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."

NHL Notes: Rangers ink Mika Zibanejad to 5-year extension

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USA Today Images

NHL Notes: Rangers ink Mika Zibanejad to 5-year extension

NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers have signed center Mika Zibanejad to a $26.75 million, five-year deal.

Zibanejad will count $5.35 million against the salary cap through 2021-22 as the Rangers count on him to take on a bigger role following the trade of Derek Stepan. General manager Jeff Gorton announced the contract Tuesday morning, before the team and Zibanejad were set to go to arbitration.

The 24-year-old Swede had 14 goals and 23 assists for 37 points in 56 games last season, his first with New York. The Rangers acquired Zibanejad from the Ottawa Senators for Derick Brassard a year ago.

Zibanejad has 188 points in 337 NHL games with the Senators and Rangers since Ottawa drafted him sixth overall in 2011 (see full story).

Team Canada names Sean Burke GM for 2018 Olympics
Sean Burke will be the general manager and Willie Desjardins the head coach for Canada at the first Olympics without NHL players since 1994.

Hockey Canada named its management and coaching staffs for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics on Tuesday. St. Louis Blues assistant general manager Martin Brodeur will work under Burke on the management side, while Desjardins will be assisted by Dave King, Scott Walker and Craig Woodcroft.

Canada has been grooming Burke for this responsibility for some time as he served as assistant GM for the 2017 world championships, GM for the 2016 Spengler Cup and Deutschland Cup and director of player development for the 2016 worlds. Desjardins coached Canada's 2010 world junior team and assisted in 2009.

USA Hockey has not yet named its GM or coach (see full story).

Sabres re-sign goalie Lehner to 1-year deal
BUFFALO, N.Y.  -- The Buffalo Sabres have re-signed goaltender Robin Lehner to a $4 million, one-year contract.

The team announced the deal Tuesday. Lehner was a restricted free agent.

The 26-year-old Swede showed he could stay healthy last season, setting career highs with 59 games played, 23 wins and two shutouts. He ranked third in the NHL with 1,758 saves and finished with a .920 save percentage and 2.68 goals-against average.

Bothered by injuries and concussion problems, Lehner had never before played more than 36 games in his NHL career. The Sabres took a chance on Lehner when they traded a first-round pick to the Ottawa Senators for him at the 2015 draft.

Lehner will again be a restricted free agent next summer when this contract expires.

Devils re-sign 3 restricted free agents
NEWARK, N.J. -- The New Jersey Devils have re-signed restricted free agent defenseman Mirco Mueller, forward Joseph Blandisi and goaltender Scott Wedgewood.

Mueller got a two-year deal worth an average of $850,000 a season, Blandisi a two-year, two-way deal worth an average of $680,000 in the NHL, and Wedgewood a one-year, two-way deal worth $650,000 in the NHL. General manager Ray Shero announced the contracts Tuesday.

Re-signing Mueller for two years was the most significant move after New Jersey acquired the 22-year-old from San Jose before the Vegas expansion draft. The Swiss defender has just six points in 54 NHL games with the Sharks, but still is considered a good prospect after being a first-round pick in 2013.

Mueller will make $775,000 next season and $925,000 in 2018-19.

There's a new game in town: The Philadelphia Rebels

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John Boruk/CSNPhilly.com

There's a new game in town: The Philadelphia Rebels

The opportunity to watch a Briere play again in Philadelphia will be an exciting reality for hockey fans this season.

No, Danny Briere isn’t coming out of retirement as the former Flyers forward has committed to handling the day-to-day operations of the organization’s newest ECHL team.  

However, Briere will be keeping close tabs on his younger son, Carson, who’s currently on the Philadelphia Rebels' 30-man roster and is setting his sights on making the team’s final cuts during training camp.

“It’s great,” Briere said Monday. “Growing up here for most of my life, I love Philly. It’s fun getting to play in the same city that [my dad] did. Whenever I think of him playing, I always think of that playoff run [in 2010] for the Flyers.”

After spending the past two seasons at IceWorks in Aston, Pennsylvania, the NAHL’s (North American Hockey League) Rebels are moving their operation to the Penn Ice Rink at the Class of 1923 Arena, where they made the formal announcement on Monday. It will be the organization’s third different home rink in the past four seasons after relocating from the Rio Grande Valley in 2015.

“It was a no-brainer,” team owner Marko Dundovich said. “When the opportunity presented itself, it was very easy. I think it will give the boys a better opportunity to play, get them seen and I think it’s going to continue to grow here, and our business and organization will do much better here.”

The Rebels and junior hockey simply didn’t attract a broad appeal in the Philadelphia suburbs like ownership had hoped, and as a result, attendance lagged as the team typically averaged around 125 fans a game.

“It was the first time we tried Junior A hockey here,” Dundovich said. “If we had a 300-, 400- or 500-person fan base, we would have been OK in Aston, but I think it was tough to sell a junior hockey ticket in Aston. It’s a difficult sell in a small town.”   

Conversely, hockey fans in Philadelphia haven’t had much of an alternative to the Flyers since the Phantoms left the city in 2009 for Glens Falls, New York. Rebels forward Aaron Maguyon, who stays with former Flyers captain Keith Primeau throughout the season, feels the team cannot only fill the 2,500-seat ice rink, but the players will greatly benefit from the college vibe.  

“I think it prepares us for the future and playing college hockey, for sure, so in that way, it’s like a sneak peek for what’s to come," Maguyon said. "I think it helps pull guys closer together. We have restaurants we can go to or just activities we can do in the city."

According to the league website, the NAHL set a new single-season NCAA record with 280-plus commitments, and the Rebels had 12 commit to Divison I programs. Head coach Joe Coombs has built a tier-II junior hockey powerhouse over the past two years. Last season, the Rebels finished with the NAHL’s best regular-season record, advancing to the championship game of the Robertson Cup in Duluth, Minnesota, where they came up short in a 2-0 loss to the Lone Star Brahmas. 

“This is business,” Coombs said. “Let’s bring the game to the people. Over the last two years, we struggled with our attendance. I didn’t even know this place was here — UPenn hockey rink — and we couldn’t think of a better venue right here in University City to try and market our brand of hockey and bring our game to the people.”  

And who knows? You might just see a few former Flyers in the seats, as well.