After years of preaching patience, Flyer GM Ron Hextall finally seemed to have his team ready to take the next step. He added 36 goal scorer James van Riemsdyk as a free agent, said that youngsters like Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere were ready to step up and be leaders, and flat out stated that simply making the playoffs wasn’t good enough.
The good thing is, the way the Flyers have played thus far, they won’t have to worry about a first round playoff exit. The team has played amazingly bad defense, the goaltending has been a dumpster fire and the coaching staff seems to be plodding along, over valuing “safe” veterans and seemingly unable to make effective in-game adjustments at crucial times.
It hasn’t been all bad. The Flyers have been generating a decent number of scoring chances. There’s also Gritty. Robert Hagg has become a more aggressive player with the puck and is showing off some of the skill that seemed in hibernation last season. And, umm...hmm. How about that Gritty?
The logical place to start is with the coaching staff. While it is hard to blame an NHL head coach when players are failing to execute basic fundamentals, the Flyers coaches continue to show an inability to make crucial in game adjustments. Even with that said, it’s hard to yell at Dave Hakstol about not making a goalie change when both options are carrying save percentages in the .860 range. However, his team has failed to string together more than a period or two of good hockey and some of that is on the coach. The Flyers also have been plagued by really bad starts, where they seem to be running around in circles during the first 10-15 minutes of games. The slow starts are becoming chronic, and part of that is on the coaching staff.
But as stated above, if NHL players can’t complete a simple pass, that’s not on the coach - it’s on them. The system isn’t designed for the players to repeatedly fail to clear the puck or turn over the puck in the neutral zone. The transition game has been especially bad. Turnovers in the neutral zone are ending up in the back of the Flyers net far too often and a lot of it is simply players making bad choices or failing to execute. There have been several ill timed line changes, and way too many cases of lazy backchecking or failure of players to pick up attacking forwards effectively.
The blame for this is on both forwards and defense. Ivan Provorov has struggled mightily, seeming to be hesitant at times in coverage and uncharacteristically sloppy with the puck. But he’s not alone. Andrew MacDonald admitted he rushed back from an injury and it was painfully obvious that he was nowhere near 100%. Christian Folin has been forced in with MacDonald’s injury, and he’s played very unevenly and been cursed with bad luck. Radko Gudas and Travis Sanheim have been far and away the team’s most reliable pairing thus far.
It’s also time to start laying some blame at the feet of GM Hextall. He’s the one that decided to enter the season with three goalies coming off surgeries that limited their off season prep time. He’s the one who tacitly agrees with his coach’s decision to heavily utilize ineffective, but “safe” veterans - and rather than reduce the number of that sort of player, he actively added to it by signing Folin. Hextall is the one that decided that adding journeyman Corban Knight was enough of an upgrade to one of the NHLs worst PK units (30th last year and 27th over the past four seasons).
Hextall made good moves in rebuilding the system, fixing a staggeringly bad cap situation and adding JvR, but the early returns have to worry even the most ardent fan. We can no longer just blame the coaches or the Jori Lehteras, Dale Weises and MacDonalds. These players are added because they’re good in the room, yet having an abundance of these types of players hasn’t helped them avoid wildly inconsistent stretches of play over the past four years. Professional competence needs to start being more important than having a “good cop” or good locker room guy around the team. A slice of the blame pie needs to go to the guy who has retained them all.
That’s not to say things are not salvageable. It’s a bad start, but they are just a game under .500. They’ve only played one game in the division, and just three in the Eastern conference. They had a similar stretch last season (remember the ten game losing streak?) and managed to earn the third seed after being in first place in the Metro at the trade deadline. But Hextall needs to be a lot more aggressive in addressing the issues, because it all starts - and ends - with him.
The fans have been patient. They’re ready for the next step. They need results on the ice, not interviews with the coach that show his personality and wake surfing skills. They need to correct the lingering issues on the ice, not just roll out an awesome mascot. Flyers fans aren’t distracted by the sideshows. They want and deserve better. If that doesn’t happen, the growing wave of apathy we are starting to see on social media and the numbers of empty seats in the Wells Fargo Center on game nights will only get larger.
Hextall may need to make another aggressive move to counter that wave. Since the death of Ed Snider, there’s been a strong feeling that the Flyers are different, more an extension of Comcast than the team who had one mission-doing whatever it could to win. The cycle of mediocrity needs to be broken.
How strongly does Ron Hextall agree with that sentiment?