Even though the Philadelphia Flyers made the playoffs in 2015-16, that isn’t the reason fans will look back on this season as important.
With the sports scene being as dire as it was, the city of Philadelphia was desperate for something to cling to and get excited about. The Philadelphia Flyers provided that very thing with their late season surge to qualify for the NHL Playoffs. The Flyers were one of the hottest teams in hockey at the end of the regular season and took the Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals to six games before bowing out in the first round. The Flyers playoff run gave the Philadelphia sports fan reason for hope and gave fans of the team reason to believe that they had taken a step in the right direction.
But as exciting as the playoff run was and as nice as it was to be able to watch the Flyers in the playoffs after a one-year hiatus, Philadelphia making the playoffs wasn’t the biggest development of the 2015-16 season.
Part of the false narrative that was being trotted out there by fans of the team and by people affiliated with the organization itself was that even if the Flyers made the playoffs and bowed out after only one round, the young players the team currently have on their team would gain invaluable playoff experience. The fact of the matter remains that out of the Flyers corps of young players currently on the team that will have any type of significant impact in the future, Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier all have playoff experience. The only young player who who will play a prominent role in the Flyers future without playoff experience was Shayne Gostisbehere.
In 2012 when the Flyers defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round then lost to the New Jersey Devils in the second round, Giroux, Voracek, Simmonds, Schenn and Courtier were already on the team and therefore already had a taste of playoff hockey. The majority of the young prospects who will have an impact on the future are still playing junior hockey or are in the American League playing with the Phantoms. These will be the players that the Flyers will need to get valuable playoff experience before they can become serious Stanley Cup contenders.
So when looking at the 2015-16 Flyers season and the impact it will have on the team’s future, these are the most important developments that the Flyers can build off of and that will hopefully lead to Philadelphia hoisting the Stanley Cup sometime in the near future.
Dave Hakstol establishing himself as a legitimate NHL Head Coach
After the firing of Craig Berube, speculation ran rampant as to who his replacement would be. Most of the names being thrown around were names like Mike Babcock, Dan Bylsma, Peter DeBoer, and Todd McLellan. All big names who already had NHL coaching experience. Flyers GM Ron Hextall decided to go in a different direction and hired a coach from the college ranks. Not since the Calgary Flames had hired Bob Johnson in the 1980s from the University of Wisconsin had an NHL team hired a head coach directly out of college.
I liked the hiring from day one. It once again proved that Hextall was different from previous Flyers GMs. When it came to hiring his first head coach, he was willing to think outside of the box. Instead of going with a retread like Babcock or Bylsma, Hextall hired a young coach right out of college by hiring Dave Hakstol from the University of North Dakota. Even though Hakstol enjoyed much success at North Dakota, taking them to seven Frozen Fours during his tenure there, hiring a head coach right out of college was still a risky proposition. With that being said, Hakstol seemed to be a good fit. One of Hakstol’s strengths was his ability to work with young players. So with the Flyers being in a rebuilding mode with lots of young players in their system who will be moving up to NHL level over the next few years, the move made sense.
The Flyers came out of the gate strong, starting out the season 4-2-1 but then struggled over the next few months. At the All-Star break, the Flyers were nine points out of a playoff spot. A lot of this was attributed to the fact that the players needed to get used to Hakstol’s system. After that the team surged and made up the nine point deficit in the standings and qualified for the playoffs. A lot of this was due to Hakstol’s consistent, even-keeled approach to coaching. He got the players to buy into and believe in his system. Once this happened combined with the players having the system down pat, the Flyers started to gel and started to play as a team. Philadelphia was no longer the up and down, hot and cold, inconsistent team that they had been in previous years.
In the past, when everything was clicking and going their way, the Flyers looked like world beaters. But, one bad break or one bad loss would send them in to a tailspin. The loss to the Boston Bruins two seasons ago was a microcosm of the Flyers over the past few years. A win would have gotten the Flyers to within one point of a playoff spot. The Flyers had a one goal lead in the game with less than a minute to play. The Bruins tied the game up and the Flyers fell apart. They went on to lose the game in overtime and quickly fell out of the playoff race finishing fourteen points out of a playoff spot.
This kind of thing didn’t happen under Hakstol.
As the saying goes, the team took on the personality of it’s coach. They finally developed consistency. If the Flyers coughed up a lead in a game, they didn’t become frazzled like they did in the past. They would just stick to the same approach and more times than not would find a way to win. They also didn’t come unraveled after a big loss like they had done the previous year against the Bruins. After a late season loss to the Penguins where they were thoroughly outplayed, the Flyers bounced right back and won their next game against the Islanders. When the Red Wings had climbed back over them in the standings for the last playoff spot, instead of folding like they had done the previous year, the Flyers again bounced right back and won the next night and regained the final playoff position in the standings.
Hakstol also showed he knows how to make adjustments. After the Capitals had slaughtered the Flyers with five power play goals in Game 3 of their playoff series, Hakstol made an adjustment where he had the Flyers pressure the puck more and they went on to kill the next eight Capitals power plays. The Flyers finally developed in to a team who played hard on a consistent basis and this can be directly be attributed to their coach.
The development of Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier in to consistent NHL players
Even though both players had playoff experience, neither one of them had established themselves as bonafide NHL players. Both players careers were marred by inconsistency. One bad game, one good game. One good season, one bad season. Going in to the 2015-16 season, one of the keys to the Flyers success (or lack there of) would be whether or not Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier could develop into players the Flyers could rely upon on a nightly basis. And more importantly in regards to the Flyers long-term future, would they be two more building blocks the Flyers could build upon or would they be players the Flyers would look to move because they had failed to live up to their potential in Philadelphia and therefore a change of scenery was needed?
Both players rose to the challenge and had the best seasons of their careers. Couturier had 11 goals and 28 assists for 39 points but did so in only 63 games. If you were to extrapolate those numbers out to a full 82 game season you are looking a a 50 point campaign. Schenn had the best season of his career with 26 goals, 39 assists for 59 points. More importantly, both players avoided the long stretches of unproductive play that had previously marred their careers. Couturier had a stretch where he had 31 points in 33 games. Schenn didn’t go more than six games without scoring a goal.
Going in to the 2015-16 season, the only players on the Flyers roster you could look at as good, young NHL players you could build your team around were Giroux, Voracek and Simmonds. Now that Schenn and Couturier are no longer question marks, you can add two more young players to that list. This goes a lot further towards getting the team closer to being a Stanley Cup contender than the playoff run did. If Couturier and Schenn had both turned in subpar seasons, they most likely would have needed to be replaced which would have set the Flyers back. But since they both established themselves as solid NHL players, the Flyers development as a team is moving forward because they have two more pieces to build upon to go along with what they already have.
The emergence of Shayne Gostisbehere
For the longest time, one of the Flyers biggest needs was a dynamic, puck moving defensman. The Flyers have found that in rookie Shayne Gostisbehere. Ghost made an immediate impact. He had 17 goals, 29 assists for 46 points in only 64 games and he was named a finalist for the Calder Trophy, which is awarded to the NHL rookie of the year. He instantly improved the Flyers power play and transition game. Ghost’s speed, stickhandling ability and his laser of a shot gave the Flyers a much needed shot in the arm after his call up and played a huge role in getting the Flyers in to the playoffs. Ghost also showed a flair for the dramatic. He had nine goals that either tied the game or put the Flyers ahead. Many of his game tying and winning goals came in the closing seconds of regulation and overtime as well. Shayne Gostisbehere has definitely established himself as an impact NHL defensman who should be with the Flyers for years to come.
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No doubt, the Flyers playoff run was great and it gave the fans in Philadelphia something to get excited about. That was only the cherry on top though. There were a lot more developments in the 2015-16 season that were much more important than the playoff run
Going in to the previous season, the Flyers had question marks at the coaching position, Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier were question marks and they still lacked a puck moving defensman. Now that the 2015-16 season has concluded, the Flyers have a young coach who has shown he can coach at the NHL level. They have two more young players that they can add to the core of Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek and Wayne Simmonds in Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier. And they have a young, dynamic, puck moving defensman in Shayne Gostisbehere that they haven’t had in decades. And with prospects like Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, Travis Konecny and Nicolas Aube-Kubel in their system that will be added to the young core they already have on their team now, things will only continue to get better.