Are Flyers just underachievers? GM Ron Hextall doesn't think so

Are Flyers just underachievers? GM Ron Hextall doesn't think so

To look at the Flyers and where they are in the playoff picture -- only three players are plus this season -- it seems safe to say this team has underachieved under Dave Hakstol.

They're not a great hockey club. They're not as skilled or as deep as Chicago or Pittsburgh or Washington.

Only a few players have had good or very good seasons, and they're minus players as well -- Wayne Simmonds, Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny.

So on the eve of a four-game road trip that should tip the wild card one way or the other, how does general manager Ron Hextall square up with that assessment?

"I don't know if that's fair to say," Hextall said on Monday after the Flyers' team photo session at the Wells Fargo Center.

"Did we underachieve last night [against Carolina]? No. We're sitting there at 2-2 and we're outshooting them 2-1 and outplaying them, out-chancing them. Dominating the game essentially. A little bit of a microcosm the way our year has gone so far.

"So last night we scored more goals. Why don't we score more goals? Tough question to answer. We're getting to the net, our net-front presence is good. We're getting there for rebounds, we're doing a lot of the things we should do.

"There are some nights when it seems like it is puck luck. You can look at the whole year and say it's puck luck. We're focused again now on the stretch run and doing our part. We need a lot of help here but we're focused on doing our part."

Hakstol didn't get much offseason help. The Flyers' only two free-agent signings among AHL/NHL players were Dale Weise and Boyd Gordon. Gordon is now a Phantom.

Weise? He has four goals and eight points. Two goals in his last three games since coming back after being a healthy scratch for six games.

"When you sign guys, we signed Dale Weise, I assume that is what you are talking about, to a four-year deal," Hextall said. "If you are evaluating right now, you say, 'It hasn't exactly been ... he hasn't put up the type of numbers we hope.'

"He's playing pretty well lately. He is certainly a better player than he has shown over the course of the year. At the time, we added depth to our lineup. We expect 12 to 15 goals and he is nowhere near that. So, in a nutshell, we know Dale can play better."

Could Hextall have done something to help Hakstol earlier rather than waiting until the NHL trade deadline to acquire Valtteri Filppula?

Essentially, the only moves Hakstol has been able to make this season involve shifting personnel around in the lineup.

"Yeah, that's the game today," Hextall said. "We're in a cap world. There's 30 teams. There's not a lot of players, players sitting out there that are going to come in at a low number. That's the game today and that is why I believe in building an organization through draft and development and bring your players up.

"Have your depth players be your young players. You get two or three injuries, your young players come up and fill in and hopefully, you don't lose anything and that is the direction we are headed. That is where we are right now. The Taylor Leiers of the world. If a defenseman, God forbid, gets hurt, we have our young guys coming up."

As things now stand, the Flyers won't have anyone coming up for these final 11 games. Hextall wants to see how his young Phantoms do in the AHL playoffs. He wants to evaluate them there, not here.

"It's very important to let your kids develop in a winning atmosphere," Hextall said. "It's important. The other side of that is you want your kids to have a big chunk of the pie and that's how it is in Allentown. We've got a good team, but there's quite a few kids down there with a big chunk of the pie.

"They're playing regular shifts, power play, penalty kill. That's important. You don't want to overload too much with veterans so that the kids get pushed down and don't get in roles. There's that fine line with handing it to them and making them earn it.

"Scotty (Lehigh Valley head coach Scott Gordon) has done a great job down there and they've really hit it well with the kids being a big part of it and still being a competitive team. The Phantoms are in a good spot."

Hextall was asked about his own self-evaluation of the job he's done as GM.

"I let other people talk about stuff like that," Hextall replied. "At the end of the year, I'll sit down and look at everybody, including myself. If I'm not evaluating myself, I'm not doing a very good job."

Since club chairman Ed Snider's death, there is no Comcast executive with a broad hockey background to oversee Hextall.

Snider was notorious for calling or -- in later years -- texting his GMs during games, after games, in the middle of the night, to rant or inquire about what he liked and didn't like about his team.

There is no one like that within the organization, even allowing for Comcast president Dave Scott.

"It's not a lot different," Hextall said. "Mr. Snider, he was very understanding with where we were and where we were headed. He asked great questions.

"I talk to Homer (club president Paul Holmgren) on a regular basis and I talk to [Scott] on a fairly regular basis and we all know where we're headed. We're not very excited about the spot we're in right now but going to keep battling and do what we can do on our part.

"I can tell you that [Scott] is very into it. He watches all the games, sends texts after the game, whatever. He's latched onto it. He's engaged. We meet on an every other week basis and talk about the team. He's been great.

"Obviously, Mr. Snider had 50 years of experience and [Scott] doesn't have that. But [Scott's] a very sharp guy and he's doing a good job."

Loose pucks
It was unclear whether Nick Cousins was making the trip. He did not practice. He took a high hit during the Pittsburgh game and remains under concussion watch.

Minus-16 on the road, Claude Giroux needs better matchups

Minus-16 on the road, Claude Giroux needs better matchups

BOSTON -- The debate rages on.
 
What can be done to assist Flyers captain Claude Giroux into getting more scoring chances and goal production on the road?
 
It's the central theme to why Giroux has been a minus player this season out of town (minus-16) and an even player on home ice.
 
Interestingly, general manager Ron Hextall admitted on trade deadline day that a major benefit of acquiring Valtteri Filppula was that he would give the Flyers a legit second-line center to take some pressure off Giroux in terms of road matchups.
 
"To have centers who can play against anybody when you are on the road, a team sends its best line out there, and you only have one option or two options, it's very tough," Hextall said.
 
"The more options you have, the more times they don't get the matchups they are looking for. It's important."
 
For all the criticisms that Craig Berube unfairly took here as head coach, he was excellent in matching his players up on the road and making adjustments on the fly. 
 
That's because "Chief" played two decades in the league and rose through the coaching ranks from minor to pro. Berube had oodles of experience.
 
It's not easy and it takes time for a coach to figure it out. This is just Dave Hakstol's second season in the NHL and learning how to make adjustments when you don't get the last chance is, in itself, an art form.
 
Which is why Hakstol often is content to allow things to play out on the road in terms of matchups.
 
For instance, in three games against Washington this season -- two on the road -- Hakstol was content to allow Jay Beagle's line to match up against Giroux the majority of three games. He was more concerned with the defensive pairing of Karl Alzner and John Carlson against him.
 
"Washington is going to play four lines," Hakstol said. "That's been a big part of their success. Rather than take ourselves out of rhythm, we had everybody going.
 
"You ask about Filppula and how that changes things. There is always a decision to make. Before that, there is a decision for the home team to decide if they want a matchup.

"Everybody looks at the forward matchups. You've got to look deeper into it with the defense matchups. That is normally what you are going to get. You have to look at all of it. Sometimes it is a group of five."
 
What Hakstol tries to do is get his checking line of Nick Cousins, Sean Couturier and Matt Read against the other team's top line or second line. Filppula gives him more options now.
 
With Filppula centering Brayden Schenn and Jakub Voracek, it gives the opposition pause as to whether they want to place their best checkers on that skill unit or Giroux's line with Jordan Weal and Wayne Simmonds.
 
Yet, often, Hakstol lets things play out.
 
“The way Hak's been coaching, I don't think on the road he bothers a whole lot," Sean Couturier said this week. "If we're on the road he tries to get it, but if we don't it's not a big deal. We just roll four lines."
 
Since he's been with the Flyers, Giroux has never been one to offer excuses for anything that might affect his play. He feels he should be a top-tier center regardless of injury, matchup or anything else.
 
It has taken him until only recently to actually look like the confident player with speed that he was in the past. Line matchups?
 
"To be honest, I haven’t really thought about it," Giroux said. "Every line and every team have a shutdown line. Sometimes I get away from it, but if you play against them you have to make the most out of it."
 
Can Filppula help?
 
"Val is well-respected in the league," Giroux said. "So when a team plays against him, they respect the way he plays and they pay attention to him. He's a great two-way player and he will help the team in a lot of two-way situations. Five-on-five is one of them."
 
Fippula's line played up against Jack Eichel's in Buffalo this week, leaving Giroux to face Ryan O'Reilly's unit, which was a favorable match for the Flyers as Giroux scored his first goal in 13 games. Six of his 13 goals this season have come on the road, so it's almost an even split.
 
Hakstol tried and succeeded in getting Filppula against Auston Matthews' unit in Toronto and leaving Giroux to face Nazem Kadri's line. Hakstol seemed comfortable the entire game with whatever Toronto had on the ice.
 
Even without scoring a goal, Giroux was simply a beast at Toronto, being double-shifted in the third period and doing everything he could to inspire the Flyers to match his intensity. One player did: Shayne Gostisbehere.
 
The Flyers didn't lose 4-2 to the Leafs because of poor matchups. They lost because their penalty kill units failed them again, hardly even making the Leafs work to earn a goal. In this one, Toronto's power play went 2 for 2.
 
Either Couturier or Filppula will likely draw Patrice Bergeron's unit Saturday when the Flyers meet the Bruins.
 
Again, unless the Flyers get an all-around performance in which their special teams help them level the playing surface or even tilt it in their favor, matchups may not matter.

Flyers Weekly Observations: Deadline deals and livened playoff hopes

Flyers Weekly Observations: Deadline deals and livened playoff hopes

This week of Flyers hockey felt a little different, didn't it?
 
In a change of pace, the Flyers were able to string consecutive wins together for the first time in over a month when they shutout the hapless Colorado Avalanche, 4-0, Tuesday and nipped the Florida Panthers, 2-1, in a shootout Thursday night. The week ended on a bit of a sour note with a 2-1 OT loss to the scorching-hot Washington Capitals, but those five points earned this week were crucial because they livened the Flyers’ pulse in the playoff chase from the start of the week.
 
And, of course, the NHL trade deadline was sandwiched in there Wednesday, when the Flyers acquired Valterri Filppula from Tampa in exchange for Mark Streit and draft picks before the Lightning flipped Streit to Pittsburgh. Also on Wednesday, the Flyers inked Michal Neuvirth, a pending unrestricted free agent to a two-year extension.
 
So it was certainly a busy week.
 
Let's take a look back and start with the events of deadline day.
 
• I find the Filppula-Streit trade to be curious for a handful of reasons. Obviously, Streit, a 39-year-old pending UFA, was a prime target to be moved as the Flyers need space to start filling in their prized prospects sooner rather than later. But acquiring Filppula, a 32-year-old center with a near identical cap hit north of $5 million for another year and a no-movement clause, meaning he can't be exposed to Vegas in the expansion draft, raised some eyebrows. 

The fact that Ron Hextall felt the need to go out and get a second-line center says Brayden Schenn is a winger from now on. As he should be. Though Schenn is a natural center, he's just produced more on the wing with the Flyers. Remember last year when he went on a tear at the end of the season next to Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds? He’s just a better fit on the wing here and the new second line of Schenn, Filppula and Jake Voracek scored the Flyers' only goal Thursday and will only continue to mesh as they play more together in the coming weeks. 

But I think it's particularly interesting what the move doesn't say about Sean Couturier. The Flyers gave him that fresh six-year extension two summers ago to be a scoring center on the second line. With 10 goals and eight assists this season in 48 games this season, Couturier hasn't lived up to the Flyers' production expectations to the point Hextall felt the need to go out and get a second-line center with a big cap hit.

• The extension for Neuvirth is curious, too. My honest first thought was the deal was made for expansion draft purposes. The Flyers need a goalie under contract to expose to Vegas in that draft. Before Neuvirth’s extension, Anthony Stolarz would have had to been exposed because Steve Mason is a pending UFA and Neuvirth was set to be one, but pending UFAs are ineligible. It's not in Hextall's playbook to even risk losing a talented 23-year-old prospect like Stolarz for nothing. Plus, Vegas general manager George McPhee drafted Neuvirth in Washington in 2006. 

There are risks that come with committing to Neuvirth, especially his injury history. So many times in his career when Neuvirth has had a chance to be a legitimate No. 1 netminder, the injury bug has bitten him. But the other side of this is the talented goalie prospects the Flyers have in system -- Stolarz, Carter Hart, Alex Lyon and Felix Sandstrom. Those guys are going to be ready sooner rather than later. 

While I feel Mason is the better goalie in the current tandem, maybe the Flyers feel Neuvirth is the more sensible option for a stop-gap guy. But Hextall said this week that signing Mason after the year still isn't out of the question. And Mason played this week like he had something to prove. This is going to be interesting going forward.

• Speaking of Mason, he was spectacular against the Caps on Saturday night in D.C. and kept the Flyers in the game when Washington was firing on all cylinders. He made 22 saves on 24 Washington offerings, but none was more impressive than his sprawling stop with his mask on T.J. Oshie’s rocket in OT. The Flyers wouldn't have that critical point in the standings if not for Mason. The extra point would have no doubt been nice, but coming out of Verizon Center against the Caps with a point is big either way.

• Great game Thursday between the Flyers and Panthers, and an important one, too, as both teams are fighting for their wild-card lives. The 2-1 shootout final wasn’t indicative of how the game was played as there were great chances up and down the ice. The final shot total was 49-40 in favor of the Flyers after OT ended. Mason was great again, especially with the glove-hand robbery of Aleksander Barkov as time wound down in the third. And good for Filppula getting on the board as he admitted afterward he was pretty much freelancing on the ice as he only had a few hours of video to take in. I really like the dynamics of the Schenn-Filppula-Voracek line.

• The Flyers' power play has run hot and cold all season long. It will look unstoppable for a stretch before hitting a frustrating dry spell. It's in one of those frustrating dry spells again, as evidenced by the goose-egg it put up on six opportunities Saturday in D.C. The Flyers put just seven shots on Braden Holtby in six power-play chances. One of those power-play opportunities was a golden one with just over three minutes left and the score tied 1-1, but the Flyers could do nothing with it. The Flyers' PP is now 0 for its last 10. Gotta get that fixed ASAP if this run to a wild-card spot is going happen.

• Three massive games coming up on the road for the Flyers this week as they head to Buffalo, Toronto and Boston, all clubs who, like the Flyers, are scrapping for their playoff lives. As of early Sunday afternoon, the Flyers are three points behind the Islanders for the final playoff berth. The Sabres are two points behind the Flyers. The Maple Leafs are a point back of the Isles and two points ahead of the Flyers. The Bruins are in third in the Atlantic, but just four points away from dropping out of the playoff picture completely. Make-or-break week? Certainly could be.
 
Coming up this week: Tuesday at Buffalo (7 p.m./CSN), Thursday at Toronto (7:30 p.m./CSN), Saturday at Boston (1 p.m./CSN).