Another Season of High Expectations for Flyers Ends Unfulfilled

By Kevin Fortier, Sports Talk Philly staff writer 

The Flyers have two games left in the 2016-17 season. They wrap things up with games Saturday and Sunday against Columbus and Carolina.

There have been ups and downs throughout the season and for the third time in five years, the Flyers will not make it to the postseason. 

This was not the ending most Flyers fans hoped for after rookie sensations Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov made the roster out of training camp. Expectations were raised further when the Flyers went on a 10-game winning streak in November and December. 

Since the end of that win streak though, fans suffered through one frustrating game after another. The ability to score two goals in a game disappeared almost completely. Since the end of their win streak on Dec. 17, the Flyers scored one goal or less 18 times.

They went from scoring 3.5 goals per game through mid-December to finishing the season scoring roughly 2.5 goals per game. Their power play fell from the Top 3 in the first two months of the season to 14th overall heading into the final weekend of the season.

The trade deadline came and went without any significant moves to shape the future of the team. In addition, some fans were stunned when GM Ron Hextall extended 32-year-old fourth-line center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare on a two-year deal while doubling his pay. He also chose to re-sign Michal Neuvirth over Steve Mason, which was a surprise to many fans.

Moving Mark Streit, who was in the final year of his contract, for Valteri Filppula was seen as a decent bridge to stabilize the roster down the middle allowing recently drafted centers an additional year to mature and grow as players.  It is not expected that Filppula would be extended beyond his current contract term.

As the second half of the season dragged on, Flyers fans appeared to become frustrated with Flyers coach Dave Hakstol. When a team is struggling it is not surprising for fans to become restless and to look for a scapegoat.

There have been valid concerns expressed though. Some of Hakstol’s personnel decisions have been suspect. In addition, on more than one occasion, he scratched Flyers talented players Konecny and Shayne Gostisbehere for making the same mistakes that seasoned veterans made without any penalty.

More frustrating has been watching those rising stars sit while borderline NHL-caliber players like Chris VandeVelde and Bellemare have never been scratched during Hakstol’s tenure as Flyers coach, choices that seemed to clash with Hextall’s stated goal of getting better and younger every year.

Many fans have called for wholesale changes in the coaching staff. The assistant coaches have been here since the Craig Berube era. Both the power play and the penalty kill have struggled over that time. In particular, the penalty kill has been in the bottom third of the league for three years running. An infusion of new blood on special teams could help make improvements in goals for and against.

There have been positive developments as well. Provorov has shown he has the skills to be a number one defenseman the Flyers believed him to be when he was drafted seventh overall in 2015. 

Provorov has led all Flyers in ice time since mid December. Game after game he displays tremendous skill and growth. He has matched up with All-Star-caliber opposition without missing a beat, shining against NHL stars Jaromir Jagr, Jonathan Toews and Alex Ovechkin. Provorov will be a star for the Flyers for years to come.

Just when the Flyers fans needed some good news, the team signed the top college free agent Mike Vecchione. It was hoped that his connection to fellow Union college player would help close the deal. However, it was not a sure thing. His signing added more depth to the forward prospect list that is not overly deep with high-end talent. Outside of Oskar Lindblom and German Rubtsov, many of the forwards are projected to be mid-to-bottom six talent.

Vecchione made his debut with the team Tuesday night against New Jersey. He was used sparingly, but seemed to become comfortable in the third period and displayed very good speed on the ice.

Another good sign was the debut of hulking defenseman Sam Morin in the same game as Vecchione. He was one of the best players in the game. He looked very comfortable in the game, displayed above-average speed especially for a big man and used his stick well defending the rush.

Morin was returned to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms for their game against Hershey on Wednesday night, but could be recalled this weekend. Phantoms coach Scott Gordon spoke highly of Morin recently saying that two months ago Morin was not NHL ready, but that he is now. Hakstol also spoke highly of the pair of Morin and Gostisbehere.

"Good effort by both of them," Hakstol said. "Their second and third periods were the best periods for both of them, and that's what you'd like to see."

Morin played well in camp last fall and is expected to make a serious push to be a starter coming out of camp this year. 

In addition to Morin, at least one other of the Flyers highly touted defense prospects is expected to make the roster. Travis Sanheim is probably the most likely, but Robert Haag has been referred to as NHL ready and Philippe Myers, who was a stand out last training camp, could be a dark horse to force Hextall’s hand and possibly go into the season with three rookie defensemen.

The most anticipated prospect at camp has to be Swedish forward Oskar Lindblom. He dominated in the Swedish Elite League this season. The former fifth-round selection has developed into a premier forward and is expected to have a strong showing in camp. The 6'2", 200-pound winger has improved every aspect of his game since being drafted. The most common knock on him was his skating, but he has improved substantially and that is no longer an issue for him.

The 20 year old was a force night in and night out. He finished second in scoring in the league scoring 22 goals and 25 assists for 47 points in 52 games. He also has 7 points in 9 playoff games so far this postseason.

The season was rocky and at times seemed like a roller coaster ride. Expectations were high through mid December culminating with the 10 game win streak. It seemed likely that the Flyers would be a lock to make the playoffs. Only three teams had as many points as the Flyers at the time. Unfortunately, things went south from there on and the Flyers have the distinction of being the only team to have a 10-game winning streak, only to miss the playoffs.

There was good news near the end though with the signing of college standout Vecchione, the debut of Morin and Provorov's continually strong season. There is also an influx of new talent coming to training camp this fall which should solidify both ends of the ice.

There is also the upcoming draft where the Flyers will likely pick 11th or 12th landing them a high-end prospect to add to the current crop of prospects.

The expansion draft and free agency could also reshape the roster moving forward.

The season may be almost over, but that does not mean all of the excitement is.

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