The Flyers are struggling right now. In more ways than one. It’s been well documented to this point in the young season. Over the past week or so there’s been a lot of talk about the team needing a spark. We’ve heard terms like “sack up and play” and “snot and balls” thrown about, so it should come as no surprise that the Flyers have taken that literally and brought up Tyrell Goulbourne to the NHL to provide these absolutely crucial characteristics to the big club. Granted, Nicolas Aube-Kubel got a call up as well and a deserved one. He’s been one of the better 5-on-5 players not just on the Phantoms but in the AHL over the past calendar year. But the story here, unfortunately, is really about Goulbourne and what his call up represents.
The Goulbourne recall got me thinking about the sign that’s been hanging in the Flyers locker room for a few years now. The sign is the lead photo of this article and I personally have a few issues with it. My first issue is that it’s factually incorrect. “We don’t care who you are”? Really? Can we honestly say that every player on this roster has been held accountable for their actions on the ice? My next issue is from the portion of the quote that reads, “If you can’t do things our way, you’re not getting time here”. I mean, where do I begin? First, this screams punishment. Doing things that are not in line with the coach’s or team’s philosophy is considered poor behavior and will be met with decreased or even zero ice time. I could be wrong, but I’d be willing to bet that this message puts just a bit of pressure on the team to play a certain way, even if it means sacrificing some or most of who they are as a player. Well Jake, couldn’t that be necessary in some cases? Shouldn’t everyone be in sync with each other? Absolutely! But that brings me to my next issue with this part of the quote, which is what exactly is the philosophy here? What’s the identity everyone is supposed to follow? And if there is an identity, given the team’s performance over the past 3+ years, is it one the team should be latching onto with a Kungfu grip? The coach talked after the Islanders game about the team tightening up in their building. Not that I believe one quote would dismantle a team but taking down that sign couldn’t hurt.
But I digress. What I really want to talk about here is this incessant and frankly exhausting notion of roles. Roles really are a wet napkin to sports, especially a sport that’s so fluid and fast-paced like hockey. We as fans ask ourselves all the time why coaches and GMs seem to favor certain players and what it truly boils down to, in my opinion, is roles. Coaches and GMs have specific traits in mind for specific positions in the lineup. It’s not really about having the best 12 forwards and 6 defensemen every night, it’s about which players they believe best fill a specific role on a specific line or pairing. The easiest way I can explain it would be with the following image:
It’s like that toy toddlers play with; you know, the one where they have to fit the pieces into their respective slots on the board? That’s how I see this whole conundrum with roles. Each player needs to fill a certain spot on that board and cannot freely move from one space to the next. It’s not exactly like this; there are times where lines get juggled and players are shuffled. But those players generally must fit a certain style or role. One example is Jordan Weal. I think it’s evident at this point that the Flyers do not see Jordan Weal as a 4th line player. A 4th line player to this organization – and to be fair, to many organizations out there – is a grinding forward who will provide energy and toughness and be able to kill penalties. That is not Jordan Weal. To the Flyers, he’s a top-nine forward based on the type of player he is, so if a position in the top-nine is not available, he cannot and will not play. Getting back to Goulbourne, he’s an energy player. Last year when the Flyers were desperate for a win during their 10-game losing streak, the team decided they needed some scoring. So they tried Danick Martel, but alas, he was not able to perform his role as a scoring forward in his limited minutes. As a result, they sent him down and decided what they truly needed was a “spark”. Enter Tyrell Goulbourne, a player known for his tenacity, edge and fighting ability, AKA the textbook old school definition of “spark”. Goulbourne went on to play nine games for the Flyers, a stretch in which the Flyers were 7-2. How wonderful! The spark must have worked! Well, actually….
A look at Goulbourne’s statistics over that nine-game stretch (courtesy of Natural Stat Trick):
We can talk about intangibles until we’re blue in the face but based on these numbers – particularly the ice time – I’d be willing to bet Goulbourne didn’t do much to help the Flyers during that stretch. He barely played. If anything, he may have been hurting them in his limited time on the ice. But they were 7-2 in his time here, so clearly having him here gave the team that much-needed spark, which has led them to call upon his services in their current stretch of despair. He fits into that role. That energizer bunny, rough and tumble, leave it all out on the ice without any tangible result role.
There are some advantages to the geometric peg board for hockey lineups. It’s organized. It’s structured. Everything fits into it’s assigned space. It’s just so neat! Unfortunately, it’s also extremely simple and limited. It lacks creativity. It lacks forward thinking. It is so narrowly focused that there is simply no room for anything outside the box. As mentioned previously, many teams follow this model, in my opinion, if not all of them. Some just have less rigid definition.
What is troubling is the Flyers, from front office to coaching staff, appear to take it to the extreme. And it goes beyond just lineup decisions. System, scheme, whether it be 5-on-5, PP or PK, it’s all just very rigid. And until they learn to be less rigid and stubborn, they will continue to struggle to reach their potential.