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April 04, 2017

Flyers remain on track despite disappointing season – unless …

The Flyers season is bumping along in its final stages. Eliminated from the playoffs at the beginning of the final week of the season, there are logical questions arising about just where the organization stands in terms of future success.

There should be no doubt that this 2016-17 season was a disappointment, but the lack of a playoff spot really doesn’t do much to damage the longer-term expectations.

Wind back to the beginnings of this season and realize that it was reasonable to suggest the Flyers were touch-and-go to make the postseason. However, given the way the season played out for some of the clubs around them, the Flyers should have been able to squeak in.

The Flyers had the luxury of a season that was virtually free of injury to their main characters. Captain Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, and Jake Voracek have been available every game and Brayden Schenn missed just a few due to suspension.

The Flyers had the advantage of the two conference teams in Florida having unexpectedly bad seasons.

And they had a 10-game winning streak, a sequence that seems inconceivable at this point. Those 20 points should have given the Flyers a margin of error that would have supported them from January until the end of the season.

But they did not.

On the plus side, the Flyers benefitted from an amazing rookie season turned in by Ivan Provorov, who has also played every game. By the midpoint of the season Provorov had established himself as the team’s best defenseman and the player all other defensemen turned to when under duress.

In a real quirk, the Flyers also have two of the NHL’s top power-play goal scorer in Schenn (17 power-play goals) and Simmonds (16 power-play goals), and yet the power play failed at times – along with the penalty-killing unit, helping to pave a trail out of the postseason.

So, despite poor seasons by some teams they were supposed to be chasing, despite a remarkable 10-game winning streak, and despite a fabulous season by a rookie defenseman, and despite a pair of power play monsters, the Flyers still fell very short.

The biggest culprits were Giroux and Voracek. The two lead horses simply did not pull the weight they were relied upon to carry. The Flyers had better hope that Giroux’s problems were caused by a slow recovery from hip surgery and that he returns to form next season, and that Voracek gets his game back by next fall.

Because without the veterans providing a base of support on the ice for the kids, that long-range plan will take a major hit.

Then too, there is the matter of the goaltenders as neither Steve Mason nor Michal Neuvirth had strong seasons.

There were periods when Mason was impressive, but he was not consistent enough to earn a contract offer from the club and will likely depart after this season as a free agent.

In the cold, hard facts of statistics, the Flyers goalies have save percentages well below par as Neuvirth hits the final stretch at .891, the worst of any goalie in the NHL with more than 20 starts, and with Mason at a hardly elite .907.

Thus, the future will certainly have to include one of the Flyers goalie prospects, just as the future will depend heavily upon a few of their young prospects in defense, including recently recalled Sam Morin.

That young defense certainly got boost with the play of Provorov who appears to be the real deal, and the resurgence of Shayne Gostisbehere, who recently has found flashes of his rookie season brilliance. Like Giroux, part of Ghost’s problems early in the season could have been attributed to last summer’s hip surgery, but part of it was also likely to be a result of coach Dave Hakstol stressing defense.

In the long run, Gostisbehere certainly needed to get better on his end of the ice, but his true value is his willingness to take some chances and be creative on the offensive end.

If you take a closer look at the Flyers’ season, their biggest success occurred early in the schedule, when they were scoring an average of more than three goals a game. But because of leaky goaltending and defensive plays, every game was an adventure.

Part of Hakstol’s job description when hired was to bring along the young players and have them play a so-called 200-foot game, but the Flyers appeared to have far more success when the reigns were taken off a player such as Ghost. In the long run, there surely has to be a dedication to defense, but in this season, that approach cost the Flyers in terms of desperate play.

This should not be confused with effort. Instead, there was a hesitance on the part of a gameplan to let the forecheckers loose to push the play offensively. That desperation finally took hold after a key loss late in the season to Winnipeg – and the Flyers have been much more aggressive since then.

On balance, Hakstol has done a good job of managing a roster with many holes on defense, a lack of scoring punch and middle-of-the-road goaltending at best.

Hakstol was very careful with rookie Travis Konecny who, like Gostisbehere, found himself stapled to the bench after some shoddy defensive efforts and has temporarily been placed on the fourth line.

The Flyers are in dire need of some offensive sizzle, and Konecny is the type of player who should be able to provide some of that. The lessons of defensive play are vital, but not at the risk of handcuffing his offensive skill.

The defense needs a right-handed shot or two beyond Radko Gudas, but any discussion of that position involves high hopes for their crop of young players.

The problem in that long-term view is that there are so many brilliant young players in the NHL right now, especially in Toronto and Buffalo, where Jack Eichel is about to emerge as a superstar, the Flyers now have to look at their kids as “musts” to be successful in order to just to keep pace.

No doubt, this season was a disappointment, but the overall plan didn’t take much of a hit. But if the kids aren’t as good as the Flyers expect, there is real trouble ahead.