There were quite a few surprises during the 2015-16 NHL season, but one of the biggest had to be the Philadelphia Flyers returning to the playoffs under first-year head coach Dave Hakstol.
Unlike in years past, Philadelphia wasn’t looking for quick fixes after missing the playoffs in 2015. The Flyers were prepared to build from within, and the organization seemed prepared for the process to take a few years.
However, it turned Philadelphia into a playoff team faster than anyone expected. Ignited by several youngsters, and with rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere leading the way, the Flyers finished the season 21-9-5 and narrowly made the playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s second wild card team.
Despite bowing out in the first round against Washington, it was a valiant effort for such a young Flyers team, and one that has people buzzing about next season.
“I think [the late-season run] makes us really optimistic,” Simmonds told TSN.ca last Wednesday. “We know we have a strong squad, we have good players and, obviously, it took a little bit to adapt to our new coach last year. I think once we put it together, we played really well and that’s evidenced by the second half our season. There’s a lot of optimism going into this year for us.”
But with optimism comes expectations and pressure, which this team had very little of last season. This young Flyers club will likely have to improve just to keep their status as a wild card contender in the Eastern Conference.
Despite making the playoffs, Philadelphia finished fifth out of eight teams in the Metropolitan division, which was clearly superior to the Atlantic. The Stanley Cup Champion Penguins are bringing nearly everyone back and have to be considered a lock for one of the top three division spots. As are the Capitals, who ran away with the Presidents’ Trophy a year ago.
The Flyers should feel like they can contend for that third automatic spot, but there are lots of teams in the division that share the same feeling.
The New York Islanders underwent a lot of change offensively, and it’s tough to tell if they really got any better, but they didn’t get substantially worse. Even though the Rangers are still undergoing major changes, trading veteran Derick Brassard for 23-year-old Mika Zibanejad on Monday, they look to be in the playoff mix as well, and New Jersey had perhaps the best offseason of all the Metropolitan bubble teams, adding Taylor Hall and re-signing Kyle Palmieri.
That’s six teams with a real shot, and under the current playoff format, one of them can’t make the postseason. That’s also assuming the Atlantic only has three representatives again. Otherwise, two will be without a chair when the music stops.
But there’s more hurdles for Philadelphia then just stiff competition. The Flyers didn’t make any really big free agent additions. Instead, general manager Ron Hextall has continued his dedication towards re-building through the draft.
Give Hextall credit for sticking to his plan. One surprise playoff appearance shouldn’t change the mindset of the Flyers organization.
But it does mean that Philadelphia will once again be counting on its young roster to earn a playoff spot. The 22-year-old Gostisbehere will probably have to lead the team in minutes, Brayden Schenn has to be signed and repeat his career 2015-16 season, and goaltender Steve Mason must overcome losing his starting job during the playoffs.
And unlike last season, they must all do it with high expectations.
Although everyone reacts differently to pressure, Philadelphia received a taste of a player folding under it last season. After signing an eight-year, $66 million contract extension that kicks in this fall that will make him the 12th-highest paid player in the NHL, Jakub Voracek scored just 11 goals and 55 points in 73 games in 2015-16. Over the three prior seasons, he averaged 25.9 goals per 82 games.
The big contract extension really seemed to effect Voracek at the beginning of the season. He had just one goal and 17 points in the first 30 games.
Now, this doesn’t mean every young player on the Flyers roster is going to respond the same way as Voracek did. But it does prove that failing to live up to the hype isn’t unusual. And if that happens, Philadelphia is going to have a hard time making the postseason again.
The Flyers undoubtedly have higher expectations for 2016-17, but the franchise is wise to stick to their guns. Making the playoffs again would be great, but long-term success is still the focus.