Much had been made of the Matt Niskanen void as the Flyers' 2020-21 season deteriorated.
In one season with the Stanley Cup-winning defenseman, the Flyers were tied for the NHL's seventh-fewest goals allowed per game at 2.77, owned the fourth-best goal differential at plus-36 and fell one win shy of the Eastern Conference Final.
After the 2019-20 season, Niskanen quietly retired. His absence, however, was noticeable this season. The Flyers allowed more goals than any other team at 3.52 per game, had a minus-38 goal differential and missed the playoffs.
Was the precipitous drop-off entirely because of Niskanen's absence? No, but an overshadowed element of life with Niskanen was his importance to Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers. The Flyers' young defensemen experienced challenges in life after Niskanen. More responsibilities were put on their plates in a nonstop physical and mental grind of a season. In an unprecedented year, the Flyers watched many of their younger pieces struggle, including the 25-year-old Sanheim and 24-year-old Myers. General manager Chuck Fletcher said the majority of the club's young players "either plateaued or took a step back this year."
For younger players in the NHL, particularly during an unusual year like this, slumps can tend to be prolonged. The numerous growing pains were a part of the reason why the Flyers went a disappointing 25-23-8.
"You don't have necessarily all of the tools that you need to kind of figure things out in hurry," former Flyer and current analyst Keith Jones said Thursday in a phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. "It was beneficial to me to have other players, veteran players to lean on, to also have them lean on me at times because if you start feeling sorry for yourself, it's always important that you have other guys that push you to get yourself back up on your feet. Instead of worrying about your own struggles, finding a way to do what's right for the team.
"I do think those things were a little more difficult to have players interject their experiences because there was such a lack of togetherness on some of the teams based upon the circumstances of this year being so unique. I do think for a team that was looking for younger players to have bigger roles — some of it by necessity, especially on the blue line after Niskanen left — it was not ideal for those players to grow at a rapid pace."
Not only did Niskanen play in all situations, but his influence permeated the club's defensive core. Experience was critical in a season like 2020-21. The Flyers lost their most experienced and accomplished defenseman, a guy with 140 career playoff games on his résumé. Myers entered this season with 71 career regular-season games.
"The Niskanen story is more than just his abilities on the ice; it's also being a veteran player that had a wealth of experience that can help some of these younger guys navigate through difficult times," Jones said. "I think that's why at times it almost seems like it's been overblown, the absence of Niskanen, but it really has not been.
"If you look at the other teams in the playoffs right now, the teams that are remaining, you look at their blue lines, the big reason why those teams are remaining is because of how deep they are on the back end. It's a lot of veteran guys — the Shea Webers, the Victor Hedmans, the Ryan McDonaghs — that are the real important pieces.
"I think the Flyers last year got a good taste of how difficult it can be to beat teams that have good defensive cores. They barely got past Montreal last year and they did not get past the Islanders, and it's not surprising that Montreal and the Islanders are two of the final four teams and could possibly meet in the Stanley Cup Final. They continue to progress and the Flyers regressed. I think that's why expectations were so high, last year they weren't that far off and all of a sudden it dropped and in a hurry."
Sanheim, a 2014 first-round pick, made great strides over the previous two seasons heading into 2020-21. He started gaining all-situation responsibility last season. This season, he had rough moments confidence-wise and was relied upon heavily at even strength and shorthanded. He finished with 15 points, a minus-22 rating and 21:53 minutes per game.
"I think confidence became a bit of an issue for him," Jones said. "That's something that can creep into your game, it hits you at some of the most surprising times where you think you've got it figured it out and then this game has a way of humbling you at times that you don't expect it. I think that probably caught him off guard a little bit, like those of us watching him. And he realized that he was being relied upon heavily to continue to make strides and probably that compounded the issue and made it a little more difficult for him to get his game back on track."
The season turned into a monster for building confidence. During the Flyers' nightmare March, Sanheim and Myers each had minus-6 performances in the Flyers' 9-0 drubbing to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. The very next night, Sanheim and Myers were back on the ice against the Islanders at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Head coach Alain Vigneault "loved the way they redeemed themselves" in a 4-3 win.
"We went through that spell with COVID, went to Lake Tahoe, which was another stressful trip where you've got a long flight both ways and you're only there for a day and a half to play a game and come right back, and you've got to jump right back into a full schedule again," Sanheim said in May. "There are a lot of areas that were stressful on our group. Me going minus-6 against New York, to be able to mentally come back the next night and play against the Islanders, that's challenging. That was a good experience for me. Honestly, it's going to make me a better player, it's going to make me understand those situations better because it's going to happen again. At the end of the day, some of the best players in the world still have off nights, have nights where the puck's just not going their way. Learn from those areas and be better next season."
Sanheim is a restricted free agent this offseason, so he'll have a new contract heading into 2021-22. He remains a significant part of the Flyers' future, but Jones believes Sanheim's productivity and development can be augmented by more help on the back end. That has to be one of the Flyers' biggest objectives this summer.
"I don't think that the confidence is going to be a big issue going forward," Jones said about Sanheim. "There are certain players that are Flyer types or styles of players that the Flyers could add on the back end that would allow him to continue to grow at a rapid pace. I don't think he's a mentally weak player by any means, I just think that there were a lot of issues that contributed to the Flyers' defense playing as a group not as well as they did the previous year.
"I think he, without question, has the ability to bounce back whether it's from a bad game or a difficult season. He's going to be relied upon heavily in the future, but right now, he's one of the core guys, but he's not one of the guys that needs to carry the team to the next level; he's going to need some help in doing that."
Myers, an undrafted product that developed into one of the club's more touted prospects ahead of 2018-19, had a promising 2019-20 campaign and first taste of the postseason. This season, some proposed he'd be a top-pair option alongside Ivan Provorov, which was Niskanen's spot. Myers fought his confidence and decision-making, while also battling a rib injury and AC joint sprain.
"Just too high up in the lineup," Jones said. "That's all that happened there. He just got ahead of his skis and that's never a great thing for a young defenseman that was making some very big strides the previous year and showed glimpses of not just being a steady NHL player, being a star player. There were some games two years ago that I could have found multiple examples of really intelligent and skillful plays from Phil Myers within any game. It was a real treat to watch how quickly he had developed into a very reliable and really an outstanding young defenseman.
"So that part was a little bit shocking, but when you look at it, right-handed shooting defenseman that's being elevated on the back end, he's not insulated because of not having a veteran like Niskanen back there playing the big minutes in all of the big situations. Now he's forced to try to be that guy and it was too much too soon."
The Flyers have long been bullish on Myers' upside and that feeling won't change after one tough season. The Flyers are almost certainly going to protect Myers in the July 21 NHL expansion draft for the Kraken.
"I sure hope so," Jones said with a laugh. "I would tell you that because he'll be gone in the blink of an eye.
"That is a player that I would not give up on. If I was an opposing team, I would be trying to steal him, I would be trying to buy low, but you're not going to fool the Flyers on that one. That's not going to happen, but there will be teams that are peeking underneath the cupboards to see if they could steal him; that will not happen."
In May, as they headed into the offseason, Sanheim and Myers were staying positive and turning the page.
"I'm just looking forward to seeing my family and friends this summer, forget about it for a while and just hit the reset button," Myers said. "Reset mentally and obviously get back in shape there and gain some of my jump back for next year. I'm looking forward to the summer, I'm obviously really disappointed we didn't make the playoffs. I've got a lot of motivation this summer and I'm going to put the time in and I'm going to be champing at the bit for training camp next year."
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