How do Flyers stack up to division rivals?

The Flyers have high expectations entering the 2020-21 National Hockey League season. Pictured here, Flyers forward Michael Raffl takes part in a practice last season. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

We’re off to the races as the NHL season begins, with this year looking more like a sprint than a marathon as teams hope to complete an abbreviated 56-game regular season. The postseason “play-in round” is gone so we’re back to only 16 teams making the playoffs. Each of the four newly aligned divisions will send four teams to the playoffs so the math is simple: Finish fourth or better in your division to punch a postseason ticket. Also of note, regular season games will be contested only between teams from the same division. With so much riding on how the Flyers stack up against the other East Division teams, we’ll grade the Flyers on how they stack up with their rivals in several key categories.

Top line: Top lines can certainly carry a team. And when healthy, Boston wins this category hands-down with the trio of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. They excel at both ends of the rink and are a special teams powerhouse. Marchand is expected to be ready opening night, and Pastrnak will join the team in a month or so. The Flyers’ top line (at least to start) is expected to be Sean Couturier centering Travis Konecny and Oskar Lindblom. It’s a perfectly OK line, as the Flyers are able to spread their wealth a little more than other teams. But it lacks serious star power compared to what their rivals will roll out. Aside from Boston, we’ll put Buffalo (Jack Eichel-Taylor Hall-Victor Olofsson), Pittsburgh (Sidney Crosby-Jake Guentzel-Kasperi Kapanen) and Washington (Evgeny Kuznetsov-Alex Ovechkin-Tom Wilson) above the Flyers, who end up fifth in this category. The Flyers catch a break here, as the Rangers’ Mika Zibanejad doesn’t normally play with winger Artemi Panarin. If the Rangers put those two together, the Flyers fall instantly to sixth. At the moment, Couturier’s Selke season keeps the Flyers above both New York teams and New Jersey. Flyers projected grade: C

Forward depth: This is likely one of the Flyers’ greatest strengths. With the return of Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom, the Flyers have four solid scoring lines. A third line of Patrick centering James van Riemsdyk and Jake Voracek is a nice option to have and will now see favorable matchups. Scott Laughton, Michael Raffl and Nicolas Aube-Kubel are a solid checking line. As far as balance, the Flyers learned that the Islanders are pretty darn capable of rolling four lines as well, but New York still falls a little short of what the Flyers can deploy in talent. Other division rivals have glaring weaknesses in their bottom six forward groups. We have the Flyers first here. Having the best team face-off percentage in the league helps, too. Grade: A

Top defensive pairing: At the time of this article, the Flyers haven’t formally announced who will play with Ivan Provorov on the Flyers’ top pairing. The loss of Matt Niskanen obviously hurts here and would have had the Flyers among the best. Will it be Philippe Myers or Shayne Gostisbehere or maybe even Justin Braun? It could be a revolving door this season and it makes this category tough to gauge.

Washington’s Jon Carlson and Dmitry Orlov are a solid bet to finish as the highest-scoring pairing in the East as they combined for 102 points in 69 games last year, but they do have their defensive issues. The Islanders’ Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock might be the best as far as chemistry and getting the job done in the D-Zone. There’s also Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin; Buffalo’s Rasmus Dahlin and Brandon Montour; the Rangers’ Toney DeAngelo and Jacob Trouba; Boston’s Charlie McAvoy with either Jeremy Lauzon or Matt Grzelcyk; and even New Jersey’s P.K. Subban and Ryan Murray. This is a pretty close race but the Flyers probably rank toward the bottom half despite Provorov’s surge as an elite defender. Chemistry will be an issue, especially in a short season. Grade: B-

Defensive depth: Niskanen’s absence has been noticeable in the offseason, as the Flyers were forced to resign Justin Braun and bring in free agent Erik Gustafsson. The Flyers are one injury away from being extremely thin on the blue line. However, several of the other teams in the East are still finding their way, too. The Rangers have three entry-level players in their top six. Heading into the season, the Islanders probably employ the most complete group of defenders, but the Flyers may have gained ground or surpassed a few others. Boston lost Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara, leaving the B’s a little thinner than we are used to seeing them. The Rangers have three entry-level contracts in their top, six and Pittsburgh’s acquisitions of Cody Ceci and Michael Matheson are head-scratchers. The Flyers are better off than we might think in this category compared to their rivals. Grade: B+

Goaltending: The Capitals lost a few points after newly acquired Henrik Lundqvist was forced to miss the season with a heart condition, passing ownership of the crease down to young goalies Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek. The Rangers could be a surprising team with another young tandem in Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev. Boston still probably has the cream of the crop with the duo of Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak. But Carter Hart and Brian Elliott are a very close second. Grade: A-

Coaching: Alain Vigneault was a Jack Adams finalist last year — an award that was won by Boston’s Bruce Cassidy last year. Vigneault won it with the Vancouver Canucks in 2007 and is regarded as one of the best in the business. His first year in Philly was a big success, guiding the Flyers to one of the best records in the league. However, Cassidy’s victory last year and the Islanders’ Barry Trotz (two-time winner) probably rank ahead of AV at the moment. And you could also debate Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan, who has two Stanley Cups on his resume and finished sixth in the voting last year after leading a heavily injured Penguins club into the playoffs. Let’s put Vigneault fourth in this category with expected room for improvement. Grade: B

Special teams: We need to be reminded that the Flyers power play was actually pretty decent in the regular season, before completely fizzling out in the playoffs. Philly clicked at 20.8 percent last season, which was third among its new division rivals, behind Boston and the Rangers. The Flyers’ penalty killing was an improvement from the 2018-19 season but still was 11th in the league (81.8 percent) and finished behind Boston, Washington, New Jersey and Pittsburgh. Combining the power play and penalty kill, the Flyers were second best in this new division behind Boston. Losing Niskanen will hurt the PK, which could cause the Flyers to slip. Let’s still put them third. Grade: B-

In conclusion, the Flyers’ biggest deficiency appears to be high-end talent, which was also a problem in the playoffs last season. But instead of pointing fingers at the high-paid veterans, all eyes should be focused on the younger emerging stars to help the team improve. If the Flyers have a breakout player or two at each end of the ice, they could check all the boxes for a very long playoff run. ••