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Preview: The masochist’s ideal hockey game

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If you’re looking to inflict pain upon yourself, you’ve come to the right place.

New Jersey Devils v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

The Flyers are set to begin a four-game slate against the New Jersey Devils today. Spare me the gagging noises, I already feel your pain. With almost nothing to play for besides pride (and even that’s questionable) between these two floundering rosters, it’s sure to be a messy series that won’t serve much purpose other than bringing this season a bit closer to its merciful conclusion. Who are the players to watch, what are the storylines, and why should you care? All that and more below.

The Devils

New Jersey is a trash fire yet again, much to the delight of most Flyers fans, but for the next week we’ll collectively be subjected to Flyers vs. Devils hockey so there are really no winners here. The Devils have made some smart moves under new GM Tom Fitzgerald, specifically in their jettisoning of Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac for a nice pick package at the deadline. Moving two middling players who weren’t going to be part of this team’s contending window was a quality decision, particularly when the young core is beginning to round into form this season. Now it’s just a question of if Fitzgerald and the rest of the Devils’ front office can build around the crop of talent they have in the system.

The Devils are a team totally driven by the play of their youth, with not much else in the way of depth behind them. Of the top 15 players in WAR on their roster, 10 are 23 years old or younger; Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt lead the way in terms of player value, which is roughly reflective of the team’s production standings. Also worthy of note is rookie standout Yegor Sharangovich, who sits near the top of all Calder-related stats this season. Sharangovich has been scoring at around a 40ish point, 20 goal pace this year and is tied for second in goals on the team with Hughes.

The Devils are a roster that’s going to win with speed, if at all. With a plethora of slightly plus skaters available, New Jersey likes to play with pace and beat defenders with a simple formula: going wide and besting a one-on-one gap with superior crossover burst and plus skill. The Flyers are one of the slower teams in the NHL by comparison, so this presents a tricky matchup for them. New Jersey is a high-end chance generation team, ranking 10th in xGF/60 at even strength, but under new head coach Lindy Ruff those numbers haven’t been produced by quality shots as much as quantity, a la the Montreal Canadiens. The Devils are 12th in FF/60 at even strength, so they’re a volume shooting team by archetype.

The main weakness of this team is in their lackluster goaltending. The Devils are 17th in xGA/60 at even strength, but 7th in GA/60, indicating a season-long trend of opponents finishing against them above expectation. MacKenzie Blackwood has been a roller-coaster this year, posting stretches of Vezina-caliber play followed by intense bouts of can’t-stop-a-beach-ball-itis. In terms of collective GSAx, the Devils are one of the worst teams in the league, only ahead of teams like ... Philadelphia. The Flyers will likely face Scott Wedgewood in the opening game of the week, so they’d be savvy to knock him on his ass early with some challenging shots.

The Flyers

As detailed in an article by a certain college student who many are calling a wonderful genius (people are totally saying that, don’t look it up), the Flyers have little shot of assuring themselves of a top five selection in this draft, even if they lose every remaining game in regulation. The remaining games essentially don’t matter either way; win or lose, Philly will be reliant on the lottery to add an impact talent through the draft, and without luck propelling them to a top three selection the pick will likely be traded. At this point, the last few weeks of the hellish 2020-21 season are going to be useful for two things: evaluating the pipeline and evaluating the locker room.

Chuck Fletcher has detailed that he thinks this team just isn’t the right mix of players, hinting at an offseason where some stalwarts might get jettisoned. While it’s mostly speculation at this point, it would seem that the franchise is trying to discern who gives a shit and who doesn’t. Those who have proven that they care get rewarded (Scott Laughton’s extension), while those who don’t will be shopped in the offseason if Fletcher cares to keep his job. The final stretch of the year is going to be telling to this end. Many people think that this team has already thrown in the towel, and to some extent I’d agree, but there are clearly a few players who still look hungry and effective on a night-to-night basis.

Wade Allison is clearly the guy to watch, but hopefully other young depth options like Tanner Laczynski and possibly Cam York will be given some legitimate looks in the NHL as things draw to a close. The entire remaining schedule is a chance for the front office to tinker with what they currently have and evaluate what they’re comfortable moving, and Flyers fans should treat it as such. Don’t focus on the results on the ice if at all possible, but instead key in on the performance of young guys and unestablished assets. Especially pay close attention to the Phantoms; Tyson Foerster is ripping it up down there alongside Wisdom and company.

In net, the Flyers will probably start old man Brian Elliott, whose joints need a considerable amount of WD-40. The dude probably carries around a can in a utility belt like Hank Hill so he can bend over to put his pads on at this point. Elliott has looked creaky, exhausted and underwhelming in his recent starts, so Philadelphia will be hard-pressed to win without keeping him relatively clean. Slowing pace of play and keeping this a low-event matchup will be crucial to any aspirations of achieving victory.

Three Big Things

  1. Watch the play of the forwards with a discerning eye and attempt to view them without prior biases. Who is executing and who isn’t? Chances are that aside from Claude Giroux, you’ll notice myriad mistakes. Take note of that and compile your thoughts as we head into the offseason, keeping in mind sample size, and use what you’ve gathered to evaluate how Chuck Fletcher alters the roster.
  2. If Brian Elliott looks mildly competent, this is a game the Flyers can win. The biggest problems for the veteran have been rebound control and lateral mobility (hey, just two of the biggest components of being an NHL-caliber goalie), so if he’s swallowing shots early and tracking the puck well there’s some reason for optimism.
  3. How do the lower lines look against a top-heavy Devils team? This is one of the few openings for guys like Aube-Kubel and Laczynski to utterly dominate their competition, and they need to take advantage of it. If the third and fourth lines aren’t crushing New Jersey in the xG and Corsi battles alongside the scoresheet, that’s problematic and something that will need to be addressed in the offseason.

Game Day Tunes

It’s a Devils game, so we need appropriate music. Cue the Doom Eternal soundtrack.

Happy game day, and as always, go Flyers.