By: Wes Herrmann (@Wes_Herrm)
For the Philadelphia Flyers, rivals have never been hard to come by.
The New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers were fierce inter-division opponents in the late ’90s and early 2000’s. The mid-to-late 2000s ushered in the Washington Capitals, but more importantly, re-ignited the Pittsburgh Penguins as Philly’s biggest rival .
Today, all four teams are still rivals, but the franchises are at different places. The Capitals, Rangers and Penguins are still contenders, but will probably be fading away in the next three to five years. The Devils are rebuilding after several years of mediocrity and their future contending years aren’t clearly visible at this point.
The Flyers, on the other hand, are pulling out of a short retooling/rebuilding. In the next three to five years, the team will hope to reach levels that haven’t been seen in decades.
But that means the Flyers’ usual rivals will be at different points in their identity. Instead, Philadelphia’s newest rival could be one unseen before, the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Flyers and Hurricanes are not rivals — at least looking back in NHL history. They’ve never met in a playoff series since the Canes moved to North Carolina from Hartford and the teams have only been in the same division for the past four years.
But the on-ice products and team make-ups are too much to ignore.
Both teams have franchise legends as general managers; Ron Francis in Carolina and Ron Hextall in Philadelphia, coaches with no prior affiliation to the organization and a dedication to building through the defense.
For the next decade, one of the most prominent discussions will be whether the Flyers or the Hurricanes have the best defense in the league. Even today, the polls section of hockey sites like HFBoards has polls for which team has the better defense.
For the Hurricanes, most of their stalwart defenders are already on the roster. Jaccob Slavin is considered one of the best young defensemen in the game, Brett Pesce just wrapped up his second season and 2015 fifth overall Noah Hanifin scored 29 points in 81 games last season. And that’s all without mentioning Justin Faulk.
But the best part for Carolina is that all of them, besides Hanifin, are locked up for at least the next three seasons at under $5.3 million a year. Slavin (23 years old) and Pesce’s (22 years old) contracts won’t expire until after the 2024-25 and 2023-24 seasons, respectively.
However, the Canes’ pipeline isn’t done there. They still have Haydn Fleury and Jake Bean, former first round picks, and Roland McKeown, a second round selection, in the minors.
Fleury and Bean will become common comparisons and contradictions to Philly’s Travis Sanheim for years to come. Sanheim and Fleury were both picked in the first round of the 2014 draft, while Sanheim and Bean were teammates and defensive partners on the Calgary Hitmen in juniors. Bean was chosen the year after the Flyers’ prospect, and four spots higher in his respective draft.
Sanheim is a strong representation of the rest of Philadelphia’s defense: young and unproven. While the Hurricanes boast Faulk, Slavin, Pesce and Hanifin, the Flyers can only match with Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov as young regular NHL contributors.
Instead, it’s potential that’s carrying the Flyers’ defense at this point. From Sanheim to Sam Morin to Robert Hagg to Philippe Myers, the team is banking on the possible future impact of its blueliners, unlike the Hurricanes.
Of course, there’s plenty of reason to believe most of those prospects will hit high on their respective potential, but if this an arms race among defensemen, it’s clear that the Hurricanes are solidly in the lead.
At offense, it’s a little tougher to judge. Carolina has the lead in young players making an impact with Victor Rask, Teuvo Teravainen, Elias Lindholm and Sebastian Aho among its ranks. Jeff Skinner is also still just 25 years old, despite seven NHL seasons on his resume.
The Flyers, though, have the edge in established NHL veterans in Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek and Wayne Simmonds. They also have Sean Couturier, Jordan Weal and Travis Konecny among their 25-and-under ranks, but it’s at the prospect level where things get interesting.
Philadelphia could catch its Metropolitan foe in young, impact forwards next season with Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom ready to contribute. The organization also has German Rubtsov, Morgan Frost, Pascal Laberge, Isaac Ratcliffe, and Wade Allison as prospects with first-or-second round pedigree within the last two drafts.
But if there’s one thing that should have been learned so far, it’s don’t count out the Hurricanes. In the past two seasons they’ve drafted forwards Julien Gauthier, Martin Necas, Eetu Luostarinen and Janne Kuokkanen all in the first two rounds.
In net, the Hurricanes hope to have their answer for years to come in Scott Darling. The Flyers have two stopgaps in Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth, but hope that at least one of Carter Hart, Felix Sandstrom or Anthony Stolarz can finally bring some long-term stability in goal.
With all that depth and all those prospects, the Flyers and ‘Canes are preparing to be contenders within less than five years. However, the rivalry could start as soon as next season. With the Hurricanes improving through trades and free agency this summer and the Flyers preparing to welcome a glut of prospects, both teams should be in contention for one of the last playoff spots come April.
If everything goes to plan for both teams, next season will just be the start of playoff contention — and more. Before either team can reach the ultimate goal of the Stanley Cup, though, they’ll likely have to go through each other, setting up a rivalry for years to come.
Image Credit: Jennifer C./Flickr