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.

Ron Hextall: Jakub Voracek's penalty on hit was a 'terrible call'

Ron Hextall: Jakub Voracek's penalty on hit was a 'terrible call'

BOSTON – While coach Dave Hakstol declined again to bait the officials on a terrible, five-minute major penalty that severely harmed the Flyers, his general manager went on the offensive.
 
You don’t have to ask Ron Hextall twice about what he thought of the boarding major to Jakub Voracek during a 3-2 game in the second period as the latter turned his body to avoid Kevin Miller, who was already falling into the back boards.
 
“It was a terrible call,” Hextall said. “In my mind, it wasn’t a penalty. Jake goes in to forecheck, which is what he’s supposed to do.
 
“Their guy gets into a bad position which we try to teach our guys not to, then he takes contact and sees Jake coming.
 
“I don’t know understand why that was called. To me it’s not a two-minute minor, let alone a five-minute penalty. And did it affect the game? Yes. Did it lose us the game? No.”
 
Both Hextall and Voracek believe that’s the “end” of it, yet given Miller never returned, there’s a chance the NHL’s Department of Player Safety might make a phone call to the Flyers.
 
Miller appeared to injure his right shoulder. He didn’t hit the boards hard enough to be concussed.
 
Voracek has zero history on such hits and has never been suspended.
 
“I’m pretty confident we won’t hear from the league,” Hextall said. “It happens all the time. Players don’t come back. It’s a physical game. A fast game.
 
“Unfortunately, players get hurt. No one wants to see a player get hurt. Just because someone gets hurt doesn’t mean you hear from the league.”
 
Hakstol said the penalty was one of several "turning points" in the game but not the biggest.

"The biggest turning point in the game was the first five minutes of the second period where we didn't take care of the puck or make them defend at all," he said. 

Road woes
The Flyers are on an 0-6-2 road skid. If they’re going to make the playoffs, they need to dramatically improve their road record.
 
“We’re not playing consistent hockey,” Michael Del Zotto said. “It’s pretty cliché, but if you don’t put 60 minutes together, there are no easy games in this league. You have to put your best foot forward every night or games like this happen.”
 
Goals against
The Flyers have given up three goals or more in five of their last seven games. Their 143 goals against are the most in the NHL.
 
“Five guys on the ice and the goalie – you can’t give up that many goals,” Jakub Voracek said. “It’s same story all over again. We had it in the  beginning of the season and we have it again now … We got to play better defensively.”

Mark Streit, activated on Saturday, played in his first game since Dec. 11 at Detroit. He logged 19:20 ice time and was minus-2.  Asked about this latest road loss, he looked at numbers.
 
“If you give up fix of six goals, you are not going to win a hockey game,” he said. “Pretty good first period and then the second period, we had a few turnovers and it killed our momentum.
 
“They got few scoring opportunities and PPs and took advantage of it. You got to manage the puck better, especially in the neutral zone against a trap team.”
 
Loose pucks

• Were it not for Matt Read’s skate cut which kept him out of the lineup, Saturday would have been the first time all season the Flyers had a completely healthy lineup. Remember, they began the season with players on LTIR.

• Michael Del Zotto was at it again with his stick. He hooked David Pastrnak who took a dive in the second period. Both went to the box.

• Brayden Schenn’s power play goal extended his point streak to five games, tying his career-high.

Dave Hakstol: 'There will be a change or two' vs. Canucks

Dave Hakstol: 'There will be a change or two' vs. Canucks

VOORHEES, N.J. — Another lifeless effort and another loss lead to more changes, but don’t read too much into the lines and defensive pairs the Flyers showcased Wednesday.

At least according to head coach Dave Hakstol.

“Well, we didn’t really have lines out there today,” Hakstol said after the team’s practice at Flyers Skate Zone. “We were just working on different things. There was kind of a mixture. I think we put seven forwards in each color and guys were just kind of mixing through. There will be a change or two to the lineup, yes.”

If Wednesday’s practice is indicative of the “change or two” Hakstol hinted at afterward, Travis Konecny might see time at right wing with Claude Giroux and Michael Raffl, and Nick Cousins could draw back in after being a healthy scratch for the last five games.

Konecny made the switch to left wing during training camp, a shift from right wing and center he played in junior and a move that helped his chances to make the Flyers. The 19-year-old has six goals and 20 points in 42 games thus far into his rookie season, playing in all but one game in which he was benched in San Jose on Dec. 30.

In five games since the benching, Konecny has two goals and 14 shots on goal. When Hakstol sat Konecny, the coach said it was for Konecny to “continue to develop.” Konecny responded with his first goal in 22 games against Anaheim the next game on Jan. 1.

Now, it appears Konecny could begin Thursday night’s game against the Vancouver Canucks at the Wells Fargo Center alongside Giroux and Raffl on the Flyers’ top line.

“Today, he took a couple shifts on the right side,” Hakstol said of Konecny. “But that’s not really inherent of anything. I don’t have lines set for tomorrow yet. So what did I see out there today on the right wing? I wasn’t really evaluating the play offensively. There were some things we were working on defensively in terms of our rush coverage.

"We weren’t very good in that area during the second period (Tuesday), and we haven’t had a lot of time to work on things like that. Took 10 minutes today to try to get a little bit of that detail back.”

On Tuesday night, the Flyers’ offense continued to struggle to generate quality scoring chances, despite throwing 40 shots at Sabres backup goalie Anders Nilsson in a 4-1 loss in Buffalo. In the 11 games since their 10-game winning streak was snapped Dec. 17 in Dallas, the orange and black are 2-6-3 and have averaged 1.73 goals.

Jakub Voracek, who has six points in his last 11 games, spent Wednesday’s practice skating with Sean Couturier in the middle and Matt Read and Cousins at left wing. Pressed on if he was aware of any lineup changes for the Canucks game, Voracek said it’s Hakstol’s decision and doesn’t know what changes could be in store for Thursday.

“Everybody in the past played together,” Voracek said. “We know what to expect. No matter what the lines are going to be tomorrow or the next three games, we have to make sure we bear down. When we have the chances, we have to make sure we score.”

Cousins has not been in the Flyers’ lineup since Dec. 30 against the Sharks, a game in which he played left wing with Couturier and Dale Weise. After winning a roster spot in training camp, Cousins has been in and out of the lineup this season.

He’s been a healthy scratch nine games, and if he does sit out Thursday against Vancouver, that number will reach double digits. He’s already matched his point total (10) in two fewer games this season than last but has not been able to be a mainstay.

After practice Wednesday, Cousins said Hakstol has yet to address in detail what he wants Cousins to change in order for him to get back into the lineup.

“(Hakstol) hasn’t said much to me, actually,” Cousins said. “So, yeah, it is what it is. He obviously has his lineup that he’s sticking to and I’ll be ready when my name’s called. If and when that is, I don’t know. I’m just taking it day by day and working hard in practice.

“I’m just trying to stay ready. I’ve been working hard with (Ian Laperriere) after practice, working on little stuff that we need to work on. Working hard in the weight room. There’s nothing else I can do. I can only control what I can control. I don’t make the lineups. I'll be ready when my name (is called).”

Hakstol did hint Cousins could be back soon, perhaps as early as Thursday.

“Cousins has just been the odd man out here,” the second-year Flyers head coach said. “It’s not that he has to change a whole lot. There’s going to be a change or two with our lineup tomorrow. He’s certainly a guy, when he’s in, he always brings that scrappy, competitive edge to his game, but more than that, he brings some playmaking as well.”

Asked if he was more at the point of evaluation or an experimental stage in looking to solve the Flyers’ recent offensive woes, Hakstol conceded it was a combination of both.

“We’re not going to start mixing and matching all over the place,” Hakstol said, “but at the same time, we haven’t had a whole lot of success over the last 10 games. We’ll do things with reason and with purpose, and if we feel a change is necessary and makes sense, we’re going to make it.”

Loose pucks
Mark Streit took full practice with the Flyers on Wednesday but will not be available Thursday against Vancouver. Streit, who hasn’t played since Dec. 11, said Saturday’s game in Boston is an option and it’s a day-by-day thing. Streit is currently on long-term injured reserve, and when activated, the Flyers would have to make a corresponding move. ... Shayne Gostisbehere was paired with Nick Schultz, who has played just three games since Nov. 11. It’s unclear if Gostisbehere will be a healthy scratch against Vancouver. Streit was paired with Radko Gudas, and Michael Del Zotto skated with Brandon Manning. The Ivan Provorov-Andrew MacDonald pair stayed together.