It’s difficult to identify a collapsing team before the collapse actually happens, because typically such a team needs not only to have some obvious weak spots, but it generally also needs some unfortunate chance events in those areas to push it over the edge.
The Flyers do have some chinks in crucial places in their metaphorical armour, and for the most part those flaws went unaddressed in a summer during which the team was hampered by its salary-cap situation.
CapGeek.com indicates that the team is nearly $5 million over the ceiling.
As for unfortunate events, Philadelphia is already off to a poor start:
Philadelphia Flyers @NHLFlyers
UPDATE: Claude Giroux will be out approximately two weeks with a lower-body injury, per #Flyers GM Ron Hextall → http://t.co/zn43UXz1CR2014-9-19 17:46:15
Giroux is the team’s offensive engine, a Hart Trophy candidate in 2013-14 who had a 24-point lead on regular linemate Jakub Voracek for the team’s scoring crown. More importantly, he’s a puck-possession monster, as a quick glance at the Flyers’ shot and goal totals last year conveys convincingly:
|Flyers five-on-five numbers, 2013-14|
|With Giroux on the ice||3.31||2.68||55.3%||33.7||30.1||52.8%|
|Without Giroux on the ice||2.16||2.55||45.9%||27.0||31.5||46.2%|
With Giroux on the ice, the Flyers outshoot and outscore their opponents by a wide margin. With him off the ice, they’re just a touch better than last season’s Edmonton Oilers.
That isn’t all Giroux, of course.
He plays with good players, including the aforementioned Voracek, but it is reflective of his importance to the team. Now he’s out for the preseason. In the best-case scenario, he enters the year with a minimum of warm-up opportunity. In the worst-case scenario, this becomes a nagging injury that plagues him all year.
The Giroux injury comes just one day after veteran defenceman Kimmo Timonen confirmed that a blood disorder has put his continued NHL career in extreme jeopardy:
Philadelphia Flyers @NHLFlyers
“My desire is I want to play. But the chances of me playing are really slim. That’s a fact. But I’m ready & waiting to see.” -Kimmo Timonen2014-9-18 19:39:46
The Timonen injury is particularly problematic because it hits the Flyers in a spot where the team was already weak.
Philadelphia’s desire to add a top-tier defenceman to its mix on the back end is well-known. It’s what prompted to the team to add Chris Pronger and later to offer-sheet restricted free agent Shea Weber once injury ended Pronger’s career.
Now the team will lean on Braydon Coburn, advanced-stats train wreck Andrew MacDonald and a collection of middling support players. As we noted in our complete breakdown of the team's defence, that simply isn’t good enough.
Those defensive woes could well exacerbate another potential problem—the one in net. Steve Mason had a great 2013-14, but it will be a few years before skeptics stop talking about what preceded it:
As an aside, that has to be the weirdest stat line I’ve ever seen a goalie post.
Maybe he’s a reversed big dipper and we’ll see years of play at the league-average level he managed last season. It’s entirely possible, however, that he does the same thing to the Flyers as he did to the Blue Jackets when Columbus entrusted him with the No. 1 job.
If Mason falls well below the NHL average again, Philadelphia will combine bad goaltending with a bad defensive corps. It’s not a combination many teams try for.
Those who point out that Mason’s been a different goalie since arriving in Philadelphia have a fair point, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that few No. 1 netminders in the league have proven they have the capacity to single-handedly kneecap a team as thoroughly as Mason.
The Flyers certainly aren’t a guaranteed disaster.
But with the team’s franchise player sidelined for training camp, the defence wobbly and the goaltending uncertain, few 2013-14 playoff teams have as combustible a mix on their roster. With the wrong spark, all of 2014-15 could go up in flames.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.