With the world slowly returning to normal and the possibility that the NHL will be able to complete the season, it’s time to look at the teams that are favored to win the Stanley Cup. From now until the playoffs begin, I’ll highlight one team per week and make the case for it to win the Stanley Cup. This week: The Philadelphia Flyers.
Before he had even played a shift for his new team, Kevin Hayes was asked what a realistic expectation would be for the Philadelphia Flyers this season. Hayes had just signed a very rich, very long deal with the Flyers and it was just prior to the pre-season, you know, that time of the year when everybody thinks they’re good. So it should come as no surprise that Hayes had high hopes for the Flyers, perhaps a little too high considering they missed the playoffs and were the third-worst defensive team in the NHL in 2018-19.
“It’s my first year there, but…we’re here to win, that’s for sure,” Hayes said. “Everyone’s goal is to win a Stanley Cup. If that’s not your goal, you shouldn’t be in this league. But I think entering the playoffs being a top team in the Metro is something we can definitely do.”
Well, what do you know if the Flyers didn’t do just that? In fact, had the league not paused with almost a month to go, there’s a good chance the Flyers would have made Hayes look like a genius and prevented the Washington Capitals from winning their bazillionth division title. When the league paused, the surging Flyers were just one point behind the limping Capitals with both teams having 11 games to go. Going into the pause, the Flyers were the hottest team in the NHL with a 9-1-0 record in their previous 10, while the Capitals were 4-3-3 in that time.
So now the big question is whether or not the Flyers can crank up that momentum again months later. If they can, there’s no reason to believe they can’t win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 45 years. To be fair, they’re due. Since last winning the Stanley Cup in 1975, the Flyers have made the final five times and lost. The only team to do that more has been the Boston Bruins, but at least they won a Cup in 2011.
And the team the Bruins defeated in that final were the Vancouver Canucks, coached by one Alain Vigneault, another guy who is due to hoist the Cup over his head. This year would be nice, since the Stanley Cup would go quite nicely with the Jack Adams Award on his mantelpiece. There is no secret to the turnaround in Philadelphia. Much of the credit for the Flyers’ success rests with Vigneault, who completely overhauled the way the Flyers play away from the puck. And as is often the case, these things take time. The Flyers went just 5-5-1 in October, a month that was punctuated with an ugly 7-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But Vigneault’s system took hold and the Flyers took off. They went from being 29th in goals-against last season to tied for seventh when the league paused in March. Their goals differential did a 180-degree shift, going from minus-37 last season to plus-36 this season. The best thing about the Flyers attention to detail on defense was that it did not come at the expense of offense. With 13 games left to play, the Flyers had scored almost as many goals (232) in 69 games as they did in 82 games (244) last season. Key players such as Jakub Voracek were light years better on both sides of the puck this season over last. Meanwhile, a number of key players go from having dreadful years to living up to their potential, which was the case for a good number of the Flyers. Some of the Flyers’ young players, who looked stuck in neutral in 2018-19, took major steps forward in 2019-20.
“(Vigneault) is a huge reason why I decided to go there,” Hayes said. “I played for him for four years (with the New York Rangers) and he was a big contributor to my game changing in the NHL from just offensively to being a 200-foot player that I believe that I am today.”
And this is how it’s going to have to be for this team, that is devoid of marquee talent. Not a single player on the Flyers roster scored at a point-per-game pace this season and when it comes to creating offense, the Flyers simply don’t have the explosive individual talent that a lot of other teams in the Eastern Conference possess. In some cases, it’s not even close.
But somehow, this team has found a way to be one of the NHL’s elite teams this season. It’s a triumph of the collective, which is so Philadelphia. And it might just be enough to lead them to the promise land.
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