The Flyers reached the halfway point in their season yesterday…
(Wait… you mean we have to endure 41 more games of this?)
And they did so in classic Flyers fashion. They played a very good game for roughly 50 minutes. Then they went into a shell, made some mistakes, and lost in overtime 3-2 to a very good Calgary Flames team.
It’s either that or the Flyers fall way behind early and then try to stage a huge comeback only to have it fall short in the end.
Sure, there are the clunkers in there, too. All teams have those. And there are some wins that have been sprinkled in, but the first two scenarios have been the most common theme on this season.
It’s a season that’s brought a lot of change – and more is coming – and adversity, and an unexpected spot in the basement of the division and very nearly the basement of the league.
With the loss to the Flames the Flyers are 15-20-6 at the halfway point. Their 36 points is only one point ahead of Ottawa, who have the fewest points in the NHL (35).
Leave it to veteran Dale Weise – who seems to be one of the only guys in the locker room willing to give good, honest answers to the maladies of this team, to sum it up best when asked to describe the first half of the Flyers season:
“By far, with coaches, GM’s, goaltenders, lines changing, it’s been really wild and the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.”
It’s hard to argue with him there. This is certainly not how anyone expected the Flyers season to go. There was an internal expectation that it was time to take the next step after a 98-point playoff season in 2017-18 – which is why they threw $35 million at James van Riemsdyk over the summer.
(That’s looking like a terrible decision.)
Hold your tongue peanut gallery, we’ll get to that shortly.
Point is, the team felt like it was ready to be a perennial playoff squad again and invested in a player that was supposed to add scoring beyond the top line.
It hasn’t happened.
Instead, they find themselves 14 points out of a wild card spot with 41 games to go and 15 points out of the last guaranteed playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division.
Since the installation of the salary cap in the NHL prior to the 2005-06 season, there have been 24 teams who were at least 14 points out of a playoff spot on Jan. 6.
NONE of them made the playoffs.
So, forget it. This season is a wash. There’s no suddenly playing the right way and getting back into this thing. It’s practically impossible.
And the Flyers players have no one to blame but themselves. It’s been an amalgam of mistakes by many players that have cost this team games.
From shoddy goaltending, to regression from the expected top two defensemen, to ineffective team defense (usually from forwards not doing their part), to a bevy of bad turnovers to pathetic play on special teams, this Flyers team has been simply rotten on the ice.
And it all started with letting the notion that they posted 98 points a season ago cloud their vision. It’s the number – we’ve heard it several times from management types and coaches over the past nine months – how hard it is to get 98 points.
At least, not as hard as it used to be. All points in the NHL are slightly inflated thanks to the loser point in overtime and shootouts. So, that 98 number needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The Flyers won 42 games last season. That means they lost 40. So, they were really two games over .500. Yes, they had 14 losses that were in overtime and the shootout, which netted them 14 points – the most loser points of any team in the NHL last season.
Those 42 wins? They tied for 18th most in the NHL. That’s in the bottom half of the league.
So, the notion that this was a team that was ready to take the next step was inherently flawed to begin with.
Granted, they’re likely not even going to come close to 42 wins this season (they would have to win 27 of 41 to do so), so there is overall regression from this team, but the upheaval surrounding the franchise can’t have helped and the fact that almost every player is playing right now looking over their shoulder as if they could be the next to go likely isn’t helping either.
So what should they do?
They need to take the approach that the New York Rangers did last February:
A Message from Glen Sather and Jeff Gorton. pic.twitter.com/Q56CXS8vDc
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) February 8, 2018
Tell the fans, yep, we need to fix this and we’re about to do so.
Then do it.
You can’t have plays like this happening anymore:
(video courtesy Charlie O’Connor of The Athletic)
Wayne Simmonds cannot let Matthew Tkachuk skate around him like that. And if you watch the video, it’s not like Tkachuk has blazing speed and Simmonds just can’t keep up. Simmonds is not showing awareness. He doesn’t recognize that he is giving up prime real estate to Tkachuk until it is far too late.
If, instead, he’s really skating into position, and has his head on a swivel to know where his man is instead of watching the play, he doesn’t have to attempt a desperation poke check at the end, because he’d either be in position to prevent the shot, or be in a position to prevent the pass from ever reaching Tkachuk to begin with.
And if you don’t think this is Simmonds’ responsibility, just look at his reaction after the goal. He knows it. He knows he got caught watching the paint dry.
(Hey, great “Hoosiers” reference there!)
Shh. I’m in hardcore writing mode now!
Simmonds cares. He really does. Fans want to criticize him for loafing. That’s not the case. He gives a full effort every game. He does. It just might be that he doesn’t have it anymore.
Relegated to the third line, which is a completely unreliable defensive line with Jordan Weal and van Riemsdyk, they need to produce offensively to have value, and they aren’t. Simmonds also only has two power play points in his last 37 games. He has always been considered a power play specialist. That’s not going to cut it.
The longer it goes with Simmonds on this roster, I suspect the more his value decreases.
I’m sure there are teams that still value what he brings – not only on the ice, but in the locker room as well – and there will be suitors. But, the more you see things like this happening, if you are an opposing team’s scout or general manager, the more you have to wonder about how much you’d be willing to move for this guy, or if there are other players who might be available that would be more affordable and bring you the same return?
I’m starting to believe Simmonds’ play might be tying GM Chuck Fletcher’s hands a bit more than he may have originally thought.
So, that goal tied it.
But then there’s the game winner:
(video courtesy of Charlie O’Connor of The Athletic)
There are four problems on this play.
- Scott Gordon’s risk.
- Jordan Weal’s pass.
- JVR’s back check.
- Shayne Gostisbehere’s defensive decision.
When the Flyers say it’s little mistakes that turn into goals, they aren’t wrong, but when you have four little mistakes in the span of 30 seconds, well, that’s what I call a complete freaking breakdown.
It starts with Gordon. The guy has done a decent job of coaching and trying to find things that work for this team since he took over for the fired Dave Hakstol.
In fact, I haven’t really caught myself questioning many of his decisions/efforts to this point.
But, you have to know you are putting your team at risk by having JVR on the ice in a 3-on-3 situation. He’s just not a fast skater. Period. There’s a lot of room out there 3-on-3 and relying on him to provide any value defensively is a real gamble. More so that he’s out there with Weal, who is an average defensive player at best, and below average at worst, and with Gostisbehere as the defenseman, there is inherent risk that one mistake by this trio could spell great danger.
He gambled here, trying to create offense, and he lost.
Secondly, Weal has to make a smarter play on the puck that results in the turnover and leads to the 2-on-1 breakaway for the Flames.
He said the puck was bouncing on him a little bit, but he also admitted that rather than trying to force the pass back to Gostisbehere while the puck is bouncing, that if he takes one more stride back to the puck, he likely can get a cleaner pass because he has better possession of the puck on his stick. That’s a mental error.
Thirdly you have JVR. I initially killed him on Twitter for his backcheck effort on the goal. And I still don’t think I’m wrong that he could have done a better job, but my initial reaction putting this squarely on his shoulders may have been a bit too much.
As we can see, there were other factors here and JVR’s inability to catch up to T.J. Brodie was just a part of it.
But he could have done more. JVR gave up on the back check too soon. He should keep skating all the way to the last minute, and stops. He can probably get two more strides in and at least have a chance to break up the play. Or, if the pass from Tkachuk is a little off line, maybe he can make a play and send it back the other way.
Backchecking is all about effort. Travis Konecny had a hell of a backcheck in the first period to breakup an odd man chance for the Flames after a turnover by Ivan Provorov. He never stopped skating and went into a glide. He skated until he caught his man.
Travis Sanheim made a nice recovery after he turned the puck over in the first period as well. Again, because he didn’t stop skating and was able to recover and make a play to prevent a shot from even going on goal.
The old hockey cliche about moving your feet – these are the scenarios coaches and players are talking about when they say it. Find that little extra. Take that extra stride or two rather than glide. It can make a world of difference.
JVR is a bit of a glider too often. He was always a bit that way. It was one of the complaints that Peter Laviolette had about him when he was the coach and JVR was a rookie. He always felt that JVR would figure that part of his game out – and maybe he did for a time in Toronto, because he was quite successful there.
But since his return to Philly, JVR seems to be the same guy who left here. A lot of talent. A lot of goal-scoring ability. Not a lot of intangibles that endear you to coaches.
That’s a shame, and unless it’s rectified somehow, either by JVR himself or Fletcher finding a team willing to take on five years and $35 million, the Flyers could have yet another albatross of a contract.
Finally, Gostisbehere played the wrong guy. It’s basic defensive hockey 101. When you are the lone guy back on an odd man rush, you leave the shooter for the goalie and you take away the pass. Gostisbehere stays with Tkachuck and doesn’t try to take away Brodie.
You can see he almost thinks about it for a hot second – or he fakes like he’s going to do so – but then he ends up sticking with Tkachuk, which is the wrong choice.
You want to talk about a guy who has value and could bring you something in return? Look no further than Ghost. A young defenseman with a friendly contract who might just need a change of scenery to rediscover his flair for scoring? Sounds like a good option for Fletcher. Especially with young defenseman like Phil Myers and Mark Friedman playing so well in the AHL and being hungry for a chance in the NHL. Sam Morin is also only about a month or so away from returning from his injury, so there are intriguing options to replace him.
This might be Fletcher’s best option.
Otherwise, it will continue to be more of the same. Like four little mistakes adding up to a bigger breakdown and another loss in a very repetitive season of upheaval and disappointment.