On Monday, we talked about the things that have mostly gone well this season for your leading-the-East-division-by-points-percentage Philadelphia Flyers through the first third of the season. And there have been good things! Undoubtedly, when a team posts the bottom-line performance that the Flyers have so far, some parts of your master plan are probably working out as you expected.
Nonetheless, no one that has watched this Flyers season play out would tell you it’s gone off without a hitch, and sure enough, there have definitely been some spots that are going to need to improve over the remaining portion of the season if this team wants to cement its status as the Cup contender it thinks it is. Here, we’ll talk about three of them.
1. The depth defense is a problem
When the Flyers failed to replace Matt Niskanen over the summer (failed may be a harsh word, but by all accounts, Fletcher tried to find a replacement for him and just didn’t end up bringing any in), it became clear that for this defense to perform at the level of a legitimate contender, some guys were going to have to play above what was expected of them. But that conversation tended to circle around “who can replace Niskanen in the top four?”, and to a degree it ignored the questions that would still be present on the team’s third pair.
18 games in, there are still questions more or less all over the defense. At the top, there’s some degree of concern. Travis Sanheim is having a pretty good season, albeit not one without its drawbacks. Ivan Provorov ... we’ll talk more about him tomorrow, but the TL;DR version is “he’s been fine but not at the level he was last year, which is where the Flyers need him to be”. And Phil Myers has been up and down, to the point where the coach scratched him for a game last weekend and wasn’t totally unjustified in doing so. (Granted, it’s not what I’d have done.)
But the bottom portion of the lineup has been a pretty significant problem, and it’s not clear if there’s a solution. Justin Braun, who was more than adequate as a third-pair/PK specialist last season, seems like he’s taken a noticeable step back this year. He’s just losing too many races and battles, and it’s showing in terms of what happens when he’s on the ice. Robert Hagg’s underlying performance has been pretty similar to what it was in previous years, but it seems like it’s been worse this year, perhaps just because he’s getting outscored this time around. And new acquisition Erik Gustafsson has been quite rough; while he’s shown some offensive ability, it’s more than washed out by how much of a minus he’s been defensively.
Shayne Gostisbehere, who very much entered this season as an unknown at best, has been the best of the “bottom-of-the-lineup” group, and while it hasn’t been smooth sailing for him, he’s at least looked the part of a solid bottom-pair guy (and in the few games since the Flyers returned from Tahoe, he’s looked even better than that). If what he’s done so far is sustainable, that’s a boost for the Flyers. But short of an external upgrade, that still leaves two spots in the lineup that the Flyers are going to need more out of than they’re currently getting. A crappy third-pair won’t sink you when the games matter ... until it will.
2. The franchise goalie has been ... not that
I talked through my thoughts on Carter Hart last week, and really, I think he’s going to be fine. At least fine. How much better he’ll be, I’m not sure. His track record says he’ll be at least a bit better, but he’s still at the age where we learn more about him with every passing game. Maybe his rocky start is a sign of things to come long-term, or maybe it’s just a rocky start that we’ll be able to laugh about down the road.
Still, we’re judging on what happened, not what we think should have happened or will happen going forward, and through the first third of the season, Carter Hart just hasn’t been what any of us were hoping for or expecting. I’m not an expert when it comes to breaking down goaltending, but any of us can tell what we’ve seen: too many games where he just let in more than he should’ve, too many goals that you look at and think that an NHL goalie should have, not enough games where he stood on his head to steal a win or never really let the other team get into it.
His play last Sunday in Buffalo was great, and ideally it was the start of his season-long turnaround. He looked calm and in control, and was definitely covering the short side better than he did in that brutal Tahoe game. He’s always seemed like a guy who learns and adjusts to what happens to and around him on the ice, and he’s going to need to keep being that.
Because remember: there is no backup plan. Brian Elliott might be walking through that door, but if he walks through that door too many times, he’s going to get hurt. The path to success for the Flyers this season more or less cannot be obtained without Carter Hart being significantly better than he has been — which is to say they’ll need him to be solid at worst and awesome at best.
Does that need make them special? No. We’re just not used to actually having a goalie that’s supposed to be good at the same time we have a team that’s good, so we kind of forgot that this is how it is with competitive teams. Even good teams still need good goaltending to reach their goals, and it’s been a while since the Flyers had a team good enough to have its ultimate goals become undone by poor goaltending. If Hart can get them out of that group? Look out.
3. The depth forwards have just felt off
This is another topic we’ve already discussed in the season’s early-going. And as we discussed yesterday, any commentary about what the guys that can be considered the team’s “depth forwards” have done this year needs an asterisk, at least. With Couturier out, everyone got pushed up the lineup just a little bit, and maybe that put some guys out of their depth. And in the games between the COVID pause and last weekend’s Buffalo series, the Flyers were still managing a lineup that featured a lot of AHLers due to absences, and the guys that were still around were in some cases definitely in roles above their pay grades, so to speak.
Nonetheless, you get the sense that things have been a bit off with some of those guys.
In two particularly glaring cases, it’s at least explainable and understandable. Oskar Lindblom’s story needs no retelling, and the fact that he’s even able to play hockey right now is worth celebrating. Nolan Patrick’s nearly two years away from the ice due to migraines put him in a similarly difficult position. Both of these guys are just pretty far removed from NHL game speed, and the lack of a real training camp (and a normal offseason, for that matter) probably didn’t help them in their efforts to be ready to keep up.
Both of them seem like they’ve been picking it up a bit in the past couple of games (Lindblom missed time after testing positive for COVID, though thankfully he didn’t have more than some mild symptoms), and getting them through whatever slog they’ve had to go through so far will be worth it if either or both of them are playing up to their potential by the time this team hopefully hits the playoffs. Still, in absolute terms, if you were to strip away the names and look at what the Flyers have got from a top-9 winger and third-line center, you’d hope to see a bit more.
There were a few other names that didn’t seem like they were playing up to what they could be, and two wingers who had breakouts last season stand out here. At the start of the season, Scott Laughton and Nicolas Aube-Kubel looked like they were going to make up two-thirds of perhaps the best fourth line in hockey. Then, when Couturier got hurt, they had to nudge up the lineup a bit, and their play from there wasn’t befitting of guys who looked like they could provide a lineup mismatch in the bottom-six.
Among lineup regulars, only Connor Bunnaman and Michael Raffl have a lower Expected Goals For percentage at 5-on-5 than Laughton (47.2%) and NA-K (45.6%) do, per Evolving-Hockey. That’s a disappointing development, particularly for Aube-Kubel, who showed a tendency for play-driving not just in his limited NHL time but in his time with the Phantoms as well. Laughton, meanwhile, has actually scored at a pretty good clip (a hat trick against Washington in early February and a 23% shooting clip helps the cause there), so that deserves commendation, and he’s made some pretty high-skill plays this year that you maybe wouldn’t expect from a guy with his profile.
Even so, if you just set the numbers aside and watch them both, neither guy quite looks like the same guy. Both of them seemed last season like players who were taking smarter risks more often than not, and it feels like that balance has tilted the other way a bit this year.
As with many others we’ve discussed here, it feels noteworthy that both of them looked like they’ve been slowly improving, and they’re coming off a good series against Buffalo. (We may someday wonder what the tone of these articles would have been had the Flyers not immediately been coming off of a two-game series against the worst team in their divison.) These three upcoming games against Pittsburgh feel like they should be this group’s time to shine.
At the end of the day, the point here is that the optimist’s case for this Flyers team was that they could roll out four forward lines that you felt could get the job done — not just survive you a shift, but actively win them for you. At full health, they might just be able to do that. What we saw from some of the guys they had when they weren’t at full health was less than encouraging, and those guys will need to be better in the remaining portion of the season for this team to reach the heights it can.