History Indicates that the Flyers are a Playoff Team, but Danny Briere Still isn't Buying
Some time in the middle of the Flyers’ 1-0 shootout win over the New York Islanders Saturday night, they reached the quarter pole of their season.
Through 21 games, the Flyers are a semi-surprising 11-9-1, and with 21 points, sit in second place in a mostly mediocre Metropolitan Division.
Still, this is a mostly positive change for the Flyers, who were second from the bottom on this date a year a go, with a record of 7-9-5 through 21 games and only ahead of the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets in the division standings.
It’s a weird spot for the Flyers to be in, because, as we saw on Friday against the first-place Rangers, the team is far from good enough to compete with the best team in the Division – assuming a playoff series against them – but so far have proven to be a challenge to pretty much everyone else.
Sure they’ve had their duds, like most teams. A 5-2 loss in Ottawa, a 5-2 home loss to Buffalo and a 5-0 blanking at home against Los Angeles immediately come to mind. They certainly weren’t happy losing at home to Anaheim 7-4 or dropping a game in San Jose to the woeful Sharks 2-1.
But they’ve also surprised some very good teams as well, They shut out Vancouver. They took Dallas to overtime. They split with the defending Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights, and the loss was only by one goal. They paid back the Ducks and Kings by beating them each in their home rinks. They split with Carolina, who was considered a favorite to reach the final coming out of the East. And now they split with the Islanders, a team with lofty playoff aspirations as well behind one of the top five goalies in the sport in Ilya Sorokin.
And here they sit, after 21 games, in a playoff spot.
Last year, in the NHL, 13 of the 16 teams who had 23 points after 21 games made the playoffs. In fact, of the teams who were in a playoff spot on this date, only one, the Detroit Red Wings, ended up missing the playoffs.
It’s pretty standard in the NHL that teams who are in a playoff spot at the end of Thanksgiving weekend usually make it.
Here are the Flyers, not expected to be here, and yet they are. So, what do they do?
It’s a good question, and one we posed to GM Danny Briere on the Sow the Goalie: Press Row Show this weekend:
“I’d be surprised if we acquire a player to make a push because we’re not quite there yet. I’m certainly not ready to give up assets for it. But at the same time you have to respect what the players are doing. It’s my duty to evaluate what this team is going to be come playoff time and what we can be two, three, four, five years down the road. …I don’t think we are at the part where we are in the position to give up assets at this point.”
This is important stuff from Briere. It’s evidence that he’s not going to let a good run by a hard-working, yet under-talented team, push him in a direction the organization is not yet ready to be pushed.
But what if the team is in a playoff spot or on the brink of one? Do the Flyers hold on to guys they feel would have value in a trade? Or do they eschew having a shot at the postseason to try and improve down the road?
That’s the challenge for Briere – to see where the team is come the trade deadline in a few months and make a determination as to whether or not he should hang on to a few assets or if he should ship them out for future value.
Are defensemen like Sean Walker, who has been a pleasant surprise, and Nick Seeler, who has proven to be an NHL-caliber, reliable third-pair defenseman, more valuable to this group trying to make the post season, or do the fact that he is already taking calls on such players about their availability mean that the return he could get by trading them more enticing than the prospects of playing in the postseason?
What about other players? Scott Laughton was appealing to teams both at last trade deadline and in the offseason, and the Flyers held on to him as the de facto captain (he remains the only player on the team with a letter on his sweater). His leadership abilities both on the ice and in the locker room are cherished by the coaching staff. How about a guy like Cam Atkinson, who has come back from missing an entire season and has proven that he can be a goal scorer again? Do you move on from Morgan Frost, who has seemingly taken up a long-term residence in coach John Tortorella’s Chateau Bow-Wow?
These are questions that Briere will have to answer. He’s got plenty of time. There are still 43 more games between now and then. It’s a lot of time for the Flyers to keep doing what they’re doing, or to fall further off the map.
Tortorella isn’t a coach who will stand pat when things aren’t going well either. Keep in mind that this is a coach who pulled guys out of the lineup in the middle of a five-game winning streak. He’s a coach who benched his leader Laughton for almost an entire period Wednesday. He’s a coach who changed the system his team plays overnight to be more defensive-minded on Saturday. Why?
“I coached differently because we sucked last night away from the puck. We have changed our style this year (to) wanting to be more offensive and wanting to take chances and not be afraid to give up odd-man rushes when we are aggressive offensively, but against the Rangers we were ridiculous as far as many odd-mans we gave up.”
That’s not the answer of a coach who is willing to settle for moral victories, especially not in the moment. Sure, he can look back at the end of the season and regardless of the outcome, see more growth and more positives for a rebuilding franchise, but from game-to-game, Torts is the type of guy who is looking to win every time out. He’s a coach. He doesn’t accept a losing mentality even if the team is struggling or is under-skilled.
It’s part of the reason the Flyers are where they are right now. No, they aren’t the Rangers. And they did, in fact, suck against them without the puck. But the difference between the Flyers this year and last year is last year they would have continued to suck for a lot longer.
This year, they adjust. They change. They have the ability to play different ways. Some of them aren’t going to be sustainable for a full season, but when they needed to stem the tide following back-to-back losses, they did.
As loosey-goosey as they were against the Rangers, they were buttoned up against the Islanders Saturday. Samuel Ersson was great in net, making 24 saves and stopping all four Islanders chances in the shootout, but the Flyers smothered New York defensively limiting shots for extended periods of time.
Were it not for Sorokin, who registered his third shutout against Philadelphia by making 40 saves, the Flyers could have blown out the Islanders. They controlled the game for the majority of Saturday. It just wasn’t until the final shooter of the game, Tyson Foerster, made Sorokin blink:
— Flyers Nation (@FlyersNation) November 26, 2023
The Flyers continue their march through the Metropolitan Division this week. They host Carolina Tuesday and New Jersey Thursday before a home-and-home set with Pittsburgh Saturday and next Monday to wrap up a stretch of eight straight games against divisional opponents. So far, they are 2-2-0. If they do the same in the next four games, it’s likely they will still be where they are currently situated in the Conference.
They’ll be four more games and eight more days closer to a difficult decision that Briere has to make.
It’s up to Tortorella and his players to make that decision incredibly hard on Briere. Frankly, it’s a good problem to have.