On May 26, Gary Bettman announced the NHL’s return-to-play plan. He also declared that the 2019-20 regular season is now officially complete. That wrapped up a year where fans saw the Philadelphia Flyers’ improvement under first-year head coach Alain Vigneault.

Officially, the Flyers finished fourth in the Eastern Conference with a record of 41-21-7. They earned 89 points in 69 games and posted a .645 winning percentage.

True to form, Vigneault improved his team all over the ice. In 2018-19, the team finished 11th in the East with 82 points and a record of 37-37-8 (.500 winning percentage). Vigneault’s team delivered more wins in fewer games and turned a minus-37 goal differential into a plus-36. That was fourth-best in the league, behind only the Boston Bruins (+53), Tampa Bay Lightning (+50) and Colorado Avalanche (+46).

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Better Scoring Balance

For just the third time in the last decade, Claude Giroux didn’t finish the year as the Flyers’ leading scorer. Travis Konecny, 23, took the team scoring title with a career-high 61 points. He finished in a tie for 32nd in the NHL scoring race, but overall the Flyers had the seventh-best offensive squad, averaging 3.29 goals per game.

Last time the Flyers went to the playoffs in 2017-18, the team leaned heavily on Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier for scoring. The Penguins advanced by neutralizing them, although Couturier went down swinging. After tearing his MCL in practice midway through the series, Couturier kept the Flyers alive when he came back to score the winning goal in Game 5. Then, he had a five-point night as his team was eliminated by a score of 8-5 in Game 6.

The big three regularly skated together at five-on-five this season, but Vigneault has constructed a more balanced roster. The top line is now seeing less than 20 minutes of ice time per game, as well as some changes in deployment.

For the first time in his career, 2018 Selke Trophy finalist Couturier started more than half his shifts in the offensive zone. He hit a career high as he led the NHL with a staggering faceoff win rate of 59.7 percent. Also, Couturier was on track for 26 goals and 70 points when the season was paused, even though his ice time was cut by more than two minutes a game this year.

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Help From Hayes

Couturier and new arrival Kevin Hayes also serve as the key forwards on the Flyers’ penalty kill, which improved from 26th in 2018-19 to 11th best this year.

Vigneault coached Hayes for four seasons with the New York Rangers. When the Flyers signed the big center to a seven-year, $50-million contract last June, the coach knew exactly what he was getting.

In Philadelphia, Hayes’ deployment mirrors how he was used in New York. He averaged 17:44 per game, playing in all situations. Hayes’ 41 points in 69 games with the Flyers this year were right in his typical range. With 23 goals, he was two away from matching his career high of 25. Also, his four power-play markers matched up with another four scored shorthanded.

Hayes’ natural exuberance has also brought a new energy to the Flyers’ locker room.

League-Best Shot Suppression

On the back end, the Flyers improved from a third-worst 3.41 goals per game last season to 2.77 this season. That tied them with Tampa Bay for seventh best. Forty-one mostly solid games of work from super sophomore Carter Hart were a big help. But Vigneault’s tight defensive system saw Philadelphia’s goalies face a league-low 28.7 shots per game this season, down from 32.5 last year.

Credit for that goes to the strong defensive work of the forwards and to the Flyers’ top defensive pair. After joining the Flyers via a trade from the Washington Capitals last summer, veteran Matt Niskanen was outstanding. He also helped his partner, 23-year-old Ivan Provorov, advance his game to the next level.

Next, we’ll see if the Philadelphia Flyers’ improvement translates to the playoffs. The club hasn’t won a round since beating Pittsburgh back in 2012.

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