What a difference a month can make. And, also, another month.
You know the roller coaster that this season has been. You remember on Black Friday, when the Flyers fell under .500 and sat at 14th in the East in points percentage, staring a lost season dead in the face. But you also remember mid-December, and the 10-game winning streak, where we saw what looked like this team really starting to turn a corner. And you’re here, now, as the Flyers have responded to that long winning streak by playing some of their worst hockey of the season.
In a season of ups and downs, the Flyers are not as good as a team you’d expect to reel off 10 straight wins and not as bad as a team that should lose 11 out of 14 games, the way they have in their last 14. Their true talent level, of course, is somewhere between those two extremes.
But you know that. Even if you, or I, or anybody else, doesn’t quite know where their talent level really is. Reasonable minds can and do agree on the ability and capability of every single player on this roster, and the end result is a team that realistically is probably somewhere between, say, the 5th and 12th best team in the East, depending on how you feel about each of those players. The biggest optimists among us see a team that should clearly be a playoff team; the strongest pessimists see a team that, while not terrible, isn’t really that close.
Whatever you think the Flyers can and should be able to do, though, they are a team on the playoff bubble as we speak. But as their five-day bye week begins today, they are also a team currently in the bottom half of the East by points percentage, and barring something unforeseen, they will find themselves out of an actual playoff spot in the standings by the time they get back on the ice this upcoming Saturday. Meaning, they have some work to do in their final 36 games.
Now, uphill climbs aren't new to this group of players. They were dead in the water in mid-February last year before rallying to a playoff spot in the final third of the season. No matter what happens this week, they won't be out of the picture any time soon.
Yet here is the question that causes me to wonder if this team will have what it takes to once again make the late-season climb back into a playoff spot: through 46 games, what is the one thing that this team can really hang its hat on? In other words, what area of the game does this team know it will be able to rely on to be excellent, night in and night out?
Teams and athletes are, in a lot of ways, inconsistent. So many aspects of the game go into making a team play well (or poorly), in any sport, and it’s rare that every part of your team is clicking at the same time. That’s especially the case in hockey, and that’s particularly true of a team with a middling roster, such as the one the Flyers have. In most of the games they play the rest of this season, the Flyers will likely have some aspect of their game that isn’t playing up to its potential for most if not all of the contest.
So what can they do to counteract the inevitable inconsistencies that they’ll see by nature of being a decent-but-flawed team? Have a steadying presence. A foundation. A stabilizer. Something that you know you can count on to be good in just about every single game you play, maybe with rare exception. An aspect of your game that you can plan the rest of the night around, knowing that if a couple of other things fall into place you know you’ve got a good chance to come away with a W. The one thing for which you can say, “well, as long as __________ is working, they’re going to have a chance.”
Think back to that run last year in the final third of the season. Steve Mason, thanks to a Michal Neuvirth injury, started almost every single game down the stretch, and was up to the task, posting an outstanding .924 save percentage in March and April. Superb 5-on-5 play-driving became a theme for the Flyers post-All Star Break, thanks to a relentless forecheck and improved defensive zone play. These were the kinds of things the Flyers could count on, because they were happening almost every night and when things like those happen you’ve got a good chance to win every hockey game.
The problem is, right now, the Flyers don’t have anything like that.
The closest thing the Flyers have to a “sure thing” right now is their power play, which ranks fifth in the NHL at a very impressive conversion rate of 22.6 percent. Coupled with the fact that the Flyers draw penalties at a very good rate — through Sunday, only one team has had more power play opportunities than the orange and black — and you’ve got a legitimate weapon there. For sure.
But putting aside the inherent paradox in “counting on” a unit that only scores 22.6 percent of the time it goes on the ice — a rate about four percentage points better than that of an average power play, for the record — power plays are so notoriously streaky, both in opportunity and actual success rate, that it’s hard to really plan your success around them. Just look at Sunday’s game against Washington, in which the Flyers had five power plays, four of which took place at a time where a goal would have given the Flyers a tie or a lead. They failed to convert on any of them, getting progressively worse with the man-advantage as the game went on en route to a loss. The Flyers have gone without a power play goal in 21 of their 46 games this season — hardly something that you would think you can plan your success around.
And yet, when you look around, what else can this team count on to consistently be good or better? The goaltending is, by save percentage, the worst in the entire NHL. Tough to count on that. And at 5-on-5, there’s no one line, one pairing you can point at and say “well, we know they’re going to just win their battle tonight, because that’s what they do”. The team is 22nd in the league in 5-on-5 goals per 60 ... and 29th in the league in 5-on-5 goals against per 60. The Flyers’ team-level shot-attempt numbers, which started the year strong, have dipped as the season’s gone on — and even though those are still respectable, they say nothing about the fact that the Flyers are (a) clearly a below-average team in the defensive zone, whether due to scheme or personnel (or both), and (b) take more lower-percentage shots than the average NHL team.
Who’s to blame here is anyone’s guess. Maybe it’s the coach, for not optimizing his lineup or giving lines and pairings the right amount of time to show that they can work or getting this team to play up to its potential with what, on paper, looks like a better roster than last year’s. Maybe it’s the guys at the top of the lineup, for not quite being where we know they can be despite all (except the goalies) having pretty good seasons. Maybe it’s the guys at the bottom of the lineup, for just not quite being good enough at the NHL level. Maybe it’s the front office, either for not making the right moves to get better players in the system or for not having the best players currently available to them on the roster.
Or maybe it’s a little bit on everyone. Take your pick.
If the Flyers want to put on a late-season run again and avoid what would be a very disappointing playoffs-less spring, they’re going to need to find a foundation again, whether that starts with Claude Giroux, Steve Mason, Dave Hakstol, or whoever else it may be. We know the power play is above-average. But at this point there’s precious little else we can count on to show up and play well almost every night. For a team with the Flyers’ current limitations, that lack of a foundation could be the difference between a second straight playoff trip and an early vacation.