As it turns out, I’m a sucker for the NHL playoffs even when the Flyers aren’t playing. It’s the best playoffs of all, and I simply can’t get enough. I love the sport too much to tune out like a petulant punk because my team had a disappointing season and missed out on the tournament for just the second time since 1994. I acknowledge I’ve been incredibly spoiled by the Flyers’ annual success, despite nary a Stanley Cup championship to show for it. Even with their faults, no team in Philadelphia consistently delivers a quality product to its fans quite like the Flyers, and, with the right moves, they should be back in the playoffs next season. But, man, it won’t be easy, as the new division is looking like one hell of a gauntlet. For now, I’ll enjoy the first round stress-free and root like hell for the New York Islanders.
Now, the state of the Flyers. Like a bunch of prideful jerks, the team went out and won six of seven to end the season and take itself completely out of the running for the #1 overall pick AND a top-10 selection. Because of course. Culminating with a 2-1 victory over the Senators, the Flyers jumped a bunch of teams in the standings and cemented their slot at pick #11. That’s the bad news. The good news? The Flyers don’t miss on first round picks. And in a draft as chock-full of projected franchise cornerstone talents as 2013, that’s critical. I know we all want a potential #1 defenseman with puck-moving ability, and that’s my top priority as well. Seth Jones is likely going first overall. But one of Darnell Nurse, Ryan Pulock, Nikita Zadarov or Rasmus Ristolainen should be there at #11. There’s also Robert Hagg, Josh Morrissey, Mirco Mueller. Options are available. But, really, I just want to get a legit talent who can help this team win. If that ends up being a forward because he’s the best player on the board when the Flyers are on the clock, so be it.
The biggest necessity for next season is improved 5-on-5 play. For a team that ranked third on the power play and fifth on the penalty kill, shoddy play at even strength, which extended from the offense all the way to the goaltending, was a bugaboo that significantly contributed to missing the playoffs. Per 60 minutes, the Flyers were 17th in 5-on-5 scoring (2.3) and 23rd in 5-on-5 goals against (2.8), with a devastating .903 5-on-5 SV% that ranked 28th. The shots on goal for (28.0) and against (29.1) per 60 minutes during 5-on-5 play each ranked 16th in the league; while the 5-on-5 scoring matched up with the shots ranking, it’s the SV% and goals against comparison that really hurt. Was it a defense issue, a goalie issue? It wasn’t one or the other, so much as both working in tandem. And there were stretches of games where the Flyers were simply dominated at even strength, to the point that they could barely get the puck of their own zone and generate offensive pressure when not on a man-advantage. You’re not going to win in this league if you can’t play 5-on-5 hockey.
*All stats via behindthenet.ca (http://www.behindthenet.ca/nhl_team_statistics.php?ds=22&s=1&f1=2012_s&c=0+1+2+3+4+13+14+15+16+17+18+19+20+21+22#)
Now, in the two full seasons of Peter Laviolette as head coach prior to 2013, the Flyers ranked 1st (’10-11) and 5th (’11-12) in 5-on-5 goals for. Not surprisingly, they also finished first in the league in shooting percentage in ’10-11, while finishing 6th in ’11-12. The shots-per-game numbers were also much better, ranking 6th in both ’11-12 (31.3) and ’10-11 (31.6); so there was a three-plus-shot per game decrease in 2013, which is dramatic, and the resulting shooting percentage also dropped to 16th in the league. The goals against at 5-on-5 were 11th in ’10-11 and 20th in ’11-12, so ranking 23rd in 2013 could also represent another step in a downward trend. Similarly, the 5-on-5 SV% ranked 9th (.923) in ’10-11 but 23rd (.913) in ’11-12. Again, the downward trend there is appreciable (20-point dip from ’10-11 to ’13), and while it’s easy to pin the blame on Bryzgalov, you also have to consider the effect of the loss of Chris Pronger. Was 2013 a sharp dive in the third season of a downward trend, or the outlier in what has otherwise been an upper tier 5-on-5 team? That’s what we’ll find out in ’13-14.
As I’ve mentioned before, I like the forward core in place. A lot. It’s young, talented, deep, with lots of upside. Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek comprise two-thirds of a fabulous first line. Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds comprise two-thirds of what can be a fabulous second line. Danny Briere is the most obvious candidate for the amnesty clause. His departure will pave the way for Sean Couturier as second-line center (with Schenn moving to the wing), where he should be left alone as a permanent fixture and allowed to develop accordingly. Given that Laviolette is indeed returning, he really needs to cut out the inane practice of saddling Couturier with fourth line minutes, grinders and fringe NHLers. What purpose did that serve, aside from helping the Flyers lose games? Scott Hartnell — whose ill-conceived contract extension despite having more than a season left on the existing deal (and then immediately flopping) has me equating him with Ryan Howard — suffered through a lost season due to a combination of an injury and playing like hot garbage when he returned. Can he regain the form he showed in his career 2011-2012 season? Is that possible if he’s not on Giroux’s wing? Lots of questions with Hartnell, who desperately needs to bounce back in 2013-2014, lest his new six-year contract become an even bigger albatross. Simon Gagne performed very well after his acquisition, and I’d love to see him re-signed to play on the third line. Max Talbot is an excellent role player who’s perfect for the bottom-six, where Zac Rinaldo has too carved out an appreciated niche. Scott Laughton is ready to break into the top-nine — it’d be an upset if he doesn’t make the team out of training camp — and should enable Paul Holmgren to have some flexibility when it comes to exploring trade options (i.e. Matt Read). I also expect Nick Cousins, despite Holmgren saying he needs a full season with the Phantoms, to break into the lineup at some point next season as an injury replacement.
What about the defense? Oh, that defense! Somehow the unit played much better as a whole at the end of the season when it was composed of mostly AHL call-ups. What we know: Luke Schenn was a horse, a stalwart who improved throughout the season, to the point that he’s a viable building block on the blue line. People might actually stop complaining about the JVR trade, though I doubt it. Kimmo Timonen remains his warrior self and will be back for what figures to be his final season. Brayden Coburn had a down season pre-injury and must rebound (will the team explore trading him?). Andrej Meszaros perhaps came back too soon from a torn Achilles tendon and lost essentially the entire season to an assortment of shoulder injuries thereafter. He enters the final year of his contract, one I’m inclined to let him play out with the hope that he can stay healthy and return to prior form. Will Niklas Grossmann recover from his concerning concussion symptoms? Has Erik Gustafsson secured a roster spot for next season? Is Oliver Lauridsen actually a top-six NHL defenseman? The free agent market is relatively barren, and with the Flyers already spending a ton of money on defense, it’s not worth diving in and overpaying someone who can’t be a true difference-maker. No matter what, the blue line desperately needs another bona fide puck mover who can control play. The attempted solution will have to come via trade or draft.
Last, and so very far from least, is the goalie situation, the bane of the Flyers’ existence as a franchise. I’ve made my feelings on Ilya Bryzgalov known. He wasn’t the main problem, but he wasn’t the solution and doesn’t engender confidence. He’s not terrible, but he’s not good either. He’s just blah; certainly not a top-tier goalie, despite being paid as such. The embattled starter seemed to have been set up as a scapegoat toward the end of the season, and, having reached his breaking point, had it out with the media who had so mercilessly poked, prodded and derided him. Will Bryz get the amnesty clause treatment, too? If that’s the case, are the Flyers comfortable proceeding with Steve Mason as the #1 goalie for next season based on an impressive seven-game run after coming over from Columbus? Could they possibly be so foolish so as to dismiss his body of work with the Blue Jackets in favor of falling victim to classic small sample size bias? The answer is, yeah, probably. So many in the media are ready to make that leap because they’re masters of the jump to conclusions game and lack either the desire or capacity to think critically and analyze the situation outside of a vacuum. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Flyers follow suit. I’ll just say this: No matter how much you want to buy into the “change of scenery” narrative, and no matter how good he looked at the end of the season, handing over the starting reigns to Steve Mason — especially without bringing in some real competition via free agency — is an incredibly risky proposition that, going by his history, includes a high bust factor. You’ve been warned.
I don’t think this team is THAT far away, but the proper tweaks have to be made. To me, this is the offseason that’s going to make or break Paul Holmgren because another postseason-less campaign for the Flyers won’t fly with Ed Snider and will likely cost the GM his job.