The 2017-18 Philadelphia Flyers season concluded with a playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins that matched the way their regular season went — in roller coaster fashion. While the Flyers ended up being what most expected back in September — a bubble playoff team — the road they took was kind of like turning off the GPS and relying on directions from people you ran into along the way.
There are a few popular rationales for this. We all know that the Flyers core veterans (Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek and Wayne Simmonds to be precise) need to produce more for the Flyers to have a chance in a playoff series - let alone one against a team that has the firepower that this Pittsburgh team can muster. This was also an issue back during the 2016 playoffs against Washington, which has fans questioning their veteran core today.
We also have the ever-present debates on Dave Hakstol and the coaching staff’s lineup choices and in-game utilization of the roster. A lot of fans feel that the coach sets different standards for vets and younger players and that they often do not put the players in the best possible spots to have success. It’s another valid point, as one could easily comb through the choices made and find a handful of questionable choices that had a negative impact from the jump.
But an underlying cause for both is the lack of quality depth on the NHL roster. It’s an overlooked(at times) elephant in the room. It gets obscured because we see the coaching decisions, such as choosing to dress Brandon Manning or Jori Lehtera over over Travis Sanheim, Robert Hagg, and/or Jordan Weal. However, it lurks behind those decisions and may even be a big factor in in the process.
It really manifested itself in goal. Michal Neuvirth had his usual injury-interrupted season, and as a result Hakstol rode 33 year old Brian Elliott, until he was felled with an injury of his own, necessitating a trade for Petr Mrazek who was unable to find any degree of consistency and who was tossed aside in the playoffs as soon as Neuvirth was healthy enough to throw into the fire.
Make no mistake though, a lack of reliable scoring depth played a big role in the decision to split the high scoring Giroux-Sean Couturier-Travis Konecny line. The only other line really doing much of anything was the 2nd line of Voracek with a pair of rookies, Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom. The veteran 3rd line of Simmonds, Michael Raffl & Valtierri Filppula was scuffling along and the 4th line had no real offensive upside. Even dressing guys like Weal(who endured a prolonged drought of his own) or Dale Weise (who struggled for most of the season when he did dress) were unlikely to turn the tide.
Unfortunately, the effort to balance the scoring seemed to do more harm than good and laid bare the lack of quality depth. Voracek seemed lost and undisciplined. Giroux did a solid job, but failed to generate much offense. Konecny was neutered; being forced to carry the struggling vets. Raffl didn’t bring much to the Couturier-Giroux line. Worse still, the Flyers had no effective counter for the Pens ability to roll a quality centerman for pretty much 60 minutes a night.
Defensively, the problems were even more exposed. Ivan Provorov was solid in his role as the top D, but Shayne Gostisbehere struggled being forced to go against the Penguins top line shift after shift. Radko Gudas and Brandon Manning were pretty much outmatched for the entirety, save the second half of game two. Andrew MacDonald was finally utilized as a 3rd pair guy and he was solid and had a couple very good games. Travis Sanheim & Robert Hagg shared a sheltered role as the 6th D. Sanheim seemed more comfortable than Hagg, but the coaching staff’s lack of trust limited them to a minor role and extended the minutes of the Gudas-Manning pair.
The coaches tried to adapt as the series went on. Voracek slid up to Giroux’s line. Konecny ended up with Patrick and Raffl. Filppula and Couturier flipped places after the later tore his MCL in game three and returned for a heroic effort in games 5 and 6. In fact, bizarrely, the only constant was the pair of Gudas and Manning. Unlike most of the regular season, the coaches struggled to find a line that really clicked.
Worse still, the Flyers special teams were negatively affected by the lack of depth all year. Youngsters like Scott Laughton and Taylor Leier(remember him?) were tried on the PK, but rotated out. Part of the reason Jori Lehtera secured a spot after starting the year as the 14th forward was that he was seeing regular PK work. The Flyers PK ended up finishing 29th in the NHL during the regular season. The power play was better, but that was entirely on the first unit. The second unit was dreadful and the Flyers PP was out of sorts badly in the post season, against a Pittsburgh team that was middle of the road on the PK.
The playoffs really underscored just how badly the Flyers lack of depth hurt. Couturier had a hand in 9 of the Flyers 15 playoff goals. However, through the course of the season too many guys went through periods of feast or famine to discount this as just a playoff fluke.
Depth may not have been the most noticeable issue, but it was at the root of most of the Flyers issues since the start of the year. This doesn’t fully excuse the veteran core’s lack of playoff production or the sometimes baffling line-up choices of Hakstol and the coaching staff, but it can’t be ignored as a contributing factor. The interesting part of the summer will be how aggressively Ron Hextall decides to address it at the NHL level.
Make no mistake, Hextall is the guy that has trained his focus on rebuilding the system and creating a pipeline of young talent at the expense of adding to the NHL roster. He’s brought in little more than stopgaps and depth guys, which has given the Flyers a healthy cap outlook for the future, but left them without quality experienced depth in the present. That’s hindering his stars and his coach and ultimately played a sizeable role in ending his team’s season after six post season games.
As patient as Hextall has been, he has to wonder if he needs to be more aggressive in adding quality help from the outside. Giroux’s resurgence after a couple injury prone years and Voracek’s career high in points helped the Flyers greatly. But how many more years can they rely on that to occur? Also, does Hextall owe it those guys for being good soldiers during his time consuming(albeit needed) retooling of the system to go out and try to enhance the team’s immediate chances for success and add pieces this summer to help? I think that later point especially rankles a portion of the Flyers fanbase, as they feel the primes of those players and Simmonds have been wasted to this point.