March 26, 2021
A lot can happen in a month — just ask the Philadelphia Flyers. Heading into March following their 3-0 win over Buffalo on Feb. 28, the Flyers sat at 11-4-3 and boasted the highest winning percentage among their East Division counterparts. That seems like a long, long time ago now as the team has completely driven off the rails the last 14 games.
Playoffs, which seemed like a sure-fire lock four weeks ago, are becoming distant after a 4-9-1 stretch that now has them closer to dropping to the 6th seed in the division — two spots out of the 4th (and final) spot. The team’s general manager, Chuck Fletcher, held a State of the Flyers press conference on Wednesday in which he admitted things aren’t going as he had envisioned, that many of the young players are out of sync, but that he remains optimistic this team has what it takes to make a run.
That was followed up with an embarrassing 8-3 loss on Thursday to the New York Rangers, their fourth straight loss. With all of that considered, the loyal orange and black fan base have become restless, rightfully so, as more and more issues with the organization seem to pop up with each passing game.
So which of these concerns warrant the most credibility? For that, we turn to the Panic-meter for some answers on the team’s biggest question marks…
During his presser, Fletcher said one of his biggest concerns was the team’s goals against. After their 8-3 loss on Thursday, that number has jumped up to 3.66, second highest in the league behind the Ottawa Senators. It’s evident that something is wrong with Carter Hart right now, and after playing solid for much of the season, Brain Elliott, too, has fallen victim to sloppy play this month. Together, the duo have seemingly been a revolving door — quite literally for opposing team’s shots — as they’ve each found themselves pulled from games this month with Hart the latest, after surrendering five goals on 11 shots against the Rangers.
While defensive miscues have really hampered the Flyers’ netminders, there have been some weak goals going by Hart’s glove. Fletcher spoke about how challenging it is for a young guy like Hart to correct issues with mechanics when there is no practice time. Fletcher suggested he’s seen improvements with Hart getting help from goalie coach Kim Dillabaugh and believes he “can get it back during the season,” but after another poor performance, time may be running out on this season.
Hockey is an intricate game, but at its core, it’s pretty simple: score more goals than the other team. Right now, it doesn’t matter how many goals the Flyers can score if their goalies and defense can’t stop anything. The Flyers scored three or more goals in five of their losses this month. That number won’t always win a team a game, but with goaltending like they got last season from this same tandem, three goals is more than enough to pick up a few more wins than losses. With head coach Alain Vigneault having to bench his goalie at an alarming rate, there’s plenty of reasons to begin doubting if this issue will be solved in time for a playoff push.
Now let’s look more big picture here. It's no secret that the Hart of 2021 is not the one fans saw in 2020. The 22-year-old was instrumental in leading the Flyers to the No. 1 seed in the 2019-20 playoffs, and held his own in the bubble with a 2.23 GAA and .926 save percentage.
A little more than six months removed from the end of last season and Hart looks nothing like his former self. The former second round pick has seen his numbers skyrocket from a 2.42 GAA last year to just north of 4.00 this season, the highest total by any goalie with 15 or more appearances in the league. His save percentage has dropped to .869 after climbing near .920 in each of his first two seasons. Even putting the numbers to the side, simply put, the eye test on Hart looks as bad as it possibly could. He is making himself small in net, losing some of his aggressiveness, and appears to have lost his confidence with his glove. Having been pulled from four games this season, Hart’s 2021 downswing has caused many fans to grow concerned about him taking on the mantle as a franchise goalie.
While it looks real bad right now — Hart has yet to post a .900 or higher save percentage in any of his March starts —young goalies are an inexact science. Even the best ones go through rough patches. Hart has put in quality performances in many of his starts over his first two years. The organization has some glaring issues facing them — Hart isn't' one of them. Fletcher backed this up in comparing how other top goalies like Carey Price, Connor Hellebuyck and Marc-Andre Fleury all struggled at points early in their career.
“I believe in Carter,” Fletcher stated. “I believe in his talent and I believe he will be a very good goalie for this franchise for a very long time.”
The Flyers trotted out nearly the same exact team this season as they did last minus one notable starter — Matt Niskanen. While he was applauded during his one year in Philly for being a great partner to Ivan Provorov, little did fans realize just how essential he was to the team as a whole. Niskanen provided a veteran presence and skill that a guy like Justin Braun or Erik Gustafsson simply can’t; he also took on heavy minutes on the top pair and covered up the occasional slip-up by Provorov.
Without him, Provorov has had a revolving door of partners, most recently with Shayne Gostisbehere who is fresh off being benched, which speaks to how head coach Alain Vigneault truly can't place a finger on what to do to solve Niskanen’s absence. The Flyers can't be taken as serious contenders with the defense they currently have, one that is riddled with turnover issues and missed assignments.
Yes, it's that serious of a concern. Guys like Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers are promising players but don't appear ready yet to take that next step necessary for a top pair defenseman. Gostisbehere is limited with what he can do defensively against the other team’s top line. If the Flyers want to get serious about a deep playoff run — heck, even just making the playoffs at this point — Fletcher has to go out and get a guy like Nashville’s Mattias Ekholm or teammate Ryan Ellis to solidify the top pairing and slot the rest of the young defenseman in their proper position.
Like Hart, the Flyers have invested a lot of their future in Patrick becoming a legitimate two-way player and living up to his No. 2 overall selection in the 2017 draft. To this point, injuries have been the defining part of his four-year career, namely during the 2019-20 season in which he was unable to suit up.
Through 32 games this season, the 22-year-old has just six points evenly split between goals and assists. Outside of an impressive shootout goal this season, Patrick has done little to convince fans, or the organization for that matter, that he can ever live up to his first-round billing. Patrick has just one goal since Jan. 28 as five of his six points came over the first seven games.
During his press conference, Fletcher noted that Patrick and Oskar Lindblom are “getting better,” though that is only showing up in the stat sheet for the latter.
“It hasn’t been reflected in the stats necessarily,” Fletcher confirmed, “but I really liked his game recently.”
In regards to Patrick, the level of concern about him is mostly centered on the expectations that come with being a top selection. Considering what the No. 1 overall pick from Patrick’s draft class has done, New Jersey’s Nico Hischier (138 points in 214 career games), it’s fair to be worried about where Patrick’s career is heading. It’s not unimaginable to believe he’s still getting his legs under him after so much time off and that he can become a viable top six forward, but where it stands now, his inconsistencies even prior to his injury, call into question his outlook.
One of the stranger things to come from this shortened-season is the apparent scoring regression of Konecny. He led the squad a year ago with 61 points, 24 of those being goals. It was his third straight season with that goal number. In what’s been a tough season for him, one that included him landing on the COVID-list, Konecny sits at seven goals and 12 assists.
After a fast start to the year, Konecny has just two goals in his last 21 games, causing many fans to wonder what’s going on with the 24-year-old. As Fletcher pointed out, many of the young guys have had difficult times adjusting to life in 2021, specifically with being secluded and not being able to have the usual team camaraderie that occurs in a normal season. Konecny has dealt with some personal things, namely contracting COVID-19 and on a more positive note, becoming a soon-to-be father with his girlfriend.
There’s nothing to be concerned about here, even though some people may be growing worried. The numbers don’t look great right now but over an 82-game pace, Konecny would have 22 goals with 39 assists. Those 61 points would be exactly where he finished last season, which was only 66 games, but would be more than any of his first three seasons which were all 82-game schedules.
When things go south like they have with the Flyers, fans will often look at the leaders of the team. Right now, that attention is being directed at the head coach. Vigneault, in his second season, is not finding success like he did his first go-around. After guiding them to success in the NHL’s bubble last year, he got the team off on the right foot with a 7-2-1 start through the first 10 games. That strong start lasted for another month until March came into play.
Now, the Flyers are on a four-game slide, their longest losing streak of the season. While it’s easy to point the finger at the coach when things aren’t clicking, the way the team is losing and the continued miscuses suggests this is more so on the players than it is anything to do with the system in place.
There may not be another team in the NHL with the coaching experience that stands on the Flyers bench. In addition to the 18 years of head coaching prowess in Vigneault, his assistants, Mike Yeo and Michel Therrien, have a combined 20 years as NHL head coaches. There’s a lot of issues with this team right now, but if the experience that resides in that locker room can’t figure it out, it may have more to do with the players than the coaching.
Since becoming the general manager, Fletcher has been reserved in making any splash moves. The Flyers brought in the former Minnesota Wild GM in at the end of 2018. Since he arrived, his biggest moves have been landing Kevin Hayes, Justin Braun and the now-retired Matt Niskanen.
His largest test comes at this very moment with the Flyers tethering on the outside of the playoff picture, but potentially a top defenseman away from vaulting back into the top four and becoming a viable playoff contender. Fans are eager to see him pull the trigger on a deal before the April 12 trade deadline, though Fletcher seemed to pour some cold water on that when he said not many teams are willing to take on money or term due to the upcoming expansion draft and the flat cap.
It’s still a bit early to judge Fletcher. The team exceeded expectations last season and while he may have overlooked their ability to replace Niskanen this offseason, there’s still optimism that the Flyers can fight for a playoff spot this season. It’s fair to revisit Fletcher’s tenure after the upcoming offseason, which he suggested will be a major reevaluation period. He pointed to the “makeup” of the team not being right and that it’s something they will need to addressed moving forward. While that means remains to be seen, but with an older core, it could mean some of the longer-tenured players’ time could be coming to a close.
Fletcher admitted that the team hasn’t played as well as he expected this season. After securing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference last year, the Flyers stood pat with their roster heading into this year and brought with them expectations that they’d once again be among the conference’s elite.
Back on March 10, the Flyers had +1600 Stanley Cup odds, according to Pa.Unibet.com — 8th best in hockey and 3rd best in the division. As of Friday, those odds have nearly doubled to +3500, 16th best of 31 teams and 5th best in the East.
Entering Friday, the Flyers sit in fifth place and on the outside of the playoff picture. While no month will be as jam-packed as March was for them, April won’t be easy by any stretch. They’ll go toe-to-toe with Boston, a team that they just can’t figure out, three times and a five-day stretch that will see them face Washington twice, Pittsburgh and the New York Islanders.
It’s fair to be very concerned about this team making the playoffs, let alone the Stanley Cup. Maybe it was a little unreasonable to have such big expectations this season considering the gauntlet they would be up against in the stacked East Division, but after the way last season ended — even how they played right before the stoppage — they’re wasn’t any reason to believe they wouldn’t be a serious contender. There’s still some room for hope, though, if Fletcher can work a trade or two to bolster the defense, then it could propel them back into the top four and as hockey fans know, all it takes is making the playoffs for any team to get hot and make a deep run.
|Top 2 Defensemen||10/10|
|Stanley Cup hopes||8/10|
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