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?

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