Here’s ‘Howe’ to fix Flyers’ ailing power play

Hall of Fame defenseman Mark Howe (right), shown here with Kimmo Timonen (left) and Eric Desjardins (center), says the current Flyers' power play needs a blue line director and a strong presence in front of the net.

      It was like watching a well-synchronized machine.

      Puck makes contact with stick. Stick fires puck. Puck hits back of net.

      That scene unfolded 34 times during the Philadelphia Flyers’ 1985-86 season when power forward Tim Kerr set a National Hockey League power-play goal record which stands to this very day.

      When the Flyers were up a man, Kerr would set up shop somewhere in front of the net and wait for either a pass or rebound. Then, in one seamless motion, he would fire the puck back into the net.

      It was that sort of efficiency which helped the Flyers reach the Stanley Cup Final in both 1985 and 1987, years in which they ran into one of the greatest teams of all time, the 1980s Edmonton Oilers.

      Some would go so far as to say the Flyers might have won that 1987 Stanley Cup Game 7 if Kerr had been healthy and able to play.

      Those years are a stark contrast to where the Flyers are today.

      Last season they finished 32nd and dead last in the NHL in power-play efficiency with a 15.56 percent connection rate. This season they are worse, at least percentage-wise, converting at 8.9 percent through Friday night’s game at Anaheim.

      To put it in even more graphic terms, the Flyers scored a total of 35 power-play goals last season, which is exactly one more than Kerr accumulated by himself in that memorable 1985-86 campaign.

      Hall of Fame defenseman Mark Howe, who was Kerr’s teammate on the Flyers during the ‘80s, recalls that during those years the Flyers had pointmen (such as himself) who got the puck to the net in a hurry. The shot didn’t have to be a cannon blast, just an accurate entry thrust which gave the guys down low a chance to finish the job.

      The closest thing the Flyers have had to that in recent years was defenseman Shayne “Ghost” Gostisbehere, who’s now with Detroit.

      If the Flyers are to get better in that area with the personnel they have either at this level now or in the development system in the future, what has to change?

      “I haven’t seen them that much,” said Howe, who retired from his position as head of the Detroit Red Wings scouting department after last season. “But from what I saw, I’m asking myself, ‘who’s running the power play from the back end?’ You need someone to be a threat because as a defender, if there’s no one who is a threat back there, you can sit back and can cover their three guys with your four.

      “Even with the trade of (Ivan) Provorov, I never saw Provorov as being a really great power-play guy. I think Ghost, when he was healthy,  provided some magic with (ex-Flyer Claude) Giroux up front. I think that made a big difference.”

      Giroux, now with Ottawa after a brief stop in Florida, stands eighth on the Flyers’ alltime power-play goals list with 84 (out of his total of 291 goals scored in Philadelphia).

      “The Gostisbehere trade sort of coincided with Giroux being traded,” Howe said. “A high percentage of Giroux’s points were on the power play. So they traded away one of the best power-play guys they’ve had in some time.

      “But I look at their back end, it’s not (Travis) Sanheim. I think Gostisbehere has probably been the best they’ve had in recent years. (Tony) DeAngelo (traded before this season) was usually pretty good on the power play. But as for last year, it’s hard to judge because a lot of their forwards were beat up. They didn’t have a lot of natural scoring up front.”

      The one legitimate power-play specialist up front was James van Riemsdyk (22nd alltime on the Flyers with 42 power-play goals), but he’s now plying his trade with the high-flying Boston Bruins.

      “If you don’t have a guy running the power play, it’s really hard to make it work,” Howe said.

      The Flyers have a history of efficient performers up front – big guys like Kerr, Gary Dornhoefer, Paul Holmgren, John LeClair, Eric Lindros, Wayne Simmonds and Scott Hartnell.

      Currently, there are no big aggressive types up front to “take the goalie’s eyes away.” Sean Couturier, Owen Tippett and others are trying to fill those skates.

      “My understanding is, if the goalie is making a lot of saves, somebody better get in his vision,” Howe said. “If you’ve got everybody sitting on the perimeter, it’s so much easier to defend. Because you have everybody in front of you.

      “The guys who do it (screening the goalie) great make a difference, still to this day. You look at the Rangers, Chris Kreider. He used to stand on the side. Then someone taught him how to stand in front of the net. Now he’s scoring a ton of power-play goals (a league-leading 26 in 2021-22).”

      Can the Flyers make it work with what they have?

      “Couturier’s a smart player,” Howe said. “But you need all the ingredients. You go to Colorado, you’ve got (Nathan) MacKinnon over there who can crank it up and (defenseman) Cale Makar who’s running everything.

      “Who is that with the Flyers? I don’t think they have that. I never had a big cannon but I could usually get the puck through to the net. I knew what I wanted to do with the puck long before I got it. If there was a two-on-one down low, I needed to get the puck to the net. I’m just trying to get the puck to the net so one of those guys can outmanuever the defender.”

      After all that, maybe it just comes down to the will to score. If the Flyers hit a dry spell in the late ‘80s, coach Mike Keenan would occasionally put Dave Brown and some other big dudes on the PP, like one night at Chicago.

      And it worked.

      “We called it Plan 41,” Howe said. “That night we just got the puck to the net. Somehow they scored two goals.”

      See? You don’t always need a Tim Kerr to have success if you know how to go about your business.

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About Wayne Fish 2446 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.