The regular season is in the books.
The Philadelphia Flyers finished the 2017-18 season with a 42-26-14 record for 98 points, placing them third place in the Metropolitan Division. They have a first-round series coming up against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but before that I wanted to take a look back at the biggest storylines from the regular season.
Here are five storylines from the Flyers’ regular season leading into the playoffs.
Giroux becomes Captain Clutch in Hart-worthy campaign
The number one storyline surrounding the Flyers this season, and one of the biggest storylines around the league, is the play of captain Claude Giroux. Giroux is the number one reason the Flyers had such an impressive season after declining last year.
It wasn’t an easy road for the Flyers, just like it wasn’t an easy road for Giroux. He was coming off of a really down year, with his lowest point total (58) in an 82 game season since his first full year in the league, when he had 47 points in the 2009-10 season. It was disappointing to say the least for Giroux, and many wondered if that was the beginning of a decline for the captain.
However, with a core injury all healed up, a full offseason under his belt, the face of the franchise was ready to get going again. Only he wouldn’t be lining up as the top line center like he normally would, but rather on the left side. The move to left wing allowed Giroux to reinvent himself a bit. His newfound health and new position propelled him to a fantastic season.
At the beginning it looked like it might just be an experiment. Giroux played left wing in practice. And then a preseason game. And then another preseason game. And the next thing we knew, he was locked and loaded on the left side.
He thrived from the get go. He scored the Flyers’ first goal of the season, picked up three points on the season-opening road trip, then came home to put on a show. He had four points (two goals, two assists) in the home opener, and two points (one goal, one assist) in home game number two. Giroux was back.
Giroux had double-digit points in every full month, and nearly reached it in April as well with nine points in just four games. A lot of the fans remember just his second-half due to his big-time goals in clutch moments, but Giroux was consistently consistent. He had 51 points in the first 41 games, and then 51 points in the last 41 games.
Those second half numbers just seem to stand out more due to the way he put the team on his back. He had points in 26 of the final 29 games, and whenever the Flyers needed a momentum-changing shift, play, or goal in a big moment, the captain delivered.
Giroux bounced all the way back from a lowly 58 points to become the league’s second-highest scorer, behind only Connor McDavid. He finished the season with 34 goals and 68 assists for 102 points, all three of those numbers are career highs. He had 66 even-strength points this season, which is eight more than his total points last year, and one point shy of his total in 2015-16.
Giroux has been the heart and soul of the Flyers team since being named captain five years ago, and again he showed why with a Hart-worthy campaign to lead his team to the playoffs.
Supporting cast bounces back and breaks out
Giroux was the headliner, but his supporting cast also grew this season. Multiple young veterans had breakout seasons for the Flyers, which helped them battle with some tough teams in the Metropolitan Division.
The player that seems to get overlooked the most when discussing the Flyers’ regular season performance is Jake Voracek. Voracek had a fantastic season after hearing the same type of things that Giroux heard in the past few years. He had disappointed in the past two years, with 55 points in 2015-16 and 61 points last season. But, like Giroux, he silenced those doubts with a huge season.
Voracek very quietly recorded 85 points this season, with 20 goals and 65 assists. That tied him for 13th in the NHL in scoring, and in sole possession of fourth in the league in assists.
Voracek was on the top line for the first few months of the season, but then he was tasked with carrying a line by himself. He could’ve struggled a bit, especially playing with Valtteri Filppula and Michael Raffl for some time, but he remained consistent.
He went from the top-line right wing, to the main guy on a second line with two bottom-six players, to the driving veteran presence on a line with two rookies to finish out the season. And if you look at his point totals, you couldn’t tell the difference. He also had double-digit point totals in each full month.
It wasn’t a flashy 103 points, and he didn’t end the season with a huge scoring spurt, but Voracek came up in big moments (scoring the game-tying goal and overtime winner) and put together a fantastic season.
While Voracek bounced back to his 2014-15 numbers, another Flyers forward broke out in a big way.
Sean Couturier took the biggest leap forward for the Flyers. He always had a stellar two-way game, but after a taste of scoring to end last season, he asked for a larger offensive role. He took his opportunity and ran with it. Couturier became the Flyers’ top-line center and was the pivot for the best line in the league through the first two months of the season.
No longer was Couturier just a shutdown center, he was contributing offensively while still playing tough minutes against high-level competition. He started the season on a tear, earned his way onto the top power-play unit, and just continued to score.
Couturier finished the season with career-highs in all major statistical categories. He had 31 goals and 45 points for 76 points, and a plus-minus of +34, good for third in the NHL. He had more goals this year than in the past two years combined (25), and he had more points this season (76) than in the past two years combined (73). His success as the top-line center went hand in hand with Giroux’s success on the left wing. Both players are great individually, but both of them having tremendous seasons together lifted each other up even more.
Let’s turn to the defensive side of things.
Shayne Gostisbehere, like Giroux, benefitted from a full recovery from hernia surgery and a full offseason to get prepped for the season. He was going to be relied on as one of the more-experienced players on the blue line in just his third season.
Gostisbehere started the season on the second pair, with Robert Hägg under his wing, and played well there. It gave the defense some balance with Ivan Provorov on the top pair with Andrew MacDonald and Gostisbehere on the second. But Gostisbehere forced his way to the top.
Over the past few years Gostisbehere’s ceiling has kept rising. First he was just a power-play specialist, then maybe an offensive bottom-four defenseman, but now he’s turned himself into a legitimate top-pair defenseman. Gostisbehere was paired with Provorov in mid-December, and they’ve been together ever since.
Like Couturier, Gostisbehere kept his primary calling card while also adding the other side of play to his game. For Couturier it was adding the scoring touch to his defensive play, and for Gostisbehere it was adding stellar defensive play to his offensive ability.
Gostisbehere finished the season with 65 points, good for fourth among NHL defensemen, and improved his defensive metrics as well. He was playing much tougher minutes against top competition and allowed five less goals than last year in over 150 more minutes played. He allowed less (prorated) shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances than ever in his career.
Couturier and Gostisbehere each took their game to another level this season. They took on new roles and succeeded immensely in them.
Young guns develop despite adversity
The Flyers were driven this season by two main groups: the veterans, and the young players. The veterans had career years, as mentioned above, while the young players continued to develop this season and played a much larger role as the season moved along.
The development of Travis Konecny and Nolan Patrick over the course of the season has been tremendous. They each struggled to begin the season, but battled their way through it and are now playing big roles for the Flyers.
Let’s start with Konecny. He struggled in the second half of his rookie season, and despite shining in the preseason again, he couldn’t get things going in the regular season. His defensive game wasn’t up to par, and his offense wasn’t there to make up for it. However, he battled through it and kept plugging away. He worked out the flaws in his game, got through some rough patches, and earned his way onto the top line in December.
He kept at it and has developed into a scoring winger. He had 37 points (20 goals, 17 assists) in his final 44 games after just 11 points in his first 36 games. On top of that he had 18 goals in his final 35 games and was a big part of the Flyers’ success in the final few months of the season. Konecny worked hard, upped his game to earn a spot on the top line, and he’s been thriving ever since. Patience pays off.
On top of Konecny stepping up in the second half, the Flyers have also seen no. 2 pick Nolan Patrick develop into one hell of a player in the past few months.
It was a struggle in the first few weeks and months for Patrick as well. He was a rookie coming off a short offseason who hadn’t played a full season of hockey in two years. He then had to deal with a concussion after nine games in the NHL as well, furthering his sluggish start. He wasn’t playing well in October and November, but he was showing flashes of what his game could become.
Despite some arguing that Patrick should be sent either to the World Junior Championships, or just back to his junior team in the WHL altogether, the rookie center kept progressing at the NHL level. In December he started showing more, and in January his play ramped up. The points weren’t coming yet, but you could see the development Patrick had made.
Just like how Konecny earned his way into the top-six, so did Patrick. Patrick centered the second line on the final day of January and has been there ever since. He scored two points in that first game, and ended the season with 21 points (10 goals, 11 assists) in his last 32 games. That’s a 54-point pace over a full 82 games.
It took a little bit, but Patrick began to show why he was the consensus top prospect in last year’s draft. Patrick had his speed back, he was great along the boards, he was making good defensive reads and plays, and he was scoring. He even got bumped up to the top power-play unit in the final week of the season. Perhaps most importantly, he is being trusted as a rookie to play big minutes with another rookie on his wing.
Konecny and Patrick are the future of the Flyers and they’re beginning to make their mark already.
Growing success in Lehigh Valley
The Flyers have made great use of their farm system in the past few years. Ron Hextall has rebuilt through the draft and the Flyers are stocked at every level. A product of that is the success that the Lehigh Valley Phantoms have been having. Not only as a team, but in their ability to develop young players as well.
Oskar Lindblom and Travis Sanheim both spent time with the Phantoms this season and are now playing second-unit roles for the Flyers. Lehigh Valley has also helped develop Scott Laughton in the past few years.
Lindblom came over to North America after a great season in Sweden. It looked like he would be ready to start in the NHL simply based on his skillset, but he needed some time in the AHL to adjust to the North American game on a smaller rink while also getting used to the grind of a heavy schedule.
Lindblom slowly but surely became accustomed to the AHL with the Phantoms, and the points started to come in bunches for him. He was consistently in the right position and one of the best Phantoms on the ice during most games. But the Flyers had a good top-nine and were in a good spot, so Lindblom kept developing with top-line minutes in the AHL, rather than playing less than 10 minutes a night on the fourth line in the NHL.
Then opportunity knocked. Simmonds was out for a few weeks, and it was a blessing in disguise for Lindblom. He got the call and has been a mainstay in the lineup since. He started on the third line, but was quickly promoted to the second line.
Like in the AHL, Lindblom is one of the difference makers for the Flyers. He doesn’t light up the scoresheet, but he does the little things right to help his team win. He is in the right spot, gets in and around the slot, wins battles, gets his stick in passing lanes, and just drives play forward. A few months of patience with Lindblom allowed him to become fully ready for the NHL game.
Travis Sanheim is an interesting case. He earned his spot with the Flyers to start the year, sat in the press box for a bit, but got plenty of playing time in the first few months. Like Konecny and Patrick, his game was progressing a bit on the ice, but he got scratched and then sent down to mature and grow his defensive game. Sanheim went down to the AHL, worked on his game and got his confidence back, and is back playing second-pair minutes for the Flyers.
It might not have been the ideal scenario for Sanheim, but a player needs to mature fully before he is playing full-time in the NHL. Not every player is the same and the Flyers dealt with different players in different ways this season.
Scott Laughton is another product of the Phantoms. He was lost in the organizational depth chart two years ago after disappointing a bit in the NHL, but he went down to the AHL last season and found his role. He worked hard as a two-way center and used his speed to carve out a spot on the Flyers’ fourth line for this season.
The Flyers were able to develop their young players while also making the playoffs in a transition year. Ron Hextall’s plan is taking shape and while the veterans are doing their part, patience has paid off for the young guns.
Team effort between the pipes
It was a team effort by the Flyers goalies this season to help find their way to the playoffs. It was the first time since 2012-13 that the Flyers used four goalies in a season (Bryzgalov, Mason, Boucher, Leighton), and the first time since 2006-07 that four goalies started multiple games (Nittymaki, Esche, Biron, Leighton).
Elliott and Neuvirth split the starts in the beginning of the season until Neuvirth went down with an injury. Then Elliott became the guy and the Flyers rode him until he got hurt. Coinciding injuries for the two Flyers goalies put them in a bind.
Alex Lyon, who was never thought of to be a potential option this season, filled in admirably for the injured netminders. In total he was 4-2-1 with a .905 save percentage, but a few of those starts came after Mrazek was acquired. Mrazek didn’t quite fill the gap for the Flyers, as he had a rough stretch in March.
Goaltending seems to always be a storyline in Philadelphia, but this season was especially weird. There was never really a defined “number one” goalie for portions of the year, except for when Elliott was relied on for a long stretch, but they pieced it together.
Elliott came into the season as the presumed number one, or at least 1A, and closed out the season as the Flyers’ go-to guy. He played in over half of the games (42 of 82) and had over half of the team’s wins (23 of 42).
- Ivan Provorov is still really good and is going to be very, very good.
Photo by Heather Barry/Sons of Penn
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