By Mark Zimmaro
Hockey enthusiasts should be excited, as the National Hockey League has created a plan to officially begin training camps on July 10.
There are still plenty of details to iron out, as the league faces obstacles such as international travel restrictions, quarantines and safety concerns for players and staff. Not to mention free-agent contracts expire at the end of the month — not just for players — but for some coaches, scouts and other personnel. There are also no minor leagues to draw players from, as the American Hockey League and East Coast Hockey League shut down operations until next season.
But besides all that, and once the NHL figures out which two hub cities will host events (without fans), actual gameplay could be very unpredictable.
The Flyers had won nine out of their final 10 games before the pause, vaulted up the standings to second place in the Metropolitan Division and were looking like contenders.
However, these days, Flyers fans should temper expectations.
Best-case scenario, once July 10 arrives, and if the NHL gives the green light at that time to proceed, we’re looking at a good three weeks of training camp before any real action gets going.
Enter: August hockey.
The league paused in mid-March, meaning players won’t have participated in a real game for about five months. That’s about the same amount of time as an offseason any other year for a team that didn’t make the playoffs.
Since 2012, the Flyers have qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs every other year. Odd years bad, even years good. And they were certainly on pace in 2020 to keep that trend going before the pandemic hit.
So what does this mean? Do we get the 2020 Flyers who were bulldozing their way to their first potential playoff series victory in eight years? Or do we get the next version, which according to the rotation, is a team that will come up lame?
Might as well flip a coin at this point.
Most players haven’t skated since the break. Only the lucky ones like Ivan Provorov had access to private rinks. You can bet the other 95 percent of the league will resemble Bambi on ice when things get started.
Aside from all the COVID-related effects, let’s take a look at some actual hockey-related reasons on whether the Flyers can make a significant run.
We’ll start with the positive stuff first by listing the reasons why they should absolutely win the Stanley Cup this summer, … er fall? Who knows?
Strength down the middle: The Flyers can be considered one of the deepest teams down the middle with Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes and Scott Laughton all playing center. Don’t forget Claude Giroux could be moved back to his natural position in a pinch. The Flyers were one of the best teams in faceoff percentage during the regular season.
Youth and depth: Only nine teams were younger in average age than the Flyers when the season started, and only six of those teams are still alive. Although most teams will begin the playoffs at full strength, things could go downhill quickly during a condensed schedule, depending on the fitness players maintained during this long break. The Flyers have young legs and depth at their disposal. The additions of veterans Derek Grant and Nate Thompson should really come in handy.
Goaltending: Carter Hart is unproven in the postseason but he has a winning pedigree pacing Canada to a gold medal in the World Junior Championships. If the kid gets hot, look out.
Experience: It’s been a while but Giroux proved before that he can elevate his play during the postseason. You can lump Couturier into that mold after his performance two years ago against Pittsburgh.
Coaching: Alain Vigneault turned in a Jack Adams-worthy performance in his first year in Philadelphia. An experienced group of assistant coaches have also proved valuable.
Lindblom Effect: The Flyers haven’t forgotten their good buddy, Oskar Lindblom, who is finishing up his treatments for Ewing’s sarcoma. You can never downplay an emotion lift when things get tough.
And here are the reasons the Flyers will likely get bounced in the first round:
Youth: There’s a lot of it, especially on the blue line. Provorov is the Flyers;’ true No. 1 guy and he’s only 23. Philippe Myers (also 23), Travis Sanheim (24) and Robert Hagg (25) are also still in their early 20s. This could prove problematic, as line matchups become more of a chess match in the postseason.
Goaltending: Carter Hart has played exactly zero NHL playoff games. If he falters, the Flyers won’t go far. But here’s the good news: Matt Murray and Jordan Binnington each lifted the Cup during their first respective shots at it.
Inexperience: Although there’s lots of regular season experience, most of these guys have never been to a conference final or a Stanley Cup final. It’s a different world.
The power play: The Flyers were ranked just 14th in the league with the man advantage in the regular season. Hey, at least no one in the crowd will be yelling “Shoot!”, right?
Just Because: It’s hockey. Anything can happen in a normal year. Remember the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings winning it all in 2012? Remember the St. Louis Blues being in last place in the league last January before hoisting the Cup?
Playoff hockey is a wacky time. Enjoy it, but remember to temper those expectations.