Opportunity slipped past Flyers

After bowing out to the New York Islanders, the Flyers look to the future, which is cloudy, as forward Nolan Patrick missed the entire season due to migraines. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

A few years from now, the 2019-20 Philadelphia Flyers season will be remembered as a strange time of hockey played in empty buildings after a five-month break in the midst of a pandemic.

It will also be remembered as a huge missed opportunity for a franchise attempting to recapture glory from nearly half a decade ago.

The Flyers entered the regular season 11 months ago with middling expectations of perhaps returning to the postseason on the backs of two core groups: One is a handful of aging, high-paid, bush-bearded veterans, and the other a group of baby-faced up-and-comers who needed a dip in the shallow end of the playoff pool before this team could plunge head-first into the deep waters. You could maybe say Sean Couturier is the bridge between them, as he’s somehow still only 27.

Theoretically, this roster wasn’t seen as a serious contender when it began play in October or even as it swooned during a devastating West Coast road trip in December. But there they were in March, racing up the standings as the hottest team in the league. And it seemed that no momentum was lost after the Flyers swept the round-robin tournament over the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins, Metropolitan Division-winning Washington Capitals and always dangerous Tampa Bay Lightning when play resumed inside the bubble in Toronto last month.

You can shine a positive spin and look to a possibly bright future, but the 2020 Stanley Cup will be one that got away from the Philadelphia Flyers when they were within reach.

Think of the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies. They were a 92-win team that caught lightning in a bottle perhaps a year or two ahead of schedule. That year, the Phillies avoided the National League’s top team in the Chicago Cubs as well as the defending World Series-champion Boston Red Sox and instead defeated the inexperienced Tampa Bay Rays to win the title.

The Phillies returned with more talented teams the next three years after adding players like Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Raul Ibanez and Hunter Pence. Their regular season wins increased to 93, 97 and 102, respectively, but they never tasted postseason glory again.

The Philadelphia Eagles didn’t wait for Carson Wentz to come back healthy the next year when their time came. They won the Super Bowl in 2018 with backup Nick Foles when the opportunity was there.

The last time the Flyers got this close was in 2010 upon reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. The following year, they were swept out of the second round by the Boston Bruins and that summer were the witness of sweeping changes, as cornerstones Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were traded away.

In the NHL, nothing is guaranteed. Just ask Oskar Lindblom or Nolan Patrick. The two young building blocks have endured hell this season. Lindblom’s public bout with Ewing’s sarcoma dragged him through grueling chemotherapy treatments, only to miraculously return to the ice less than nine months later. Patrick, the No. 2 overall pick from 2017, continues to battle serious migraines that kept him out of action the entire season and very much leaves his hockey future in doubt.

There’s no telling what lies ahead. One can only hope that the Flyers continue trajectory upward as more young bodies compete for spots on the roster while the front office has its hands full figuring out a Gordian Knot of a salary cap filled with long-term unmovable veteran contracts.

To say the Flyers’ run in the 2020 playoffs was a success would be misleading because the opportunity was there. Sure, the Islanders looked faster and didn’t seem to miss an opportunity to finish a check through all seven games. All credit to New York, as it was a lopsided series, but it didn’t need to be.

The lack of adjustments, especially on the power play, was concerning. The Flyers had 52 power-play opportunities in 16 games in the bubble and scored just four times (7.7 percent). They went 0-for-13 in  the series against the Islanders.

The lack of emotion was disheartening. There were some spurts, but overall, did any fan come away with a feeling of hate for any of the Islanders players after a seven-game series? By the end of it, most people probably actually felt sorry for Mat Barzal, as most of his cuts and bruises were by accident or friendly fire. There was no snarl to that series, and it showed.

But the blame goes beyond the players. Aside from the coaching staff having a very questionable run that included a string of failed challenges on Islander goals, the Flyers front office failed to make any game-changing upgrades at the deadline while the neighboring Islanders struck gold.

The Flyers, although once again anchored with salary cap concerns, brought in Derek Grant and Nate Thompson to munch minutes at the expense of younger players. The two players combined for three points in the playoffs, with only one coming after round-robin play.

The Islanders, on the other hand, brought in scorer Jean Gabriel Pageau and veteran defenseman Andy Greene.

Against the Flyers, they combined for five goals.

The Flyers will certainly tinker with their lineup in the offseason and will hope to miraculously find a scorer while somehow shedding salary, but they will likely return with a similar roster. They will pin their hopes on a more experienced team in front of a young goalie who will quickly enter the prime of his career over the next few years. The encouraging news is that not much gets past the phenomenal netminder — except for this opportunity, which doesn’t come very often. ••