The Philadelphia Flyers are in a weird spot right now. While they are thankfully beating up on some smaller opponents that have low expectations for this season, every time they face a stronger, more structurally-sound team, they can’t walk away with the full amount of points without a miracle.
In the seven games against the New York Islanders and Boston Bruins—two of the best defenses in the league—the Flyers have been able to earn just six points. Even digging deeper, the two wins against the Islanders needed overtime to decide it. This downwards trend against some of the stingiest teams in the league is ultimately concerning, but the antidote is not to simply try to replicate their style.
This team is simply not built to be the conservative Islanders or the elite defensive team in the Bruins, there just isn’t the talent required or the established system that those two teams have built upon for years.
It is completely understandable to have an initial gut instinct to desire a more robust defensive style to match with these two teams that are, simply put, making the Flyers look like stinky hot garbage. A surging feeling of jealousy courses through your veins, all the while, the Flyers are still sitting second in the division by points percentage and the Islanders currently sit out of a playoff spot.
Just in these rare instances against these two teams, you want to be more like them so you can eventually beat them. If you end up building your roster to beat one opponent, you might just end up losing to all the rest, while forming this hollow shell of a good team, trying to get their approval.
It is alright to want that though. In some sort of sympathetic way, the Flyers have been trapped in this “very good team” space, but is basically easy to beat up on some teams that play a certain way. With this defensive structure and some reputation sprinkled in, it’s always assumed that the Flyers were beat up upon during this blowout games or close calls. And of course, that turns into a desire for Philadelphia to do that to the opposition and the screams for toughness and physicality is bellowed through the snow-covered streets.
In the end, what does that toughness really supply a team with? Is it defense? Is it some sort of intimidation tactic? Is it just fun to watch dudes hit each other at really high speed? It’s easy to talk about how much you want a team to do something, but if you don’t really know the true result you want, then you’re just talking about the old days of helmet-less hockey and blood spurting out of orifices.
If more defensively-stable hockey is the end goal, then the Flyers are certainly already doing that. Sean Couturier will always be a very good two-way hockey player, and his usual linemate and captain Claude Giroux, is having one of his best defensive seasons according to the underlying impact metrics produced by HockeyViz. Simply put, it’s not the Flyers’ top players that are irresponsible defensively, it’s the dudes that are brought into the lineup to go hit dudes.
Robert Hagg is by far the worst defenseman in the entire Flyers organization. Providing nothing but someone for opposing forwards to walk around; a minor obstacle in their way, like a rolling piece of trash on the sidewalk.
This is who is brought in to be a physical presence:
Physicality and “toughness” should be a secondary thing to be a good hockey player. It’s so simple. It’s a nice attribute to have—I would personally love if every skilled skater is also willing to go bash some bodies—but it shouldn’t be the only thing a dude can do.
It’s the exact same reasoning as to why the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Cup. Acquiring depth players like Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow is very good, they can bring a physicality to the bottom-six that they were missing, but they are also positive impact players, which is the main thing you really want. Coleman has always been an analytic darling, so while they paid a high price to snatch him from the New Jersey Devils, he is just an all-around Good Hockey Player.
The Lightning also had Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Victor Hedman, so that helps.
There is no real argument for leaving players that are better overall and contribute more, to then bring in guys that want to toss off their gloves at every opportunity. Without Hagg (sorry) this Flyers lineup—in terms of physicality—is probably the best they can be with their current personnel. Depth forwards like Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Scott Laughton can more than provide enough physicality that isn’t the goon-ish mentality of getting into fights. Separating opposing players from pucks and skilled defensive work is more than enough toughness this team needs to win more games in the future.
There are other problems to fix on this roster, but the ability to be responsible defensively and hit some dudes in a timely manner, isn’t one of them.