This past weekend was truly educational when it came to the study of the 2019-2020 Philadelphia Flyers.
It was truly a master class for those of us who monitor every aspect of the franchise’s operation.
There was a lot of uncertainty about this team coming into the season. There are some who thought they’d be a pretty good team. There are those who felt they would still be mired in the same mediocrity that that has been like a pox on the organization for the last seven-plus years.
Then there are those who thought it would be somewhere in between that – including yours truly.
My final prediction was that the Flyers would finish in fifth place in the Metropolitan Division and would battle for a final playoff spot. And while on the surface that might sound more like the rampant mediocrity and less like a very good team, I cautioned that the division is a tough one to traverse.
My inkling was that the team would be better than it’s been, would not be as frustratingly inconsistent as it’s been, but at the same time would be in the same ballpark standings-wise because of the quality of competition in their division.
There were a lot of variables that would come into play. We knew the coaching would be top-notch, but there were questions abounding throughout the roster for veterans and young players alike. The ultimate answers to those questions would determine the Flyers lot in NHL life for this season, and while many of those answers still won’t be found until sometime within the next 72 games, there are some things we have come to learn and understand through the season’s first 10 games, a stretch which the Flyers have started with the same number of wins as losses (5-4-1), and they were evident this weekend following a come-from-behind, 7-4 win over Columbus on Saturday and a 5-3 shellacking by the New York Islanders that wasn’t as close as the score indicates.
Here’s what we learned:
1. Carter Hart is still oh-so-young and inexperienced
This is probably the biggest takeaway from the early season so far. It was something Russ and I discussed on Snow the Goalie over the summer.
My worry was that this fan base would set too high of expectations for Hart to come into this season and be a superstar.
And while it wasn’t every fan, as there are a good chunk of rational hockey people out there among you, the Twitterverse and Flyers fan Facebook pages did set the bar at a completely unreachable level for the 21-year-old goalie.
And, as such, they now think their franchise goalie is broken:
The confidence of Carter Hart is being ruined …
— Vinnie Teoli (@VinnieTeoli) October 28, 2019
All I know is @coreypronman was right, Carter Hart stinks
— Skip Payless (@NotTheRealGoose) October 28, 2019
Carter Hart is just the newest Cechmanek. #Flyers
— Paul Hutchinson (@PaulHutch1964) October 28, 2019
I'm really starting to worry that Carter Hart may very well be the Markelle Fultz of the #Flyers.
— ORANGE MAN BAD (@TheOrangeManBad) October 28, 2019
Carter Hart, like the Flyers, is trash https://t.co/H0AK1OLTXK
— Alex (@PghBlue16) October 28, 2019
I thought Carter Hart was supposed to be the next Pelle Lindbergh…
— Mikey McCarthy (@mikeymac5306) October 28, 2019
I hate to be the Skip Bayless of Philadelphia, but Carter Hart really is starting to look like a bust, for real.
— Sixers 2019-20 Revenge Tour: Out for Raptors Blood (@PHIsportsCEO) October 28, 2019
Carter Hart may not be the answer. And that's abundantly and massively disappointing. I don't care how old or young you are. Sometimes a guy just can't make the transition. His head may not be able to handle it. He looked that way last season too. Again, he MAY not be the guy.
— Chris DiFrancesco (@CDiFran24) October 28, 2019
Flyers ruined Carter Hart faster than I thought. Might be a new record.
— TDK (@gohantk29) October 28, 2019
I got one word for you all… and the hundreds more out there that had Carter Hart trending last night with all their negativity:
It’s ridiculous to take this path with Hart. I will ask a question that I’ve asked before – How many 21-year-old goalies come into the league and take it by storm? Seriously. Go back through history and find them for me.
There’s a handful, yes. But that’s it. A handful. In the history of the sport.
Carter Hart will be fine.
Is he struggling right now? Abso-freaking-lutely:
Carter Hart first 3 games: 1.62 GAA, 75 saves on 80 shots.
Carter Hart last 3 games: 5.85 GAA, 12 goals allowed on 43 shots.
— Jordan Hall (@JHallNBCS) October 28, 2019
Yeah, that’s not good. But you also don’t put up the numbers from those first three games if you are a “bust” or you “stink” or any other ridiculous label that some fans have put on the kid.
In the long-term, he’ll be fine. Relax.
In the short-term, well, it’s a good thing the Flyers made this move:
2. Re-signing Brian Elliott was the most important off-season move by the Flyers
Elliott, when healthy, is a very steady goaltender. He keeps you in most games and he even steals a few. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s like being a game-manager as a quarterback in football, or a starting pitcher with a 4.00 ERA in baseball who consistently gives you six innings.
You value this player because while they aren’t spectacular or all-star caliber, they are crucial pieces to have if your team wants to succeed.
And right now, with Hart struggling, it’s good to have Elliott on the roster.
Elliott has appeared in six of the 10 Flyers games this season, starting four games and relieving Hart twice. He is 3-1-0 with a 2.28 goals against average and a .921 save percentage.
Those are really good numbers.
I had mentioned after his start and win against Vegas last Monday that there was a good chance Elliott would start three of the Flyers next four games as I was told they want to give Hart some time to work on a few things.
He’s sitting back a little deep in the net and his angles are off ever so slightly.
Elliott is the more consistent and reliable goalie right now.
I would expect Elliott to get the start in Pittsburgh Tuesday and Hart to be back in net Friday in New Jersey against a Devils team that he shut out earlier this season with Elliott back between the pipes when the Flyers return home Saturday against Toronto.
After that, we’ll see what happens, as the Flyers next six games after Toronto will all come with at least one day off between games.
I was arguing on Twitter with one fan during the Islanders game that the Flyers are doing the right thing by playing Elliott rather than let Hart play through his struggles.
The NHL is not a development league. At this level, the goal is to win. The Flyers believe they are a playoff team. If they want to get there, they’re going to need Carter Hart to be Carter Hart. But, since he’s off his game right now, then they’re going to need Brian Elliott to provide that much-needed veteran relief to help them win games while Hart rights himself in practice.
And that’s the way it should be.
3. Kevin Hayes might be better than we all thought
I’m not ready to pop champagne corks over the fact that Hayes is on the Flyers roster and not somewhere else, nor am I ready to sign off on what I think will ultimately be a prohibitive contract for the Flyers, but, despite a couple games early where he seemed to get lost in the shuffle of the Flyers forward rotation, Hayes has been a really solid player.
He was arguably their best forward against the Islanders. He scored the game-wining goal against Columbus on a shorthanded breakaway that he created with his long reach.
He’s a better passer than I thought and he does generate chances offensively. His puck possession skills are also pretty exquisite as he is really hard to knock off the puck when he has it.
He’s an all-situations player and has been pretty good at it so far.
There weren’t many positives from the Islanders game, but Hayes was a noticeable player for the Flyers – in a positive way (we’ll get to the ones who were noticeable in a negative way shortly). And it’s not just one game. He’s been going good for a while now. Really, since Edmonton, which makes five straight well-played games for Hayes.
He’s hardly been an issue for the Flyers.
4. Pressure, however, is an issue
If there was anything that really got exposed by the Islanders is the Flyers don’t respond well to relentless forechecking, and that’s a staple of playing the Islanders, who have now won seven straight games (the first time they’ve done that since I was in high school, so you know that was a long time ago – 1990).
When the Flyers have played well, they’ve been the aggressive, forechecking team. They’ve been the team creating turnovers and generating scoring chances and winning the shots margin and the advanced metrics.
I’d say the Flyers were the better team in eight of their first nine games – with the loss in Calgary being the lone outlier.
Then came Sunday in New York, and well, that sentence can now be edited to say eight-of-10.
That’s because the Flyers had 21 giveaways in the game. The Islanders also had eight takeaways. That’s 29 times where the Flyers had the puck and it ended up lost to the Islanders.
The difference between giveaways and takeaways varies city-to-city, which is why many consider it an arbitrary stat. Each city’s official scoring group is its own entity and there isn’t a uniform statistical operation. In some cities, stats like giveaways and takeaways are more prevalent than others.
The Islanders stat crew is certainly one of the more aggressive in the league when it comes to identifying those mistakes, but this Flyers-Islanders game was predicated by a slew of mistakes.
In short, a takeaway is when a defensive player makes a play to separate the puck carrier from the puck that results in a change of possession. This could be things like a hit, a poke check or tying the guy up and winning a 50/50 battle for the puck.
A giveaway is basically an unforced error, or at least an error that is caused without contact with the player or the puck.
This is where the pressure comes in.
With the Islanders’ forecheck pumping on all cylinders, the Flyers were forced to make quicker puck decisions and 21 times made the wrong one resulting in a New York possession.
There were countless actors in this drama as 14 different Flyers were credited with a giveaway. Teams scouting the Flyers have to see how the Islanders played and use that as a prototype for how they’ll play against them as well.
It’ll be up to the Flyers to find ways to counter pressure so that they can play their game and not be subdued by the way teams play against them.
If they don’t, games like the one against the Islanders will be more and more frequent.
5. Defensive weaknesses still exist
One of the things that Flyers fans were feeling better about this team was the better defensive play the Flyers were getting.
They weren’t blowing doors off hinges with defensive prowess, but they seemed to be stable enough that playing consistently, with decent goaltending would give the Flyers a real chance to win every night.
That stability was mostly there until Sunday.
First there’s Travis Sanheim:
Bardreau gets his FIRST NHL point on Ross' FIRST goal of the season! pic.twitter.com/5HblfB7cw6
— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) October 27, 2019
I wish I had the angle from behind as you can see Sanheim looking over his shoulder multiple times, but this view will suffice.
YOU CAN’T BE AFRAID TO TAKE A HIT!
Look, this isn’t an old school trope. This isn’t me screaming to man up. But the reality is hockey is a physical game. You’re going to get hit. Sanheim has been around long enough to know this. He has to expect this. And yet, for some reason, he shied away from controlling the puck to avoid a hit.
This creates a turnover and leads to a goal. You can’t have that.
Sanheim hasn’t been great so far this year, but he wasn’t great last year until November, and from that point on he was one of the Flyers best defenseman, if not their best, for the remainder of the season.
So, there’s still time for him to right his game, but that play was disheartening.
Meanwhile Shayne Gostisbehere and Sam Morin was a disastrous pairing.
Morin was playing for the first time in six months, and it showed. Gostisbehere was gambling waaaaaay too much. Their positioning was a absolute mess. Just watch this goal:
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) October 28, 2019
This was just a microcosm of their night on the Island. Ghost makes a pinching mistake. Morin overcompensates while trying to cover for him and doesn’t have the speed to recover. And… boom goal.
Trust me. They were terrible all night. I doubt they’ll be paired together again.
Opinion: Morin is NOT an NHL player. Gostisbehere’s value becomes completely diminished if he isn’t productive offensively. The Flyers need to fix their third pairing this season. Somehow, someway.
6. Danny Briere with an edge
Lost in the poor play against the Islanders was Travis Konecny scoring again. He now has 13 points (6 goals, 7 assists). He has at least one point in nine of the 10 Flyers games this season.
I keep telling people, he’s reminding me more and more of Danny Briere. He’s got a nose for the net, isn’t afraid to go into the hard areas of the ice to score, despite being a little undersized, and he’s got a level of determination that is hard to match.
The difference is Konecny has a bit of an edge to him. Danny was sneaky dirty as a player. There’s nothing sneaky about Konecny. He’s in your face. He lets you know he’s there and doesn’t try to hide it one bit.
It’s nice to see this out of him. Now, if he can sustain it, it’ll be a huge benefit for the Flyers.