Through twenty NHL games it’s hard to figure out exactly what this group of Flyers is. With a quarter of the season gone, the team sits at 9-9-2 - exactly average - but somehow things don’t feel so cut and dry.
When you ask fans how they feel about the team these days, you’re apt to get the full range of emotions firing back at you. Some may tell you they’re apathetic to the games, because the Flyers are, far too often, apathetic themselves. Some may tell you they’re confident the Flyers “aren’t that bad” and that it’s only November. Others may say they’re angry and waiting for a change. One thing is certain as far as I’m concerned…each of those fans is absolutely correct.
This Flyers team isn’t that bad. They shouldn’t be 9-9-2, but they are. They shouldn’t have started off with a 5-2 win in Vegas and then collapsed at home, but it happened. They shouldn’t have fallen behind 5-1 in their own building to Tampa Bay after giving up three powerplay goals, but they did.
They may be like Jekyll and Hyde and occasionally drive us all mad with their inconsistency, but a truly bad team doesn’t have the ability to erase a four goal deficit in a single period. A truly bad team doesn’t lose 10 games in a row in 2017-2018 and then manage to claw their way back into the playoff picture. This team, in spite of all of our complaints, can flip a switch and look like a playoff team, but why do they always have to rely on that?
The fans that say they’re apathetic and accuse the Flyers of the same are, at least in part, correct as well. Perhaps it’s youth, inexperience or being shell shocked by their own early season collapse, but this Flyers team finds itself floating through unproductive stretches far too frequently. Over the first ten games they showed very little fight in their losses. In the past ten games they’ve flipped the switch more frequently, but it leaves fans wondering where that fight is the rest of the time? The perennial swings of this team have left a lot of fans feeling as though they’re unprepared, or unable, to invest emotionally.
The question of consistency, which has remained unanswered for years, seems to be the catalyst for so many who suggest they’re angry or simply tired of the yearly slow starts. Over these twenty games I’ve heard fans lamenting about the penalty kill, the powerplay, the players, the General Manager and most of all, the coaching. So, what are the real problems, and can they be fixed?
Looking back over the season, some things may appear glaring, while others are issues are buried deeper below the surface. While the Flyers are only three points out of a playoff spot and rank 15th in goals scored per game with 3.10, they also rank 30th in goals against per game with 3.55. The Flyers are generally a decent advanced stats team. They sit 10th overall with a CF% at 51.1%, and they’re 13th in the league in shooting percentage at 10%, meaning they’ve controlled the puck well and finish at a slightly above average rate. Unfortunately, in spite of that, they’re being absolutely buried on the penalty kill (68.6%) and in team save percentage (.880%), ranking dead last in both categories.
Injuries have compromised the crease in Philadelphia, and perhaps you can excuse some uneven performances in net due to that fact. However, you cannot excuse the penalty killers. After allowing three powerplay goals to Tampa Bay, the Flyers have dropped to a staggering 68.6% penalty kill rate. Some of that may relate to the play in net, but not enough to absolve the shorthanded efforts.
Furthermore, this problem isn’t new. In the prior two years the Flyers have finished 29th on the penalty kill. Even then, as bad as they were, the Flyers finished with a 75% or better percentage on the PK, which obviously still doesn’t match the stats of a contender, but it’s still nearly 7% higher than their efficiency level this year. Somehow, despite knowing the penalty kill needs to be corrected, they’ve made very few attempts to correct it, and now they’re performing significantly worse.
Beyond the obvious reasons this hurts a team (on the scoreboard) it also necessitates playing a careful, softer, game that can lead to overthinking things. To put it another way, if you’re sure nearly 32% of the penalties you take end up in goals, you can’t afford to play in a way that might cause the team to be shorthanded even more frequently. If you average roughly three shorthanded appearance per game (and the Flyers are) you’re essentially giving the other team a one goal lead before each game even starts.
So, while it may appear the Flyers are average, at their core the truth is a few course corrections or changes could save the remaining 75% of the season. There is still time. They haven’t buried themselves so far out of contention that it’s impossible to climb back into the hunt, but without an improvement to the penalty kill and goaltending, things are unlikely to trend upward. As glaring as this is at the quarter-pole mark, I would be thoroughly surprised if something isn’t done to try to repair these areas. This year isn’t just about climbing back into the hunt. This year was supposed to be about contention. It still can be.
Things aren’t all bad. There are positives to build on. The Flyers have scored enough goals to win games, and now ice a lineup that has many young players performing. Travis Sanheim is a regular on defense along with Robert Hagg (who has played above most fans expectations and provided some offense along the way). There have been nights that Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom looked dynamic on the second line. Scott Laughton has looked like the player the Flyers hoped he could become and is one of the few Flyers that can be lauded for his effort over the course of the entire twenty game span.
Even some of the veterans we were uncertain about have been better than expected. Dale Weise has been the Dale Weise Ron Hextall must have thought he was getting when he signed him as an unrestricted free agent. Christian Folin, who many feared would be Brandon Manning-lite, has regularly replaced Andrew MacDonald in the lineup and provided a solid return on investment. Claude Giroux, coming off a season in which he contended for the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player, still looks like that version of Claude Giroux, especially when the Flyers need goals late.
So, while we look at this team who is 9-9-2 and assume maybe they’re average, I think it’s very fair to say a few necessary changes could make it much better. A few necessary changes could likewise draw fans who are on the fence back in. As inconsistent as things have been, maybe fixing the consistently bad can also fix the inconsistency?
This is a make or break season for Philadelphia in my mind, because of the expectations this club and its General Manager set for itself. For the first time in years this team isn’t solely about the future. This team is expected to not only get to the playoffs but also win in them. This year missing the playoffs or barely squeaking into them is not enough to fulfill expectations.
After twenty games it should be apparent where the problems lie. After twenty games a team that believes it should be a playoff team should be prepared to make changes to progress in that direction. To state it more plainly, after six years of inconsistent results…it’s not just twenty games.
If the Flyers find themselves in the playoffs in April, I’m certain the diversity of answers regarding the Flyers play will dissipate. The fans will come together and hope for the best, because ultimately, whether their play breeds frustration or joy, those emotions are born of the desire to see the team win. However, if the Flyers fail to address issues that have been outstanding through prior seasons and again rear their ugly heads in 2018-2019, the fans will be united in a different way.
So, is this team just an average team? Frustratingly, I would say the answer is no. This team has the talent to compete with most teams up front and has several players whose untapped potential and room for growth could actually provide a boost. This Flyers team has average numbers, but a boost to the penalty kill or having a goaltender who is a reliable, healthy starter makes it easily above average. What will they be willing to change? Until Ron Hextall answers those questions all we can do is wait and see. How long we wait is anyone’s guess.