One would be hard-pressed to find a more underperforming team than the Flyers this season.
A quick check of the standings with just about a month to go in the campaign would suggest that is the case.
If the Flyers, who most “experts’’ picked to make the playoffs this year, don’t reach the postseason, that would confirm it.
Face it, after the pandemic-altered finish to the 2019-20 slate – in which the Flyers won nine straight in March to finish just one point behind Washington for the Metro Division title, followed by a run through the round-robin tournament for the No. 1 seed in the East – this year has been (so far) a bust.
You can’t blame it on COVID-19 (the Flyers lost at least a half-dozen top-end players at one point) because other teams have had to go through the same problem.
Injuries aren’t an alibi either. Both goalies have been healthy, the defense (with the exception of Robert Hagg) has been upright and the forwards haven’t lost anybody for an appreciable amount of time besides Sean Couturier way back in January.
And it’s not like the retirement of Matt Niskanen should make that much of a difference. Granted, he was a great defense partner for Ivan Provorov and a superb, calming influence in the locker room.
But even if Niskanen had chosen not to retire, do you think one player could somehow reverse that god-awful red number minus-24 into the black.
All five teams ahead of the Flyers in the NHL’s East Division were at least plus-11 as of Thursday.
Yes, there are other teams around the NHL who have not met expectations.
There’s the Craig Berube-led St. Louis Blues, who won the Stanley Cup just a couple seasons back and now find themselves in a dogfight for the playoffs.
Then you have last year’s Stanley Cup finalist Dallas Stars, who still haven’t made up games lost to COVID.
Up north, the Vancouver Canucks were picked by many to be in a neck-and-neck race with Toronto for the best team in Canada. Now, basically shut down due to COVID, the Canucks will be lucky to even be on a golf course next month.
Why have the Flyers taken such a step back this season?
There is plenty of blame to go around.
Start with Carter Hart, who has shown flashes of goaltending brilliance but has not been consistent. Any time a goalie is sent back to the drawing board for the better part of a week in the middle of a playoff drive, something is wrong.
On defense, the second pairing of Phil Myers and Travis Sanheim basically has fallen victim to the “sophomore slump.’’ Perhaps chalk this up to youth but the Flyers have to be a little concerned with the number of mistakes these young players have made, especially the minus-6 each posted in that 9-0 record-breaking loss to the Rangers last month.
The Flyers spent $3 million on free agent Erik Gustafsson and really haven’t gotten much for their money. He’s been paired, sporadically, with Hagg for an All-Swede unit, which hasn’t been anything special. Gustafsson was supposed to be a force on the power play but that hasn’t panned out.
Up front, while both Oskar Lindblom and Nolan Patrick have to receive passes due to last year’s medical issues, neither has been a factor as the season progresses. Coach Alain Vigneault has tried “load management’’ but that hasn’t really done much for this duo, particularly Patrick.
Travis Konecny recently went 12 games without a goal. He looks to be pressing. He says he’s concentrating on playing the game “the right way’’ but maybe he’s putting a little too much emphasis on the defensive side of the puck. He scored 24 goals in each of the past three seasons but if this season were a full 82-goal schedule, he would fall far short of that total.
Some of the Flyers other big guns have cooled off, too.
James van Riemsdyk also has experienced a 12-goal goal drought and Joel Farabee has been shuffled around a bit after a fast start.
Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek are giving you about what you would expect in any given season, even if this one is rather unique because of strictly divisional play. Kevin Hayes hasn’t had quite the year he had in his debut season in Philadelphia.
Only Couturier comes across as playing with the same strong intent which won him the Frank Selke Trophy for best defensive forward last season. He’s been consistent on a daily basis.
If the Flyers are left home this season (and should that be the case, they would continue a streak of failing to make the playoffs in consecutive years for nearly a decade), ownership and management will have to take a hard look at what’s going on here.
Can a few offseason moves by general manager Chuck Fletcher correct the problem? Does coach Alain Vigneault and his staff still have the trust of his players and vice versa?
And will Flyers fans be patient enough to embrace this team should the franchise begin a deconstruction of its core group?
Stay tuned. It could be a long, hot summer.