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Welcome to What Went Wrong, which is a series where we take a look at each team that failed to make the playoffs with an emphasis on why they fell short. We’ll also end each team’s outlook by highlighting some players in the organization to watch going forward, either because the team is looking for them to be key members in the future or because they have something to prove after a less than ideal year.
We have previously covered the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks , the New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets, the Buffalo Sabres and Anaheim Ducks, the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks, the Ottawa Senators and Arizona Coyotes, as well as the Chicago Blackhawks and Calgary Flames.
The Philadelphia Flyers entered the season with a lot of hope. They posted an impressive 41-21-7 record in 2019-20 before taking the New York Islanders to seven games in the second round of the playoffs. They had a well-rounded group of players who were young enough that their window seemed to just being opened. Going into 2020-21, it was probably too much to hope for the Philadelphia Flyers to be a serious Stanley Cup contender, but if they weren’t in the upper echelon of teams, they weren’t far from it either.
In the end though, the Flyers posted a 25-23-8 record, which put them a full 13 points back in the race to just get into the playoffs. So what happened? Well it has to be noted that part of the problem was unique nature of the season. They were put into the East Division along with Pittsburgh, Washington, Boston, the Islanders, the Rangers, New Jersey, and Buffalo. Given how much talent was in that division, the fact that only four of those teams could make the playoffs guaranteed that there would be worthy teams that were left out in the cold.
To make matters worse for the Flyers suffered a COVID-19 outbreak in early February that forced their season on hold. Before the outbreak, they had an 8-3-2 record, but they posted a 17-20-6 record after they were allowed to resume. The Flyers didn’t want to use that as an excuse, but you have to wonder what long-term effects lingered from both having to endure COVID and also having a stretch of time where the team both couldn’t play or practice. It also made their schedule even more condensed because the NHL had to reschedule games to accommodate for the ones they missed while the team was unable to play.
The reality is that because the Flyers’ outbreak happened so early in the season too, it’s hard to point at individual disappointments and not wonder if things might have been different if the Flyers had the luxury of playing a “normal” season. That all said, you can’t have an article series entitled What Went Wrong and not bring up Carter Hart when you get to the Flyers.
The young goaltender was a big part of the Flyers’ success in 2019-20 and he was similarly a huge reason they missed the playoffs in 2020-21. With a 3.67 GAA and .877 save percentage in 27 games, Hart was arguably the biggest goaltending disappointment of the season. He’s still just 22-years-old, so in some respects its not shocking that he’s going through some growing pains, especially given how unpredictable goaltenders can be, but that doesn’t change the fact that this team was built on the premise that he was already a great number one goaltender. Their backup, Brian Elliott, was 35-years-old at the start of the season and was no longer a viable alternative to be anything more than someone who would occasionally give Hart a game off. With Hart’s struggling, Elliott couldn’t fill the void and ultimately posted a 3.06 GAA and .889 save percentage in 30 games. Alex Lyon got into six games and finished with a 3.33 GAA and .893 save percentage. Those three goaltenders led to the Flyers allowing a league-worst 3.52 goals per game.
When your defense is that bad, even an elite offense isn’t likely to be enough to carry a team into the playoffs and in the case of the Flyers, their forwards were just okay in 2020-21. There were some standout players like Joel Farabee, who took a step forward with 20 goals and 38 points in 55 games and four different forwards had between 41-43 points (James van Riemsdyk, Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Sean Couturier), but in a division that included Brad Marchand, Sidney Crosby, Artemi Panarin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mika Zibanejad, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Evgeni Malkin, and Alex Ovechkin, the Flyers’ high-end forwards didn’t measure up in 2020-21. In the end, the Flyers averaged 2.86 goals per game, which is a sizable step down from 3.29 in 2019-20. The Flyers’ offense still might have been enough to push them into the playoffs had their goaltending and defense been solid – that’s how the Islanders got into the playoffs in the same division after all – but combining an okay offense with a league-worst defense is a recipe for misery.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s what we talked about earlier: The 2020-21 campaign was an unusual one for the Flyers. It’s entirely possible that the same or similar group will be able to bounce back next season under normalized circumstances. Carter Hart is still has a lot of promise and despite what just happened there’s reason for cautious optimism about him. Offensively, the Flyers do have a solid group of forwards who are still in or near their prime, and while they have question marks on defense, they also have some talented blueliners. It would be premature to write this group off.
Claude Giroux – There’s no question that Claude Giroux is a great player and an offensive leader of the team, but he’ll celebrate his 34th birthday in January and he’s entering the final season of his eight-year, $66.2 million contract, so this is the team the Flyers have to decide what, if any role, they see Giroux playing beyond this coming season. At least so far, he hasn’t really shown any serious signs of declining with age. He had 16 goals and 43 points in 54 contests.
James van Riemsdyk – At first glance, the 2020-21 campaign might be viewed as a bounce back campaign for James van Riemsdyk. He has 17 goals and 43 points in 56 contests, which is a new career-high for him from a points-per-game perspective. Unfortunately that was almost entirely due to a great start to the campaign. He had 10 goals and 26 points in his first 19 contests and just seven goals and 17 points in his final 37 games. van Riemsdyk still has two years on its five-year, $35 million contract, so the Flyers naturally are counting on him to be a big part of their group next season. He’s not a safe bet to live up to those hopes though given how inconsistent he’s been in recent years.
Nolan Patrick – Nolan Patrick’s career hasn’t gone as hoped to say the least. He was taken with the second overall pick in 2017 and has gone on to score 30 goals and 70 points in 197 career contests. To be fair, he’s had to face far more adversity than most his age. He couldn’t play at all in 2019-20 due to a migraine disorder. That being said when he returned for 2020-21, he was limited to just four goals and nine points in 52 contests while averaging 13:17 minutes. The door hasn’t been shut on him becoming a top-six forward, but there’s a lot less certainty about his future now than there was a few years ago. Patrick reportedly has asked to be traded and its not surprising that he’d want a fresh start, though it remains to be seen if any team will offer much for him.
Carter Hart – By far the biggest question facing the Philadelphia Flyers going forward is Carter Hart. He came into the league with a ton of hype, and he initially lived up to it. But as noted above, that all fell apart. Brian Elliott can become an unrestricted free agent this summer and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Philadelphia let him walk and instead sign another veteran backup to take some of the pressure off Hart, but no matter who they sign, it’s hard to see the Flyers making the playoffs next season if Hart doesn’t bounce back.
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In some ways, the Dallas Stars and Philadelphia Flyers are a similar story. Like the Flyers, the Stars entered the 2020-21 campaign with a lot of hope. They reached the second round in 2019 and then made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in 2020, so clearly they had cause for optimism going into 2020-21. Unfortunately they had plenty of obstacles that had nothing to do with hockey.
Dallas’ first four games were postponed because of a COVID outbreak and then they missed an additional three contests in a row because of the unusual winter weather in Texas that led to power outages.
Those two events both disrupted the Dallas Stars’ campaign twice and on top of that it condensed their schedule down the stretch. In fact, their final 40 games were played over a stretch of just 70 days. To put that in context, the Dallas Stars’ final 40 games in 2018-19 (the last “normal” season) over a stretch of 91 days. So they went from having a game every 2.275 days to a game every 1.75 days, which obviously makes fatigue more a factor.
On top of that, the Stars had some key injuries to deal with. Every team has to deal with injuries, but there’s a strong argument to be made that Dallas was hit harder by injuries than most. They didn’t have goaltender Ben Bishop at all, Tyler Seguin only played in three games, Alexander Radulov participated in just 11 contests, and while Roope Hintz managed to get into 41 games, he was playing hurt for most of the campaign. That’s a top goaltender and three key forwards who dealt with serious injuries.
All things considered, it is in some ways impressive that Dallas even came just four points shy of making the playoffs. That said the Dallas Stars also had some problems on the ice. After an outstanding 2019-20 campaign and 2020 playoff run, Anton Khudobin was just okay in 2020-21. Jamie Benn comes with a $9.5 million cap hit, but he hasn’t lived up to that contract for years now and while they did have some standout forwards, the Stars lacked offensive depth. Only five of the team’s forwards recorded even 20 points. Compare that to the Philadelphia Flyers, who had eight forwards with at least 20 points and, as established above, the Flyers were a just okay team offensively.
Still, given all the factors outside of their control, it’s hard to read too much into the Dallas Stars’ 2020-21 campaign. They have the option to enter next season with largely the same team and how they do then will be far more telling.
Ben Bishop – Ben Bishop wasn’t able to play at all in 2020-21, but he’s expected to be back next season. That’ll be a huge boost for the Stars. While Bishop might be rusty and he will turn 35-years-old in November, he’s been outstanding throughout his career and prior to getting injured, he wasn’t showing signs of slowing down. He finished second in Vezina Trophy voting in 2019 and while he wasn’t quite as good in 2019-20, he was still one of the league’s best netminders with a 2.50 GAA and .920 save percentage in 44 games. Having Bishop and Anton Khudobin as their goaltending duty next season will be a luxury that will make any other teams jealous.
Tyler Seguin – Another boost the Stars should have next season is getting Tyler Seguin back. Although just how much help Seguin will provide remains to be seen. From 2013-14 through 2018-19, Seguin surpassed the 70-point milestone each season, but in 2019-20 he took a step back with 17 goals and 50 points in 69 contests. Obviously the 2020-21 campaign was a wash for him, but he’s something of a question mark going into 2021-22. It seems safe to assume that Seguin will still be an offensive leader for the team, but is he still capable of scoring over 30 goals and 70 points? Keep in mind he won’t be celebrating his 30th birthday until January 31st, so it can’t be assumed that he’s already starting to decline.
Jamie Benn – One forward who does definitely seem to be on the decline though is Jamie Benn. From 2013-14 through 2017-18 he recorded at least 69 points in each season, but he dropped to 53 points in 78 games in 2018-19, 39 points in 69 contests in 2019-20, before bouncing back a bit with 35 points in 52 games in 2020-21. Clearly he was still a top-six forward over the last three seasons, but is he in danger of dropping further in 2021-22? Alternatively, can he return to his old ways? Keep in mind he’s still got four seasons left on his contract at an annual cap hit at $9.5 million, so his contract is already looking bad and if he regresses any further it’ll be an albatross.
Joe Pavelski – While Benn is approaching his 32nd birthday and already seems to be on the decline, Joe Pavelski just turned 37 and is coming off another great campaign. He scored 25 goals and 51 points in 56 contests last season. He has one season left on his three-year, $21 million contract, so the Stars will be hoping he can defy father time for at least a little longer. He was their leading scorer last season and while the return of Seguin will take some of the pressure off him to drive the team forward offensively, the Stars still need him to be a big part of their core.