Better team defense best way for Flyers to rebound

Chuck Fletcher
     Hockey followers look at the Flyers’ NHL-worst goals allowed total and go, “Oh, it has to be the goaltending,” or “It has to be the three defense pairings.’’
      But truth be told, there’s plenty of blame to go around and that includes the dozen forwards who take the ice every night.
      If the Flyers are to get back on track and into contention next season, it starts with keeping the puck out of their own net rather than putting little black disks in the other guys’ cage.
      Here’s the problem in a nutshell:
      The Flyers started out games, especially late in the season (post-COVID), by falling behind early nearly every night, to the point where it became ridiculous.
      Getting into 1-0, 2-0 holes was a sure-fire formula for disaster. It leads to what hockey people call “chasing the game.’’ Teams try to take chances, they open up their game, give up odd-man rushes and more times than not, wind up losing by the final horn.
      The numbers bear this out: The Flyers were a collective plus-36 in the 2019-20 season and finished, technically, with the No. 1 seed in the Metro Division after defeating Boston, Tampa Bay and Washington in the round-robin tournament.
      In contrast, the Flyers were a miserable minus-38, completing this past season in the East Division in sixth place (out of eight teams) and 13 points out of a playoff spot.
      A couple weeks ago, Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher was asked about this and the basic question was whether he feels he has the right personnel to get this glaring red minus number reversed and start getting ahead in games at the get-go.
      “There’s no doubt it was a very challenging season in the aspect that we were chasing most of the games,’’ Fletcher said. “At the end of the day, that’s on me, it’s on team preparation. The players have their responsibility also in the sense that they have to get in themselves in the right mental state to go out there and be able to execute and make the right plays.’’
      There were nights when the Flyers looked like they simply weren’t ready to play.
      You could blame some of that on “post (pandemic)-pause’’ fatigue due to crazy five-games-in-eight-nights sequences. Too many back-to-back situations caused by the revised, compressed schedule. And possibly some players still feeling the effects of contracting the virus.
      But at the end of the day, a lot of that is just excuse-making.
      It comes down to whether coach Alain Vigneault was on the same page with his leadership group (Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Sean Couturier, James van Riemsdyk, Brian Elliott) and whether the team had the necessary fire-in-the-eyes mentality to get the job done.
      Vigneault was fond of saying teams that surrender the first goal of the game lose about three-fourths of the time. But his team didn’t do much to negate that advantage on a nightly basis.
      “Our starts made it very challenging,’’ Fletcher acknowledged. “Always chasing the game is a challenge. When you score the first goal, I think the percentage of you winning that game are over or close to 75 percent. In all aspects our offense sort of dried up towards the end there.’’
      Overall, the numbers trended a bit upward. However, not enough to make up for those questionable starts. Too many penalties, not enough good penalty killing. Only one shorthanded goal all season (only Detroit was worse). A sporadic power play. Inconsistent goaltending. On and on.
       “Our defense as much as we improved from the beginning, we weren’t giving up as many shots or scoring chances,’’ Fletcher said. “We just had a hard time keeping the puck out of our net as a team and then our offense dried up. At the end of the day, it led to the season that we had.’’
      Whether all the pandemic stuff affects Fletcher’s moves this summer remains to be seen. Maybe the GM wants to see if a healthy lineup in a “normal’’ season can return to the promise of 2019-20.
      Whatever the case and whichever players come and go, this fact remains : If next year’s roster can’t figure out a way to score more goals than the opposition, especially early in games, it doesn’t matter which chairs are rearranged on the Titanic.
About Wayne Fish 1449 Articles
Wayne Fish has been covering the Flyers since 1976, a stint which includes 18 Stanley Cup Finals, four Winter Olympics and numerous other international events.

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