Difficult to see now, but remember: Flyers’ window just starting to open

Difficult to see now, but remember: Flyers’ window just starting to open

They can’t win away from the Wells Fargo Center. They’ve seen a nine-point cushion in the wild-card standings vanish and when they resume play on Saturday, they’ll be out of the playoff picture.

The Flyers are who we thought they were. A fringe playoff team lacking in too many areas to be considered a serious contender, despite the overachievement of last season.

When the Flyers entered their bye week, they sat one point ahead of Carolina for the final wild-card spot and two points ahead of Florida and Ottawa. They are 3-8-3 in 14 games since their 10-game winning streak was snapped, and were blown out in back-to-back games in Boston and Washington by a combined score of 11-3.

Yet, they’re still on the brink of the postseason — for now. Perhaps it’s time for a trade from the front office to send a shockwave through the locker room? Not so fast.

“If we can make our team better, we will,” Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said last week at Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees, New Jersey. “But we’re staying on course.

“I don’t care if we win every game the rest of the year or lose every game, we’re staying on course. We set out on a course two and a half years ago — we’re not deviating from what we planned. I’m not going to make a trade to send a message.”

It’s easy to get carried away in win streaks and unexpected playoff appearances, especially in Philadelphia, where the four major sports teams are rebuilding. It’s even easier to scream for a team to go for it when it shows a glimpse into its full potential.

That is what makes sports fun. It’s what makes for good sports debate programs and entertaining talking heads. But it’s not how organizations should run their operations.

It’s certainly not how Hextall runs his regime with the Flyers. Hextall has a clear vision, and time and time again has shown no signs of expediting his plan for immediate help. He has made it a purpose to build through the draft. We have to remember that, and realize that the Flyers’ front office is playing the long game here, not the short game.

“Right now, we’re gonna stick with what we’ve got here and move forward,” Hextall said Sunday in Washington. “But on a day-to-day basis, I always look at how we can make our club better, and if there’s something that we think makes our club better, we’ll do it.

“The worst thing you can do is overreact when things aren’t going right and that’s not gonna happen. But if we can find a way to make ourselves better, we will.”

Let’s take a step back and make some sense of the Flyers’ current state. They are seventh in the Eastern Conference with 50 points as of Tuesday morning. They are 8-12-3 on the road, with nine straight defeats away from South Philadelphia. They are a top-10 scoring team, with 127 goals, but have allowed a league-high 144 goals against.

Steve Mason’s confidence is completely shook. Michal Neuvirth hasn’t been much better, if at all. Claude Giroux hasn’t scored a goal in 11 games and has just one marker in his last 17 games. (To be fair, he does have seven assists in his last eight games.)

Shayne Gostisbehere has been a healthy scratch twice this season, with his latest coming last Saturday in Boston. He’s struggled with his gap defense, among other areas, and is enduring growing pains in his second NHL season — as expected.

While the Flyers’ defense has scored 102 points, second most in the NHL, it struggles with gaps, turnovers and has too many breakdowns. Ivan Provorov, 20, has been the lone bright spot among the group of eight defensemen.

Head coach Dave Hakstol has juggled his lines and defensive pairs in attempts to find something that works. Some of the moves have worked, others have not. Questioning some of Hakstol’s lineup decisions is fair, but there’s no question his systems work.

There is only so much Hakstol can do with what he has to work with. Part of the blame can be placed on Hextall because this team, as currently constructed, is not there yet. It is, however, unfair to put every decision Hakstol makes under a microscope.

“Hak has tried a lot of things,” Hextall said. “In the end, it’s a group and we win together, we lose together. We have to react as a group better when something doesn’t go our way. That’s bottom line. … Line changes, different D combinations, flipping Mase, Neuvy. Everything that’s there, Hak has tried. In the end it comes down to our whole group just being better and not reacting the way we do when something negative happens.”

One of the reasons Hextall opted to hire Hakstol, who came directly from college with no prior NHL coaching experience, is development. Growth takes time, and there is rhyme or reason behind each Hakstol benching, whether we see it or not.

The Flyers’ play the last few weeks has been dumbfounding because a lot of the same mistakes that plagued the team in the beginning of the season — lax team defensive coverage, bad decisions with the puck, letting opponents enter the zone too easily, among others — are reappearing and that’s a fair criticism on the current coaching staff.

But, when we put things in perspective, there are positives. Provorov has proven he’s the real deal before he turned 20 last Friday. Travis Konecny is here, and while he’s been the victim of a Hakstol benching, he’s shown glimpses of what’s to come. Jakub Voracek (41 points) has bounced back, Wayne Simmonds is an All-Star and added penalty kill to his résumé. Brayden Schenn leads the NHL in power-play goals with 11, though his 5-on-5 scoring could improve. And there’s a lot of upside on the farm system, with the potential of seeing an influx of kids joining the Flyers as early as next season. 

“The window is actually starting to open, the way I see it,” Hextall said last week. “The kids we have on our team. The kids we have coming. There’s things happening here that are good. We’re going to get better here. We’re not going to get worse.”

And Hextall is right — the window is just opening and will only open wider. Patience remains key here, and don’t trust the process with the Flyers. Just enjoy the course.

Future Flyers Report: Robert Hagg has 'made big strides,' AGM Chris Pryor says

Future Flyers Report: Robert Hagg has 'made big strides,' AGM Chris Pryor says

The Flyers are mercifully on their league-mandated five-day bye week after dropping back-to-back games last weekend by a combined score of 11-3. They need the time off.

As the bye week begins, it's time for our weekly check-in on the Flyers’ prospects playing in the AHL, overseas and at the junior and college levels.

In this edition, we highlight a 2013 second-round pick whom the Flyers believe is on the brink of reaching the NHL and much more in this week’s Future Flyers Report.

Robert Hagg, D, 6-1/191, Lehigh Valley (AHL)
Hagg has been an interesting prospect to follow this season, especially considering the down year he had last season in Lehigh Valley and that he often gets lost in the conversation when discussing Flyers’ defensive prospects. That should change.

The 21-year-old has “made big strides,” Flyers assistant general manager Chris Pryor told ESPN.com’s Craig Custance last week. Pryor had been the Flyers’ director of scouting since 2006 before earning the promotion to AGM this year and has been with the team since 1999. Pryor also told ESPN the Flyers believe Hagg is “just about NHL-ready.”

Pryor’s comments fall in line with what general manager Ron Hextall told Phantoms broadcaster Bob Rotruck Dec. 14 that Hagg has taken “the kind of step we were hoping he’d take last year.” The Flyers are high on the 2013 second-round draft pick.

In his third professional year, Hagg’s two-way style doesn’t garner much flash, but he does a lot of things well when he keeps his game simple and asserts himself. That has been the case this season, and his development has caught the eyes of Flyers’ front office.

During the Phantoms’ 6-4 loss to the Hershey Bears on Saturday night, Hagg snapped a five-game pointless streak in picking up his third assist of the season — fifth point. Hagg made a quick pass in the neutral zone to Greg Carey to keep the Phantoms’ pressure going, and Carey eventually deposited the puck into the Hershey net.

Often the forgotten defensive prospect, Hagg appears to pushing hard for an NHL spot sooner rather than later. With a few blueliners coming off the books after this season, Hagg is a legitimate candidate to be apart of the Flyers’ top-six in 2017-18.

Alex Lyon, G, 6-1/201, Lehigh Valley (AHL)
With Anthony Stolarz back in the mix, Lyon understands it’s back to a healthy competition between the pipes for the Phantoms and he’s welcomed the battle.

Lyon told Highland Park Hockey last week that the playing time he’s acquired in the last month when Stolarz was with the Flyers gave him “a little bit of fuel for the fire.” Lyon went on to say the competition between the two will allow them to “push each other.”

Last week, the Phantoms decided to split the weekend with Lyon and Stolarz, who stopped 15 of 17 shots in Lehigh Valley’s 6-2 win over Hershey on Friday. Lyon got the nod Saturday, and the Bears scored five goals on 26 shots on the first-year pro.

Phantoms head coach Scott Gordon has a good problem to have — two strong goalies at the AHL level in Lyon and Stolarz. It’s similar to what the Flyers have at the NHL level with Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth, except the NHL goalies are struggling right now.

With Mason and Neuvirth both on the final years of their contracts, Stolarz figures to have a spot on the Flyers’ roster next season after he showed enough in his call-up last month. But don’t overlook Lyon, who is on a one-year contract and the Flyers like him.

Samuel Dove-McFalls, C, 6-2/207, Saint John’s (QMJHL)
A 2015 fourth-round pick, Dove-McFalls has been centering the Sea Dogs’ third line, and last week, in a 7-6 loss to Cape Breton, he picked up his ninth goal of the year, which knotted the game at five in the third period. Dove-McFalls won 15 of his 20 faceoffs against the Screaming Eagles. He has four points in his last six games, and goals in three of those six games. Overall, he has 31 points in 40 games for Saint John’s.

Quick hits
• Phantoms defenseman Travis Sanheim continues to tear apart the AHL, picking up two more goals in Lehigh Valley’s 6-4 loss to Hershey on Saturday. Sanheim has three goals in his last three games, and seven goals in his last 13 games.

• It might be time for AHL players to stop trying to pick fights with Sam Morin, who bloodied Hershey’s Garrett Mitchell in a fight on Saturday night.

• Rouyn-Noranda’s Philippe Myers remains out with a concussion, but did enough at the world juniors to impress TSN’s Bob McKenzie, who think Myers is NHL ready.

German Rubtsov has yet to suit up for a game with Chicoutimi. Rubtsov got out of his KHL contract last week, but did undergo surgery to repair a broken nose last Monday.

• Victoriaville’s Pascal Laberge had a goal and an assist in the Tigres’ 3-2 win over Halifax on Sunday. Laberge, who has dealt with some head injuries this season, has five goals and 17 points in 23 games with Victoriaville.

• In two games since returning to Everett from the world juniors, Carter Hart has pitched a shutout and was plastered for four goals. He made 22 saves in blanking Kamloops, 4-0, on Friday, but gave up four goals on 38 shots in a 4-3 loss to Seattle on Saturday.

•  Calgary traded Carsen Twarynski to the Kelowna Rockets at last week’s WHL trade deadline. Twarynski picked up an assist Friday, his second game with the Rockets.

 Felix Sandstrom made 15 saves and yielded two goals in his first game with Brynäs IF since returning from the world juniors, a 3-0 loss to Djurgårdens IF on Saturday.

• Michigan center Cooper Marody centered the Wolverines’ top line last week in back-to-back weekend losses No. 9 Minnesota. Marody was held pointless.

Tanner Laczynski picked up an assist in No. 10 Ohio State’s 6-1 win over Arizona State on Friday, his first game back since the world juniors. He was pointless Saturday.

• Clarkson defenseman Terrance Amorosa had his first two-assist game since the season opener in the Golden Knights’ 7-2 rout of Brown on Saturday night.

• Not the best week for Merrick Madsen, who was pulled in No. 2 Harvard’s 4-0 loss to Rensselaer on Friday after allowing four goals on 20 shots. He picked up another loss Saturday, when Harvard fell, 2-1, to No. 11 Union, but he was stronger with 20 saves.

• Western Michigan’s Wade Allison picked up his 10th collegiate goal in the No. 14-ranked Broncos’ 7-2 loss to No. Denver on Saturday night.

Flyers’ third-period push ‘big positive’ in important shootout win

Flyers’ third-period push ‘big positive’ in important shootout win

The Flyers have dug themselves a hole as of late and they've flirted with laying in it after churning out 10 straight wins and making up considerable ground in the standings.

That wild-card cushion has all but evaporated with their recent stretch. They entered Thursday night’s game with the Vancouver Canucks losers of seven of their previous eight and were 2-6-3 since their third-longest win streak in franchise history was snapped Dec. 17.

With Florida and Carolina idle Thursday, a meeting with one of the NHL’s worst road teams in Vancouver and a tough back-to-back looming this weekend before their league-mandated bye week, the Flyers understood the importance of Thursday night.

And despite digging even deeper with a lack of discipline and defensive coverage that appeared, at times, comatose in the first two periods, the orange and black scraped their way to a self-inflicted, adversity-ridden 5-4 shootout win over the Canucks.

“For our group, especially over the last couple of weeks, we’ve found a way to lose a point or two in games like this,” Dave Hakstol said Thursday.

“Whereas tonight, we found a way to push for a win in the third period and that’s the big positive. We didn’t sneak out the back door in the third period with the two points. We played a real good third period and earned the two points in our own building.”

It was the second period Tuesday night in Buffalo where the Flyers were undone. The Sabres outcompeted and outworked the Flyers for three second-period goals en route to a 4-1 win. Two nights later, the second period again almost doomed them.

Three more goals allowed in the middle stanza led to Steve Mason's being pulled after the second intermission for Michal Neuvirth. Yet, the difference between the Buffalo game Tuesday and the Vancouver game Thursday was the Flyers’ first-period play.

A complete mental lapse in discipline led to four stick infractions, back-to-back double minors for high sticking, 12 first-period penalty minutes, two 5-on-3 Canucks power plays, one that bled into the second period, and one power-play goal against.

Vancouver capitalized on the first 5-on-3 man advantage at 9:21, when Daniel Sedin found twine after Michael Del Zotto was whistled for a double-minor high sticking. Del Zotto took another high sticking infraction at 19:51 that led to Markus Granlund’s first of two goals at 1:51 of the second period, just as the Canucks’ second 5-on-3 expired.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything quite like that,” Hakstol said. “That not only changes the start of that hockey game and alters the first period, but it has an effect on the energy some players have and vice versa for the guys who aren’t playing.

“There was a little bit of adversity there through the first period. Same thing in the second. In the second period, we created some of our own adversity, but I like the fact we turned it around and pushed in the right direction in the third and did it the right way.”

Hakstol was not pleased with the Flyers’ reckless sticks in the first period, calling it the players’ responsibility to take care of their stick and said those penalties “can’t happen.”

Breakdowns in defensive coverage and turnovers highlighted the Flyers’ second period. They struggled to clear the front of the net, left Canucks uncovered and were flat. Two of the three second-period goals allowed were direct results of poor coverage.

After the first 40 minutes, the Flyers found themselves down, 4-3, to the Canucks and incurring 14 of the 16 penalty minutes they had on the night. It had all the makings of a repeat of Tuesday night when the second period costs them two more points.

But Brayden Schenn scored his NHL-leading 10th power-play goal of the season just 57 seconds into the third period to knot the game, 4-4, and Neuvirth clamped down with 10 third-period saves, providing a calming presence in net and settling the Flyers down.

“I don’t think we played our best game,” said Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who scored his second goal of the season in the second period. “We have to start way stronger the next one, but at the end of the day, we were behind three times. It’s not the situation we like to be in, but we came back and we won the game.”

The Flyers’ win was their fifth shootout victory of the season, setting a franchise record. Since the shootout's inception in 2005, the Flyers have never won more than four in a season. They did so against the NHL’s winningest shootout goalie in Ryan Miller (57 wins).

More importantly, the Flyers fought back to pick up the extra point they nearly let slip away with another abysmal second period ahead of their back-to-back set with Boston and Washington this weekend. They were able to pad their wild-card cushion to four points.

“It’s really big for us,” Travis Konecny said. “We’ve been preaching the importance of the points heading forward. We’re not a team that’s going to look at the standings, but we’ve had to dial that in a little bit lately and make sure we’re on the right page.”