When talking about the early season favorites in the Eastern Conference, the discussion is going to focus almost entirely on the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning, and for very good reason.
The Penguins are the defending champs and brought back almost their entire roster. The Capitals had the best record in the league last season and are still loaded. The Lightning have been in the Eastern Conference Final two years in a row and were a one-goal loss in Game 7 from making a second straight Stanley Cup Final appearance. They have also to this point managed to keep all of their core players together. All three teams look great heading into the season.
But once you get past that group there is a bit of a drop off to the next tier of teams.
There are the Montreal Canadiens, a squad that could easily be a playoff team again if they get a full season out of Carey Price. But they will probably only go as far as he can take them. The Islanders are a good team and have one of the NHL’s elite players in John Tavares, but they just don’t seem to be on the same level as the top contenders. The Florida Panthers, coming off of an Atlantic Division championship, are a popular pick to make a deep run after making some significant defensive additions to their impressive young core.
But there is one other team in the East that could have the potential make some noise and might be flying under the radar a bit: The Philadelphia Flyers.
It almost seems easy to forget that after such a miserable start to the 2015-16 season that the Flyers actually were a playoff team a year ago and put up a decent fight against the Capitals in the first round, taking their series to a sixth game.
Even though they didn’t make any blockbuster moves over the summer, and even though they are off to a bit of a slow start this season, there is still an awful lot to like about this team and its potential in 2016-17.
One area the Flyers have always been solid in recent years has been their collection of forwards, and that remains true this season with this current group.
Claude Giroux is still one of the best offensive players in hockey, while Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek all score at a first-line rate. And in the latter case, Voracek should be due for a bounce back season after only scoring 11 goals a season ago. Everything in his actual on-ice performance indicates he should have a big year in 2016. Even when his scoring dropped, he remained a top possession player, generated a ton of shots, and just seemed to be crushed by a poor shooting percentage. If that bounces back at all, he could easily be a 20-25 goal scorer once again.
From top to bottom it’s just a solid group of forwards that has another young talent joining their ranks in 2015 first-round pick Travis Konecny.
But what should really be encouraging for the Flyers this season is they finally have a couple of young, talented defensemen starting to hit the NHL that can complement their forwards. It’s a position that the Flyers really haven’t developed at over the past two decades, but that might be starting to change with the arrival of Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov.
For as good as the 2015-16 rookie class in the NHL was, and for as great as Connor McDavid and Artemi Panarin were, there wasn’t a single rookie anywhere in the league that had a bigger impact on his team than the one Gostisbehere had on the Flyers last season. As soon as he arrived the team did a complete 180 in the standings, in large part because of the dimension he added to the team. His 46 points were not only tops among all rookie defenders, they put him in the top-20 among all defensemen across the league. And he did that in only 64 games. He was the only player in the top 20 in defensemen scoring that did not play in at least 70 games.
It would be unfair to expect Provorov, the No. 7 overall pick in 2015, to make a similar impact in his rookie season, but he still is another high-level prospect hitting the NHL at a position where they have the greatest long-term need. Prospects can always be a little tricky (not all of them pan out exactly as planned), and there are certainly going to be some growing pains along the way for two players that young at that position, but there might not be a team in the league right now that has two defenders hitting the NHL at the same time that are this young and this talented.
That is a big reason for optimism if you are the Flyers with that group of forwards in front of them.
This isn’t to say that the Flyers are going to win the Eastern Conference, or even go deep into the playoffs. It’s just that maybe they should probably be getting a little more attention than they are at the start of the season.
They were a positive possession team a year ago, are going to score a lot of goals with their forwards (especially when it comes to the power play where Simmonds is one of the NHL’s most productive players), have a defense that should be rapidly improving, and with Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth in net, should be able to get league average goaltending. They are also playing in a conference that is still pretty wide open once you get past the few teams that are clearly at the top.
At the very least they are a team you should keep your eye on this season.