After prolonged delay and overall uncertainty, the 2020-21 NHL regular season will begin on January 13th. In a 56-game quest for the Stanley Cup, the Philadelphia Flyers look to prove they are one of the league’s true contenders for the foreseeable future. That assessment begins right at the start of training camp on January 3rd.
After a quiet offseason with limited financial flexibility, General Manager Chuck Fletcher hopes that mostly sticking with in-house options to fill holes ends up being the correct choice. Still, some question marks surrounding the 2020-21 Flyers remain with no clear answer.
This question revolves around the status of Nolan Patrick. After missing all of last season battling a migraine disorder, uncertainty still circles Patrick’s availability for the upcoming year. Yes, positive signs exist. Even Alain Vigneault is changing his tune regarding the 2017 second-overall pick. Still, doctors must clear him for contact on January 3rd to progress his return to action.
If Patrick is healthy enough, he is the Flyers third-line center to start the season. However, until doctors confirm otherwise, that remains a major “if.” Luckily more options exist, each with its own set of question marks. The most popular option, outside of Patrick, is Morgan Frost. Entering his second year in professional hockey, many desire to see Frost as a consistent presence in the Flyers lineup. The ability to step into his natural position at center amongst a deep forward group seems like the perfect opportunity. Of course, Frost may prove unready to step into such a role. Then, there is Scott Laughton. Laughton possesses the ability to play center. Still, he has proven to be more productive on the wing, and the Flyers would likely prefer to keep him there.
The option to move Claude Giroux back to center remains as well. However, more so than Laughton, Philadelphia wants him on the left wing of the top line. At this stage of his career, it is where he is most productive. The reality is Philadelphia did not feel the need to address the issue over the offseason. For them, if Patrick still needs more time, internal options will suffice. Still, one cannot help but question the bottom-six quality if one of those internal options does not pan out.
Matt Niskanen’s unexpected retirement truly changed the makeup of Philadelphia’s defense. Originally viewed as an area of strength, the unit is now riddled with uncertainty. With Niskanen out of the mix, the big question resides with the right blueliner to place alongside Ivan Provorov. Right now, the popular answer is Phil Myers, but time will only tell if he is up for the task. Travis Sanheim might get some time in the top pairing as well. However, after that, the options are bleak and undesirable. It’s hard to imagine someone such as Erik Gustafsson, or dare I say Shayne Gostisbehere, succeeding in that role.
Once the top pairing is set, the rest of the defense remains a mystery. The Flyers have six defensemen to fill four spots on the everyday roster. Of those six, five of them are better served on the bottom pair. Obviously, Sanheim resides in the top four of the blueline. After that, your guess is as good as someone else’s. Gustafsson seems like a legitimate candidate. Still, concerns surrounding his defense may call for situational limitations. Of course, the Flyers can call on Justin Braun but inserting him amongst the top four is a stretch. Robert Hagg is a bottom-pairing blueliner. Mark Friedman might be, but we haven’t seen enough to make a clear determination yet. As for Gostisbehere, who knows?
Similar to 3C, the Flyers possess defensive options. Experimentation is most likely necessary to figure out what works. Still, after Philadelphia’s top-three blueliners, one cannot help but notice a gap. That, naturally, leads to some concerns.
Veteran Forward Production
The Flyers possess promising young forwards. Some even ready to serve as consistent producers in the NHL. Still, Philadelphia remains in a place where they can only go as far as their costly veteran forwards allow. The 2020 NHL Playoffs highlighted key Flyers struggling to produce. Of course, this led to some underachievement in the eyes of many. Focussing on the season ahead, much of the spotlight will fall on Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, James van Riemsdyk, and Kevin Hayes, seeing if they can steer this team to success. Many other pieces are put in place, and it’s time for this core group of four to demonstrate leadership through on-ice production.
van Riemsdyk looks to draw the most scrutiny as he continues to fail to live up to the $7 million price tag. With many hoping Seattle will relieve them of their suffering, he is in a position to resurrect his status, likely on the Flyers third line. Whether he can is up for debate, and Alain Vigneault likely won’t stay patient if van Riemsdyk struggles out of the gate.
For Giroux, it is all about what kind of player the captain is at age 33. Is he still a top-line star, or is he becoming more of a second-line option? With just two years left on his deal, the constant examination will go towards his overall value for the organization moving forward, whether fair or not.
Voracek is an interesting member of this core because he may receive more criticism than he deserved. There has always been a demand for more goals, but he is not that player. He is still incredibly effective in many other ways. The main question mark surrounding him is whether he does enough to garner attention from Seattle. Regardless of his production, shedding an $8.25 million cap hit would go a long way for Philadelphia.
With Hayes, it’s all about whether he can build off his impressive first season with the Flyers. He won the hearts of the organization and its fans both on and off the ice last season. Philadelphia counts on him to be a quality second-line center, and another quality year will go a long way in alleviating worry about his contract.
It’s normal to enter training camp with questions about the roster. Whether the fanbase sees it or not, Philadelphia’s front office and coaching staff believe they have the answers to those question marks. For now, the waiting game remains with uncertainty still looming.
Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire