The Flyers weren’t expected to contend for the Stanley Cup, but a run at the post-season wasn’t out of the question. But after losing seven straight, could Philadelphia shake things up?
The expectations surrounding the Flyers entering the campaign weren’t exactly outsized. After all, Philadelphia was one year removed from a top-two selection by way of the NHL draft lottery and had finished seven points out of the post-season with eight fewer points than the year prior. No matter what the expectations were, though, few would have expected to see the Flyers suffer through a dreadful seven-game losing streak. Yet, here we are.
Over their past seven outings, dating all the way back to Nov. 11, Philadelphia hasn’t found the winner’s circle once. It started with two woeful defeats at the hands of the Minnesota Wild, a home-and-home set that saw the Flyers score exactly zero goals. It was followed by a shootout loss to the Winnipeg Jets, an overtime loss to the Calgary Flames, defeat at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks and then back-to-back losses to the New York Islanders, both of which came in overtime. Truthfully, however, the poor run of play dates back even further.
While the seven straight defeats are no doubt the headline here, Philadelphia has only managed to win three of its past 15 games and five of the eight wins the Flyers have to their name came in the first eight contests of the season. That means for the better part of the past month, Philadelphia has been among the least victorious teams in the league. Only the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators have accumulated fewer points since Oct. 24, and no team has won fewer games that the Flyers, who have only three to their name over that span. And, with that in mind, it might be time to wonder what the future could hold in Philadelphia.
As is often the case at times like these, the coach is usually first to hit the hot seat. Flyers bench boss Dave Hakstol is no exception.
Hakstol, of course, is no stranger to scrutiny from his time in Philadelphia. Hired prior to the 2015-16 season after Craig Berube’s exit, Hakstol found himself in hot water almost immediately. Things started well enough with the Flyers going 4-2-1 through their first seven games, but Hakstol’s group immediately followed that up with a six-game slide that had some questioning how long he’d last in Philadelphia. The Flyers righted the ship, though, and closed the campaign with a healthy 41-27-14 record and a berth in the post-season. The Flyers then came within two goals of forcing a seventh game against the top-seeded Washington Capitals in Round 1.
To put it simply, however, that was then and this is now. Hakstol was a rookie head coach and the Flyers no doubt wanted to give him time, even if things were going sideways. That he was able to steer the group out of that tailspin was a feather in his cap, but the shine from that season wore off quickly. Last season, as noted, Philadelphia saw an eight-point downturn, winning two fewer games and losing six more games in regulation. And this year, some of the same issues are continuing to plague the Flyers.
One of the primary concerns for Philadelphia right now has to be the lack of offensive generation. While the Flyers are just below average in scoring, 19th in the NHL with 2.83 goals per game, their current slide is paired with a lower rate of scoring. Since Oct. 24, Philadelphia has 2.46 goals per game, the sixth-worst mark over that span, and it’s not all that surprising to see the downturn given some of the Flyers’ underlying numbers. Per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 over this month-plus stretch, Philadelphia ranks 14th in shots (31.8) and 13th in shot attempts (58.2), which isn’t bad, but the Flyers also have the seventh-worst scoring chances for (25.5) and eighth-worst rate of high-danger attempts (9.4), according to Natural Stat Trick. Without prime opportunities, the Flyers have had a difficult time finding goals and that alone has resulted in more than a handful of one-goal losses. In fact, no team this season has lost more one-goal games than Philadelphia, who, including shootout losses, have dropped 10 games by a single marker.
It stands to reason, then, that when a team isn’t scoring, winning has to come by way of the defense. And the Flyers have been sound defensively when playing at 5-on-5, with the league’s lowest goals-against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (1.78) and solid goaltending from Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth, who lead the league with a .938 save percentage at five-a-side. But the issue for the Flyers is an atrocious penalty kill.
Only three teams — the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Florida Panthers — have a penalty kill operating at a worse rate than Philadelphia’s 74.7 percent and the Flyers have been even worse lately, killing only 71.7 percent of their penalties since Oct. 24. It should also come as no surprise that Philadelphia has the second-worst shorthanded SP, .810, despite how well Elliott and Neuvirth have played when at full strength. It’s not as if the Flyers have done themselves many favors in that regard, either. Philadelphia no doubt understands its own penalty-killing woes, yet only nine teams have been shorthanded more often than the Flyers and, since Oct. 24, there are only seven teams who’ve had to make more kills than Philadelphia.
The big question, though, is how many of these issues are personnel related and how many can be fixed with a change behind the bench. The goaltending, as noted, has been superb at full strength, so it would appear no changes are necessary there. Likewise, Philadelphia has been rather adept at slowing offensive opportunities for the opposition. The Flyers have some of the lowest shots against, shot attempts against and chances against rates per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 of all teams in the league. But there’s a clear lack of offensive depth — only five players have more than five goals — and the attack has relied far too heavily on the exceptional play of first-liners Sean Couturier, Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux.
No matter what the solution may be, though, finding it in a hurry is of paramount importance if the Flyers want to see post-season hockey again. Philadelphia has already fallen eight points out of a divisional playoff spot and trail the second wild-card position by six points. And if Hakstol and Co. can’t turn things around, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see the Flyers make some changes, be it behind the bench or otherwise.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.