The 2020-21 Philadelphia Flyers fell drastically short of expectations, in large part due to the failure of their young players to progress into the roles that the organization hoped they could play for a Stanley Cup contending team. Goaltender Carter Hart finished as the worst statistical goaltender in the NHL in most major categories. Winger Travis Konecny fell short of expectations as a top-line point producer. Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim struggled to stabilize a unit of defensemen who never found suitable chemistry. A breakout year from Joel Farabee, who led the team with 20 goals in just his second season in the league, was the only saving grace for players under the age of 25 at the NHL level.
General manager Chuck Fletcher made key offseason acquisitions to patch up some of the holes that plagued the Flyers last season. However, the younger players within the organization need to rebound from last season’s disappointment if they expect to earn a playoff spot in a tough Metropolitan Division this season.
Perhaps nobody within the organization can exemplify the disaster of last season better than Hart. The 23-year-old has been lauded as the long-term solution in goal since his climb through junior hockey and his surge into the NHL in 2018-19. However, he struggled mightily through the pandemic-riddled 2020-21 season. His issues snowballed throughout, and a minor injury ultimately ended his season early.
As discussed on The Hockey Writers Focus on the Flyers, Hart is the biggest key to a turnaround in Philadelphia in 2021-22. If Hart can’t regather himself and get back to the level he played at during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, the offseason acquisitions and any improved in-house performances will ultimately render meaningless. Backup Martin Jones should not realistically be counted on to carry the full-time load for a team hoping to contend.
Konecny finished the 2020-21 season with 11 goals and 23 assists, which was good for sixth on the team in total points. However, his overall effort paled in comparison to the expectations set for him by the organization based on tremendous progression over the course of his first four NHL seasons.
After posting a career-best and team-high in total points in just 66 games in 2019-20, Konecny’s regression began when he struggled to produce during the 2020 Playoffs. His defensive game was not up to high standards throughout the 2020-21 season. He landed in head coach Alain Vigneault’s doghouse early when he was sat as a healthy scratch. The decision appeared to be a message to the team and an attempt to demonstrate accountability. Konecny also drifted away from his previous role as an agitator who could get under the skin of his opponents, made famous by his antics during the 2019 Stadium Series game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Fletcher and Vigneault have emphasized the need for improvement defensively and a better collective level of accountability in virtually every conversation they’ve had on the record this offseason. Konecny will be scrutinized as much as any player in the Flyers effort to improve their horrendous team defense from a season ago.
“You have no chance to be successful giving up the number of chances and the number of goals that we did this year (2020-21)’’ -Chuck Fletcher
Provorov also produced a reasonably good statistical season in 2020-21. However, like Konecny, he failed to meet the high expectations placed on him by the organization. In January 2020, lofty conversations about Provorov entering the tier of elite NHL defenseman and Norris Trophy candidacy took place. He was still counted on as the Flyers’ top defenseman, but his inability to solidify the top defensive pair following the abrupt retirement of Matt Niskanen was one of the many reasons the Flyers allowed more goals than any other NHL team last season.
In 2021-22, the Flyers will not expect him to anchor the top pairing in the same way. Following the addition of Ryan Ellis, Provorov will likely play the majority of the season alongside an ideal complementary partner and the most reputable defenseman Philadelphia has had since trading Kimmo Timonen in 2015. He has developed into a great workhorse defenseman, appearing in every game in each of his five NHL seasons and averaging 25 minutes of ice time in 2020-21. The organization will expect him to play at the level they anticipated when he was drafted seventh overall in 2015.
In 2019-20, the Flyers limited the production of top-tier NHL scorers. However, they couldn’t replicate that success in 2020-21. Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, Mika Zibanejad of the New York Rangers, and David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins, among other top liners, had their way with the Flyers last season. The top pair of Provorov and Ellis will be expected to match up and contain opponents’ top lines at even strength and on the penalty kill in 2021-22.
Sanheim is now 25 years old, and the Flyers expect the 6-foot-4 blueliner to re-establish himself as a legitimate second-pair defenseman after a down season. His new two-year contract, worth $4.675 in average annual value (AAV), demonstrates their confidence in him to do so. Now entering his fifth season, he now needs to justify the hefty price of an investment in a young, puck-moving defenseman.
He will likely begin the year paired with trade acquisition Rasmus Ristolainen. The additions of Ellis and Keith Yandle to the back end will likely limit Sanheim’s opportunities on the power play, but it is not out of the question that he could find himself on the top pair at some point during the season if Vigneault elects to shuffle the lineup.
The goal of Ron Hextall’s tenure as general manager in Philadelphia from 2014-2018 was to stockpile young talent without too much short-term pressure to compete. Most of the players drafted and developed during this time period have now reached the age when they can be expected to perform as core contributors.
Giroux, at age 34, should not be counted on to carry the team as he did at points during the prime years of his career. Former second-overall pick Nolan Patrick and Phillippe Myers have now been dealt, but the remaining young players will need to regroup and form the core that the organization envisioned. If they are unable to do so, the Flyers will not regain their status as a perennial playoff team they achieved between the years of 1995-2012 and certainly won’t regain a status of their distant memories as a Stanley Cup contender during their first two decades following their formation in 1967.