Back from the Brink: Thoughts after Flyers, 4 Sabres 3 (OT)

Photo Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

The Flyers have been called a lot of names over the past few weeks. Play as poorly as they have and most of them are deserved. But there is one that has bothered me more than others because the descriptor is certainly borne out of frustration and isn’t necessarily accurate.

And that’s this:

The Flyers are quitters.

Maybe I get too annoyed at something that is mostly semantical. I get the feeling, though. When a team gets torched so many times and when a team that was supposed to be good, but isn’t anywhere close to expectation, underperforms what is seemingly on the regular, it’s a reaction of anger and aggravation made by those so invested in the outcomes of games this team plays. It’s easy at that point to just say something like the team has ‘quit,’ or is made up of quitters. Or that the team has quit on its coach.

And although that feeling has been ensconcing the hockey conversation of late, it isn’t accurate.

The Flyers have problems. They don’t play smart hockey. They don’t stay committed to the system being implemented. They play poor team defense. They don’t shoot the puck enough, instead opting for the cute passing play. Their goaltending right now is so bad that one would think the guys playing the net were members of the 2020 Phillies bullpen. They blink and find themselves down – often by multiple goals at a time.

Hell, they have mind-numbing plays like this one:

And this one:

And these are all issues that spring up on subpar hockey teams. On teams that aren’t constructed with the right mix of players. On teams who are fragile and let one mistake snowball into the other.

But it certainly doesn’t represent a collection of quitters.

With the lone exception of the horrendous 9-0 loss in New York two weeks ago, these Flyers have consistently been a team who has tried to overcome the deficits they dug for themselves, with the latest effort comin in a 4-3 overtime win against Buffalo on Monday.

Down 3-0 to the lowly Sabres after two listless periods, the Flyers showed the never-say-die attitude they have had to put on display far too often this season, and tied the game in regulation before winning it in the extra session.

It’s a win they can’t be happy about because it shouldn’t take that kind of exhausting, last minute, bringing-the-team-back-from-the-brink-of-abject-disaster type of effort to beat the worst team in hockey. But it did.

And while the Flyers are still breathing, and somehow just one point out of the final playoff spot in the East Division, and the Sabres became the first team to lose 18 straight games since the pre-Crosby era Pittsburgh Penguins in 2003, this win was no more than a sigh of relief and evidence that the team doesn’t want to quit, even if they are seriously flawed.

The coaching decision that made the difference was that when Alain Vigneault, after two disgusting periods of hockey from his team, decided to shorten his bench and play just three lines instead of four.

And after a juggle of the personnel, Oskar Lindblom, Nolan Patrick, and to the surprise of many fans, Joel Farabee, were rooted to the bench. None of the three took a shift in either the third period or overtime. Not even on the power play, where all three have been featured of late and Patrick and Farabee have been staples for most or all of the season.

Instead, if the Flyers were going to save their own season for the second time in three days, this time it was going to be all on the shoulders of the leadership core.

Vigneault was basically putting the ball in their court and saying, win this one for us. It was a challenge. And the veteran leaders responded.

Kevin Hayes lit the spark. Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier followed with goals that tied the game and then Ivan Provorov made this silky smooth move to win it:

As is often the case with goals, there are underappreciated plays being made by one player that leads to the eventual score. Sometimes the player doesn’t even get an assist (this happened to Provorov on Giroux’s goal), but in this case, Giroux actually earned the assist as it was his relentless play along the wall that forced the puck into the Flyers possession and created the 2-on-1 opportunity.

That’s not taking anything away from the pretty pass by Travis Konecny or the excellent finish by Provorov, both of which were needed to guarantee the win, it’s just that the highlights don’t often show the work that made a play happen – and Giroux made the play happen.

Giroux was sensational in the third period. Like his teammates, he wasn’t very good in the first two stanzas. But as the captain of the team, he knew the message that Vigneault was sending by benching three younger forwards.

And that message was one we’ve heard described in the past by Vigneault – its time for the best players on the team to put on their big boy pants and lead the team out of the ninth ring of hell and save it from the embarrassment of being the first team to lose to Buffalo since the Devils lost to them back on Feb. 23.

I asked Vigneault after the game if that perception was correct and he confirmed it emphatically.

“One hundred percent,” he said. “At this time and with the situation that we are in, if we are going to get the job done, your top players are going to have to be your top players. That’s one of the reasons I put Coots back with G and Jakey. We needed a push. We needed those guys to step up. By shortening up the bench we were able to find ways to get a few guys some more ice time and we were able to find a way to win this game, which we desperately needed.”

And it’s a microcosm of the Flyers’ situation right now. With the exception of Farabee, who has been quite productive leading the team in goals despite his occasional (and more frequent of late) hiccups that got him rooted to the bench Monday, the Flyers this season have had to be carried by their veteran players.

Giroux and Voracek may not be the elite scorers they once were, but they still are top-end talents in the NHL. Couturier may not be as healthy as anyone would like, but he has still found a way to post at least one point in 18 of the 22 complete games he’s played for the Flyers.

James van Riemsdyk has been the team’s leading scorer and although Kevin Hayes has been wildly inconsistent with his play, he still scores some important goals, like this one that started the comeback against Buffalo:

When I asked him a similar question to Vigneault, he agreed that it was time for the big money players to earn their paychecks:

“Everyone obviously wants to be on the ice at big moments in the game,” Hayes said. “AV obviously made a coaching decision. The guys who were called upon ended up battling through. It’s definitely a challenge when you are getting put out there a lot in the third and you are a leader on the team. You have to do the right things.”

Hayes took it a step further though, with what I would identify as the quote of the night.

“I can honestly say that every player who puts on this jersey works as hard as they can. It’s an honor to play in this league and for this organization. When things aren’t going your way, you have to stick to your work ethic. I thought tonight we had a chance to go into a shell and start blaming others, but that’s the opposite of what we did. It came down to hard work and ultimately we came out on top.”

Yes, this team is struggling. Yes this team is not right. But they have not quit. And if you are looking for a silver lining, that would be it.

More on the core

My sports writing colleague Mike Sielski from the Inquirer has been perpetuating an argument for a long time now, finally choosing to put it into column form last week, that the reason the Flyers are so flawed today is because of their poor drafting record from 2004 through 2012.

With all due respect to Mike, who I think is a hell of a writer, I don’t think this take could be more wrong:

Why would I care about what another writer puts out there? Because I get the sense there are a lot of Flyers fans who feel the same way. I can’t tell you how many times I read about Giroux being a terrible leader and it’s time to break up the core and that Voracek sucks and even the lunacy of some people who want to trade Couturier because he’s the only player who can bring back return.

Mike isn’t as irrational, but his take is also quite flawed, and one that continues to try to perpetuate that the “old school” mentality of GMs like Paul Holmgren and to a lesser extent Bob Clarke (who presided over the first three drafts in his sample) is somehow far worse than the slow play Ron Hextall was going for.

So, I decided to do some research to refute it.

Firstly, he keeps saying there are only three players drafted in those nine years who have any impact on the lineup today. The Flyers actually have five everyday players – and quality ones – that they drafted in those years in his sample. Giroux, JVR, Couturier, Scott Laughton, and Shayne Gostisbehere.

By comparison, the only NHL teams that have more than the Flyers are the New York Islanders (7), Tampa Bay Lightning (6) and Washington Capitals (6).

That would hardly be indicative of draft failure.

Not to mention, in hockey, unlike football or baseball, if you hit on a player outside the first round, you are incredibly fortunate. Most players drafted after the first round don’t make it. So, a team needs to be judged primarily on their first round picks.

In three of those nine drafts, the Flyers didn’t have a first-round pick (or a second rounder for that matter). Now, you can make an argument that they shouldn’t have traded those picks, but hindsight is 20/20 because in the moment, those occurred in seasons the Flyers were really going for it, specifically 2004 (reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals), and 2009 and 2010 (the last time they reached the Stanley Cup Final).

So, to call those three drafts “failures” is a bit harsh.

As for the remaining first round selections, Steve Downie (2005) was a miss, but at least he was taken 29th overall and he did play more than 400 NHL games.  And Luca Sbisa was flipped for Chris Pronger, which I don’t think anyone will say was a bad trade.

So, of the six first rounders they had in those nine years, four still play for the team, one became Chris Pronger and there was one miss in Downie. I’d say that’s a pretty good draft record.

Instead, what have the Flyers gotten from the next five drafts – since the players selected between 2013-and 2017 are the ones populating most rosters in the NHL these days.

  • 2013 – Sam Morin and Robert Hagg
  • 2014 – Travis Sanheim, Nicholas Aube-Kubel and Oskar Lindblom
  • 2015 – Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny
  • 2016 – Carter Hart
  • 2017 – Nolan Patrick

Yes, that’s nine players on the roster. With the exception of Morin, who remains an unknown because of all his injuries, and Patrick, who was absolutely the wrong pick at No. 2 considering the scouts wanted either Miro Heiskanen or Cale Makar and Ron Hextall chose Patrick instead, the rest are decent or good NHL players. Hextall did well enough drafting these players, and there are others who still might carve out NHL careers from these drafts, although his first round pick of German Rubtsov should also be considered a miss at this point.

But are these nine players collectively contributing more to the Flyers success than the five drafted in the years prior?

No.

Also, haven’t they each been marginally disappointing – or worse – this season? Yes.

So, where is the flaw with this team in 2021 again?

For more Flyers coverage, follow Snow The Goalie on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Also be sure to tune into The Press Row Show as Anthony SanFilippo and Russ Joy provide pregame and intermission coverage of every Flyers home game from press row of the Wells Fargo Center via the Crossing Broad Facebook page, YouTube Live, and Twitter, and their Twitter accounts   

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