by Travis Hughes
1. One of the league's best one-two punches.
Maybe Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin can put together an argument as the league's best one-two offensive punch, and indeed in 2014-15 those two earned that title, scoring a combined 164 points. But Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek are right there in the conversation, and assuming health, they have every chance at the throne in 2015-16.
Giroux and Voracek have found an interesting chemistry with shifty Austrian winger Michael Raffl on their left side, which should help their even strength play. (Giroux famously had a relatively-awful even strength year in 2014-15, yet still scored 73 points in 81 games thanks to the power play.) And yeah, let's talk about the power play, where only Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are in the same league as Giroux and Voracek. Philadelphia's duo had a combined 70 power play points in 2014-15, making them the most dangerous connection in the league with the man advantage.
Benn and Seguin are younger, but Giroux and Voracek have the age advantage on Ovechkin and Backstrom, Perry and Getzlaf, and any other big name duo you can think of in the league. They're only going to get better together, and that's expected to continue this season.
2. Goaltending, believe it or not.
Yes, we can finally say that the Philadelphia Flyers have effective goaltending. Those Philadelphia Flyers, yes. The team hasn't moved or anything. We swear it's the same franchise.
After years -- decades, really -- of frustration in the crease, the Flyers really seem to have found something in net with Steve Mason. That was improbable in the first place, considering that when the Flyers acquired Mason from Columbus in 2013, he had been one of the league's worst full-time starting goaltenders to that point in his career.
But there's no way around it: Mason has found himself in Philly, putting up an overall .923 save percentage in 119 games as a Flyer. 2014-15 was a career year for Mason, as he found himself with a .928 save percentage by year's end. His even strength save percentage was a whopping .940. Only Carey Price and Devan Dubnyk had better numbers among goalies who played in at least 40 games, and neither of those guys had Philadelphia's putrid defense to deal with.
The question becomes whether or not Mason can repeat that same performance -- and in all honesty, we probably don't expect him to perform at a .928 level again in 2015-16. Considering you can make the argument that he carried this team for stretches last year, any regression could hurt their playoff chances.
But that's not on Mason. It's on the construction of the rest of the roster. He's established himself as a quality goaltender in Philadelphia, and the sheer fact that he has game-stealing potential is a big boon for what otherwise is a pretty mediocre-to-bad hockey team.
3. Prospects. Finally.
For much of the last decade, the Flyers have had a pretty slim prospect pool. Think of guys on the current team that are homegrown as proof: there's Giroux, and Couturier, and ... maybe 2012 draft pick Scott Laughton, and he's still on the NHL-AHL bubble. Most of their roster has been acquired through free agency or trades, which should be used as luxury tools more than necessity.
But the last few drafts, particularly since Ron Hextall took over as general manager in 2014, have beefed up the farm system considerably. Scroll back up and see the list of prospects to watch. It's chock full of top-end guys, particularly the team's two 2015 first-round choices, Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny. You can add free agent Danick Martel, who will start his pro career in the AHL this season, and 2014 second-round pick Nicolas Aube-Kubel to that list as well.
Hextall and coach Dave Hakstol are being patient, and the chances any of these guys having a real impact on the 2015-16 Flyers are slim. (The AHL squad in Lehigh Valley, on the other hand, could be quite good.) But the future is bright in Philly, and it's the first time in a while this organization can say that with any certainty.
by Kelly Hinkle
What was an abysmal blue line this time last year has not been measurably improved as we head into the 2015-16 season. What improvement has been made is of the "addition by subtraction" variety -- trading Nick Grossmann to Arizona instantly improves the blueline by ridding it of arguably its worst player possession-wise. There are a couple of bright spots in Mark Streit, who had an excellent season last year, and Evgeny Medvedev, the KHL convert who has looked pretty solid in preseason games. But when Andrew MacDonald and Luke Schenn are every day defensemen, there's a lot of room for improvement.
2. Bad contracts, lack of options.
Ron Hextall inherited a few terrible contracts that will continue to tie his hands heading into this season. Andrew MacDonald, R.J. Umberger, and Vincent Lecavalier account for $14.1 million and are virtually untradeable. If these three are as bad as they were last year, it's going to be a big problem. Their bloated salaries eating up such a large part of the cap will make it very difficult for Hextall to bring in any new talent to improve his team -- and even worse, these contracts have the potential to block talented young prospects from moving up.
There is a lot of "new" on the Flyers this year, most notably new head coach Dave Hakstol. It's rare that a coach makes the jump from college to the NHL -- so rare that it's only happened three times in history, and not once since the early 1980s -- so we'll have to wait and see if Hakstol's success at the collegiate level will translate to the pros. The addition of Sam Gagner should improve the Flyers' front end and Michael Neuvirth should be a better backup than Ray Emery, but what, if any, impact they have on the team's success remains to be seen.
And finally, there's Steve Mason. Mase is coming off a fantastic season, in which he posted a .928 save percentage and made a serious case for a couple of Vezina votes. Can he repeat that success this year? As noted above, he'll still be a good goaltender, but if he's unable to play to those same lofty heights, the Flyers might not be able to compensate.
1. How is Dave Hakstol’s first season in the NHL?
2. Will Steve Mason continue his elite play?
3. What will the defense look like going down the stretch?
BEST CASE SCENARIO
by Charlie O'Connor
Hakstol’s fresh ideas from college create a dynamic offensive machine built upon calculated risk-taking and sound neutral zone play. Mason puts up another Vezina-caliber performance and convinces all remaining doubters of his elite status. Medvedev proves a KHL stalwart can excel in the NHL, stabilizing the defense. More help comes early, as one of the prized AHL blueline prospects (Gostisbehere, Hagg, Morin) earns a call-up and is immediately effective. The first line remains elite, and either Giroux or Voracek takes a run at the Art Ross.
Couturier finally develops into the 50-point Selke contender that he has threatened to become since draft day. Reclamation project Sam Gagner is a revelation, a newly-healthy Umberger is a useful depth forward and Lecavalier either reinvigorates his career under Hakstol or is quickly benched. The Flyers hit the playoffs a dangerous but flawed team and put a serious scare into one of the favorites, serving notice that this is a team on the rise.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
by Kurt R.
The defense is even worse than last year, as the same issues from last year still arise while Dave Hakstol’s systemic attempts to initiate offense from his defensemen fails to work with a slow, non-talented group – all making them look bad enough that Hextall can’t even deal any of them at the trade deadline.
Up front, Voracek falls back from Art Ross contender to merely good, and the scoring depth isn’t there as the young forwards fail to break through yet again. Steve Mason doesn’t come close to repeating his elite 2014-15 season due to injuries and regression.
Hakstol’s first year is a mess, as the team finishes in the bottom third both offensively and defensively en route to a bottom-5 finish in the standings – but Giroux and Voracek keep them from being bad enough to have a serious shot at Auston Matthews.