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One Lesson Flyers Can Take from Each Remaining Playoff Team

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Miro Heiskanen and Jason Robertson were selected by the Stars in the same draft. (Photo: AP)

After coming so close to qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs and ending up falling just short in the end, the Philadelphia Flyers are, regrettably, watching what has turned out to be quite an exciting postseason from home. But if you’re the Flyers, it’s only disappointing if you’re not truly paying attention.

After all, there’s a reason the teams that remain standing in the playoffs have consistently qualified over the last few years, just as there is a reason the Flyers haven’t caught a sniff of extra hockey lately until this season.

Indeed, general manager Danny Briere has only officially been on the job for a season now, and his 2023 NHL Draft class was quite the step in the right direction. Prospects like Matvei Michkov, Oliver Bonk, Denver Barkey, Egor Zavragin, Carson Bjarnason, and even Carter Sotheran are already or have legitimate chances at becoming fixtures for this organization down the road.

The common theme throughout all of this has been the perpetuated accumulation of young talent and draft capital to help the organization rebuild from the ground up. Along the way, though, the Flyers will need to learn from the teams that are contending presently.

Florida Panthers

It’s hard to look at the Florida Panthers right now and not painfully recall where their two goalies came from. Sergei Bobrovsky joined the Flyers as a free agent in 2010 and looked like a star almost immediately, starting 52 games and ripping off a 28-13-8 record as a 22-year-old in his first season in the NHL. In the offseason, the team brought in Ilya Bryzgalov to be the starting goalie, and his debut season in the Orange and Black was only adequate.

Bobrovsky, on the other hand, stunk in his sophomore season and was subsequently dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2012. He immediately won the Vezina Trophy. As a player, Briere stuck around long enough to witness the disastrous aftermath and Bryzgalov buyout first-hand.

In that Bobrovsky trade, the Flyers acquired a second-round draft pick which was ultimately used to select another goalie, Anthony Stolarz. The 30-year-old has been a career backup but was always solid in Philadelphia. Stolarz was elite in a seven-game trial run in 2016-17, posting a .928 save percentage and one shutout, but was significantly less effective the second time around in 2018-19, with his numbers dropping to .902 and one shutout in a moderately larger 12-game sample size.

But the Flyers were awful that year and rolled out eight different starting goalies, platooned by the likes of Brian Elliott, Mike McKenna, Cam Talbot, Michal Neuvirth, and Calvin Pickard. The others were Stolarz, Carter Hart, and Alex Lyon.

Today, Bobrovsky and Stolarz complete what is one of the very best goaltending tandems in the entire league. The two combined to save 35.7 goals above expected in the 2023-24 regular season, per Moneypuck.

The moral of the story? Don’t give up on goalies so early.

New York Rangers

The Flyers just had the NHL’s worst power play unit for the third season in a row, and based on Briere’s comments in his exit interview last month, that is not necessarily expected to change next season. But if the New York Rangers have taught us anything, it’s that special teams–the power play, especially–matter. They matter a lot.

The Rangers won the Presidents’ Trophy this season after accruing the most points in the regular season and have already advanced to an Eastern Conference Finals matchup with the Panthers. The irony is that they’ve been well below average in their 5-on-5 play in the playoffs, evidenced by their 47.13% expected goals percentage. That figure ranked 11th out of 16 playoff teams; all five teams that were worse have been eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs already.

The Washington Capitals, who were swept by the Rangers in the first round, lead this year’s playoff teams with a 54.83% expected goals percentage.

The difference is that the Capitals scored as many goals on the 5-on-4 (two) as they allowed. The Rangers have scored 10 goals on 5-on-4 power plays and have conceded zero. Only Colorado (11) and Edmonton (13) have scored more goals on 5-on-4 opportunities this postseason.

And while the Flyers aren’t nearly as talented as New York, Edmonton, or Colorado, they aren’t less talented than weaker playoff teams like the Capitals, the Islanders, and the Predators. Fixing this abhorrent power play must be a priority now and in the future.

Dallas Stars

If at first you don’t succeed, draft and draft again. This is effectively the modus operandi of the Dallas Stars, who have built both the core and the depth of their team almost exclusively through the NHL draft.

Consider that seven years ago, in the 2017 NHL Draft, the Stars remarkably managed to draft Miro Heiskanen, Jake Oettinger, and Jason Robertson with their first three selections. By comparison, the Flyers drafted Nolan Patrick, Morgan Frost, and Isaac Ratcliffe. Frost is still around and his developed into a solid two-way player, but it’s not like Philadelphia managed to get a franchise player at all three positions in one draft.

They were nowhere near. And Patrick, who appears to be medically retired, was the only player chosen in the top-five of that draft to have never been named an NHL All-Star.

In subsequent drafts, the Stars managed to snap up standout talents like Mavrik Bourque, Logan Stankoven, Thomas Harley, and Wyatt Johnston. If you want a fool-proof way of building a good team, do it yourself. The Flyers must continue to draft often, draft smart, and draft well instead of hoping other teams trade away their talented players.

Edmonton Oilers

Just tank and stink bad enough until you end up with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The end.

Ok, not really. But there is a reason McDavid and Draisaitl–two generational talents–haven’t won the Stanley Cup yet. Every year, they come into the playoffs red-hot, make a few nice plays, and then slowly fizzle out en route to another disappointing exit. Goaltending, and defense especially, matter just as much as offensive talent when you’re one of the final 16 teams competing for the ultimate prize.

This year, though, things seem different. The Edmonton Oilers have already outlasted Los Angeles and Vancouver, even when mired in goaltending controversy–something that seems to pop up for them every season. Look no further than the electric defensive pairing of Mattias Ekholm and Evan Bouchard as the reason for their transformation.

Ekholm, who turned 34 years old on Friday, arrived in Edmonton from Nashville ahead of the NHL trade deadline last season and became a hit for the Oilers almost immediately. By sending Tyson Barrie the other way, the Oilers freed up more offensive responsibility for the uber-talented Bouchard, who was drafted 10th overall in the 2018 NHL Draft.

Bouchard, who already had two 4o-point seasons under his belt, exploded for 82 points in 81 regular season games this season. In the playoffs, the 24-year-old has reached an even higher level of play with his 21 points in 13 games. Ekholm, despite his relatively advanced age, posted a career-high 45 points this season.

These two are just one of many examples that show how much team balance and chemistry matter in hockey. The Flyers, who are rebuilding still, are finding this out.

They traded Ivan Provorov last summer, though it was Travis Sanheim who benefitted offensively more than Cam York did. In fact, York’s underlying numbers were actually significantly worse. A solution is even more important now that the Flyers also have Jamie Drysdale in the fold. For the rebuild to take the next step, one of those two guys is going to have to take a Bouchard-esque step forward.

Do the Flyers have their Ekholm, though? I’m not sure. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

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