These late night hockey games are killing me.
Sorry, just wanted to get that out of the way. But the fact of the matter is, when you are working multiple gigs at my age, staying awake long enough and then writing coherently about what you just watched, is nearly impossible. Don’t believe me? Call me when you are 44.
So, there’s been a lot of watching the DVR the morning after this past week. There’s honestly been a lot of fast-forwarding to get through the game. It’s not quite highlights, but definitely not full-game viewing either.
But I’ve seen plenty enough in the last two games – wins in Anaheim and Los Angeles – to say this:
This team is doing it again.
I don’t understand the mentality, or the need for such dire circumstances to get the motivation level where it needs to be, but the fact remains, these Flyers perform at their best when they are completely backed into a corner.
That’s when they come out swinging, but not until then. As long as they have wiggle room to keep backpedaling, they will – which is frustrating to watch.
But, as soon as things reach its most dire stages, something clicks and the team suddenly knows how to play hockey again.
Now, it should be pointed out that the Flyers caught the Ducks and the Kings at just the right time. Anaheim had lost five-straight going into the game against the Flyers and if you thought the Flyers were bad defensively prior to this road trip, then you hadn’t seen the Ducks.
They are a total mess. Especially right in front of their goaltenders. Soft is too generous a word.
As for L.A., they’ve gotten off to a dreadful start, so much so that their coach, former Flyers’ bench boss John Stevens, is the odds on favorite to be the first coach fired in the NHL this season.
So, it was the right formula for the Flyers to reel off their first back-to-back wins of the season.
Still, watch the way the Flyers played in those two contests and you saw a completely different team than the one you witnessed over the course of the first 11 games.
Sure, there was still the occasional slip up. The odd turnover that created an opportunity for the opposition, and the same correctable mistakes that have plagued the team for three seasons still cropped up. Just with far less frequency and a better reaction to them this time.
It truly leaves you torn on how to feel. So, rather than recap these late night games based on bleary-eyed viewing or sped-up replays, I’ll instead turn this into a little emotional measurement segment. I’m going to actually sit here and tell you how you should feel about individual members of your hockey team as they prepare for a Saturday tilt with a San Jose team that blew the Flyers’ doors off in Philly.
You may not agree on some of these, but hey, it’s free advice, so you can take it, or leave it. No skin off my back.
But, I warn you that if you disagree, you run the risk of being wrong (I kid, I kid).
Anyway, here goes:
You have to start with the coach. I mean, the fans are calling for his firing. I think, for the first time in Ron Hextall’s tenure as general manager, the notion of replacing his coach has percolated in his mind. I have also been under the impression, from the whisperers in Flyerville, that Hakstol and the team had this road trip to correct their ills or someone would face the music for all the team’s sins upon their return to Philadelphia.
And I get it. There are a lot of questions about the way he coaches this team. In-game decisions are sometimes absolutely befuddling. Lineup construction often leaves us scratching our heads. I was even suggesting that when the team was in the midst of a 10-game drought last season that a coaching change might not be a bad idea.
All that said, I do think Hakstol is a good hockey mind. I think he’s shown some chops this season – more than any of his previous three, when it comes to the things that most people rail against him about.
He’s been quicker to make changes and not stubbornly rely on his game plan. He’s been giving some younger players a little more leeway (I said a little!), and, at the same time, he has held veterans accountable for their mistakes or failings. You don’t just remove Jake Voracek and Wayne Simmonds from your top power play and replace them with younger, hungrier players without sending a message to Voracek and Simmonds. He’s not been shy about identifying specifics about what went wrong and he’s done this while finding a way to still praise his players effusively when deserved. It’s a nice balance (one I’m sure Phillies fans wish Gabe Kapler will start to employ in 2019).
So, for these reasons, you have to believe in Hakstol a little bit more this season than in previous seasons. Sure, it’s a concern that the team gets off to slow starts – not just in individual games, but in seasons now too, as the Flyers haven’t had a good start to the season since Craig Berube was in charge – but the fact remains that the Hakstol of the first three seasons of his tenure was petty reluctant to change much of anything, or if he did, did so too far after the fact.
Now, he’s making changes on the fly and trying to find cracks in the opposition’s armor. He definitely found them against Anaheim and Los Angeles, and took advantage.
More like "Loss Angeles, CA." pic.twitter.com/DGMJID0Nik
— Philadelphia Flyers (@NHLFlyers) November 2, 2018
His hockey team is 6-7-0, and yet, having played maybe only five good games out of 13, they are still just one game under .500. He’s likely staved off the firing squad until such talks start up again during the next losing streak, but for now he’s trending upward. And that has to be viewed positively, even by the haters.
Here’s who you should be feeling good about this week: Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, Travis Konecny, Nolan Patrick, Jordan Weal, Dale Weise, Nick Aube-Kubel.
The top line has finally started to show signs of clicking together after a month of inconsistency.
Giroux has been mostly himself. He’s still putting up his points and playing his all-around structured and solid game. His goal against the Kings (on a pass from Couturier) was the one that sealed the win.
He gets a lot of unnecessary grief from fans who don’t think he should be captain (there are some media folks who believe this as well) and even a small fringe element that think he’s overrated.
That’s all hogwash.
Giroux is a good captain. Most fans – and apparently some media guys too – have no idea what makes a good captain (sorry, not sorry). He is the captain because the players respect him. Because he’s far more vocal in the locker room than he is in public. Because he’s a guy his teammates really believe in and know will bust his ass every game.
Consider that in the last eight years in the NHL, only Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane have more points than Giroux. The guy is a clear superstar, who doesn’t get enough credit – neither in Philadelphia nor across the U.S. and Canada.
He’s averaging more than a point a game – and it’s only early November. The guy can flat out play.
Giroux races to the puck and beats Campbell! pic.twitter.com/v6C1eb62NZ
— Sons of Penn (@SonsofPenn) November 2, 2018
Konecny got off to a slow start, but has been much better recently. He’s feeling confident and using his speed and tenacity to get after the puck and create a lot of oohs and ahhs. Yes, you’d like to see him finish more, but he’s starting to look like the guy who was so special on the top line last season. Being moved to the top power play unit is also a sign that he’s earning the trust of the coaching staff, something that was still in question as recently as a couple weeks ago when he was demoted to third line duty.
He’s still going to have his moments where he lets his emotion get the better of him, but he’s definitely trending in the right direction.
Couturier is finally starting to look like he has caught back up with the speed of the game. It took him about 10 games to get there, since he missed most of training camp, but now that he’s healthy, you’re starting to see a difference.
You won’t see this crop up on the score sheet, but he did a nice job shutting down Flyer-killer Ryan Getzlaf on Tuesday in Anaheim and kept Anze Kopitar off the board in L.A. Fine work by last year’s Selke finalist who is just starting to hit his stride.
Patrick is starting to flourish. You can see his elite skill set starting to round into form. One of the things Hakstol has been preaching is getting to the net, and Patrick is doing just that. He seems a step faster than everyone else, he’s playing with determination and like Konecny, and he, too, has earned a promotion onto the top PP unit, a role he filled well last season when Simmonds went out with an injury.
Patrick has a world of talent. He still has room to grow, but he’s on the rise… and rising rapidly.
Ryan Kesler hacks Nolan Patrick on the faceoff. Patrick scores the game winner and gives it to him👌 pic.twitter.com/KGCly7KeVb
— Flyers Nation (@FlyersNation) October 31, 2018
If Weal can cut down on the penalties, he could stick all season as the No. 3 center for the Flyers. He’s done a really nice job since being inserted in that spot of driving the play. His advanced metrics are pretty solid. He seems to be working well with whoever is on his line too. Right now, it’s Simmonds and Weise, and they’ve shown some positive signs. It would be great if he could finish more – but at the very least, he’s been creating a lot of chances. If he keeps playing like this, it’s only a matter of time before a few start going in the net.
Speaking of Weise, His teammates should nickname him Lazarus, because he has truly risen from the dead. A healthy scratch for much of the end of last season, waived during the preseason, and really an afterthought in the organization, Weise was pressed into action after a rash of injuries and has simply performed at a high level. Whether it’s on the fourth line providing energy, the third line creating scoring chances, or even the erstwhile appearance on the second PP unit, Weise has been a pleasant surprise for the Flyers this season.
He’s playing reminiscent of the way he played in Montreal for the Canadiens a few years ago. And, in case you haven’t noticed, he’s getting more ice time. The last three games he’s played 13:30, 14:26 and 15:59, respectively. This after averaging 10:48 in his first seven games of the season.
Aube-Kubel replaced Michael Vorobyev in the lineup, and although he hasn’t been afforded much ice time (just 13 minutes combined in the two games in Southern California) he didn’t look out of place. He’s aggressive. He hunts the puck. He’s not afraid to try and separate an opponent from the puck with well-timed physical play. He definitely brings a grit to the bottom six that Vorobyev did not.
The Flyers just wanted Vorobyev to play competitively. He could not. Aube-Kubel has competitiveness in spades.
As for the rest of the forwards:
Voracek has not been himself – and to his credit, he’s the first to admit he’s playing poorly. And that said, he’s still averaging a point per game, which tells you that if he gets himself right, it’ll be a big boost for the Flyers.
But he’s been a minus player, has been demoted off the top line and the top PP unit (and the new No.2 unit has looked like…well…No. 2), and although he’s usually an excellent play driver, he’s not even doing that well.
Voracek has been a darling of the analytics folks for several years, and in this instance, they are not wrong. He has been on the right-side of 50% with his Corsi at five-on-five in every season of his career except his second NHL season at age 21 in Columbus. With the Flyers he’s been really good. His CF% in 2013-14 was a career-best 55.17%.
Since that season, it has gotten progressively worse.
Here’s the thing though, it’s not about the offense he’s creating. Here are the number of shots attempted per game the Flyers have taken since that 2013-14 season with Voracek on the ice:
That’s pretty consistent, right? Even this season’s low-mark of 13.54 shots per game with Voracek on the ice isn’t terrible. The disparity between his best Corsi season and this season is only a difference of .45 shots attempted per game.
Now let’s look at the shots taken against the Flyers with Voracek on the ice over the same time span:
Yes, 13 games is a small sample size, but the trend from 2013-14 to now is not, and it should be alarming.
Jake is not playing like the puck dominant player he once was. This means he’s likely losing more 50/50 puck battles, or not engaging them enough to drive the play in the other direction.
I know I hinted at Voracek being a prime trade candidate if the Flyers didn’t fix their on-ice issues. This is one of the reasons why. I think the Flyers recognize he has fallen off. At this point, it’s up to Jake to get back to being Jake.
Simmonds is even worse analytically. His CF% so far this season is 43.54%. That’s awful. There are 262 forwards in the NHL who have skated at least 120 minutes so far this season, or roughly at least 10 minutes per game. Of those, Simmonds ranks 228.
Yes, he has seven goals, but that’s masking the fact that he’s getting throttled with chances on the ice.
Simmonds has never been a dominant play driver, but in 2015-16, his CF% was 53.10. In slipped to to 49.76 the following season and then a career low of 47.33 last season, when he played almost the entire season injured.
Now healthy, he is operating almost four full percentage points below that.
I think the new third line with Simmonds, Weal, and Weise was put together to hide Simmonds, since Weal (57.92%) and Weise (50.30%) have been positive play drivers.
If there is any wonder why new contract negotiations haven’t begun here, you can see why. Simmonds is another guy who has to get back close to 50% if he wants to remain a part of this team’s core.
Scott Laughton earned high praise early this season for his play, and has been a good penalty-killing forward on an otherwise lousy PK, but Laughton was demoted to the fourth line for many of the same reasons as Voracek and Simmonds – he’s getting abused at five-on-five.
He’s the only current Flyers forward with a worse CF% (43.05) than Simmonds.
These three guys are relied on heavily by the Flyers, so there’s no wonder that before the two wins this week, the team was scuffling.
Oskar Lindblom had a nice game against the Kings, and his play driving numbers are pretty good, but I think this is one where the eye test trumps the data. He’s had his moments and he’s definitely an NHL quality player, but he needs to get on the score sheet more. He does some little things well, so maybe it’s wrong to have him in this second group, but I think the jury’s still out on what role Lindblom should have, because I’m not convinced it’s a top six forward.
The final forward is Jori Lehtera. Jori is just Jori. He was pretty good in his fourth line role over the first 11 games, but I thought his play dropped off the last two, ironically, in Flyers wins. Still, on the whole, he’s been a perfectly mediocre fourth line center. He hasn’t been great, he hasn’t been terrible. He’s just been kind of there. That’s fine.
Mad props for Robert Hagg, Ivan Provorov, Radko Gudas and Travis Sanheim.
Sanheim and Gudas have been mostly good all season. They’ve had their slip-ups, and Sanheim had a game to forget against the Islanders last Saturday, but on the whole they have been a steady third pairing and have been deployed properly to avoid the top units of the opposition. They are doing exactly what a third pair ought to be doing.
Provorov, who despite his argument to the contrary, was a shell of himself through the first 10 games of the season, but has roared back to life.
I think that had a lot to do with being paired with Hagg. In their six games together, they have averaged a CF% together on the ice of 51.45%. That’s pretty darn good, especially since they were at 41.18% vs. the Kings last night, their lowest of any game.
But keep in mind, Provy and Hagg are matching up mostly against the opposition’s best line, so the CF% can be skewed one way but they can still be playing well.
Hagg leads the Flyers defensemen in scoring with six points and Provorov has two gals in the last two games.
As for the middle defensive pair….
I don’t trust Christian Folin as far as I can throw him. I think he’s positionally out of place all too often. I don’t see what the Flyers see in him. I really don’t.
As for Shayne Gostisbehere, he’s been maddening. There have been games when he’s looked great and games when he’s looked like he’s just going through the motions. I’m not sure why the inconsistency, because he’s always been a highly-competitive player who, despite whatever shortcomings he may have defensively, gave it his all.
But something seems just a hair off with him, and I’m not sure what it is. He has the skill set to rectify it, it’s just been odd to take in.
I really can’t write much here. Brian Elliott has been better than his terrible stats indicate (4-5-0, 3.10 GAA, .893 SvPct), but he hasn’t been able to make as many big stops as necessary to really help the Flyers.
I think he stole them the season opener, nearly cost them a point against Florida, and has been serviceable in his other eight appearances, even the 8-2 drubbing at the hands of the San Jose Sharks.
As for what’s behind him… who knows?
Michal Neuvirth played his first game of the season last Saturday against the Islanders and got shelled. He was the backup in Anaheim, but was scratched yesterday in L.A. for “precautionary reasons.” Did he pull a muscle opening the door for his teammates while sitting on the bench in Anaheim? What changed between those two games? Did he get hurt in practice?
His story is almost laughable at this point…
And Calvin Pickard is barely an NHL backup. Barely.
As per usual, goaltending is a conundrum for the Flyers.