VOORHEES – There’s plenty of room for improvement with this season’s Flyers team but from an overall viewpoint, president/general manager Chuck Fletcher sounds satisfied with the product.
As he pointed out at Tuesday’s press briefing at the Skate Zone to assess the first half of the season, the Flyers are on pace for 96 points (which is the general cutoff line for a playoff spot) and they’ve improved vastly on the defensive side of the puck over last year.
Statistics show the Flyers are actually allowing about a half-goal fewer per game than the 2018-19 campaign.
Another plus has been the play of the numerous young prospects, many of them shuttling back and forth between the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
Fletcher pointed to rookie Connor Bunnaman as an example. Bunnaman was called up on Sunday and scored a crucial goal in Monday night’s come-from-behind 6-5 shootout win over the Boston Bruins.
“Mostly positive,’’ was Fletcher’s response to a question about his evaluation of the team to this point. “Certainly we have work to do.’’
The GM noted the Flyers were unhappy with their recent 1-4-1 holiday road trip which diminished a once-comfortable lead in the playoff race.
On the flip side, the Flyers turned things around with wins over Washington and Boston, plus a tight-checking 1-0 loss to Tampa.
“Looking back, I guess I try to look at things from 30,000 feet,’’ Fletcher said. “There are going to be a lot of ups and downs during the year.
“Coming into this season, we talked about our need to improve our goals against. In all situations, we’re down almost half a goal a game. I think we’re defending a lot better. On the whole, we’re not giving up a lot.’’
The Flyers have also improved on special teams, with strides made both on the power play and the penalty kill. Both are in the top 20 this year (PP-19; PK-11). Last year, both were in the bottom 10.
“On the whole, I think everything is going in the right direction,’’ Fletcher said. “But we have a lot of work to do.’’
One aspect of the Flyers’ game that has Fletcher somewhat perplexed is the disparity with the home/road records.
The Flyers are 15-3-4 in the friendly confines of the Wells Fargo Center and just 9-13-2 on the road. Philadelphia is the only one of the top eight teams in either conference to have less than double-digit victories on the road.
“Our goals-against on the road, our specialty teams on the road have not been very good,’’ Fletcher said. “Some of it’s been goaltending, some of it is you fall behind and you chase the game. When you chase the game, you tend to open up and take chances. . .that invites some other bad things to happen.
“Our power play hasn’t been good enough on the road, our penalty kill hasn’t good enough on the road. In saying that, it’s just games against the West (2-10-1 on the road, 6-11-2 overall). For whatever reason, we’ve struggled with the West this year.’’
Fletcher said the coaching staff has been working on different ways to improve pre-game preparation.
“The good thing most of our extended road trips are over (only three games outside the Eastern time zone),’’ he said. “Hopefully with shorter road trips we can have better focus.’’
Goalie Carter Hart’s performances away from the WFC are equally puzzling. He’s just 2-9-1 with a 4.01 goals-against average.
The Flyers’ save percentage in five-on-five play on the road is .879, which Fletcher thinks eventually will even out.
The GM reiterated the Flyers are not where they need to be. He’s only been on the job about 14 months so he’s still working with a lot of parts which were here before he arrived.
“We are far from perfect,’’ he said. “We have lots of work to do. I’m not sitting here saying that this is a finished product by any stretch of the imagination.
“From where we were at the end of last year to now, we’ve come a long way. Again, I think our coverage has been a little leakier. You guys saw the game last night (vs. Boston), but then you go back to the game against Tampa, our coverage was tremendous. We just didn’t generate anything. Tampa did a great job defending against us.’’
The Flyers gave up five goals to Boston in the first half of the game, then shut the Bruins down the rest of the way.
“Last night, I thought we were really sloppy, particularly in the first when we gave up a couple easy goals against rushes and in the second, which we really hadn’t done a lot this year,’’ Fletcher said. “I think our mindset, our puck and game management has been better. I think our defensive zone coverage has been better.’’
On an encouraging note, what Fletcher finds positive about this group of players is the way they have formed a fairly tight-knit bond.
“They really are a team,’’ Fletcher said. “They play really hard for each other. Again, lots of mistakes. What they did last night, to me, typifies what I see in this group. I think you think we’re going away and things are getting away from us and then we just find a way to claw back.
“There’s a lot of heart in that room. I think the team orientation, I think a lot of the things we spoke about particularly. Again, it’s almost half a goal a game that we improve. That’s significant. That’s why we’re even in the (playoff) conversation. We’re up slightly offensively. I think we are 14th in the league offensively. We’re a decent offensive team, but the main reason why we’re trending better this year is our defensive play.’’