarin has joined teammate Sergei Bobrovsky’s agent, Paul Theofanous. This is going to lead to plenty of speculation they could be a package deal in free agency. We will see how it plays out.
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) February 8, 2019
If the Blue Jackets are unable to retain any of their free agents, they’ll be entering a rebuilding process without key draft picks and prospects. For the Flyers, it removes a division rival in the Blue Jackets from contention for the next few seasons at least.
If the Flyers do overtake the Blue Jackets and dump their franchise into disarray, great; if not, their second half surge will still be a success thanks to how it sets them up for the future, especially when considering the impact it has on the decisions of marquee free agents.