The Capitals enter the 2019-20 season looking for their fifth consecutive Metropolitan Division title.
But this could be the most challenging year yet. The bottom of the division has improved dramatically with offseason moves and the top of the division still has quality teams. It’s hard to figure who will crater and finish last. The winning team might not top 100 points.
For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will take a look at each Metro team and where they stand with training camps opening in less than a month. Today: The Philadelphia Flyers.
Few teams were as confusing last year as the Flyers. They began the year a lethargic and uninspired 12-15-4 and fired coach Dave Hakstol in mid-December. After a dead cat bounce under interim coach Scott Gordon, Philadelphia then went winless in eight games in early January. They gamely finished the year 22-15-2 and for a time were even on the edge of the Eastern Conference playoff race into early March. But it was too late. They finished a thoroughly mediocre 37-37-8 with 82 points and in sixth place in the Metro.
The roster just wasn’t deep enough and help in goal from rookie Carter Hart came too late. It was all somewhat baffling given the talent on hand. This year, with an experienced new coach in Alain Vigneault, a full season expected from Hart and some offseason upgrades, Philadelphia should make a darkhorse run at an Eastern Conference playoff spot.
It all starts with Hart. An organization that has been inept in goal for well over 20 years, finally has a top prospect who looks like the real deal. Hart had a .917 save percentage in 31 games after his promotion from the AHL. He’s still just 21 so there’s no guarantee he won’t fall victim to the Flyers’ goalie curse. But Hart has the pedigree to be a top-tier NHL goalie. He’s in line, for now, to split the gig with veteran Brian Elliott, which should ease some of the pressure.
If Hart is as good as advertised, though, there is talent to work with in front of him. A top line of Claude Giroux (22 goals, 63 assists), Sean Couturier (33 goals, 43 assists) and Travis Konecny (24 goals, 25 assists) should be one of the best in the league. Couturier, especially, has become a terror of a two-way player and was sixth in the Selke Trophy voting. Konecny is still just 22, the vanguard of young talent in the organization.
The Flyers tried to upgrade the second line and did with center Kevin Hayes coming from Winnipeg as a free agent. The deal was a bit much with a cap hit at $7.14 million for seven years. Hayes is a good player, but has never had more than 55 points and has topped 25 goals just once. That’s a steep price. But it does make Philadelphia deeper.
Jakub Voracek is still good to make a run at 70-to-80 points and maybe playing with Hayes helps get him back there. His career with the Flyers has been a yo-yo with point totals bouncing from the low 60s every other year to the low 80s. Last year Voracek was at 66. Notch that a little higher and Philadelphia will be a tough matchup with two powerhouse lines. At 23, Oskar Lindblom (17 goals, 16 assists) could make a big leap playing with Hayes and Voracek.
Another key young player is Nolan Patrick, who figures to be the third-line center. At 21 just before the season starts, the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft has taken his lumps in two full NHL seasons. But the talent is there. If he can make that jump then the Flyers will really be moving in the right direction. Patrick should have James van Riemsdyk on his line and while his numbers dipped last year (27 goals, 21 assists) in just 66 games, there’s no reason to think he can’t rebound to the 60-point level he’s reached before.
It’s the blue line that’s in question. The Flyers traded Radko Gudas to the Capitals for Matt Niskanen, which 18 months earlier would have been an easy win. But Gudas got better last year at age 29 and Niskanen declined alarmingly before a brief rebound near the end of the season and will be 33 in December. And he’s projected on their top pair with Ivan Provorov, who seemed to take a step backward in his age 21/22 season.
It’s a young group with Travis Sandheim, 23, on the second pair and the promising Phillippe Myers, 22, likely on the third pair after playing 21 games as a rookie.
Maybe that’s why Philadelphia traded for Niskanen and San Jose’s Justin Braun, 32, who also seemed to lose a step last season with the Sharks despite playing with Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Shayne Gostisbehere, 26 now, is an offensive dynamo but has stagnated. This is a weird mix of players. It’s on Vigneault and his coaching staff to get them to gel.
The Capitals and Penguins are beginning to show signs of age. The Devils and Rangers made splashy moves in free agency and the draft and via trade. The Islanders virtually stayed pat, but they finished second in the division and Barry Trotz won the Jack Adams Award. Carolina reached the Eastern Conference Final and probably has the youngest talent in the division.
The Flyers are getting lost in the shuffle in this wide-open Metro. Only Columbus, which lost its two best players, has as many questions. But there is talent here and Philadelphia was a much better, more cohesive team in the final three months of the season.
Can that carry over under a new coach who knows how to build teams? Vigneault took the Rangers to the Cup Final in 2014 and the Eastern Conference Final in 2015. Making a run at the playoffs and seeing legitimate development from young players like Hart and Sandheim and Patrick and Lindblom would be a rousing success. Don’t discount them.
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