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.

Hakstol pushed right buttons in tricky spot in Flyers' win over Canucks

Hakstol pushed right buttons in tricky spot in Flyers' win over Canucks

VOORHEES, N.J. — Dave Hakstol pushed some buttons to produce Thursday’s 5-4 shootout win over the Vancouver Canucks

You can argue the single biggest button pushed was subbing in Michal Neuvirth for Steve Mason to begin the third period. All Neuvirth did was slam the door the rest of the way, right into the shootout.

That was huge.

Yet Hakstol's throwing caution to the wind and once again changing up three of his four lines for the second time in less than a week is pretty significant in itself.

Ten different Flyers registered a point, while 16 of 18 skaters had at least one shot on net against an old nemesis, Ryan Miller.

“Obviously, not textbook in any way, shape or form,” Hakstol said. “We had a real good push through the third period and found a way to win. That is most important.”

Perhaps one of the beneficiaries was right-handed Travis Konecny, who got the chance to play on the right side on the top line with Michael Raffl and Claude Giroux.

He produced his third goal in six games, an important power play goal after the Canucks began the game with back-to-back four-minute power plays and a 1-0 lead that could have been worse given the Flyers' recklessness with sticks throughout the night.

“We’ve had a couple (games) like that,” Konecny said. “I think usually we’re pretty good in third periods and making sure we take care of business. And if we have to get a couple of goals, we take care of that.

“I think tonight was just a back-and-forth game. Mase (Steve Mason) played a good game, it’s just that some bad bounces happened on him. Neuvy stepped in there and shut the door for us so it was good.”

Because the Flyers had to kill so many penalties, Konecny, who’s not on the PK, saw his minutes sag to 11:55. He doesn’t get into the overtimes very often, either.

That said, his goal was just the kind you’d expect from a skilled rookie. Dale Weise, whose game has gone to another level lately, batted a puck down from the air to Konecny in the slot during a power play.

Konecny handled it himself in mid-air off the ice as it was bouncing and put it past Miller for his seventh goal.

“It was a good play by Coots (Sean Couturier) to get the puck in the offensive zone on the power play,” Konecny said. “The entry is always important. It was kind of a broken play but Weiser knocked the puck down for me in the slot. 

“When you are in front of a goalie like him you have to shoot it quick. I kind of whiffed on it to be honest and it found a hole. You just have to shoot the puck.”

He said he’s gotten some help from analytics coach Ian Anderson — not of Jethro Tull fame — who has told him that even when he is playing his off-wing on the left side, he has to make a better job of getting closer to the net for scoring chances.

“We kind of have a shot sheet. The analytics guys lay out some of these and all the goals that are scored in the blue paint and those in the high slot,” Konecny said. 

“So if you want to score goals, that is the area to go to and I’ve been trying to implement that into my game lately and it’s been working for me.”

The Flyers' power play units came into the game four for their last 34. They went 2 for 4 in this game. That’s the first time they had multiple power play goals in 14 games.

“Yeah, it’s been a long time coming for us,” Konecny said of the second unit. “Our movement’s a lot better, we’re starting to get into the swing of things as a group and chemistry is important on a power play. You’ve gotta learn the guys you’re playing with and I think it’s starting to show for us.”

The weekend gets considerably harder with back-to-backs in Boston and Washington this weekend.

“It’s really big for us,” Konecny said. “We’ve been preaching the importance of the points heading forward. We’re not a team that’s going to look at the standings. But we’ve had to dial that in a little bit lately and make sure that we’re on the right page.

“Everyone’s on the right page, and we’re heading in the right direction and doing the simple things and sticking together. Hopefully we can keep on this roll."

Flyers Skate Update: Travis Konecny moves to 1st line RW vs. Canucks

Flyers Skate Update: Travis Konecny moves to 1st line RW vs. Canucks

Travis Konecny will have a little extra motivation tonight vs. the Canucks. For a couple of reasons.

Looking for offense, head coach Dave Hakstol will shift Konecny to his natural right wing position on Claude Giroux’s top line. That’s quite the leap. From healthy scratch two weeks ago to the top line, centered by one of the league’s top playmakers. But Konecny is not fazed by his promotion.

“At this point, obviously it’s still Claude Giroux, but he’s my teammate now and it’s been half the season so far, so it’s just another opportunity to play with another player on the team,” Konecny said after Thursday’s optional morning skate.

“Just make sure I get to open space. He finds guys in the right areas, so as long as I can get him the puck and do my part in battling, compete down low to give him the time and space, then I just gotta give him that."

Hakstol first toyed with the move at practice Wednesday, hinting at “a change or two” to spark the Flyers’ ailing offense. Since the team’s 10-game win streak was snapped on Dec. 17, the team has stumbled to a 2-6-3 record, averaging just 1.73 goals per game. It’s no coincidence the Flyers’ tumble down the standings began just as their offense fell into a rut. 

“It’s not necessarily about getting Travis going,” Hakstol said. “He’s playing pretty well, he’s playing hard. I think he’s going through the typical ups and downs of a young player. Especially now, we’re getting to a little tougher time in the year. I think his effort and his play has been pretty good.

“Just over the last 10 games, we haven’t had the production that we want. We haven’t had the results that we want. So with a little bit of caution from bouncing all over the place, we’re gonna keep working to find combinations that can get us consistently back on the right track.” 

At the peak of the win streak, the Flyers were soundly in playoff position with a nine-point cushion. Now, the Florida Panthers are just two points back of overtaking the second wild card spot from the orange and the black.

“It’s the way you gotta deal with things in hockey," Konecny said of the slump. "The moment you get down on yourself is when things start getting harder.

“That’s the hard part, is we’re playing good hockey at certain parts of the game, it's just a full 60 minutes is what we gotta play.”

Hakstol is hoping a revamped top line can end the slump and revive the offense that scored the third-most goals in the league through Dec. 17.

Konecny isn't worried about switching positions midway through they year. It's his natural position. He has played right wing for the majority of his OHL junior career. Shifting back to the right side is all “muscle memory.”

“It’s just the other side of the rink. It’s my forehand side, so it will probably be a bit easier for me coming down the wing. I guess we’ll see how it goes.

“Going back to the right side, it’s just like riding a bike.”

The promotion isn’t Konecny’s only motivation, though. The winger will face his second cousin Bo Horvat Thursday. 

The two were never that close growing up, but hockey has brought the duo together.

“Not too, too close, but I knew of him when he was growing up,” Konecny said. “And then as we kind of got more and more into hockey, we started hanging out a little bit more. And I see him at the gym all the time and skate with him all the time so we became close over the years. … I wouldn’t say it's like a text relationship back and forth, but we stay in touch and see each other almost everyday in the summer.”

Horvat leads the Canucks with 29 points (13 goals, 16 assists) and was just named to his first All-Star game. Playing on Vancouver’s second line, the two should see plenty of each other tonight. 

The cousins have never played together, but had the opportunity to face each other in the OHL.

“He was probably in his third year at that point, so he was a developed guy in the OHL, just giving me a hard time.

“No, I’m going to try not to chirp him,” Konecny joked. 

When the two aren’t chirping on the ice, Konecny says they golf together in the summer.

And if Konecny and the Flyers can’t stop their slump soon, they may be golfing sooner rather than later this summer.

Loose pucks
After Shayne Gostisbehere practiced with Nick Schultz Wednesday — a sign he may be a healthy scratch — it will be Radko Gudas who sits out vs. the Canucks. 

Steve Mason will start in goal for the 27th time in 29 games.