Would another pause like 2020 hurt Flyers’ momentum again?

Mike Yeo
      To speculate on where things go with this current National Hockey League season would be foolhardy at best.
      Predicting next month’s weather probably offers an easier task.
      But the fact is, by the time the Flyers (hopefully) play their next game at Seattle next Wednesday, some 10 days already will have elapsed since their last action.
      For the Flyers, the timing of the postponements of the Washington and Pittsburgh games certainly wasn’t ideal. They had just come off a 4-3 overtime win over Ottawa to run their point streak to five games (4-0-1).
      Under normal circumstances, a mini-streak like this wouldn’t be a big deal. But it comes at a juncture in the schedule where the Flyers were trying to rebound from a 10-game (0-8-2) winless streak, eight of which eventually cost ex-coach Alain Vigneault his job.
      The point is, the Flyers were in the midst of building some momentum under the watch of new interim head coach Mike Yeo. The team was playing with renewed energy and enthusiasm. There was better adherence to structure and the players’ collective psyche didn’t seem nearly as fragile as it was under Vigneault in his final days.
      All this brings back memories of mid-March, 2020 when the NHL was paused for the first time by the pandemic.
      The Flyers had just put together a nine-game winning streak (prior to a 2-0 loss to Boston) which moved them to within one point of Washington of the Metro Division lead. Goaltender Carter Hart was playing out of his mind and the Flyers were clicking on all levels, including special teams, faceoffs and just about any analytical category you could think of.
      By the time play resumed in mid-summer, things just weren’t the same. Although the Flyers won the round-robin tournament by beating Boston, Washington and Tampa Bay to capture the paper title of conference champ, they did not get past the second round in the playoffs.
      This season, some teams like the Islanders and Calgary have had it much worse than the Flyers, so no one around the league is breaking out the crying towels over Philly’s plight.
      We’re just pointing out key players such as James van Riemsdyk, Oskar Lindblom and Travis Sanheim were just starting to get untracked when this mini-pause hit. And who knows how much longer this current crisis will go on? We’ve already seen the pullout from the Winter Olympics in an attempt to get at least 50 postponed games rescheduled.
      Fans of all indoor sports can only hope things get back to normal again soon. The Flyers are probably saying their own particular prayer before they go to bed each night.
      >Coaching change was inevitable
      Much has been said and written about the Flyers’ recent coaching change and theories abound about why, after a quick 6-2-2 start, things fell apart and a new bench boss was needed at this particular time.
      Only players, or those who have competed in the game during the past, really know why performances peak one year, dive-bomb the next.
      Does the message get stale? Do the players stop believing in the system? Why does something work in October, then flop in March?
      For answers to those and other provocative questions about the suddenly resurging Flyers, we turn to the trained eye of Hall of Fame defenseman Mark Howe, who went to the Stanley Cup Final twice in his decade-long tenure in Philadelphia.
      Howe, who just retired as the Detroit Red Wings pro scouting director back in June, watched literally thousands of NHL games since his playing career ended back in 1995 and has seen numerous coaches come and go.
      The decision to part ways with Vigneault and go with Yeo seemed almost inevitable. The shelf life of most Flyers coaches is only about four years and even some of the best leaders to pass through this town – including Mike Keenan, Pat Quinn, Peter Laviolette and Ken Hitchcock – didn’t make it beyond that expiration date.
      “You watched the Flyers through the first 25, 30 games last year, and I know some of their players like (James) van Riemsdyk, (Joel) Farabee, (Scott) Laughton, their numbers were off the charts. I always said the Flyers would do well under Alain because they clogged the neutral zone so well, right up there with the Islanders and Boston. When they didn’t in the second half of the season, they looked like Swiss cheese.’’
      The Flyers missed the playoffs and at that moment, the meter was running on Vigneault, fairly or unfairly.
      “In the second half, the team didn’t respond,’’ Howe said. “It was easy to blame Carter Hart. But they just weren’t playing well. The couple games I saw at the beginning of this season, it was the same thing. I think Alain is a real good coach but I think once you lose the ear of the players, it just falls apart.’’
      Howe can relate to that. The Flyers went to the Stanley Cup Final twice in the first three seasons under Keenan but when his tactics finally got on people’s nerves, it was bye-bye.
      “You can’t always blame the players, you can’t always blame the coach,’’ Howe said. “Stuff happens. I don’t know why. But you know when it’s time for things to change just because players aren’t responding. As a player, you’re trying to respond, you’re trying to do well. But for some reason it just ain’t working.’’
      You know the old line about 20 players, 20 taxis. . .when a team fractures, it’s pretty much over.
      “If you don’t have all 20 people on the same page buying in, it just doesn’t work,’’ Howe said. “I don’t know if Mike is going to do that much different but for some reason players have started paying attention again.’’
      Howe said losing Ryan Ellis, one of the team’s top defensemen, for most of the season has hurt more than people might imagine.
      “People have had to play up,’’ Howe said, “and I think that’s been a problem for a couple years on the Flyers. It impacts from that spot all the way down. They have three new defensemen and it take awhile to adapt. I know when I left the Flyers and went to Detroit, it took time to fit in.’’
      Howe believes the Flyers can turn this season around under Yeo, who orchestrated a 22-10 run in 2017 to get the Blues to the playoffs.

“I think the Flyers are good enough,’’ Howe said. “They can get back in the hunt. They just need to get on a run. They’re deep enough up front. They have the potential to get in the playoffs. And once you’re in, believe me, you have a chance.’’

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About Wayne Fish 1783 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.