Gilbert: Flyers’ 2021 season has all-too-familiar inconsistent feeling
This was supposed to be it. This was supposed to be the year. After years of a rebuild poorly disguised as a “transition period,” first-round exits, and disappointing seasons, the Philadelphia Flyers finally won a playoff series last year and were poised to take that next step. Instead, the Flyers couldn’t get over the hump yet again.
This 2021 season has been an interesting one. Perhaps we look back on it in a different light given the circumstances of COVID-19, a condensed schedule, and returning to play after several players testing positive for COVID. But for now, this season is coming to an all-too-familiar end.
An all-too-familiar inconsistent season
The Flyers haven’t won back-to-back games in regulation since Feb. 24th to 28th when they won three straight against the Rangers and Sabres. In fact, they only won back-to-back games in any fashion just once since then: a 2-1 win against the Rangers on March 27th and an overtime win in Buffalo on March 29th. Neither of those wins was very convincing, either. They’ve struggled to even put together back-to-back solid periods, let alone solid games.
“I think ultimately, just consistency-wise as far as building off of things, we seem out of sync, I feel a lot of times,” James van Riemsdyk said after an uninspiring loss to the Capitals. “I don’t really have an answer as to why that is, but that’s what it seems like to me.”
Inconsistency has been the name of the game for the Flyers for nearly a decade and they’re living up to it again this season. They’ve been searching for answers for months and it cost them the season.
Flyers start hot despite poor play
This Flyers season can almost be split into two sections: pre-COVID and post-COVID.
Early in the season, despite not playing well, the Flyers were getting some bounces and finding ways to win games. They went 7-2-1 through their first 10 games despite getting outshot by over 100 (337-236) in those 10 games.
In their final three games before their COVID pause, the Flyers went 1-1-1 and got outshot 95-72 in those three games, for a pre-COVID record of 8-3-2. They weren’t playing particularly well, though. The Flyers outscored their opponents by just five (46-41) and were getting outshot by an average of over nine shots per game (432-308)
The Flyers essentially peaked just before their COVID pause and have been going down ever since.
If this Flyers season was a rollercoaster, it’d be a lot like Kingda Ka with a full car of passengers. With expectations set high, they launched down the track and sped up to a 7-2-1 and 8-3-2 start. However, when the car reached the top of the peak, there wasn’t enough power left to get it over the hump.
That’s where the pause comes in.
The Flyers hovered in the air with 10 days off between games, and perhaps they would’ve been better served to have a longer break. Nevertheless, they carried on.
At first, it looked a bit promising. After scratching out a point against the Rangers and getting embarrassed by the Bruins at Lake Tahoe, the Flyers got some of their players back and were full steam ahead. They got a gutsy win against the Rangers and two shutouts in Buffalo. Things were looking good, maybe they were in the clear.
Flyers come crashing down in March
Then, March hit. The Flyers salvaged a miraculous win in Pittsburgh after falling down 3-0 early, but lost the other two in regulation. Their five-on-five play may have been improving, but the defensive breakdowns –– and most importantly shoddy goaltending –– were still there. They would play well, but it would all be erased by a mistake or two and things would snowball.
The Flyers had just one regulation win from March 6th to 25th. They went 3-8-1 and got outscored a whopping 57-33.
On March 24th, Chuck Fletcher held his midseason press conference and said that the “makeup” of the Flyers “probably is not right” and that they need to “address that going forward to get the right mix.”
It was obvious that something needed to change, but nothing did. Instead, Chuck Fletcher, Alain Vigneault and Co. went ahead hoping that the easy schedule at the end of the month could set things straight before a few days off.
On the 25th, a day after Fletcher’s press conference, the Flyers lost 8-3 to the Rangers at home, just eight days after their 9-0 loss. At that point, Fletcher and the Flyers needed to at least preserve their dignity in what was turning out to be a lost season.
They got that regulation win against the Rangers on the 27th before needing a three-goal third period to force overtime to win in Buffalo. The Flyers wouldn’t be so lucky two nights later, though, as the Sabres finally broke their losing streak –– 18 games at that point –– with a win to send the Orange and Black to rock bottom.
It already felt like it was too late and that loss confirmed it.
To finish out that rollercoaster analogy, the Flyers were stuck at the top waiting to see what would happen. They shook back and forth and rolled back the way they came, ending up back in the station at square one.
Chuck Fletcher needs to fix Flyers
We’re once again just watching the Flyers play out the rest of their schedule –– 11 games left now –– with no playoff hopes. The most exciting thing about the last week has been a rookie off to a hot start. Sure, Wade Allison has been a blast to watch. But it’d be a lot better if he was coming in and helping push for a playoff spot rather than simply making the games more bearable.
In a year that was supposed to finally be the next step, the Flyers had us fooled. It could be the goaltending, defense, COVID-impact, condensed schedule, or a combination of everything. This Flyers season is once again ending with a look to the future.
Chuck Fletcher has a huge task ahead of him this offseason. He answered the bell with Kevin Hayes, Matt Niskanen, and Justin Braun two summers ago. However, he swung and missed last fall. Fletcher failed to adequately replace Niskanen or do anything to shore up the defense.
It’s not all on Fletcher, though. Many of the young players have regressed this season when they were being counted on to continue to develop. They’ll likely be fine in the long run, but it was a bad time for all of them to regress. Maybe that regression doesn’t happen –– at least not so steeply –– if the Flyers had another top-four defenseman to take the pressure of those guys.
It’s up to Chuck Fletcher and Co. to make sure that next year is actually the next step. Otherwise, there could be some changes made not only to the roster but to the front office as well.
Photo: Heather Barry Images