Breaking: The Philadelphia Flyers’ identity has been stolen.
While it may seem impossible to rob an organization, the on-ice Flyers are a shell of their former selves, playing without focus, drive, or passion, and the losses are beginning to pile up.
With 24 games remaining in the season and the Flyers sitting just two points out of the playoff picture, there is reason for hope. However, it is incumbent on the Flyers to figure out what has gone wrong in recent weeks, and more importantly, how they can remedy the issue and get back on track.
Let’s backtrack a bit here and recall what the Flyers were expected to be at the beginning of the season. Entering the second year of the Dave Hakstol regime, the Flyers were supposed to be able to build on their aggressive forechecking scheme that they trademarked last year. Through strong physical play along the boards mixed with the finesse brought on by players such as Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, and Shayne Gostisbehere, the Flyers looked well-rounded on paper. Throw in a solid goaltending duo of Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth and the team appeared set to return to the playoffs.
However, things have not gone according to plan. The aforementioned players have struggled this season, often going through various prolonged slumps, rarely putting together a solid string of hockey in a row. This in turn has thrown off the team’s confidence.
For whatever reason these players have been struggling, there is no denying that it has had a massive trickle-down effect on the team. Players like Michael Raffl, Sean Couturier, and Matt Read have had to play larger roles than was initially expected of them, and the results simply have not been there.
This points to problem number one: a lack of depth. Think about some of the best teams in the National Hockey League: the Chicago Blackhawks, the New York Rangers, the Minnesota Wild, the Washington Capitals. These teams have the ability to roll four lines deep, featuring scoring threats from all angles. The Flyers used to be known for their superb secondary scoring, but those times have changed.
How can the Flyers fix this problem? Well, there is no easy solution. The Flyers could try to swing a trade, both to shake up the locker room and to add assets. However, General Manager Ron Hextall has been extremely patient in his development of the Flyers, and a sudden trade would seem to be out of his character. However, it is still an avenue that I would like to see the Flyers at least explore. Many a bubble team has been rejuvenated by a strong trade deadline over the years, after all.
While the players themselves are to blame for the team’s lack of offense, there could also be a problem with the team’s coaching philosophy. Dave Hakstol did an excellent job last season in his first year patrolling an NHL bench, but he has endured a sophomore slump of sorts as a coach this time around. As his players have failed him, Hakstol has resorted to making a few radical decisions to try and jumpstart a return to normalcy.
These decisions included scratching key young players like Shayne Gostisbehere, Travis Konecny, Jordan Weal, and Nick Cousins, while repeatedly playing less-skilled veterans such as Chris VandeVelde and Andrew MacDonald for significant minutes. It is true that sitting a player down for a game to gather his head is a valid approach to getting a player right again, but when there are no clear alternatives and the on-ice performance suffers as a result, this strategy fails to reach the intended consequences.
Hakstol has also stubbornly refused to change his on-ice strategy in the face of adversity. Again, Hakstol’s system worked wonders last season, but even the best teams need to change things up once in a while to keep their opponents on their toes. Hakstol does not have the right players at his disposal to play a speed-driven game, but maybe shifting power play formations or becoming less reliant on point shots and deflections would help generate more offense. The onus now falls on both the coaches and the players to vary their approach and find new ways of creating offense.
The third problem that the Flyers have encountered is a much more intangible issue. The team has simply had no puck luck since the turn of the New Year. The Flyers have scored just 16 goals in 12 games since January 15th, many of those games against backup goaltenders.
The team is still averaging about 30 shots per game and they have had solid possession numbers over this stretch, but the pucks are not going in the net. The team’s 4.52% shooting percentage is obviously going to increase, and if the team keeps playing like they did against the Sharks and Flames, they will score goals. There have also been a few dud games thrown in there too though, including contests against the Islanders and Oilers. Every team goes through power outages, but the Flyers’ has gone on longer than usual.
Ultimately, the Flyers have a host of problems on hand. Their key players haven’t picked up the slack, their coaching has become stale, and they have hit more posts than possibly imaginable this season. Some of these problems can be fixed with hard work, but most of these are simply temporary issues that will be resolved with time. The Flyers of today are largely the same team as they were last season, which could provide a glimmer of hope for the future. But the bottom line remains the same: the Flyers need to locate their identity fast if they want a shot at the playoffs.