Can Dave Hakstol, Flyers find balance between creative and cautious?

Can Dave Hakstol, Flyers find balance between creative and cautious?

For the first two months of the 2016-17 season, the Flyers were second in the NHL with 102 goals scored in 32 games (3.19 per game).

The problem was, they surrendered the league's second-most goals with 95 (2.97).

At the time, the Flyers were 19-10-3 and rising because of a 10-game winning streak.

The question was, would that ratio ultimately balance out in the win-loss column?

As nice as the scoring was, head coach Dave Hakstol was not pleased with the number of pucks mounting in his own net. Once the wins started fading and losses started piling because of crooked numbers by the opposition, the Flyers turned defensive.

Goals were less common as tight, low-scoring games took over. Hakstol even benched two of his most innovative players with the puck, Travis Konecny and Shayne Gostisbehere, a combined eight times to have the two focus on little things.

From Dec. 15 to the end of the season, the Flyers scored the NHL's third-fewest goals at 110 in 50 games (2.20 per game), while allowing the 11th-fewest at 136 (2.72).

The Flyers went 20-23-7 over that span and, of course, missed the playoffs.

Systematically, did the Flyers restrict creativity?

"I think that you look at all different aspects," Hakstol said Thursday. "There's a foundational side of the game where we talked about play without the puck and needing to be real solid in that area. We didn't start the year very strong in our play without the puck. We addressed it and improved it greatly as the year went on. With the puck, I think as you look at the game, there is room for creativity."

The Flyers will continue to get younger, especially next season, which is expected to result in faster players with greater skill. The Flyers hope to accentuate those characteristics because, well, the teams that score are the teams that win.

Sure, discipline and possession with the puck are important, but the Flyers simply did not score enough, specifically at 5-on-5 (128 goals -- 27th).

The challenge will be can Hakstol and his staff adjust and find a preferred style as more skill makes its way to the big club?

"Hak, he's a smart guy. He's a smart guy," Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said Thursday. "He knows what's going on. I think if you look lately here, we started playing really well. The one thing any coach, I don't care where, and I've been around a lot of them over however many years, they hate turnovers. Turnovers are a huge thing in a hockey game. Your players are all going north and all of a sudden there's a turnover and you're not set up defensively. That's where a lot of goals are scored -- quick breaks, 3-on-2s, when the other team is not set up.

"That's what systems try to do -- turn pucks over, get teams off guard. They're not in defending mode, they're in offensive mode, that's when you quick break. That's when you get scoring chances. It's hard to get scoring chances nowadays."

Jakub Voracek echoed his GM's sentiment, mentioning the increase in difficulty of scoring in today's NHL. He also knows an adjustment is needed because the Flyers didn't do enough.

"It's harder and harder every single year to get goals, but I think it's the system and the teams playing right now, it's a defensive system," Voracek said. "That basically everything is jammed up in the middle, we've got five guys, one is a defenseman that has to get it through. It's almost impossible to get it through. So it's obviously harder to score. But we have to find a way."

Hextall was adamant about the Flyers' wanting players to play freely and to their strengths. There's an exception, though.

"It's risk and reward," Hextall said. "And there are times where players have to recognize the risk vs. reward. If it's a 40 percent chance you're going to make a play for a scoring chance and a 60 percent chance it's going to go back the other way, it's probably not a real good risk to take. If it's 90-10, it's a good risk to take."

Is that shackling a player, though?

"No," Hextall said. "He's taking 10 percent of his plays that he might try to make, out of the mix. We do not want our players to not be creative. We want our players to be creative. We want Konecny, (Claude) Giroux, Voracek, we want them to make plays. We want them to set up scoring chances, we want them to score goals. What we don't want them to do is turn pucks over and come back our way and we end up minus-20, minus-25. That's got to stop. That minus stuff has got to stop. It has to stop."

What must start is the Flyers' striking a better balance between that risk and reward.

"You look at the different areas of generating opportunities, in the National Hockey League right now, a lot is off the rush," Hakstol said. "That's an area where we're really taking a step back and really looking at things. Looking at different ways to allow players to have that creativity."

Report: Flyers sign 2015 draft pick Mikhail Vorobyov to entry-level contract

Report: Flyers sign 2015 draft pick Mikhail Vorobyov to entry-level contract

It appears another prospect has signed his entry-level contract with the Flyers.

Mikhail Vorobyov has now done so, according to a report by TVA Sports' Renaud Lavoie on Tuesday night. Fellow prospect Connor Bunnaman signed last Friday.

Vorobyov, a 20-year-old center selected by the Flyers in the fourth round of the 2015 draft, played in the KHL for parts of the past seasons. With Salavat Yulaev, the 6-foot-2, 207-pounder had three goals and eight assists in 44 games this season.

Vorobyov was on the final year of his KHL deal.

Playing for his native Russia in the World Junior Championships, Vorobyov opened eyes with 10 assists and a plus-6 rating in seven games.

At 20 years old, he's more than likely headed for AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley in 2017-18.

2016-17 Flyers evaluation: Part 1 of the forwards

2016-17 Flyers evaluation: Part 1 of the forwards

We continue our series reviewing the Flyers' 2016-17 roster with the third part of a four-part series. You can find our goaltending review here and defensemen review here.

The core forward group for the Flyers -- Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek -- has been together for six seasons now.

It's sad to say, but it hasn't accomplished anything of significance during that time.

So when fans ask whether it's time to break that core up after a third non-playoff season in five years, it's a legitimate question.

And it's one that general manager Ron Hextall admits he has to think about this summer.

"Pro sports is all about proving yourself year after year," Hextall said recently. "Every one of our players has to prove themselves next year. Will it stay together? I don't know. If we'd have won a couple rounds of playoffs there's obviously a better chance of them staying together.

"Does that mean it's not going to stay together? I don't know what's going to come our way. Am I happy with the team? No. I'm not. How can you be, right? We missed the playoffs and, again, we were capable. I don't know one way or the other whether there's going to be change."

Hextall admitted he was not satisfied with the leadership group, which includes the players above, headed by Giroux, the team's captain.
 
"It's much harder to lead when you're not having a great year because you get a little bit more consumed with your own play because first and foremost you have to perform," Hextall said. "So it does take away. They do tie together.
 
"With G, yeah, there's a little bit of that that happened this year. I'm not singling him out because first and foremost he has to play well for us. He got frustrated by his level of performance. It was up and down. Our leadership can be better, for sure. Again, that's not G, that's our whole group."
 
Here is our look at the forwards (alphabetically) this past season, minus Mike Vecchione, who wasn't here long enough. We will split this up into two parts.
 
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare
Age: Turned 32 on March 6
Stats: 82 GP; 4G, 4A, 8 Pts.; minus-1; 12:58
Cap hit: $1.45 million

A tireless worker on the fourth line and penalty kill, Bellemare was rewarded with a new deal that doubles his salary for next season and was given Mark Streit's "A" when the veteran defenseman was dealt at the trade deadline. Like his teammates, there was a drop-off in offensive production. Yet what is troubling is that his effectiveness with Chris VandeVelde on the PK is gone. They routinely generated a shorthanded scoring chance every night and that wasn't the case this season. The PK -- as a group -- was horrendous. If Vecchione makes the roster in the fall, Bellemare is expected to move to left wing permanently.
 
Nick Cousins
Age: Turns 24 on June 20
Stats: 60 GP; 6G, 10A, 16 Pts.; minus-6; 12:00
Cap hit: $840,000

A feisty player with good hockey sense but average speed and hands. Cousins' enthusiasm makes him the kind of role player you can use on any line, which is exactly how coach Dave Hakstol employed him this season. What Cousins has to watch out for now is that the Flyers have quicker, more skilled forwards coming in the next two seasons. And while his ice time was up two minutes over last season, it nose-dived this year in the second half after he was averaging 15 minutes in February. He's the kind of grit player who accepts his role without complaint that Vegas might find attractive in the expansion draft.

Sean Couturier
Age: Turns 25 on Dec. 7
Stats: 66 GP; 14G, 20A, 34 Pts.; plus-12; 18:26
Cap hit: $4.33 million

It's become redundant at this point to say "Coots" should be more offensive-minded. The waiting game is over. When the Flyers drafted him in 2011, the expectation was that they were getting a bona fide 20-25 goal-per-season player who would challenge for the Selke Trophy because of his all-around defensive play. The second half of that prophecy occurred, but the first half has been put to bed. Couturier will never be an offensive centerman and the only thing the Flyers can do now is either trade him or live with it. Yet $4 million is a lot of money for a guy whose goal production is 15 -- at best. That said, his line with Dale Weise and Schenn came alive when Valtteri Filppula arrived because it created better matchups for the Flyers. Also, Couturier was the only Flyer who significantly went from being a minus to finish as a team-high plus-12.
 
Valtteri Filppula
Age: Turned 33 on March 20
Stats: 20 GP; 5G, 3A, 8 Pts.; minus-2; 17:07
Cap hit: $5.0 million

There's still some good tread left on this Finnish centerman's tires. A lot of people had a hard time understanding this move, but Hextall made a convincing argument that Filppula's presence in the middle would create better road matchups that would benefit Giroux and Couturier, and the evidence was there for the choosing in the final weeks of the season. Filppula buys time for the Flyers to get a young center out of the minors or Europe -- perhaps German Rubtsov -- with a steep one-year price but the Flyers were looking short term here and he fits the bill, even though the days of him scoring 20 goals are over. His line with Jordan Weal and Simmonds was excellent. Given his no-movement clause, Filppula has to be protected in the expansion draft.
 
Claude Giroux
Age: Turns 30 on Jan. 12
Stats: 82 GP; 14G, 44A, 58 Pts.; minus-15; 19:07
Cap hit: $8.275 million

Giroux's offseason abdominal and hip surgeries -- much like Shayne Gostisbehere -- ruined his season. He wasn't able to move the way he should. He had no burst of speed, no recovery speed. He made a calculated mistake not admitting his injury held him back until March and allowed himself to become a target of the fans' wrath when he should have been honest up front. Hextall admitted he expected better leadership from Giroux. Some point to Simmonds as the de facto captain. Yet Giroux cares deeply about this team. He was embarrassed at being a minus player this season, too. It's a legit concern that his offensive production has dropped off a cliff since 2011-12, but his salary makes it virtually impossible to trade him in a salary cap world. And there is no indication that Hextall has even considered moving him. Giroux went the entire season without a set line. In fact, Hakstol used him on eight lines. You can't have your No. 1 center playing with that many different linemates. Giroux needs to settle in with steady wingers.

Travis Konecny
Age: Turned 20 on March 11
Stats: 70 GP; 11G, 17A, 28 Pts.; minus-2; 14:05
Cap hit: $894,167

Konecny was Hakstol's personal whipping boy this season, perhaps more so than Gostisbehere. For a coach who staked his reputation on handling young players well and having genuine rapport, this was the complete opposite of what you'd expect. Hextall defended Hakstol in being tough on Konecny because it was about the larger issue of turnovers that were killing the club and skilled players such as Konecny were making too many of them. Give the kid credit. He came through without being terribly scarred and should be even more mindful of what he's doing with the puck next season. Konecny had the talent to score 15 or 20 goals this year regardless, so 11 goals represent a letdown. Yet you see the promise in the kid even if you're not quite sure where he belongs. He was on four different units in the second half of the season. Konecny took 133 shots but had 50 missed attempts. He has much better accuracy than that.
 
Roman Lyubimov
Age: Turned 25 on Jan. 6
Stats: 47 GP; 4G, 2A, 6 Pts.; minus-2; 9:34
Cap hit: RFA who earned $925,000

Whatever it was that impressed the coaching staff in training camp about this Russian import -- perhaps the fact he plays a heavy game -- it wore off quickly with Hakstol. He sat 12 straight games after late February and didn't even dress for the season finale against Carolina. He was slotted on the fourth line and that's where he played when given a chance. Despite good size, the Flyers likely feel they have a quicker, more versatile player in Vecchione, who was signed out of college in April. If the club re-signs him, Lyubimov goes to the Phantoms. If not, he likely goes back to Russia.
 
Michael Raffl
Age: Turns 29 on Dec. 1
Stats: 52 GP; 8G, 3A, 11 Pts.; minus-7; 13:15
Cap hit: $2.35 million

A bad MCL sprain to his left knee suffered against Colorado on Feb. 28 put a premature end to Raffl's season. Interestingly, he could have returned in early April but the club chose to keep him on injured reserve until season's end. What has to be answered, however, is what happened to Raffl offensively from the midpoint of the season -- Game 41 on Jan. 7 -- until he was injured. Over those next 21 games, Raffl didn't have a single point. Then his season ended. Recall, he had 21 goals three years ago in 67 games. Raffl gets a pass because he was just one of many players who had a terrible year. His gung-ho attitude and aggressive nature on the ice sets him apart from others in the dressing room. He could be exposed in the expansion draft and he's one versatile European player who can play anywhere in the lineup, so it wouldn't surprise anyone if Vegas chose him.

Our series concludes Wednesday with our second part examining the forwards.