Flyers’ Youth Key to Playoff Hopes
The Philadelphia Flyers are heading into the Stanley Cup Playoff tournament with a starting goalie who’s never appeared in a playoff game. Their scoring leader in 2019-20 and their top defenseman have 12 playoff appearances combined, all from facing the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2018.
Carter Hart, Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov have emerged as cornerstone players for the orange and black. If the Flyers are to make a deep playoff run, they need this 22-and-under trio to thrive under pressure.
They certainly thrived during the regular season. Hart posted a 2.42 goals against average (GAA) and a .914 save percentage (SV%) in 2019-20 in 43 appearances. Provorov led the club by far in average ice time, at just under 25 minutes a night. Of his 36 points, 16 were on the power play. And Konecny enjoyed a breakout season, leading the team with 61 points in 66 games. That’s no small feat on a club boasting the likes of Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek.
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We know the Flyers have a strong core of older players, but it stands to reason the younger legs may find their top form more quickly after a layoff of four-and-a-half months.
A Hot Goalie is Half the Battle
More than any other player, the starting goalie’s play is a huge factor in a team’s postseason fate. NHL history is littered with examples of netminders on a hot streak lifting their clubs to victory against more accomplished teams. Slumping puck-stoppers can torpedo their team’s chances just as easily.
Hart has given Flyers fans good reason to be confident ever since they recalled him from the AHL at the tender age of 20, a week before Christmas in 2018-19. Goalies generally take several years to develop, but Hart stabilized what was a disaster between the Philadelphia pipes despite being in his first pro season.
Hart built on his rookie performance this season, winning 24 of 43 games as the 1A in a tandem with Brian Elliott, with a 2.42 GAA and .914 SV%. But the biggest test of his career looms after the Flyers have played their three round-robin games for seeding. He backstopped Canada in the 2017 and 2018 World Junior Championship, but that was against kids and this is against men.
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The Flyers would rather not have to turn to Elliott in the playoffs. The 35-year-old certainly had some good years with the St. Louis Blues, including their run to the Western Conference Final in 2015-16, but hasn’t inspired much confidence since coming to the Flyers.
Flyers’ Young Defenders in Big Roles
Provorov signed a six-year, $40.5 million contract last September and he lived up to it in its first season. After a tough 2018-19 season where essentially the entire team struggled, he has reaffirmed his ability to both create offense and shut down the other team’s attack. Being paired with gritty veteran Matt Niskanen seems to have really helped his game. Niskanen has a Stanley Cup ring and his physical brand of defense provides an example for the Flyers’ young rearguards. Philadelphia will need Provorov to keep eating a lot of minutes while limiting mistakes in the defensive zone.
The second pairing of Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers, 24 and 23 respectively, will be leaned on significantly in a shutdown role by Alain Vigneault and the coaching staff. Sanheim posted 8 goals and 25 points in 69 games during his third season in the bigs, and has seen the ice for only four playoff games against the Penguins in 2018. Myers has just 71 NHL games to his name, having established himself as a Flyers’ regular in 2019-20 with 16 points in 50 games. Succeeding in the top four in his first playoff grind will be the biggest challenge of Myers’ young career.
Flyers assistant coach Mike Yeo told Sam Carchidi of the Philadelphia Inquirer the young pairing wasn’t sheltered during the regular campaign and won’t be now. “Not only did we not hide those guys, but we purposely matched them against the best lines in the league,” Yeo said. (From ‘Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers: The Flyers’ blossoming No. 2 defensive pairing can face opponents’ No. 1 lines,’ Philadelphia Inquirer, 07/20/2020)
Meanwhile, 25-year-old Robert Hagg is coming off his third NHL season. He led the team in hits in 2019-20 and if he dresses in the postseason, he’ll be relied on for that bruising, defense-first style of play.
Konecny Leads Youngsters Up Front
The Flyers have a strong nucleus of veteran stalwarts up front, but there’s no question the kids will play a significant role. Assuming Vigneault keeps the top line of Giroux-Couturier-Voracek together, Konecny could have a feast on the second unit, not having to face opponents’ top checkers.
The question of who will join Konecny and Kevin Hayes on the left side will be the biggest line-up decision for the coaching staff. It might just be budding star Joel Farabee, who’s barely out of his teenage years. Philadelphia’s first-round pick in 2018 recorded 8 goals and 21 points in 52 games as a rookie before the season paused. Farabee has shown his ability to put up big numbers at every level, although Vigneault may be more comfortable with an established player like James van Riemsdyk or Scott Laughton in the top six.
Winger Nicolas Aube-Kubel, 24, isn’t likely to see much ice this summer, but with 15 points in 36 regular season games, he’s not a bad option to move up if necessary.
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Every single spring — or summer, in this case — we see unheralded players burst onto the game’s biggest stage and make a name for themselves. It only takes one big play in a crucial game to earn a place in fans’ hearts, and that can come from anywhere.
Defense and goaltending win championships, and the play of youngsters on the back end will greatly influence how far the Flyers go in this unprecedented postseason.
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