With an abundance of young talent and an veteran core, can the Philadelphia Flyers be this season’s version of the up and coming Toronto Maple Leafs?
The Toronto Maple Leafs were one of the biggest stories of the 2016-17 NHL season. After finishing with the worst overall record in the NHL the previous year, the Maple Leafs came out of nowhere to capture a playoff spot last season. Led by Auston Matthews, the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, the Leafs captured the imagination of hockey fans all across North America with their superior speed and skill. They gave the Washington Capitals, winners of the President’s Trophy awarded to the team who has the most points in the regular season, all they could handle in their first round playoff matchup, eventually losing in six games. With all of their young stars in their early 20s and with a playoff series under their belts, many of the hockey experts are expecting big things from the Leafs for years to come.
Can the Philadelphia Flyers be this year’s version of the Toronto Maple Leafs? When you consider the fact that the Flyers farm system is widely considered the best one in hockey (ranked number one by both The Hockey Writers and ESPN) the possibility definitely exists. So in this article I will explore the possibility of whether or not the Philadelphia Flyers can be this year’s version of the Maple Leafs.
Although much of the fanfare in regards to the Maple Leafs improbable run to the playoffs was centered around young players such as Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, the Leafs also had a young veteran core in place that were on the last team to make the playoffs in 2013. Players such as Tyler Bozak (31), Nazem Kadri (26), James van Riemsdyk (28) Jake Gardiner (27) and Morgan Rielly (23) but who had underachieved but all had bounce back seasons last year. Part of the reason for this was because they were pushed by the young players that were coming up through the Leafs system. They were also revitalized by the energy that young players tend to bring to a team.
Like the Leafs, the Flyers have a core of young veterans in Claude Giroux (29), Jake Voracek (28), Wayne Simmonds (29), Sean Courtier (24) and Shayne Gostisbehere (24) who have playoff experience and who (other than Simmonds) are coming off subpar seasons. Like was the case with the Leafs last year, the Flyers are hoping to see bounce back seasons from these players by getting pushed by the young players coming up through their system.
There are several. Number one, most of the young talent for the Maple Leafs was up front. Matthews, Marner and Nylander are all forwards. They did have one key addition on defense in Nikita Zaitsev though, who played top four minutes and played in all situations for the Leafs last year. Conversely, most of the Flyers best prospects for both now and the near future like Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Philipe Meyers are on defense. The Flyers do expect two young forwards in Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom to make an impact this upcoming season. But, unlike Matthews, Marner and Nylander, the Flyers young forwards don’t have quite the same star power as those three players do.
Like I alluded to earlier, the Leafs have an advantage over the Flyers up front. They also have more team speed than the Flyers do. Nylander and Marner are both dynamic skaters and puck handlers. Marner showed just how fast he was when he was able to catch Alexander Ovechkin from behind on a clean breakaway in last year’s playoffs. The Flyers don’t currently have anyone on their team with that kind of skating ability.
The Leafs have a little more top end talent than the Flyers do. As a result of winning the draft lottery in a year when there was a generational talent like Matthews coming out, the Leafs were able to add a player who would make an immediate impact on their team. Matthews even went on to exceed the high expectations that come with being the first overall pick in the draft by scoring 40 goals in his rookie season. Although Patrick, who the Flyers took with the second overall pick in this past year’s draft, is expected to make an impact with the team this year, he isn’t on the same level as Matthews and won’t step in and score 40 goals right away.
And it doesn’t stop with Matthews when it comes to the high end talent the Leafs have. Nylander had 22 goals and 39 assists for 61 points and Marner had 19 goals and 42 assists also for 61 points. Although the Flyers have a deep prospect pool, they don’t have players who have exhibited as high a skill level as Matthews, Marner and Nylander.
The Leafs also have an advantage in goal. Toronto acquired Frederik Andersen from the Anaheim Ducks last year and he didn’t disappoint. After a slow start, Anderson was outstanding in net for the Leafs. His play in net was as much a reason for Toronto’s success as all of their young players were. Anderson played in 66 games, compiling a 33-16-14 record with a 2.67 GAA and a .918 save percentage. The numbers don’t tell the whole story when it comes to Anderson. The Leafs were a run and gun team who took a lot of chances. The result was that they gave up a lot scoring chances and on most occasions Anderson bailed them out.
That all being said, the Flyers young defensmen are better than the Leafs. Toronto does have some young talented defensmen in Gardiner and Reilly, but both have been plagued by inconsistency over the course of their careers. Zaitsev, who they signed out of the KHL, was the Maple Leafs most consistent defensman last year. The Flyers already have Provorov on their roster who has shown he has all the makings of bona fide number one pairing defensman as well as Gostisbehere who had an outstanding rookie season and who, after struggling for most of last season, was back to his old self again as a result of finally being fully recovered from abdominal surgery. And waiting in the wings you have high end prospects such as Sanheim and Meyers. You also have guys who may be a step down from those two but were still high draft picks and who are regarded as prospects who project to be solid to above average NHL defensmen in Sam Morin, Robert Hagg and Mark Friedman. The Flyers win in this category when it comes to both quantity and quality.
Although the Maple Leafs may have the advantage when it comes to top end talent, the Flyers have the advantage when it comes to the depth on their big club and in the organization as a whole. After the big three of Matthews, Marner and Nylander, Toronto is a little thin. Meanwhile the Flyers have talent at every position in their organization. Along with Patrick and Lindblom at forward, the Flyers have Travis Konecny entering his second year in the NHL, Scott Laughton who is expected to take over for Pierre-Édouard Bellemare as their fourth line center,and players in their system such as Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Issac Radcliff, Wade Allison, Pascal Laberge, Morgan Frost, Mikhail Vorobyev and German Rubtsov who all figure to be impact players.
The Flyers also have tremendous goaltending depth in their organization. Carter Hart who was named goaltender of the year in the Western Hockey League, Felix Sandstrom who was the starting goaltender for Team Sweden in the World Junior Championships, Anthony Stolarz who came up and played for the Flyers last year and posted a .928 save percentage, Alex Lyon who led the Phantoms to the playoffs after Stolarz was injured, Matej Tomek who played extremely well for an undermanned Slovakia team in the WJC posting a .921 save percentage and Kirill Ustimenko, a big athletic goalie (6-foot-3, 187 pounds) who the Flyers drafted in the third round of this past draft and who had a 1.74 GAA and a .938 save percentage playing against men in the KHL.
Another area where the Flyers might have an advantage over the Leafs is the fact that the prospects who will be making their debuts for the Flyers this year will be more physically mature, mentally tough, finished products than the young players who came up with the Leafs last year. Other than Nylander who spent some time in the American Hockey League, Toronto’s young players entered the league either going directly to the NHL after they were drafted or skipping right over the AHL from Juniors and making the leap right to the NHL. The result was the Leafs young players were a lot more raw when they came in to the league and were prone to making a lot more mistakes. This was a big reason why Toronto lost 10 out of their first 13 games. On the flip side, the Flyers rookies will enter the league as more polished players as a result of having spent three and four years playing professional hockey in the AHL. They should be able to hit the ground running which should help the Flyers avoid the slow start the Leafs got off to last year.
So do the Philadelphia Flyers have a chance to be this year’s version of the Toronto Maple Leafs? Absolutely. Like the Leafs, the Flyers have a young veteran core in place and they have a bunch of high level prospects who should make the team out of training camp. But WILL the Flyers be this year’s version of the Leafs? In my opinion they will fall a little short. Does this mean the Flyers will miss the playoffs this year? Not necessarily. But I don’t see the Flyers taking the league by storm quite like the Leafs did last year. They don’t have an all world talent like the Leafs have in Auston Matthews. They won’t be as strong in net as the Leafs are with Fredrik Anderson. The Flyers will instead rely on a goaltending tandem of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth, two goalies who have battled injuries and who have had up and down careers.
Even with up to five rookies in their line up, the Flyers should be an improved team over last year as a result of the increase in their talent level and the shot in the arm they should get with the youthful enthusiasm their young players will bring. With the Flyers division being the toughest in hockey, it will be a struggle to make the playoffs. The Flyers still have some dead weight on their roster in the forms of Brandon Manning, Andrew MacDonald and Matt Read that will hold them back from making the big splash like the Leafs did last year.
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While the Leafs splashed on to the scene, the Flyers’ rise figures to be more slow and steady. They will once again be a bubble playoff team but, unlike 2014 and 2016 where the Flyers squeaked in to the playoffs with veteran laden teams who’s ceilings were just getting in to the playoffs, 2018 will be a year where the Flyers battle for and hopefully get into the postseason with a team on the rise with young talented players. The Flyers should make their first big push in the playoffs in 2019 when in addition to what they already have, players such as Meyers, Aube-Kubel and Rubtsov join the team thus giving the Flyers a roster with as much young talent as any team in the league, including the Leafs.
Slow and steady wins the race.