Before the conclusion of Friday’s game against the New York Islanders, this was going to be a very positive article. The Philadelphia Flyers seemed to have a different feel to them. Danik Martel had given the team a boost with his speed, creativity and scrappiness. Samuel Morin gave the team a physical edge that it was lacking. Nolan Patrick played perhaps his best game of the year and showed some great chemistry with both Martel and Wayne Simmonds.
But the more things change the more they stay the same. For the third time in their last five games, the Flyers blew a two-goal lead and suffered their seventh straight loss. It’s a tired, old , worn out script. It’s not something that is unique to this year’s Club either.
For the past four or five years, the Flyers have been a team that doesn’t handle adversity well. They have been a team who when everything is clicking and going their way , they look like world-beaters. But when one little thing goes against them, they fold.
Friday’s game against the Islanders was a microcosm of what the Flyers have been over the last 4 or 5 years. After an uneven first period, the Flyers exploded in the second period to take a 4-2 lead. But, after a few non calls didn’t go their way and the Islanders scored to make it a one-goal game, you just got the sense that the Flyers were not going to win this game. And sure enough they did not. It’s to the point now where it is infuriating.
So we are now searching for answers as to why the Flyers have fallen back into this vicious cycle. The lazy narrative by the fans is to blame the coach. Have you ever been down to a game, and when the Flyers are on the power play you have fans screaming SHOOT!!! even though there is nobody in front of the net and there’s no shot to be had? Well I equate that to these fans who always want to blame the coach.
John Stevens wasn’t emotional enough behind the bench. (Sound familiar?) Meanwhile he has coached a Los Angeles Kings team that was supposed to be rebuilding to one of the best records in the NHL. Peter Laviolette “lost the team”. What did he do with the Nashville Predators last year? He took them to the Stanley Cup finals. Everybody tried to say that if the Flyers could just get rid of Craig Berube, with the “talent” that they had they would be a playoff team. And maybe they could make a run in the playoffs. Well here we are a few years later and the Flyers have not advanced past the first round of the playoffs since 2012.
So what has been the one constant with this team over the last 4 or 5 years. The answer is the veteran core. Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Michael Rafl, Sean Courtier. That has been the one constant on this team. The coaches have changed, the GM has changed, the Flyers have brought in a slew of young players over the last 2 years. Yet the Flyers are still the same inconsistent team that doesn’t know how to play a full 60 minutes that they have always been over the last several years.
In years past, I saw the Flyers as a team who got to the playoffs as a result of overachieving. The talent level on their team wasn’t playoff-caliber. The teams in 2014 and 2016 had no business making the playoffs with the roster that they had. Hence the reason why I thought the fans blaming the coaches for the Flyers not doing better was ridiculous. Coaching wasn’t the problem. It was the Flyers lack of talent.
But when you compare the talent on this year’s Flyers team with the team that went to the playoffs in 2014, the talent level on this team is head-and-shoulders above that one. Gone are the likes of Braydon Coburn, Kimo Timonen at the end of his career, Vincent Lecavalier , Mark Street, Luke Schenn, Zac Rinaldo, Nicholas Grossman and Chris Vandevelde and in are younger, more talented players like Ivan Provorov, Shayne Gostisbehere, Robert Haag, Travis Konecny, Scott Laughton, Taylor Leir, Nolan Patrick and Travis Sanheim.
So with all of these factors, the Flyers should be an improved team. But they are not. Granted they are young and growing pains should be expected. That is understandable and forgivable. Samuel Morin had a bad giveaway on the Islanders second goal. Rookie mistake that he will learn from. He was also caught too far up ice on the Islanders first goal. Again something he can learn from.
But when guys like Shayne Gostisbehere, Jake Voracek and Brandon Manning all make mental mistakes where they blow coverages and leave guys wide open that cost the team games, that is inexcusable.
Like I alluded to earlier though, the Flyers problems go deeper than simple things like blown coverages. They are and have been a team that doesn’t handle adversity well. They are a team that doesn’t know how to make their own breaks. They don’t know how to turn the tide when another team is dominating play. They don’t have any push back. The only times they ever come back from deficits is because a lucky break will go their way and they score a goal and they get momentum from that.
This happens a lot in hockey. A team will get a break and it turns the momentum of the game around. But you can’t always just sit back and wait for something to go your way in order to regain momentum. You need to find a way to spark your team and get the momentum back in your favor. Whether it be with a big hit, or a fight, or a dazzling play. You have to find a way to make your own breaks. Even if it’s something as simple as just simplifying your play and getting pucks to the net, you need to find a way to shift the momentum of the game. The Flyers don’t know how to do this. And they haven’t known how to do that for the last 5 Years.
And with all of this being said, this is the reason why the veteran core is to blame and it is why it needs to be changed. Long-term, the Flyers are still on the right track. They have a lot of promising young players both at the NHL level and in their system. But as long as this leadership group is in place, this team is never going to learn how to win games. They are a team that does not hate to lose as much as they should. They just take it all in stride. The Flyers need to trade one of their core players to change the chemistry of this team. Plain and simple.
And even though Dave Hakstol isn’t the main culprit since he hasn’t been here as long as the veteran core has, he is not free from blame by any stretch of the imagination.
Flyers fans like to complain about the fact that he isn’t emotional enough behind the bench. That he doesn’t have enough fire in his belly. As much as I love the Philadelphia fans, this complaint really gets old after a while. I love a fiery coach as much as anybody. Larry Bowa was my favorite Phillie growing up as a kid. But he wasn’t necessarily a good manager. John Stevens never showed any emotion behind the Flyers bench but now the Kings have one of the best records in the NHL under his tutelage. Scotty Bowman, perhaps the greatest coach in NHL history, very rarely showed emotion behind the bench.
So even though it might be a source of irritation to the Philadelphia fans, Dave Hakstol not showing a lot of emotion behind the bench isn’t the problem. The problem is his reluctance to give young players ice time in important situations.
When Mike Keenan took over the Flyers in the 1984-85 season, the youngest team in the NHL at the time, he would always put young players out on the ice during key times in the hockey game. This instilled confidence in them because the coach believed enough in them to put them out in those types of situations. Even if they made a mistake, Keenan put them right back out there the next time a situation like that came up. The result was they became better, more confident players. And this was a big reason why the Flyers went to the Stanley Cup finals even though nobody in the league expected it.
Dave Hakstol does just the opposite. When the game is on the line, he decreases the amount of ice time the young players get and he increases the ice time of the veterans. Even if the young players are outperforming the veterans. These young players are not going to get any better if they are not getting any ice time.
After his two undisciplined penalties that cost the Flyers the game against the Calgary Flames, and then after his blown coverage against the New York Islanders on the night before Thanksgiving in Brooklyn that cost the Flyers yet another game, it’s understandable that Hakstol would want to send Ghost a message by not playing him in the overtime against the Islanders on Friday.
But was Brandon Manning really a suitable replacement for Ghost in the OT? He had the second most ice time behind Only Ivan Provorov in the second game against the Islanders yet he was a minus 2. He made a glaring mistake on the Islanders second goal where he chased the puck carrier behind the net and left Andrew Ladd wide open in front of the Flyers net.
So with all this being said how did Brandon Manning warrant getting a shift in the three-on-three overtime? When asked why he went to Brandon Manning, Dave Hackstol’s response was because he was a veteran. The fact that he was a veteran didn’t stop him from being a -2 and it didn’t stop him from making an egregious mistake on the Islanders second goal. So how does him being veteran make him more deserving of ice time?
Wouldn’t it have made a lot more sense to give that ice time to somebody like Travis Sanheim, somebody who’s contract is not expiring after this year like Brandon Manning’s is and who is going to be here for the next 10 to 15 years? Brandon Manning keeps making the same mistakes over and over again. So how does that cause the coach to have more faith in him just because he is a veteran? The fact that he is a veteran isn’t helping you win games. So why not give the ice time to a young player who if he does make a mistake will grow as a result of it?
The Flyers second line of Martell, Patrick and Simmonds was the Flyers Best Line in regards to puck possession and shots for/ shots against numbers. Yet as the game wore on, Hakstol used them less and less. Meanwhile he used the third line of Valtteri Filpula, Travis Konecny and Michael Rafl more and more. The reason being? Because the Flyers had a two-goal lead and that is a veteran line.
This is a case of coaching scared. And that is a sure-fire way to lose hockey games. He decreased the ice time of a line that was dominating in favor of a line that wasn’t just because it consisted of mostly guys who had been in the NHL for a longer time.
Experience doesn’t always lead to sound fundamental play. Over the last two games, Brandon Manning, Shayne Gostisbehere and Jake Voracek made ghastly mistakes that cost the team games. Dave Hakstol should have been looking at what players were the most effective. Not ones who played in the NHL for the longest time. But he didn’t do that.
Right from the first game of the season when he sat both Samuel Morin and Travis Sanheim, Hackstol has shown a reluctance to put his trust in young players in favor of going with a more veteran-laden lineup. Having a coach who wants to keep playing veteran players over the young players on a team that is rebuilding is not a good mix.
If the Flyers are going to return to the status of Stanley Cup contenders, it is going to be because the young players in their system develop in to bona fide NHL players. And this can’t happen with a coach who won’t play these young players and allow them to develop.
The coach and the GM don’t seem to be on the same page. The GM’s philosophy has always been to allow guys to develop in the minors but once they come up to the NHL, they should play Big minutes. He has said it a million times that it doesn’t do a player any good to come up to the NHL level and only play 10 minutes of game.
Yet that is exactly what Dave Hakstol has been doing. Hextall will promote players like Travis Sanheim, Danik Martel and Samuel Morin to the NHL level only to have Hakstol play them for limited minutes.
So for the Flyers to turn things around not just for this year but also when it comes to their long-term prognosis, a few things are going to have to happen. Number one they need to break up the veteran core and change the chemistry of this team. This core has been together for several years now and this is still a team that is lacking when it comes to character.
These players like to talk a good game and say that they’re going to battle and try and fight through it. But it’s one thing to say it and it’s another to actually do it out on the ice. This team has failed time and again to do it out on the ice. A change in the team’s chemistry is badly needed. The last thing you want is the young players coming up through the system to learn bad habits from these veterans who don’t take losing hard enough. And the only way that is going to change is for one of these core players to get traded.
And something needs to be done with the coach. One of two things needs to happen. Either he needs to go in favor of a coach who is going to have faith in and instill confidence in the young players on this team. Or Ron Hextall has to have a sit-down with Dave Hackstol and let him know that he needs to start giving these young players more significant minutes. Until one or both of these things happens, it’s going to be more of the same old same old. And that’s unacceptable.