In any sport where you have a team that has massively underperformed expectations, there will be both players and staff that will feel the heat either from the fans or management. For the Flyers, it is an argument in itself whether the fans or the ownership will break first. After patiently waiting under Ron Hextall, to then make the playoffs twice in the last four years and not win a single playoff round, fans are rightfully upset. Steps forward were promised, especially last season, and neither Hextall nor his coach Hakstol could deliver. Now, coming into the 2019-20 season, the new Flyers brass has promised that they too will deliver a step forward. Both they, and the Flyers players, will feel the burden of expectation. Whether they will step up to the plate or crack under pressure is yet to be seen, but these are five Flyers (both players and staff) who are most definitely on the hot seat:
1. Ivan Provorov
The 22 year old’s struggles last season were well documented, both in his statistical profile and from an eye-test perspective. On the surface level, he registered a career low in points and seemed to struggle as he received even more ice time (Provorov managed 25:07 a game). While that would be concerning as it is, Provorov’s advanced stats show an even worse story. His Corsi-for measured in at 45.4% (in all situations), which is abysmal for a team’s supposed #1 defenseman. For most of last season, Provorov bled goals-against, and he ended up posting an expected goals-for (relative) of -7.24%. It doesn’t take a mathematician to work out that this is not good.
Of course, we can’t simply use statistics to explain any outcome. Provorov suffered injuries to his left shoulder during the 2018 playoffs that would have kept him out for six to eight weeks, but instead he played through it. Provorov did not look himself when playing with this injury, and it is possible that during points in this past season, Provorov was simply trying to get back to 100% (much like Wayne Simmonds). Provorov seemed hesitant on plays that he would have normally would have made before (hmm, this sounds familiar...ala Claude Giroux).
Before Scott Gordon moved Travis Sanheim to play with Provorov, the most common top pair usage-wise was Provorov and Robert Hagg. While it’s possible that Provorov’s poor statistical showing is due to being paired with Hagg during the first quarter of the season (Hagg’s Corsi-for was 40.95% for 2018-19, ouch), this still would not explain Provorov’s continued struggles during stretches of the second half of the season. Yes, he did show flashes of the Ivan Provorov that we have come to expect, but these were too far and few between. Even when Sanheim replaced Hagg on the top pair, Sanheim became the stand out guy on that pairing as opposed to Provorov. It was concerning to say the least that the best defenseman in the franchise played like a replacement level player during points of the season. It is yet to be seen if Provorov was simply recovering, but he is definitely on the hot seat.
2. Nolan Patrick
If I am remembering correctly, it was BSH Radio’s (and The Athletic’s) Charlie O’Connor who urged fans not too put too much pressure on Nolan Patrick after he was taken second overall. His sentiment was something to the effect of enjoying Patrick when he was good and not to treat him the way Eric Lindros was treated, that is to say expect perfection. Nearly two years later, I think it is safe to say that the majority of the Flyers fanbase have not tempered their expectations of Nolan Patrick.
While Patrick has played poorly at times, and has battled through injuries, he does not fall into the same category as Provorov in regards to his placement on the hot seat. Most of the laments thrown at Patrick are in juxtaposition with his high draft choice and the hype that surrounded Patrick when the Flyers took him. While Patrick has not played nearly as well as other names in his draft class such as Miro Heiskanen and Elias Pettersson, he has not played actively awfully. Patrick profiles as a third line center at the moment, with his point totals in the thirties.
In fact, earlier in the offseason, I looked at what to expect from Nolan Patrick next season. I noted the following from Patrick’s 2018-19 performance:
“Patrick’s point output wasn’t bad for a rookie, nor for a second or third line center on a struggling team as the Flyers were in 2018-19. However, his underlying numbers tell a slightly different story. Patrick’s Corsi-For (CF%) at both 5v5 and all situations dropped last season. So far, in both seasons, he hasn’t been a notable play driver. His CF% of 52.95% in all situations for 2017-18 is the best output, though again, at 5-on-5 this number drops to 49.28% which is to be expected. His possession metrics don’t stand out, but they aren’t noticeably bad either. If the Flyers had played better last season, and Patrick recorded a 47.83% Corsi-For as he did, then I would be more concerned. However, since the Flyers as a whole struggled, I’m less inclined to place fault solely on Patrick for that output.“
In the end, I concluded that it is more likely for Patrick to improve than to decline in ability. I had stated the following:
“I think Patrick has it in him to produce around 40-45 points, and be good for a 3.0+ point share. That’s not a huge improvement, but it would still signal that he is headed in the right direction. However, taking his raw numbers aside, should Patrick’s advanced metrics not improve, then I will have greater concerns.”
In a season where pretty much every Flyer skater played worse, Patrick stayed the same, which is not forbidding as it is reassuring of his skill floor. However, despite this, Patrick has been the target of ire from fans who are upset at his lack of “being good” compared to his draft class. This feeds into the point I was alluding to earlier, which is that the pressure on Patrick is resulting from his pedigree and not from the actual evaluations of the player. As of right now, Patrick is a good bottom six center, which in of itself is not a negative, but due to his high draft pick and expectations, is upsetting.
In the end of the piece I wrote on what to expect from Patrick, I concluded that Patrick is more likely to improve based on the notion that high draft picks don’t usually bomb. Again, taken from my earlier piece:
“Generally, players that are drafted as high as Patrick do not become poor NHLers. For comparables, I’ve looked at high draft picks who play center and are similar in build and play style: Eric Staal, Ryan Getzlaf, and Rick Nash. All three players started their career putting up 30-40 points (non-adjusted), with point shares averaging 3.33. However, by year three or four at the latest, those numbers drastically improve. By their fifth NHL season, comparables averaged 71 points...”
If we looked at Patrick and disregarded his draft status, then maybe there would be less of a reason to put him on the hot seat. However, he still will feel this pressure regardless.
3. Matt Niskanen
It may seem like an odd inclusion to place Niskanen on this list, but in my eyes, he is very much on the hot seat. He takes his place on this list due to the role that the Flyers have enlisted him to fill. The expectation is that Niskanen will suit up on the top pairing alongside Ivan Provorov, a notion that in of itself is a positive considering Niskanen’s past performances. After all, he helped lead the Washington Capitals to their first ever Stanley Cup. Why wouldn’t you want a player like that?
Well, if the Flyers have any sort of history with defensemen, it’s that they’ve brought in older players who aren’t nearly what they used to be (yes, I’m looking at you Derian Hatcher). This could very well be the case with Niskanen. He comes into 2019-20 entering his age 33 season after posting a below average campaign in 2018-19. He stopped being Corsi positive in 2016-17. The previous two seasons (including his Stanley Cup year with the Capitals) he has been buried from both a Corsi-for and expected goals-for perspective (last year his relative xGF% was -3.81%). He can still effectively move the puck, and can shoot from the point (yay.) but he has grown considerably weaker in the past two seasons. He is almost certainly not the bonafide top pair guy that we knew of previously. I always go back to this tweet from noted friend of Broad Street Hockey, Micah Blake McCurdy:
Gudas (to Caps) is decent defensively and incredibly fond of shooting from the right point. Niskanen is considerably weaker, both offensively and defensively, but shoots the puck better. Doesn't make sense for Philadelphia. pic.twitter.com/BP52HrmHBJ— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) June 14, 2019
This is why Niskanen is on the hot seat. While Gudas was not necessarily adored in Philadelphia, the Flyers are retaining some of his salary to bring in a supposed top pair defenseman who may not even be a top pair defenseman anymore. The idea behind the move is solid. Bring in a two-way puck moving defenseman who can help out Ivan Provorov and be defensively responsible. However, it would have made more sense if the Flyers just brought in a better player.
It was noted that Niskanen’s poor 2018-19 could have resulted from his exhaustion from the playoff run, but the trend in his play is un-ignorable. The Flyers are banking on Niskanen having a return to form at age 33, and because of this, Niskanen is certainly on the hot seat.
4. Mike Yeo
I can still hear Jim Jackson repeating over again and over again in my head “It’s a power-play goal for Insert Team Here”. The Flyers have had a dreadful penalty kill ever since Ian Laperriere was brought in to coach that unit. Fortunately, Laperriere’s position has been vacated and filled by the former head coach of the St. Louis Blues, Mike Yeo. Just inherently it itself, Yeo is on the hot seat due to the penalty kill’s past struggles. If he can’t improve the PK, then nothing will, and then the blame shifts to the players (either fairly on unfairly).
More pressing is the matter of Yeo’s record, and whether he merits any trust in fixing the penalty kill. Yeo started his career as an assistant in Pittsburgh, and eventually became a head coach in both Minnesota and St Louis. With the Penguins, Yeo built up his reputation of being a good penalty kill coach, as he helped the Penguins turn around their struggling PK in route to their Stanley Cup win in 2009. However, failing to build on his reputation, Yeo never found success as a head coach as he was fired in both Minnesota and St Louis and never made it out of the second round of the playoffs. The Flyers are certainly looking to tap into Yeo’s more specialized knowledge of penalty kill systems, and will be banking on Yeo’s previous success in the assistant role.
On his penalty kill philosophy, Yeo has said:
“Make it tough to enter your zone; generate some up-ice pressure. In your zone, don’t be reckless but pressure the puck because the players in this league today are too skilled to give them time to make plays even if, structurally, your guys are in the right spots.“
This is certainly a good thing to hear, as previous Flyer penalty kills have been rather passive and weak, failing to put pressure on the opposing power-play. Yeo has also stated:
“As I said, shot blocking is a big part of it. When you get the puck with a chance to clear, you’ve really gotta bear down and do it. Do those things, and you’ll be successful. It isn’t magic. It’s a lot of hard work.”
This is less of what fans want to hear, and this could signal Hart getting screened on point shots fairly often and could lead to injuries. Finally, the article summarized Yeo’s philosophy by saying:
“On the PK side, Yeo said that he thinks puck pressure in all three zones -- and reliable goaltending -- will be the crux of the system.“
With Carter Hart, Yeo has the reliable goaltender that his system will need. Puck pressure and being aggressive, which Yeo has stated is important to his system, will also signal a wave of relief as putting all of the pressure on Hart will be the last thing Flyers fans want to hear.
From Yeo’s history and in his in-depth interview, it appears to be that Yeo can very well succeed in his new role given that his systems do what they are intended to. Regardless, Yeo is the coach with the most amount of pressure on him besides Alain Vigneault. The penalty kill has been a source of ire for Flyers fans for a couple of years now, and if Yeo can’t get it right, then he will be under fire.
5. Chuck Fletcher
This is a fairly obvious choice. Fletcher has come into the organization in complete contrast to Ron Hextall, and has made moves both for better or for worse. While it’s safe to say that Fletcher has had a mostly positive offseason, the fact that he has (comparatively) radically changed the Flyers’ organizational standpoint puts him on the hot seat.
While any new general manager would come under immediate scrutiny for failing to meet expectations, the fact that Fletcher has so publicly stated his expectations puts even more pressure on him. He stated his “bias for action” from minute one, and over the summer, seemed to make move after move. He has gone in the complete opposite direction of his predecessor, and while he hasn’t been as aggressive as I would’ve liked in the trade and free agency market, he certainly did take his “bias for action” and apply it.
The fact that Fletcher’s free agency moves are risky also aids to his placement on the hot seat. As I stated previously, Matt Niskanen has come off of two successive poor seasons, and Justin Braun did not play spectacularly last year either. Kevin Hayes is a proven 2C, but is being overpaid. These aren’t criminal moves, but they aren’t at all free of risk, especially when bigger names were available. Maybe that simply isn’t Fletcher’s modus operandi. Though, regardless, Fletcher is on the hot seat for simply going into his first full Flyers season having shaken things up.
Stats via Corsica Hockey and Dobber Sports Frozen Tools