The Hockey News’ 2018-19 Season Preview series dives into off-season transactions, best- and worst-case scenarios and one burning question for each team in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds.
Stanley Cup odds: 28-1
Key Additions: James van Riemsdyk, LW; Christian Folin, D
Key Departures: Valtteri Filppula, C; Petr Mrazek, G; Brandon Manning, D; Matt Read, RW; Johnny Oduya, D
The Flyers found magic last season when coach Dave Hakstol shifted captain Claude Giroux to left wing and promoted Sean Couturier to top-line center. Giroux broke the 100-point mark for the first time, finishing second in NHL scoring to Connor McDavid. Linemate Couturier nearly doubled his previous best with 76 points. And now Philadelphia is even deeper up front thanks to the free-agency acquisition of left winger James van Riemsdyk. ‘JVR’ is a superb net-front presence and power-play weapon, and the same can be said for Wayne Simmonds.
Growth from second-year center Nolan Patrick will firm up the forward group even more, while the defense corps continues to refill with youngsters. Expect Ivan Provorov to join the league’s elite, plus more offensive derring-do from Shayne Gostisbehere. More reps for Travis Sanheim will help the youngster as well as push the rest of the blueline as internal competition lifts all ships.
With a power-packed offense and mobile defense, the Flyers can seize a post-season spot for the third time in four years. Given the state of the Metropolitan Division, Philly might even win a playoff round or two.
As has been the case the past two decades, it’s going to come down to goaltending. And since nothing has changed in terms of personnel, the Flyers are pretty much sunk. Brian Elliott only seems to play well when there’s someone better ahead of him, while Michal Neuvirth hasn’t played starter’s minutes since 2010-11 with Washington. Neuvirth is good in spurts, but consistency has always been an issue, and if the Flyers want to hang with the big boys in the East, they’ll need more. Essentially, the franchise is waiting for Carter Hart to be NHL-ready, but he’s just a rookie pro with AHL Lehigh Valley, so the wait will be at least one more season – more if GM Ron Hextall plays it safe.
Jakub Voracek is coming off an 85-point season, after two years of substantially lower production. So which Voracek shows up? Andrew MacDonald is still a salary-cap anchor on the blueline, while Radko Gudas will inevitably get suspended for something avoidable. When Gudas is on the ice, he’s slow and taking a roster spot away from a talented youngster such as Philippe Myers. The Flyers are a pretty good team, but could easily get squeezed out of a post-season spot.
Will Patrick take a step forward in his second big-league season?
It took a while for Patrick, the second-overall pick in the 2017 draft, to really get going. He missed nine games in the early season due to an upper-body injury, and when he did finally return, it wasn’t until about mid-campaign that the pieces really started to fall into place. Patrick really started to show signs of his true potential in the home stretch, though. In his final 25 games, he scored eight goals and 17 points while playing consistent middle-six minutes. He was even pretty good on the faceoff dot over that span, his 53.5 percent winning percentage good enough that it would have been second-best among Flyers pivots who took at least 600 draws.
All of that was great for a rookie season, too. But now entering his sophomore campaign, Philadelphia is going to want to see Patrick elevate his game further and become a legitimate second-line center who can play behind Couturier. There seems to be faith he can be just that, too, given the Flyers don’t have any real safety net for Patrick with Valtteri Filppula walking as a free agent in the off-season. What would that look like for Patrick? Ideally, Philadelphia would love to see him chase the 20-goal plateau and raise his point total into the mid-40s, at least. That seems attainable, and it would be a nice step forward for a player the Flyers hope can be a future first-line pivot.
THE HOCKEY NEWS’ PREDICTION: 4th in the Metropolitan Division. The division is wide open and the Flyers have the depth up front and enough talent on the backend to offset whatever troubles Elliott may have this season. They’re not quite Cup contenders, but Philadelphia should earn another playoff berth.
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