For the second year in a row, the Stanley Cup winner could owe a trip to Philadelphia as the turning point of the season.
Last season, the St. Louis Blues were in the basement of the league standings during a January visit to South Philadelphia. Legend has it — and videos prove it — that five Blues players visited Jacks NYB, a private club on 16th Street, to watch the Philadelphia Eagles play the Chicago Bears in a playoff game.
During each commercial of the game, the DJ played Laura Branigan’s 1982 hit song “Gloria” on the speakers to the delight of the bar patrons and visiting hockey players from the Midwest. The next day, rookie goalie Jordan Binnington got his first NHL start and shut out the Flyers, 4-0. It was the beginning of an absolute heater that took the Blues from last place to Stanley Cup champions in a matter of six months. “Play Gloria” became the battle cry for the Blues in the process, as it became a stadium sensation during their incredible playoff run.
This year might not be as dramatic, but the Dallas Stars are loosely following that script. It lacks the colorful back story, but Stars captain Jamie Benn recently credited a trip to Philly as a season-saving moment for Dallas’ hockey team.
The Stars entered the season with high hopes after losing to St. Louis last year in seven games in the Western Conference semifinals. But Dallas struggled out of the gates and was 1-7-1 after nine games, just before a meeting with the Flyers on Oct. 9 in South Philly.
Sportsnet reporter Elliotte Friedman wrote in his “31 Thoughts” blog that Benn wasn’t worried about the rough start. Benn told Friedman that the Stars’ 4-1 victory over the Flyers was “the night things started to change.” It kicked off a stretch of 16 games in which Dallas went 14-1-1.
But you could probably go back a little bit further to find the Flyers’ fingerprints on the Stars’ recent success. You can easily point to the 2017 NHL Entry Draft or the lottery that set it up.
The Flyers, Stars and the New Jersey Devils all received some good fortune in the lottery despite the Colorado Avalanche being the runaway bottom-dwellers in the regular season the year prior. The ping pong balls favored the fifth-worse Devils, who received the No. 1 pick, and the Flyers — originally picking 13th — cashed in a 2.4-percent chance as the third-longest odds to grab the second pick and move up 11 spots. Dallas was the eighth-worst team and moved up to No. 3.
At the time, most scouts and front offices had Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick as neck-and-neck for the top pick, which probably made the Flyers’ selection of Patrick an easy one after New Jersey took Hischier. But the next three picks could very well haunt the Flyers, whether Patrick ever comes back healthy or not.
The proof is on your television sets, as Stars’ Finnish defenseman Miro Heiskanen — selected third — is growing into one of the best defensemen in the league right in front of our eyes. Colorado then selected shifty defenseman and Calder Trophy candidate Cale Makar fourth, and the Vancouver Canucks found their foundational center, Elias Pettersson, at No. 5.
Makar and Pettersson have had flashier starts to their careers, but it’s Heiskanen who has a chance at early championship glory and he’s arguably the main driving factor alongside of goaltender Anton Khudobin in getting the Stars there. Heiskanen has now scored 23 points in 22 games after the Stars took Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final over Tampa Bay on Saturday.
He’s already being compared to some of the greats of the game in just his second NHL season.
“His speed reminds me of Paul Coffey,” seven-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom told Dan Rosen of NHL.com. “Both of those guys can beat opponents with pure speed. Coffey was so fast that stick-handling wasn’t required. Three strides and he’d be by a defender, if that. Heiskanen skates that effortlessly, too.”
The praise didn’t stop there, but when you get compared to Coffey by Lidstrom, you’re doing something right.
And it’s not to say the Flyers did anything particularly wrong in not taking Heiskanen when they had the chance. The Flyers had spent their 2013, 2014 and 2015 first-round picks on defensemen Sam Morin, Travis Sanheim and Ivan Provorov. In fact, the Flyers felt so good about the defensive prospects in their farm system at the time that they didn’t take a blue liner until the seventh round (Wyatt Kalynuk) in that 2017 Draft. But if the Flyers had a redo, they might have considered looking a little deeper than two spots into the draft.
The Flyers filled in one piece of the salary cap puzzle by re-signing Nicolas Aube-Kubel to a two-year, $2.15 million extension, which carries an average annual value of $1.075 million. The 2014 second-round pick made $700,000 last season and accumulated 15 points in 36 games during the regular season before contributing a pair of goals and an assist in 13 playoff games this year.
The Flyers now have a little more than $7.8 million in cap room to add seven contracts to their 23-man roster. However, teams can go up to 10-percent over the cap during the offseason but will need to be compliant by opening day.
Mistakes were made
Speaking of salary cap talk, last week we pondered on the possibility of a rival team poaching Nolan Patrick via offer sheet. After further review, and according to the always trustworthy website CapFriendly, Patrick has not earned enough career games to be eligible for an offer sheet, due to sitting out the entirety of last season. This is good news for the Flyers, as they hold much more leverage in contract negotiations. Look for a short bridge deal this offseason that could be beneficial for both player and team. ••