Philadelphia Flyers continue to tread water as past problems remain

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia Flyers have not had a good start to the season as they currently sit at 4-5 while continuing to struggle with some familiar problems.

Hockey is a game that doesn’t try to slow itself down. It moves at breakneck speed down up and down the ice, with men of hulking stature flying around on 3/4 of an inch of steel, a hardened rubber disc doing it’s best to elude their grasp. It’s a game that’s been evolving for a hundred years, from the days of the unmasked goalie and his knee-length kick pads to the age of the bare-knuckle brawlers of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, to the game we have today which is mostly dominated by speed and skill.

To win in today’s NHL requires the highest level of dedication to the creation and formation of a team philosophy, culture, identity, and system of play. The organization must also make a concerted effort to adjust to the current state of the game.  It’s the “adapt or die” model. Teams failing to adapt to this new style of play get left behind fairly quickly.

The Philadelphia Flyers of 1970’s are long gone, and so is that style of play. The Broad Street Bullies punched and hacked their way to two Stanley Cups, brutalizing the rest of the league through intimidation and raw physicality. And for decades, that style and brand stuck with the Flyers, becoming part of who and what the organization was, even as the league began to evolve and move in a different direction.

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As the NHL approached the 2004-05 lockout, the Flyers were a team that seemed to always be on the cusp, but just couldn’t take the last step toward winning a cup. They were perennial playoff contenders, never afraid to spend at the trade deadline or bring in big-name players. That very 2004 season, they took the Tampa Bay Lightning, the eventual Stanley Cup champions, to the brink in an epic seven-game Eastern Conference Final. Then came the lockout.

The NHL would once again go through a change, this time changing the landscape of North American Hockey completely. The pre-lockout NHL was one that featured size over speed and skill. The hulking defenseman could hack and slash at will, stalling a team’s offense and creating havoc along the boards. Forwards needed to be bigger in order to and stronger in order to compete with the opposing team’s defensive behemoths.

It was a league tailor-made for guys like Derian Hatcher, Chris Pronger, and pugilists Derek Boogaard and Donald Brashear. But that would soon become a thing of the distant past.

The post-lockout NHL was dramatically different. The red line was gone. Stick penalties would be highly emphasized and enforced at a much greater rate. The league, in an effort to draw in more fans, realized it needed to change. It realized the NHL needed a new identity, one that put excitement on a higher pedestal than things like fighting and brutal hits. The slow, plodding defenseman that used his stick to slow down speedy wingers was now an extinct creature.

The Flyers took a little long to get that memo, deciding not to rid themselves of slow-footed players like Hatcher, Mike Rathje, Lasse Kukkonen, and Alexei Zhitnik. The result was the disastrous 2006-07 season which had them finish with 56 pts, clinging to the basement of the league for the majority of the season. It was an embarrassment that the organization would not tolerate.

Then-Flyers GM Paul Holmgren, who would take over for prodigal son Bobby Clarke, realized this mistake and began a teardown and rebuild that would bring in players like Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell, Kimmo Timonen, and Braydon Coburn. That group would form the core that would go on to the Stanley Cup Final in 2010.

They were a fast, aggressive, and physical team that could score at will and played a gritty style of defense led by Pronger and Timonen. They were a team that understood the current state of the NHL and embraced their identity, despite not reaching the ultimate goal.

And that brings us to the 2018-19 Flyers, a team that just seems to be stuck in an endless cycle of mediocrity, a team that hasn’t evolved since that fabled run to the only Stanley Cup Final of the last 20 years. In that 2010 final, they were defeated by an eventual dynasty team in the Chicago Blackhawks. Sometimes you just run into the wrong team at the wrong time, but the good teams will adapt in the face of those losses.

Identity is so important to a team in today’s NHL. The Flyers, for a number of reasons, seem to be a team that is on the cusp of being left behind yet again, and it’s largely due to the fact that this team just doesn’t know what it wants to be, and seems destined to wallow in eternity as an organization that can’t figure it out. For a team that was supposed to finally take that next step this season, the early results are somewhere between confusing and downright embarrassing.

At 4-5, they’ve been blown out at home twice by Colorado and San Jose, shutout by Vegas, and embarrassed by Columbus in a game that was winnable. Yes, they are missing James van Riemsdyk, but he’s not the cure-all for what ails this team. There’s far too much happening on the ice to place it on the absence of one player who’s played one and a half games in a Flyers sweater this season.

Let’s take stock of this team through nine games. They can’t play defense. They can’t kill penalties. They start games slow and then struggle to keep up offensively until the game is already out of reach. The goaltending situation is as cloudy as ever. It’s the same thing over and over, year in and year out. One must beg the question, where in the world is this team going right now? That question should land on the desk of the general manager and at the feet of the coach.

Ron Hextall has done a tremendous job so far rebuilding and rebranding the organization into one that values youth over big free agent spending. When he was hired in 2014, taking over for Holmgren, the team was again in the midst of a transition, saddled with a number of lengthy, expensive contracts that put the team in a financial hole. It would take years for Hextall to dig the organization out of the hole that Holmgren put them in, but to his credit, Hextall did just that.

Hextall’s plan was to accumulate draft picks and spend those picks on young, high-upside players who would eventually add to the current core of the team. He’s also been adamant about spending money wisely, largely staying out of the big free agent radar. He’s stayed true to his word, and little by little, his young draft choices have made their way to the NHL level. Each time a young player has joined the team, fans have had a new reason to be excited about the future of the organization. Yet, the team has only made incremental strides since Hextall has arrived in 2014.

Yes, the former franchise goaltender and famed Chris Chelios sparring partner inherited a messy situation, and his process was always going to require some patience before it translated onto the ice. But many feel that that time is now, and yet here we are, watching a team with the talent to win the division floundering right before our eyes. Hextall did not mince words either, according to Dave Isaac of the Courier-Post. Clearly, the GM isn’t thrilled with his club’s performance either.

So what is the problem with this Flyers team? It depends on where you want to start. One very obvious problem with this team is the fact that through nine games, they just do not appear ready to play hockey in the first period. In each of those nine games, they’ve given up the first goal. That is simply inexcusable, and it’s been a problem since the Peter Laviolette regime of 2010-2014.

They’ve been outscored 37-31, and have failed to piece together back to back wins yet this season. It would be putting it mildly to say that the Flyers have not looked like a good team so far this season. Right now, they look like one of the worst, most inconsistent teams in the NHL.

Will this continue? Likely not, but some things have to change. The defense should get better, and if Michal Neuvirth can come back and stay healthy, it would give the Flyers some stability in net. When healthy, Neuvirth is the best goalie option they have. Brian Elliot has been OK, but at times he looks completely incapable of making that clutch save at the right moment in the game.

This is a player’s game, and I believe the players need to figure out how to right this ship. But that doesn’t mean that the coach should be left out of this discussion either. So let’s talk about Dave Hakstol for a minute. It’s currently year four of the Hakstol regime, and truthfully, not much has changed. It’s fair to say that at this point, with the team performing the way it is, that the coach cannot be free of blame here.

When the same old problems continue to plague the team year after year, night in and night out, that speaks to coaching. Hakstol is the man responsible for preparing the team and getting them ready to play the game. Since he’s arrived, they’ve struggled to play a full 60-minute game. It’s just head-scratching that the team just seems like it can never come out of the gate fast. Whether it has to do with Hakstol’s system or whether it’s a product of what’s being taught and communicated in camp and at practice, it’s a characteristic that has become a staple of Flyers play.

Speaking of the system, it’s not exactly one that inspires excitement. Yes, there are players on this team that can score, and it’s not the type of system meant to induce low scoring affairs. But for some reason, this team just has a knack for going through long offensive droughts. Hakstol’s system relies on forwards getting deep into the offensive zone and feeding the puck high to the defense for either a redirection shot or quick pass to set up an offensive player down low.

The problem is the low-to-high system requires the forwards to possess the puck when entering the zone in order to set up. Against teams that clog the neutral zone or force the Flyers to dump and chase, they struggle mightily. In addition to the offensive struggles, the Flyers have been absolutely horrific on the penalty kill. Hakstol’s insistence on keeping Ian Lapperiere on board as the penalty kill coach has raised a number of questions about his ability to continue manning the bench for the orange and black.

The coach isn’t the only problem, but he certainly can’t fully escape the blame. Hakstol may not be the best guy to coach this team, but that doesn’t absolve the talent that is currently on the team from underperforming this badly. Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, Jake Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds must take charge and lead this group out of this slump. Something must change before this season is lost.

It all comes back to identity. Teams used to hate playing the Flyers because of their image as the Broad Street Bullies. They would literally bully their opponent on the ice. Wingers would think twice before chasing a puck into the boards again Eric Lindros or John LeClair. Pronger would later inspire a similar fear, and even guys like Richards, Coburn, and Hartnell were notoriously difficult guys to play against.

The Flyers owned that bully identity for nearly 30 years, and despite that style of play no longer being very relevant in today’s game, at least that team had an identity that they embraced. It feels like this team has no identity at all, and the result for the past several seasons has been an average team that can make the playoffs, but ultimately one that isn’t good enough to make any kind of legitimate cup run.

Next. Hakstol shakes up the defense in win over New Jersey. dark

The Flyers organization needs to take a long look in the mirror and figure out where it wants to go and what it wants to be. This pattern of mediocre play has worn away the fan base while the higher-ups have preached patience. Well, the fans have been patient. It’s time for the Flyers to start rewarding that patience with one-ice results.