Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Evaluating the Flyers two years into the Dave Hakstol era

While the Flyers still have two games left in their season, after being eliminated from playoff contention on Sunday night following a 4-3 loss at Madison Square Garden to the New York Rangers, the team has already turned the page to 2017-18. Defenseman Samuel Morin and center Mike Vecchione made their NHL debuts last night in a 1-0 overtime loss in Newark against the New Jersey Devils.  The offseason will start early for the Flyers and their head coach Dave Hakstol who will finish his second season behind the bench on Sunday at home against the Carolina Hurricanes. So what went wrong?

For starters, this season was nothing short of a disappointment. The goaltending was inconsistent all year long whether it was Steve Mason or Michal Neuvirth between the pipes. There would be times when Mason looked like the goalie the Flyers rode into the playoffs down the stretch last year and occasionally Neuvirth showed flashes of how well he played in the postseason against the Washington Capitals in 2016. But these times were few and far between and there were several nights in which the Flyers played better than the score indicated thanks in large part to a couple of soft goals allowed. The defense was consistently bad for the most part. The Flyers allowed close to three goals per game this season and certainly not all of that can be traced back to the goalies. Offensively, the team was very hot and cold but ultimately not hot enough as indicated by the team’s current -18 goal differential with two games to go. In a division with four teams finishing with at least 100 points, the lack of consistency night in and night out plagued the Flyers and left them on the outside looking in.

                                                                    Yong Kim/
There’s no doubt that this is a step backwards for the organization and that the Flyers underachieved for most of this season. At best, the team will finish with 89 points this year after its 96-point season one year ago was good enough to get them into the playoffs. But the bigger question is how much has this season altered the long-term trajectory of the franchise? When Hakstol was hired, it was probably realistic to think the team would make the playoffs in one of his first two seasons given they had missed the playoffs in 2014-15, which led to the dismissal of Craig Berube. In 2014-15, the Flyers finished with 84 points. If this season’s point total in the upper 80s had been last season’s point total and last season’s 96 points and a playoff berth were what the Flyers finished with this year, many fans likely would have felt at ease with the team’s direction. But of course, that’s not what happened.

While the team took a step back, this season is not one worth overreacting to. The roster almost mirrored last year’s roster and last year’s team waited until its 81st game to clinch a playoff berth. Expectations were that they would likely sneak in as one of the Eastern Conference wild cards again. There were some obvious red flags that contributed to the regression beginning with what was largely considered a sophomore slump season for defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. Although Gostisbehere appears to be ending the year strong, he was invisible for a good chunk of the year and certainly did not give the Flyers the spark he provided in his rookie season last year. The captain Claude Giroux saw his numbers dip as well and will finish with his lowest point total in an 82-game season since the 2009-10 campaign. With two games left, Giroux’s plus/minus is currently -15 which would stand to be a career low. Hakstol also made some head-scratching lineup decisions this year. Rather than letting Gostisbehere play through his slump, Hakstol opted to make “Ghost” a healthy scratch on numerous occasions this year. While Gostisbehere did not have a good season, he was certainly a better lineup option than most of the defenseman Hakstol had at his disposal. Rookie forward Travis Konecny was also healthy scratched multiple times this season. As a result, Hakstol continued to roll out subpar players like Chris VandeVelde, Nick Schultz and Andrew MacDonald on a nightly basis.

But it wasn’t all bad for the Flyers this season. After all, they’ll still finish over .500. Wayne Simmonds was one of the bright spots as the right winger posted his second consecutive 30-goal season. Simmonds and Brayden Schenn will both finish the season in the NHL’s top five in power play goals. Jakub Voracek posted his third 60-point season of his career. Valtteri Filppula has five goals in 18 games since being traded to the Flyers from Tampa Bay where he had just seven goals in the 59 games. Despite being just 20 years old, Ivan Provorov was the team’s best defenseman. Konecny showed flashes of the electric playmaker he can be for the team in the future and 24-year-old forward Jordan Weal came on strong in the second half. General manager Ron Hextall has stressed patience to fans and the media as he collects prospects. The Lehigh Valley Phantoms are on the brink of their first playoff berth since 2009 and several of the team’s prospects that are not AHL eligible have had good seasons with their junior hockey clubs.

While it’s obvious and understandable to be upset with the way this season unfolded, the Flyers are still on the right path. Chances are Gostisbehere is somewhere in between what he was last year and what he was this year. Giroux had a bad year but to say he’s finished at age 29 seems premature. Questions about whether Hakstol is the right man to stand behind the bench moving forward are fair to ask, but he’s not on the hot seat. Hextall made a bold move in hiring Hakstol from the University of North Dakota in 2015 and it’s simply too early to cut the cord. The Flyers should improve next year as more of their prospects filter up to the NHL. If they don’t, then conversations about Hakstol and the team’s trajectory become much more concerning. But given the way things have gone for all of Philadelphia’s professional teams recently, one more year of patience for the team that most recently made the playoffs can’t hurt, right?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

What to watch for in the NCAA Tournament’s Regional Weekend

The second weekend of the big dance is here. The Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC all have three schools competing in regional semifinals taking place tonight and tomorrow. Yet, the ACC, which was the country’s best conference from start to finish in the regular season this year, has just North Carolina left in the tournament. We are also without two number two seeds and the number one overall seed as the second weekend tips off. It’s not called madness for nothing. Here are some things I’m looking for in each region this weekend.

Midwest: The first game of the Sweet 16 gets started tonight in Kansas City featuring the red-hot Michigan Wolverines and the Oregon Ducks. It’s been easy to cheer for John Beilein’s team over the last two weeks after a plane crash nearly prevented Michigan from competing in the Big 10 tournament two weeks ago in the nation’s capital. The Wolverines then reeled off four wins in four days to earn the conference’s automatic bid, won what might have been the most exciting game of the first round of the tournament against Oklahoma State and then upset Rick Pitino and Louisville to extract a little bit of revenge from the 2013 national championship game.  Some felt the tournament for Oregon ended before it even started as the Ducks lost big man Chris Boucher for the rest of the year to a torn anterior cruciate ligament. But, the Ducks had their way with Iona in the first round and narrowly survived against Rhode Island to earn a trip to Kansas City. However, in the first half against Rhode Island, Oregon did not look like a Sweet 16 team. Michigan has had some ups and downs of its own, but is certainly trending up now. The Wolverines are the hotter team and without Boucher in the lineup for Oregon, probably the better team.

Up next in the Midwest is a Big 12-Big 10 matchup between Kansas and Purdue. Kansas was very impressive in the latter stages of its latest victory against Michigan State and seems to have erased any doubt that may have lingered from a bad loss to TCU to open play in the Big 12 tournament. Purdue was the top seed in the Big 10 tournament but was one of the four teams that fell victim to Michigan two weeks ago at Verizon Center. The Boilermakers have since dispatched of Vermont and Iowa State in two close games. This game features two Naismith award candidates with in Kansas guard Frank Mason and Purdue forward Caleb Swanigan. In addition to Mason, Kansas has gotten here thanks in large part to guards Devonte’ Graham and Josh Jackson while Purdue’s other frontcourt players have aided Swanigan all year. Keeping the dynamic Kansas’ backcourt under control long enough will be a big challenge for Purdue, but one it will have to live up to if it is going to pull of an upset.

West: The two favorites in both games in San Jose tonight have coaches that are still seeking their first trips to the Final Four. Arizona’s Sean Miller has been to the Elite Eight three times with the Wildcats and once while he was still at Xavier. Gonzaga’s Mark Few has been to the Sweet 16 seven times, but only once to a regional final. Therefore, a Gonzaga-Arizona game on Saturday would make for a fun Elite Eight contest. It’s unlikely Xavier stands in the way of that as Sean Miller’s current team should have its way with his old team. The Musketeers entered the tournament cold but benefited from a favorable draw in the first weekend and Chris Mack now finds himself in his fourth Sweet 16 since taking over for Miller in 2009.  West Virginia and its full-court press has posed problems for its first two opponents in the tournament as Bucknell and Notre Dame turned the ball over 15 and 14 times respectively in the first two rounds. West Virginia has looked very good at times this season but also very pedestrian at other times. If the West Virginia team that throttled Kansas in Morgantown shows up then the Mountaineers could surely upset Gonzaga. But, if the team that lost to Temple in Brooklyn over Thanksgiving weekend shows up, then this could get ugly for Bob Huggins’ squad.

East: Wisconsin, Florida, Baylor and South Carolina. Those are the four teams everyone thought would be playing at Madison Square Garden this weekend, right?  After upsetting number one overall seed Villanova last weekend in Buffalo, Wisconsin looks like the best team of the four left in this region. Florida had a favorable draw, dispatching of East Tennessee State and offensively-inept Virginia. Baylor trailed at halftime against New Mexico State in the first round and had a dogfight against Southern California but both of those opponents were double digit seeds. South Carolina probably looked the most impressive of these four teams in the first weekend, bludgeoning Marquette and dropping 65 points in the second half of an upset victory against Duke. I’ll roll with Wisconsin to pick up two wins and advance to Phoenix, but it’s probably not worth making any more predictions with this region given the hysteria we’ve seen so far.

South: North Carolina is all the ACC has left and will be in for a tough test tomorrow night against Butler. This should be an interesting battle of frontcourts with both teams featuring experienced big men. Kelan Martin and Andrew Chrabascz lead the way for Butler while Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks have played their fair share of games for the Tar Heels. Joel Berry’s right ankle will be worth monitoring here but he’s made progress and likely won’t be too limited. The Tar Heels are the better team, but nearly choked away their last game against Arkansas and Butler has played well in two wins against Winthrop and Middle Tennessee State so this game should be a tight one.

Lastly is the game everyone’s waiting for. The rematch between UCLA and Kentucky. The Bruins bested the Wildcats in Lexington back on December 3 in what was a high-scoring, fast-paced game. It will likely be more of the same tomorrow night in Memphis as UCLA, led by freshman sensation and likely top five NBA draft pick Lonzo Ball, was first in the nation in scoring averaging 90.4 points per game. But, the Wildcats averaged 85.9 points per game in the regular season which was fifth in the nation.  Kentucky grinded one out in the previous round against Wichita State winning 65-62 and making some big plays on defense down the stretch.  Granted, it will be much tougher to defend UCLA, but that type of grittiness the Wildcats displayed last weekend could go a long way in harnessing UCLA’s offensive attack. Look for defensive anchor Bam Adebayo to be the difference to Kentucky.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

My Five Favorite College Basketball Games

Championship Week is in full force and the selection show is just over 72 hours away. With March upon us, it seems like an appropriate time to look back at some of my favorite college basketball games.

5. Connecticut def. Cincinnati 104-97 4 OT- 2016 American Athletic Conference Tournament Quarterfinal: This one’s a little bit out of left field to get started. As a Temple student, I’ve seen plenty of bad basketball in the American Athletic Conference. But this game was simply amazing. With eight tenths of a second remaining in the third overtime, UConn’s Jalen Adams hit a shot from three-quarters court to send the game into its fourth overtime. It’s the type of play you could watch repeatedly and still not believe it. Daniel Hamilton flirted with a triple double for the Huskies posting a stat line of 32 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists while Troy Caupain dropped 37 points and 10 boards for Cincinnati. Over the last two decades, UConn has certainly been involved in plenty of thrillers. This one might not be the first that comes to mind, but every second of it was worth watching.

4. Wisconsin def. Kentucky 71-64- 2015 National Semifinal: This wasn’t really a huge upset given Wisconsin was a number one seed in the big dance, but it sure felt like one. Kentucky had been rolling through opponent after opponent all season and 40-0 looked imminent. After surviving a scare in its regional final against Notre Dame, nobody was touching the Wildcats, right? Until Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker carried the Badgers to a spot in the national championship game. It would have been cool for Bo Ryan to go out with a title, but in his last full season on the Wisconsin sideline, this was a shocker.

3. Kansas def. Memphis 75-68 OT- 2008 National Championship: In a game with two of the more accomplished coaches in the nation and a future number one overall draft pick, Mario Chalmers stole the show. Go figure. This is what the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament is all about. Chalmers had 18 points in the game, but none bigger than his three-pointer at the end of regulation to send the game into overtime. A missed free throw by Derrick Rose left the door ajar for Kansas and Chalmers seized the moment and Kansas rolled in the overtime. Ironically, nearly a decade after ruining the Memphis Tigers’ hopes of a national championship, Chalmers now plays for the Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA.

2. Villanova def. North Carolina 77-74- 2016 National Championship: Hard to think of a better way to win a national championship. After Marcus Paige buried an improbable triple to tie the game at 74, Ryan Arcidiacono found Kris Jenkins trailing on the ensuing inbound play and Villanova won its first national championship in 31 years. It might be easy to forget about Phil Booth’s 20 points off the bench for Villanova in this one, given the hysteria at the end. Booth missed one shot in the entire game going 6 of 7 from the field and connecting on both of his three pointers and all six of his free throws.

                                                       Getty Images/Michael Heiman
1. Syracuse def. Connecticut 127-117 6 OT- 2009 Big East Tournament Quarterfinal: I am not sure I will ever enjoy watching a college basketball game more than I enjoyed this one. There are so many memorable moments and unsung heroes from this game. It looked like Eric Devendorf had the game won in regulation when he drained a three off a broken inbound play. But, replay showed the ball was just barely touching his fingertips as the clock expired. An extra tenth of a second and the game’s over but instead it was just beginning. Perhaps the craziest statistic from this game is that Syracuse never had the lead in any of the first five overtimes. Andy Rautins kept launching away from beyond the arc. Paul Harris struggled all night around the cup but had a crucial three-point play in the sixth overtime to propel Syracuse to victory. There will never be anything quite like the old Big East conference and this game is one of the biggest reasons why.