In a city that is no stranger to rebuilding, the Flyers came into this season with limited expectations. Sure, Nolan Patrick would bring some excitement. The defense would suffer some growing pains as all teams do when youth is infused. The coach would grow with the young talent and learn from last year’s constant meddling with the line combinations. The talk would center around the young foundation, instead of around the young foundation being stratched every other night. The hope entering this year didn’t necessarily revolve around wins and losses.
Here we are about a third of the way into an already up and down season. The wheels have completely fallen off the track during a ten game winless streak. Just when you can’t take anymore, they suck you back in. A west coast trip has the orange and black doing a complete 180 and streaking in the right direction. Are the fans any more comfortable? Another season of volatility. The excruciatingly painful losing streak would be easier to swallow if it was simply the result of growing pains from having a young team. Fans would welcome Oskar Lindblom’s growing pains, or Sammy Morin taking inopportune penalties while paving away Brian Elliot’s front yard. Instead, it just feels like a team completely out of sync for the second straight year. Our beloved GM Ron Hextall declares the challenges “inconsistency”. To be perfectly candid, for the second straight year, they are consistently average and devoid of chemistry.
In Philadelphia, the hockey fanbase has developed a reputation for being overly optimistic and patient. To see this fanbase, screaming for changes at this point in Hextall’s reign, should be alarming for the organization. The GM has publically minimized the issues by characterizing their recent unhinging last month as shooting themselves in the foot. Falsely representing that a simple dose of time and maturity will transcend this team into a contender. Despite the three-game win streak, the city is left with an all too familiar roller coaster ride of a season. Another one that most likely fails to leave them comfortable with the direction of the team at season’s end.
The Flyers may be their own worst enemy. As with most underperforming franchises, there are multiple reasons or forces in play that are causing the Flyers rebuild to remain stagnant. The Flyers have nowhere to look but within, and just as there are multiple reasons for their current state, there may need to be multiple solutions, but let’s start behind the bench.
Dave Hakstol has become public enemy number one
Flyers fans are frightened of the eerie parallels being drawn from Hakstol’s move to the NHL to the city’s most hated ex-coach in Chip Kelly’s jump from Oregon to the Eagles. Hakstol made the leap from the college to the pros and raised eyebrows on several occasions along the way. Hired to develop the younger players on the team, Hakstol has struggled to maximize the production of the young talent so far. In fact, he has shown a propensity to lean heavy on a few questionable veterans of this team, which simply are not talented enough to take the Flyers to the next step.
The coach drew criticism for his stratch-happy approach to the core kids last season, but my biggest concerns seem to be how the veterans lack accountability. Jordan Weal’s two-game timeout was refreshing, but there are plenty other veterans making too many mistakes without repercussions. The long-term goal is to foster a winning culture for the young foundation to grow congruently in. The balance of accountability will be a big piece of how productive that environment is. Right now there are big questions and few answers.
Ron Hextall has been steadfast in his unwavering support for his coach. This stance gives the Flyers loyal supporters a glimmer of hope that perhaps Hakstol will soon evolve in his own right. His dart throwing approach to the lines has paid off in the emergence recent of Michael Raffl. The spark is directly attributed to moving him up the second line and pairing him with a prolific playmaker like Jake Voracek. Hakstol made the adjustment and stopped white knuckling the only productive line the Flyers had the first quarter of the season.
It’s progress, but it’s very slow progress. You would like to see those adjustments without a ten game winless streak forcing them. You would like to see improvement from Shayne Gostisbehere and Travis Sanheim. After all, Hextall’s first order in rebuilding this roster was to improve the defense. Again, Hakstol appears to use tough love with Ghost and lean heavily on veterans during critical times. Is Dave Hakstol the man you want the prized pieces of your franchise being developed under? It appears Hakstol bought himself this season, but it’s going to be the play of Konecny, Gostisbehere, and Patrick that should determine his future.
There has been much talk about the core of this team dating back to last season when trading Giroux was all the rage. Those takes didn’t age well as the Flyer’s captain is enjoying a tremendous season, fueled by his unselfish switch to wing. The move has catapulted Couturier into a 1C role and unleashed his offensive potential. Giroux or Giroux “wearing the C” was never the problem with the core. However, that doesn’t mean that we won’t see another Schenn type deal in the future, ousting a beloved veteran. It just won’t be the captain.
Wayne Simmonds continues to be the Flyers most valuable asset. Simmonds is a hard-nosed Flyers throwback, who fans in the city of Brotherly Love can relate to. To be 100% clear, Simmonds is a guy that does everything right. Even when he is wrong by playing hurt, you have to admire him. However, is he is in the Flyers future? With one season left of team friendly deal, now is the time to move Simmonds. Teams like the Boston Bruins have expressed interest, and I think Hextall has to pull the trigger if he doesn’t plan on locking up “Wayne Train” long-term. Hextall is in a tough spot here because Simmond’s leadership will surely be missed by a team that can definitely use it.
Jake Voracek isn’t going anywhere. The first player in the NHL with 30 assists, Voracek also ranks top five in overall scoring. A dynamic playmaker whose play translates to any pairing can also drive you crazy with his defensive lapses. He is the Ying and the Yang. A true microcosm of the seasonal roller coaster ride Flyers fans forcibly strap themselves into every fall. He is a very influential part of this team, without being a natural leader. The most frustrating traits of this Flyer’s team can directly be attributed to Vorachek.
The pass-first mentality that makes Voracek one of the greats, is also responsible for me screaming “SHOOT THE PUCK” at my TV as his teammates try a little too hard to emulate one of Jake’s perfect passes. The team was also highly criticized for their mental fragility and defensive breakdowns during their recent slide. Vorachek let his frustrations and a concerning level of apathy show, that appeared to cascade through the team on a nightly basis. There is too much positive with Vorachek to part ways with, evidenced by his impact on the ice that sparked the team’s turnaround. It’s really up to Hakstol to create a stronger culture for him to succeed in, and how the young core is developed will determine his success. Parting with Simmonds will only make that tougher.
Is the ride over yet?
Where does this leave the Flyers? The same place they were last year. An average team, led by a coach who needs to show quick improvement, with a bright future that can’t get here fast enough. Morgan Frost and Carter Hart are giving fans reason to believe in their GM, despite his willingness to die on Hakstol Hill. Players like Shayne Gostisbehere and Travis Konecny will need to progress over the last two-thirds of the season. Hakstol has to prove he has the tools to develop them into solid players on both sides of the ice.
There is a lot of positive, but not a lot of patience. It’s almost as if Flyer’s fans can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but are resigned to it dimming out before they can get there. They are tired of looking to the future. Watching teams like the rival New Jersey Devils draft Nico Hischier and speed right by us in the standings doesn’t help.
The Sixers, their roommates at the Wells Fargo Center, have outshined the orange and black in their rebuilding efforts as well. Despite both teams hovering around .500, the Sixers are considered to be much further along. Granted, it’s a true apples and oranges comparison. Basketball players are on the floor way more than hockey players are on the ice, so adding a few young stars will certainly impact your team’s fortunes quicker on the hardwood.
However, you can’t help but feel like the Flyer’s version of the process leaves the city feeling like it’s been frozen in time. The last two-thirds of the season won’t be about wins and losses. It will again be about the development of the young talent. Can Hextall put enough heat on Hakstol to thaw out the cold shoulder he has given to his young stars? We have a little bit more than 50 games to find out, and whether it’s with the coach or not, it’s going to take some big changes to see significant progress. Patience has been provided. It’s up to Hextall to make sure Flyers fans aren’t left out in the cold.
Photo credits: nbcsports.com;sonsofpenn.com;thecomeback.com