Sure, it’s mid-January, but there’s never a bad time for a Flyers season opener, and that’s what will take place on Wednesday evening when the Orange and Black host the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Wells Fargo Center.
The expectations are high in Philly after the team ended the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 regular season on a high before ultimately struggling to regain that form when play picked up in the bubble a few months later. Ultimately, it was a second-round, seven-game exit for the Flyers, who fell to the Islanders in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Nearly that entire team is back to try it again. They’ve got a solid mix of veteran leadership and up-and-coming talent. Carter Hart has another season under his belt as his name continues to be listed among the best goalies in the league. And Alain Vigneault had a season to work out the kinks and figure how to get the best out of each of his players, something he clearly began to figure out as last season went on.
This appears to be a team trending in the right direction (with the sixth best odds of winning the Stanley Cup, according to TheLines.com’s consensus odds).
With their 56-game schedule set to kick off tonight, let’s take one last look at what they’re saying about the Flyers…
A second-tier team?
Sean McIndoe | The Athletic
Over at The Athletic, they put together a survey of their NHL writers to determine how the league will play out over the next six months.
While some believe the Flyers are the best team in a very tough East Division, not everyone views them as contenders. Despite his fellow Athletic hockey writers predicting they win the division in a close race with the Bruins (19-12 or 46.34%-29.27%), Sean McIndoe didn’t include Philly among “the contenders” heading into this season, despite the fact that they were one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams a season ago.
Instead, he has them in the Your-Guess-Is-As-Good-As-Mine tier (the second best?), while fellow East Division teams in Boston and Washington were listed as contenders. Here’s what McIndoe has to say…
Last season: 41-21-7, +36, lost in the second round
Their offseason in one sentence: Don’t try to fix what’s already working, I guess.
Why they’re here: I outlined my ongoing confusion with the Flyers in more depth a few months ago, so here’s the summary. I didn’t expect them to be good last year, I wasn’t sure they were for most of the season, I like Carter Hart a lot, but I’m still not sure they’re a top ten team. And yeah, I’m prepared to be very wrong all over again. Luckily Flyer fans are notoriously chill so no hard feelings if that happens. (theathletic.com)
A nice breeze blowing in
Matt Larkin | Sports Illustrated
Over at Sports Illustrated, Matt Larkin took a look at the East Division, which is comprised of eight teams — the Flyers, Bruins, Capitals, Penguins, Rangers, Islanders, Devils and Sabres. He broke the teams down not by where he thinks they’ll finish the season, but by how open their window of contention is. And while some of the teams are squarely in win-now mode as their window closes or perhaps in rebuilding mode, the Flyers are the only team he lists as having their window “wide open.”
WINDOW WIDE OPEN: Philadelphia Flyers
The East division looks like NHL’s deepest and most competitive under the realigned format for 2020-21, but while most of its contenders are veteran-laden groups built to compete in the present, the Flyers are set up to make a run for a championship now and for several years to come. They’re built to last from the net out. Carter Hart is maturing into the Flyers’ first reliable long-term stud in net arguably since Ron Hextall. He’s protected by a big, skilled, young D-corps featuring Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers, with another potential difference maker on the way in Cam York.
The Flyers are one of the league’s deepest teams at forward, too. They get strong veteran contributions in their top six from the aging-but-still-useful core of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Kevin Hayes and James van Riemsdyk, with Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny in their primes and taking over as the team’s top forwards. The key to Philly taking the next step is how its next wave of scoring forwards develops. They used four first-round picks in 2017 and 2018 to select Nolan Patrick, Moran Frost, Joel Farabee and Jay O’Brien. The need to see progress from that group. A lot depends on whether Patrick can conquer his debilitating migraine disorder. A big reason why Philadelphia needs to see that prospect evolution: the future salary-cap setup doesn’t suggest a big-ticket UFA can come to town, as the Flyers will have to devote their funds to RFAs Hart and Sanheim this summer.
Even if the kids aren’t ready to evolve further, the goaltending, defense, veteran forwards and structured coaching from Alain Vigneault make the Flyers a dangerous team. (si.com)
Carter Hart is very good…
Staff | ESPN+
Over at ESPN, their hockey staff ranked the top 100 players in the NHL heading into the 2021 season. And there were four Flyers on the list, but none higher than their 22-year-old goalie.
34. Carter Hart
G | Flyers
Goaltending experts marvel at Hart’s positioning in the crease, as his fundamentals are solid beyond his 22 years. In just two seasons, he has given the Flyers something they haven’t had in decades: hope that they’ve found a homegrown franchise goalie. — Wyshynski
Signature stat: In Games 3 and 4 of the Flyers’ first-round playoff series against the Canadiens, Hart became the second-youngest goalie to post consecutive shutouts in NHL postseason history, behind only Detroit’s Harry Lumley in 1945. (espn.com)
The other Flyers on the list were Sean Couturier (49), Claude Giroux (68) and Ivan Provorov (95).
…and getting better…
Chris Peters | ESPN+
But ESPN took it a step further, looking to spin the list forward and project who will be the best players in the league five years from now. Currently, they have Hart as the fourth best goalie in the NHL, behind Andrei Vasilevskiy, Connor Hellebuyck and Tuukka Rask. All of those goalies are at least four years older than Hart (Vasilevskiy is the youngest at 26), which is part of the reason why Chris Peters believes the Flyers goalie will be the best of the bunch in 2026.
Who will be the top goalie in five seasons?
Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Lightning is an exceptional goaltender. I’ve been watching his game grow since the first time I saw him when he was a lanky 16-year-old with fierce competitiveness. He deserves to be at or near the top of the goalie class right now. But the competition is coming.
Flyers goalie Carter Hart (No. 34) is the most likely to challenge Vasilevskiy (No. 5) on the mantle of top goaltender. He’s only 22 years old now and already has two quality seasons and an excellent playoff performance under his belt. Vasilevskiy had an incredible start to his careers at a young age too, but Hart has had a little more responsibility early on, as Vasilevskiy started out sharing the net with Ben Bishop in Tampa Bay.
The real wild card: Igor Shesterkin (No. 92) of the Rangers. He is only a year younger than Vasilevskiy and three years older than Hart, so he’s an old rookie coming into this season. However, he stepped into the league and was dominant over his first 12 NHL starts, going 10-2 with a .932 save percentage. We’ll need to see more from him this season before declaring him the next big thing in goaltending, but he has to be in the mix.
This is such a volatile position prone to very wild swings in performance. It’s easily the toughest to predict, but I think each of Shesterkin, Vasilevskiy and Hart will be in the hunt to be the top goaltender in the NHL five years down the line.
Verdict: Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers (espn.com)
…but wants to be the best.
Sam Carchidi | The Philadelphia Inquirer
And that’s a good thing for the Flyers, because according to Vigneault (and pretty much everyone else) Hart is going to be key to the team’s chances of contending this season. One key to that will be improving his record away from the Wells Fargo Center. Here’s more from the Inquirer’s Sam Carchidi…
“I want to be able to give our team a chance to win every night,” said the soft-spoken Hart, who did that in most games last season. “I don’t want to just be another NHL player. I want to be the best and I want to be the best NHL goaltender.”
Vigneault believes Hart can join the league’s elite. So does goalie coach Kim Dillabaugh.
“He will have an opportunity to prove it,” Vigneault said. “We need him to prove it. If we are going to be a Stanley Cup contending team, we are no different than anyone else, we need top goaltending, elite goaltending, and we think Carter can do that for us.”
To be considered a top-tier goalie, however, Hart needs to show he can excel on the road. He was a disaster in road games last season: a 4-10-1 record with a 3.81 goals-against average and an .857 save percentage.
At home, he was 20-3-2 with a 1.63 GAA and a .943 save percentage. (inquirer.com)
The defense (never) rests
Mike Sielski | The Philadelphia Inquirer
Ivan Provorov is a beast. And as Mike Sielski recently wrote, he could wind up as the team’s best ever homegrown defenseman. He’s also just 24 years old.
Here, over Provorov’s four years with them, is what the Flyers have gotten from him: They have played 315 regular-season games during that period. He has, too, averaging just less than 24 minutes in each, and for a measure of perspective on his consecutive-games streak, remember that, of the 28 players in NHL history who have played in at least 500 straight games, just four are defensemen, so physically demanding is the position. Provorov also has suited up for all of the Flyers’ 22 playoff games during his career, including Game 6 of last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, a double-overtime victory over the Islanders in which he logged more than 38 minutes of ice time.
The ungodly workload is nothing new for him. As a 14-year-old playing bantam hockey, Provorov was one of just five defensemen on the roster of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Junior Knights, and there were occasions when, if the Knights faced a succession of shorthanded situations and/or power plays, his shift might last as long as nine minutes. (…)
If Carter Hart’s stability and oft-spectacular play in net make him invaluable to the Flyers, Provorov can be the team’s second-most important player in the present and still stand alone and above the franchise’s past. For the Flyers’ 53 years of existence, they’ve never had a Norris Trophy winner, and their finest defensemen – Mark Howe, Eric Desjardins, Kimmo Timonen, Chris Pronger – began their careers with other organizations. Jimmy Watson had a solid-to-excellent 10-year career here, but Provorov is on course to surpass him, and soon, as the Flyers’ greatest homegrown defenseman.
He is aware of that history, the chance he has to change it. (inquirer.com)