End to End: What adjustment would you make on Flyers' defense?

End to End: What adjustment would you make on Flyers' defense?

Throughout the season, we'll ask questions about the Flyers to our resident hockey analysts and see what they have to say.

With the Flyers on their bye week, let’s discuss a few topics.

Going End to End this week are CSNPhilly.com producers/reporters Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone.

Today’s question: What adjustment would you make on the Flyers' defense?

Dougherty
There is not much in Dave Hakstol’s arsenal to significantly improve the team defense with a lineup change. Sure, scratching Andrew MacDonald could be a positive step, but that does not solve the problem here. We can point fingers at the defensive group because the Flyers have allowed the league’s second-most goals at 144. They’re part of the problem.

What is plaguing the Flyers is not just the play of their six defensemen on any given night; it’s their overall team defense. Some forwards are quitting on the backcheck, and not providing enough support in their own zone, missing their own assignments.

The Flyers, I believe, are struggling with the lack of practice time. And while it is true that every team is dealing with the same compact schedule as the Flyers, Hakstol has to maximize the little practice time he gets going forward and preach team defense. Gaps have been a major issue with the current group of blueliners, and that is an area assistant coach Gord Murphy has to fix. Hakstol has singled out the team’s rush defense as an issue, and that’s another area the team has to work on, too.

A lot of the same issues that were appearing in the beginning of the season when the Flyers were struggling are reappearing in their game now. They were able to make adjustments earlier in the season to hone their game defensively. More film study and more coaching are just a couple of the adjustments I’d make with the current options.

Hall
Sometimes it takes a fresh face, some new blood to spark change.

If anything, it sends a bit of a message.

The Flyers have options at AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley and general manager Ron Hextall didn’t rule anything out last Sunday.

But, of course, given the Flyers’ salary cap conundrum, it’s not as simple as just calling up a player.

So, the easiest thing that can be done is change within the current personnel. That means scratching MacDonald from time to time, just how Hakstol has done so with Shayne Gostisbehere, Brandon Manning, Michael Del Zotto, Radko Gudas and many Flyers forwards.

MacDonald hasn’t been as bad as some may think. Oftentimes, his mistakes are magnified more than others. But too frequently do we see him out of position or misreading a play on a goal against. And that’s been true for all Flyers defensemen, yet MacDonald seems to be one of the only spared of the consequences.

Benching MacDonald isn’t a drastic fix and it may not do much at all, but it’s something we haven’t seen since Nov. 19.

Paone
This a really tough question because, to be quite frank, there is no easy solution here to fixing a Flyers defense that has been mired in a state of miserable play and has played a large part in the team's allowing 3.50 goals per game in the 14 contests since the 10-game win streak ended in mid-December. 

It's not like Hakstol or Hextall can push some magic button here and have things fixed in a matter of moments. The Flyers have salary cap and roster issues, so it's going to be tough to bring in a player via trade to help fix things on the back end. Same goes for bringing up a prospect because space on the roster would have to be made first.

This situation leaves the Flyers to fix the problem from within with the defensemen they currently have at the NHL level. They're going to have to play their way out of this. And that's why I'm interested in focusing on the younger defensemen like Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov right now. We know what the veteran defensemen on this team are and they've been through this sort of thing before. This will not be the last team-wide rut the younger defensemen will play through in their careers. It will happen again. They're going to have to learn how to play through this and not let it affect their individual play. That's why I didn't agree with Ghost's benching in Boston last weekend.  Sure, he has not played well this season and the warts to his game have been evident. And there are times when sitting back, taking a breather and watching can be beneficial. But I'm a believer that a young player has to play through his growing pains and grow from them.

This isn't going to be an answer most of you will like to hear, but with the way the Flyers' hands are tied, they're just going to have to play their way out of these defensive struggles with what they have.

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 of the current coaching staff.

But, when we put things in perspective, there are positives. Provorov has proven he’s the real deal, and he just 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 has 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 in 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 just trust the process with the Flyers. 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.