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Oilers 6, Flyers 3: 10 things we learned from a season falling apart

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Things are bad for the Flyers, and they show no immediate signs of letting up.

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.

#1: Oilers just more skilled than the Flyers

The raw shot metrics may look favorably upon the Flyers’ play last night (52.85% score-adjusted Corsi), but in this one, not all shots were created equal. It was clear on almost every shift that Philadelphia was forced to muck-and-grind their way for every chance, while Edmonton was almost effortlessly generating shots in front of the net or on dangerous speed rushes. Having Connor McDavid helps, to be sure, but it wasn’t just the league’s newest superstar who was racking up chances. Players like Leon Draisaitl and Jordan Eberle also operating on a level far beyond anything the Flyers could muster on this night. There’s a reason why Edmonton led in high-danger chances 14-9 despite Philadelphia having in edge in overall shot volume (66-51 in all-situation attempts), and it wasn’t just bad luck that allowed the Oilers to rack up six goals to the Flyers’ three. Edmonton just executed on far more high-difficulty plays.

#2: How much more of this can the team take?

Throughout this recent slump, there have only been rare occasions (the third period of the Washington loss, and the stretch following Gudas and his “penalty” against the Devils) where the Flyers seemed to let up in terms of effort. The results obviously haven’t been there over the past month, but you can see that the team is still backchecking furiously and desperately trying to win puck battles in the offensive zone. That’s why the shot totals remain strong, and a big reason why (prior to last night) the defense had tightened up their goal suppression. However, I’m starting to wonder if this team has a breaking point.

There’s only so many games that you can lose in tedious fashion while technically outshooting your opponent before you begin questioning the validity of the directives sent your way. That’s not a character issue — it’s human nature. I’ve mentioned on multiple occasions that the team’s shooting percentage was due for some degree of positive regression, but if it all comes in games like this when six goals are allowed, that regression won’t matter in the standings at all. This is a pivotal point in the tenure of Dave Hakstol, in terms of how he is viewed by the team. The awful run has gone on long enough to convince many fans that this is the new normal for Philadelphia — I just wonder what the players are thinking.

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#3: Playoffs looking like a pipe dream at this point

Due to this recent swoon, Philadelphia now sits sixth in the Metropolitan Division and fourth in the wild card race in the Eastern Conference, with the Florida Panthers nipping at their heels. The result has been a collapse in the team’s playoff odds, with Moneypuck.com and Dom Luszczyszyn of THN both dropping the Flyers to around the 10% mark, easily out of legitimate contention. That’s not to say that the team can’t rebound with a strong closing kick, as they did so last season and found a way to sneak into the postseason. But the odds are certainly against them, and it shouldn’t be viewed as especially likely.

#4: Brandon Manning saga maybe over now

The Brandon Manning vs. Connor McDavid saga always fell somewhere between amusing and stupid. Not only was the initial hit and injury clearly unintentional, this year’s escalation seemed like nothing more than harmless on-ice trash talk that McDavid allowed to get in his head. However, even if the controversy was dumb, it was entertaining to watch a team (and really, an entire city) lose their collective minds over a true-talent third-pair NHL defenseman like Manning. It was clear from the pre-game skate that the Oilers had revenge on their minds last night, and they certainly got their licks in.

Milan Lucic speared Manning in groin early (somehow, Manning got a diving penalty on the play, implying that the officials don’t understand basic anatomy) and then Patrick Maroon decisioned the Flyers’ defenseman later on. It’s disappointing that the Flyers were so ineffective in terms of imposing their will on the game, because the Oilers spent far too much time trying to “pay back” an ultimately unimportant player on the ice. Philadelphia just couldn’t not take advantage of that distraction, however.

#5: Neuvirth over Mason?

It certainly wasn’t one of Michal Neuvirth’s best games — the first goal he allowed to Matt Hendricks was especially weak — so obviously the chatter after the game was that Steve Mason should have started in his place. It’s not a ridiculous assertion, as this was the second game of a road-and-road back-to-back, and there’s an expectation of some degree of dropoff from a goalie who plays both games. In addition, it’s not like Neuvirth’s 0.909 save percentage versus the Flames was anything special. Eric Tulsky looked at this back in 2013 and found that starting goalies on a back-to-back had a major negative impact on their performance in Game 2, but recent research has implied the effect may not be as large as previously thought. Still, Neuvirth didn’t exactly do anything amazing to warrant the start last night, even if his recent performance on the whole has been better than that of Mason. In any case, I doubt the Flyers were winning this game regardless of the poor guy in net.

#6: Weal was the best forward and then got hurt

During the first period, the only Flyers forward to really stand out in a positive way was Jordan Weal, who had a few especially strong shifts along the boards and was on the ice for two scoring chances in six minutes of 5v5 ice time. Surely, that number wouldn’t have been so low had Weal not been forced to exit the game before the end of the opening stanza, the victim of a hard (but clean) hit along the boards. This was one of the concerns with Weal — could he stand up to the pounding of the NHL considering his relatively slight frame? — but he had done such a good job early in this stint of addressing his past limitations that it was easy to forget this.

Losing Weal hurt last night because he has played so well this past week. However, the fact that a 24-year old who has spent the previous four months in the AHL has been one of Philadelphia’s best players recently is illuminating enough, specifically for what it says about the rest of the team’s play. Philadelphia really should be able to survive a Jordan Weal injury, even if it proves to be serious. The fact that it’s not insane to worry that this injury could really hurt the Flyers just showcases the sad state of affairs.

#7: Some brief changes to PP1

It took the Flyers over half the game to get a power play opportunity, and immediately they flashed a different look than usual. Ivan Provorov essentially replaced Jakub Voracek on the top unit, who moved down to the PP2. In addition to the new 3F/2D setup, the top unit also seemed to be utilizing a “two men at the point” style rather than the 1-3-1 that has been their staple. However, the adjustment didn’t last long. After a few fruitless power plays with the new look, Hakstol and Joey Mullen went back to Voracek on the top unit in the third period, and he responded with a beautiful cross-ice pass to set up Schenn for the team’s third goal of the night. Personally, I think that should close the book on major changes to PP1 — yes, they looked awful on Wednesday, but generally speaking, they’ve been an elite shot generation unit and are probably just going through a bit of a slump. There are at least ten more changes to this lineup that I’d make before messing with the top power play unit.

#8: They got some goals at least

A three-goal game doesn’t seem like anything special at first glance, but if you’re looking for one positive to come out of this game, it’s that it was still a dramatic improvement over most of their offensive performances since the turn of the calendar year. In fact, the 8.3% shooting percentage on the night was actually their fifth-highest rate in 2017, and their best since February 2nd. The Simmonds goal was a bit fluky, and the Schenn power play goal was nothing we haven’t seen from this team in the past, but it was Gudas’ tally that provided the most optimism. Sean Couturier created the goal by leading an end-to-end, controlled exit to controlled entry rush, before passing the puck into the slot towards a net crashing teammate. Those are three actions (controlled entries, direct passes into the slot and crashing the net) that have been in short supply recently for the Flyers.

#9: Hakstol’s status in question?

In terms of evaluating Dave Hakstol and the likelihood that his tenure could be nearing an end, I still fall on the side of “Hextall won’t fire his guy this soon.” Yes, he chose to move on from Craig Berube, but that was not a coach that he handpicked. Hakstol is different — he’s Hextall’s guy, and it would take a massive reversal in opinion from the general manager to give up on him just two seasons into a five year contract.

I see the rest of this season playing out in one of two ways. The first scenario is that the Flyers’ decent underlying metrics hold steady for the rest of the way, and the shooting percentages return to semi-normal rates. That might not be enough to get Philadelphia into the playoffs at this point, but it should keep them in the race. In this scenario (the most likely one, in my opinion), Hakstol’s job remains safe this offseason, though he’ll certainly be on a hotter seat next year. Scenario two is the doomsday one. Rather than the shooting percentages creeping up to match the decent play-driving metrics, it’s always possible that a frustrated Flyers team begins struggling to drive play at 5v5, and any gains from an improving SH% are washed away by losing the territorial battle. If that happens, the rest of the season could look pretty similar to the past month, and I’m not sure Hakstol survives that.

#10: Seven defensemen an odd decision

Rather than go with the same lineup from Wednesday, Dave Hakstol made a surprising tweak, dressing seven defensemen and 11 forwards. Michael Del Zotto was just cleared to play this week, and he rejoined the lineup as both Roman Lyubimov and Dale Weise took a seat. It’s difficult to know exactly what his reasoning was behind the shift — maybe he felt the defense could be gassed in the second game of a back-to-back, maybe he’s looking to showcase Del Zotto to possible trade suitors, or maybe he just felt it was time to get the player who was the team’s #1 defenseman for most of last season back into the lineup.

The minutes were split pretty evenly, as MDZ received about 12 and no defenseman was over 18. But the decision did burn them a bit when Jordan Weal went down due to injury, forcing the team to roll 10 forwards for the final two periods. Still, that’s the risk you take when you dress one less forward, and just like the goalie decision, I don’t think it played a major role in the team’s loss last night.