We weren't supposed to be talking about playoff possibilities in late January. The bulk of us were expecting to be keeping a keen eye on the standings, predicting where in the bottom five we'd finish to strengthen our odds of winning the draft lottery.
Things didn't work out that way. At a little over the half way point, the Flyers find themselves sitting in third place in the Metro with 56 points. Despite some recent adversity with five straight losses, Moneypuck currently gives Philadelphia a 60.6% chance to earn a playoff berth. That number has been dropping of late though, due to the losing streak and the fact that most of the teams below them have several games in hand.
Regardless, a more likely than not playoff outlook at the break isn't something many saw coming. By most accounts, the Flyers were slated to finish dead last in the division. Their forward group and defensive corps were ranked close to or at the very bottom of the league heading into the 2023-2024 campaign.
So what happened? Well, there's no single answer, but a few things stick out. First and foremost, two key assets returned from injuries that kept them out the entire season prior: Sean Couturier and Cam Atkinson.
The impact of Couturier's presence cannot be overstated. A former Selke winner and recurring finalist, Couturier's hockey IQ is off the charts. He's never been a typical 1C from an offensive standpoint, and two years away from the game has stymied him even further. Still, he can reliably go against any team's top line and is an effective penalty killer. It's no accident that, since his return, the Flyers have the league's second ranked PK.
Atkinson, on the other hand, is a speedy forward whose scoring touch was sorely missed on a team that was fourth worst in goals per game last season. Despite a career-long 26 game goalless drought, Atkinson's 13 goals are good enough for fourth best amongst the forwards. Having played for John Tortorella in the past with Columbus, Cam is a player Torts understands well and trusts. He plays second line minutes, and, like Couturier, is a valuable asset on both special teams units.
Off the ice, Couturier and Atkinson's veteran presences surely helped mend a broken locker room. At least those were Tortorella's impressions when he was first hired
"As far as the room, I have major concerns. Before we even step on the ice, situations and standards and accountability in the room is forefront, and you can't get squat done on the ice until you get your room straightened out. I think we have a little bit of work to do there."
Tortorella was adamant about needing an "addition by subtraction" approach at last year's deadline and in the off-season. He got his wish. Players like Kevin Hayes, Ivan Provorov, and Tony DeAngelo were shipped out in one way or another. Their departures allowed for other voices to be amplified, Tortorella said.
"Our room needed to change...When you subtract people, it allows the room to open up, it allows people to speak. Allows people to show maybe who they are."
Now, the room is closer than ever. Several players have remarked that it's the tightest-knit group they've been a part of. Cam Atkinson noticed the shift right away. “It’s a great group now. It’s amazing what a year can do – bring in some new energy." Addition by addition, you say? Sorry, it's a The Office reference I've been clamoring to use.
But it's true that Philadelphia also made significant additions in free agency. Guys like Sean Walker, Ryan Poehling, and Garnet Hathaway provided immediate jolts at their positions. At the time, they only seemed like depth signings for a team that would surely be floundering, but they've turned into far more. Walker has played so well that the Flyers are reportedly firm on a first round pick as his asking price. Poehling just inked an extension, and there's seldom a shift where you don't notice Hathaway in his peace disturber role.
Most importantly though, the Flyers are benefiting from several of their younger players taking strides in development and, in some cases, surprise bounce-back seasons. Owen Tippett appears well on his way to becoming a perennial 30 goal scorer. Joel Farabee seems to be back to his old self, after a neck injury hampered much of his 2022-2023 season. His 33 points at even strength are good enough for fifth in the league, in good company with names like MacKinnon, Kucherov, and McDavid. Morgan Frost has responded well to early and mid-season benchings, posting a team-best xGoals differential at +0.83. The next best is Tyson Foerster with +0.66.
It's been a similar story defensively. Travis Sanheim was all but sent packing last offseason, as the Flyers aggressively shopped the 27-year-old defenseman not long after signing him to an eight-year contract extension. They were unable to make a deal happen. Sanheim did not let the rumors deter him. He arrived to camp conditioned and with about fifteen pounds of added muscle. The absence of Ivan Provorov opened a hole on the top pairing that, so far, "Sanny" has flourished in.
Tortorella and assistant coach Brad Shaw have worked wonders with other members of the backend, namely Rasmus Ristolainen. His underlying defensive metrics have soared this season, albeit in a more limited role. Torts believes Shaw deserves a good portion of that credit.
"That's when I thought Brad was really good with him in tape, just talking about his legs, just the little things to get his game going. I think Risto has regained some of his confidence."
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the goaltending. Although Carter Hart's long-term status is in jeopardy, there's hope that Samuel Ersson is ready to take the reigns. The Flyers ran into a buzz saw of the NHL's best just before the break, and his numbers have suffered for it (.898 SV%, 2.60 GAA). But Ersson was excellent in November and December, posting a .926 SV% and a .919 SV%, respectively.
Philadelphia got a bit of a reality check after flying high with wins against Winnipeg and Dallas. They were rather easily dismantled by Colorado, Tampa Bay, and Boston. It should serve as a reminder of where they currently stand when pitted against true contenders. But there's reason to be positive; this turnaround wasn't just dumb luck.