Are Philadelphia In Need of a Hard Reset?
Slumping to their fifth straight defeat, Philadelphia left Edmonton having surrendered a season high 49-shots on goal as they relinquished a 2-1 lead heading in to the third period.
Were it not for Michal Neuvirth, the game might have been dead long before the final frame even began.
The Flyers goaltending, specifically Neuvirth, might be the only reason the club hasn’t hit rock bottom – yet – and after changing the Coach this summer, with Dave Hakstol replacing Craig Berube, question marks over the group Philadelphia is actually icing every night have been raised. Again.
General Manager Ron Hextall may have been bold in hiring Hakstol, who took responsibility for last night’s defeat, but the decision was not without merit after the 47-year old turned the University of North Dakota in to one of the most consistent in the NCAA – reaching the Frozen Four seven times during Hakstol’s tenure, with future NHL stars such as Jonathan Toews, T.J. Oshie and Zach Parise all featuring during that period.
And while a 4-6-2 start has certainly but pressure on the Alberta native; when two coaches, of differing approaches, struggle with the same group (despite getting some decent goaltending – something not all under pressure coaches get) then maybe the problem is one of composition rather than direction.
The Flyers top six is passable, competitive, when on form. Captain Claude Giroux is not far removed from being considered one of the games premier centres, and if last season’s 73-points is considered to be an ‘off year’ for the 27-year old, it gives you an idea of what Giroux is capable of. Many players will never reach 73 points in a season, let alone in a bad year.
Winger Jakub Voracek had a fantastic campaign, scoring 22 goals and 81 points to lead the team and earn himself a whopping 8-year, $66m contract extension, while many GM’s would take Wayne Simmons without hesitation.
Matt Read is at the very least functional and both Brayden Schenn, 24, and Sean Couturier, 22, have the ability to contribute now and for years to come.
But that’s all theoretical, on paper. Their potential top six looks ok. On the ice, Philadelphia have stuttered.
Michael Raffl is currently slated to play along side Giroux and Voracek on the clubs top line – Raffl has 1 assist in 12 games, Giroux four goals and 6 points and Voracek, who’ll account for $8.25m in cap space from next season, has zero goals and four assists…
With Couturier sidelined through injury, 21-year old Scott Laughton (2 goals, 5 points), Simmonds (1 goal, 6 points) and Read (2 goals, 4 points) have formed an ‘ok’ second unit. Brayden Schenn’s four goals are tied for the lead with Giroux, and give the third line a little ‘punch’, but the team’s collective on ice shooting percentage is just 6%, ranked 29th across the entire league.
Having posted 8.8% and 9.3% returns in each of the past two seasons, thing are likely to improve in this regard – especially as they are the fourth best team at generating scoring chances per 60 minutes (all situations) at present – but the caveat is that Philadelphia is also averaging the largest number of shots against per 60 minutes (all situations) in the entire NHL.
Even if they start converting more, the Flyers are still giving up a whole bunch of chances – Neuvirth and Mason have faced a combined 189 shots during this five game skid.
Part of this comes back to a blue line few would consider ‘top quality’. Andy MacDonald has been buried in the minors, Luke Schenn’s stock has progressively declined since entering the league in 2008, Michael Del Zotto is yet to re-discover the form he showed last season, Evgeny Medvedev – an odd offseason signing at age 33 – has already been scratched. Mark Streit leads the team in scoring, but at 37 is not really the underrated defensive linchpin he was on Long Island anymore.
Top prospect Ivan Provorov is waiting in the wings, but is at least a couple of years away from being a significant contributor and both Samuel Morin and Travis Sanheim are considered good defensive propspects. But only the most exceptional young D men are ready to make a serious impact in their early twenties.
In short, the back end ain’t pretty. And hasn’t been for some time. And might not be again for a while unless the organisation can work miracles.
Philadelphia aren’t a team without talent – but having missed the post season by 14 points last year, starting this campaign so sluggishly does little to inspire this is actually a roster that can win.
The difficulty is how to change this group – something which is close to impossible in some regards. Why? Because Philadelphia have managed to turn themselves in to the Kings of the bad contract.
With just $95,001 in cap space, the Flyers are paying fourth liner R.J. Umberger $4.6m per year until 2017, on the hook for $4m of MacDonald’s salary even after burying him and continue to deal with the ‘highly questionable’ (e.g. bad) decision to sign Vincent Lecavalier until 2018.
That’s $13.1m on two bottom six players of limited output and a defenceman buried in the AHL…
Some of these problems Hextall has inherited. In fact, most he has inherited. But he is not without blame.
The franchise may be able to walk away from Medvedev and his $3m salary next summer, but they’re also set to pay Voracek an additional $4m against the cap when his new deal kicks in, with Sean Couturier also jumping from $1.75m to $4.33m against the cap next year.
No one is taking Lecavalier, Umberger, Voracek or MacDonald on those deals; Streit, Del Zotto and perhaps Nick Schultz may be moveable simply due to the lack of available defencemen in the NHL right now. But even then, all three are under contract until 2017 and would struggle to crack many teams top three. Buyers aren’t likely to be banging on Hextall’s door offering high picks and top prospects for any of them, and it may mean Philadelphia retaining salary or taking an equally bad contract in return in the hopes Hakstol can trigger some kind of reclamation project.
But neither of those situations is desirable. The clubs cap crunch has already made pending UFA Luke Schenn ‘available’, while brother Brayden, a restricted free agent next summer, is also either on the block or set to become a headache for Hextall when it comes to re-signing the 24-year old.
Philadelphia looks like a team too high on its own guys too often. While that loyalty can count for a lot sometimes, it’s led to them paying over the odds for certain players, on mid-to-long term deals which now only server to hamstring the club in both the short and mid term. Not good enough on the ice, too costly to move.
One might have hoped Hextall’s time away from the organisation, working with Los Angeles, might have given him the separation Paul Holmgren lacked – the ability to assess the roster without nostalgia or misguided loyalty. Although that may seem cold, it’s a results business and sometimes, right or wrong, players are treated as assets.
But Hextall learnt from Dean Lombardi – perhaps the most loyal of loyal General Managers – and returned as a franchise hero of sorts when he assumed the role of Assistant GM in 2013, before being promoted a year later.
Perhaps he wasn’t the right man for the job after all. Too close to the situation, not analytical enough to make the right call – paying Jakub Voracek more than $8m per season a case in point.
Either way, it feels like change is needed in Philadelphia. How that can be achieved is undoubtedly a difficult question, with some painful answers for Flyers fans likely. It won’t be easy. It’ll probably take some time too.
But doing what they’ve been doing for the past two years will only lead to the same results.