Today is September 13th, 2015. Do you know what that means? No, not only is football back today, but hockey will return in less than a month! With that in mind, let’s take a look at the Philadelphia Flyers as they gear up for the 2015-16 season, their 49th in professional hockey.
2014-15 In Review:
The Flyers had a rough go of things in the 2014-15 season, in which they missed the playoffs and compiled a lackluster record of 33-31-18, good for 84 points and 6th place in the Metropolitan Division. There were some good things for the Flyers in this lost season, though. Jake Voracek continued his rapid rise to superstardom in 2015, achieving 81 points in 82 games by the way of 22 goals and 59 assists. Voracek was rewarded with an 8-year, $66 million contract extension for his efforts. Flyers’ captain Claude Giroux had a successful year overall, but his 73 points leave room for even more in the future. Aside from those key two forwards, Wayne Simmonds had a career year before missing the final 7 games with a fractured fibula, an injury that has fully healed now. Simmonds was one goal shy of 30 on the season. Young Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier had frustrating seasons as a whole, but have extremely high ceilings. Veterans Matt Read, R.J. Umberger, and especially Vincent Lecavalier had tough seasons in 2015. Bounce backs will be needed from that trio. Defensively, Mark Streit led the way with 52 points and solid defense while those around him struggled. While Michael Del Zotto and Nick Schultz had their moments, they were simply counted on too heavily thanks to the far inferior options of Nick Grossmann, Andrew MacDonald, and Luke Schenn. In goal, Steve Mason had an injury-plagued but excellent year. Backup Ray Emery was not retained following a trying 2015 season in which he had to do too much due to Mason’s injuries. The Flyers as a whole had an awful tendency to play terrible against teams far worse than themselves, but then to come out and win games against some of the league’s best. This inconsistency led to the team missing the playoffs by a whopping 14 points, meaning major improvement will be needed from Philadelphia this year.
The Flyers’ offense in 2016 looks quite similar to last year’s squad, with some minor additions here and there. The core remains intact, as Claude Giroux will likely set up again with Jake Voracek on his right and rising Michael Raffl on his left. Raffl isn’t the typical first-line talent, but his play complements Giroux and Voracek’s in all the right ways, allowing for his unexpected but greatly appreciated 21 goals. The Flyers know they’ll get 70 point seasons out of Giroux and Voracek, so it is imperative that the team doesn’t waste these prime years. The trio of Sean Couturier, Matt Read, and Wayne Simmonds seems likely to reunite as the club’s second line in 2016. Couturier was recently signed to a 6-year contract extension (More details at https://overtimetkro.wordpress.com/2015/07/29/sean-couturier-contract-extension-details-comparables-and-analysis/#more-261), and his offense needs to take off to complement his superb defensive efforts. If Couturier, an X-Factor to the Flyers’ success, can leap into a 40-50 point season, the Flyers will have a much needed secondary scorer. Simmonds is a lock for 25 goals year in and year out, while Matt Read needs to revert back to his old ways. Read struggled through a high-ankle-sprain last year which really hampered him from November on. Read’s shooting percentage was a shockingly low 5.60%, a sign that if he gets more luck, the goals will return. Brayden Schenn seems to be a safe bet as the club’s third-line center, a role has never played in Philly before, where he had always been shuffled around from center to left wing to right wing. Playing his natural center should help the young but inconsistent Schenn to settle in. He will likely be flanked by R.J. Umberger on his left and new acquisition Sam Gagner on his right. Umberger looked washed-up last season, but feels better than ever after undergoing hip surgery. Sam Gagner can play any forward position, is young and cheap, and was a first-round pick by the Edmonton Oilers back in 2007. The potential is still there for Gagner, a player who needs a big year in this his third city at age 26. Vinny Lecavalier could also be an option on this line if he rediscovers his scoring touch. Until then, Lecavalier could partner with last year’s linemates Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris Vandevelde, with Ryan White acting as a versatile and energetic 13th forward. Vinny needs a big year in the worst way, and slotting him at his preferred center could pay dividends. This Flyers offense has the potential to be one of the league’s finest if everything breaks right, but they will need many a bounce-back for that to happen.
I’m sure you all know the story with the Flyers’ defense. While it isn’t anything close to resembling good now, the future is bright for this group. Prospects Sam Morin, Travis Sanheim, Shayne Gostisbehere, Robert Hagg, and this year’s first round pick, Ivan Provorov, will inhabit the blue line in the Wells Fargo Center soon enough, but all need more seasoning in the minors or juniors at the moment. What’s left at the NHL level is scary. Mark Streit is still a capable power play quarterback, but his speed has left him at age 37. Michael Del Zotto was re-signed to a 2-year extension, and could play a larger role with Streit advancing in age. Del Zotto had a renaissance year last season, scoring 10 goals, joining the rush as a 4th forward at times, and playing surprisingly sharp defense, including a large role on the penalty kill. Nick Schultz was sturdy but unspectacular last year, and will be counted on for steadiness on the back end once more. Luke Schenn had an up-and-down season in 2015, as is the norm for him, but he showed some signs of improving as the season went on. Luke is one of two righties on the Flyers’ defense corps. this year, with the other belonging to new acquisition Radko Gudas. Acquired with draft picks in exchange for Braydon Coburn, Gudas never played for the Flyers in 2015, but was an underrated d-man in Tampa Bay. Gudas plays a physical defense, something the Flyers desperately need. Yevgeni Medvedev was signed from Russia to boost the defensive depth, and he should be something of a bargain at only $3 million if he lives up to the billing he received as one of Russia’s finest defensemen. Andrew MacDonald is an untradeable commodity due to his ridiculous contract (5 more years at $5 million a pop), and will be back, defensive lapses and all. With all seven of these d-men making enough money to be a starter, one defenseman could be traded prior to the 2016 season. The Flyers will have one of hockey’s best defenses in 2-3 years, but until then, the blue line core could be tough to watch.
Finally, the Flyers have found their goaltender of the future. Steve Mason is a legitimate top-10 goalie in the NHL, as both his numbers (2.22 GAA, .924 SV%, 7 shutouts in his Flyers career) and the eye test (when has Mason ever cost the Flyers a game by his play alone? Never.). Mason is the real deal, the Flyers’ best goalie since Ron Hextall. Mason’s excellent puck-handling ability, lightning-quick glove hand, and overall attitude are his greatest intangibles. Ray Emery will not be Mason’s backup after a difficult 2015 season. Instead, the Flyers opted to sign a younger and more talented backup being Michal Neuvirth. Neuvirth is an expensive backup at $1.625 million a year for 2 years, but has been a quality starter in this league as recently as last year, when he was standing on his head playing behind the lowly Buffalo Sabres. Neuvirth should be able to capably rest Mason 30 times this year, keeping the Flyers’ number 1 netminder rested and healthy for the long haul.
The Flyers just don’t have a complete team in 2016. Their offense has potential but is depending heavily on the contributions of a couple of older veterans, their defense is improved from last season but is still not playoff-worthy, and their goaltending is quality but is playing behind a subpar defense. If all of the best-case scenarios come true, the Flyers will be able to sneak into the playoffs, but that’s likely asking too much from this rebuilding squad. By 2018, the Flyers will be ready for a Championship run if the kids are as advertised, but in 2016, the team is still too hamstrung by the salary cap to make much noise.