By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
All week, the talk was about getting back to basics, getting back to their game, and ultimately still making the playoffs.
Alain Vigneault expressed belief in this group. Claude Giroux said he believed they would make the playoffs. Chuck Fletcher said they were not looking at selling and still in a playoff race.
After another lopsided defeat to the Rangers that eerily resembled last week’s 9-0 embarrassment, this time an 8-3 margin, those statements mean very little. This team is fractured beyond repair. It likely requires some sort of significant change. And the worst part is that in a year where there is so much uncertainty and hesitancy to take action, the Flyers might be stuck.
Most of the individual aspects of Thursday’s game can be thrown out the window. It was another bad game, another lopsided loss, another footnote on a season that is essentially lost at this point. There are now just 24 games left in the season and the Flyers just fell back to sixth in the division, tied in points with the Rangers, but losing the tiebreakers.
How it got to this point this quickly is anyone’s guess. But it’s clear that there will need to be action taken ahead of next season. Whether that happened immediately or waits until the offseason remains to be seen, but this is a franchise in disarray.
Here are five takeaways from Thursday’s game.
1. Can’t Blame Coaching
It seems that with each passing game I see more people looking for a shakeup. That’s understandable. The easiest one, of course, is the coach. It always has been.
Long before it was a popular TV, Letterkenny was just a YouTube channel that made short skits. One demonstrates hockey PR and the oft-used cliches that come from hockey interviews. One of the lines in the skit is players “are a frustrated bunch, it’s too bad someone’s got to wear it, and it’s usually the coach.” It’s a scenario the Flyers have seen far too often.
Over the last decade, the Flyers have had five different coaches. One joined the team with a Stanley Cup win on his resume and got the Flyers to a Cup Final. That was Peter Laviolette. One took over upon Laviolette’s firing, didn’t have success in Philadelphia, was relieved, then went on to win a Stanley Cup just a few years later. That was Craig Berube. In between came the Dave Hakstol era and the brief tenure as interim head coach for Scott Gordon.
Then came Alain Vigneault, a future Hall-of-Fame head coach with two trips to the Stanley Cup Final under his belt and one of the winningest coaches in the history of the league.
Let’s make one thing clear: this is beyond a coaching problem. There have been enough coaching changes made and not nearly enough of a response from this group to do it again and pass the buck.
Perhaps if you want to make a coaching change, you could do something on the assistant level, but that seems pretty mundane at this point.
This is a player issue. It always has been, and it always will be. Chuck Fletcher somewhat admitted it on Wednesday. He said the makeup of the group is not right. It doesn’t take much to crack the code that changes are coming at some point.
The challenge will be doing it this year. The market is awful right now. There is very little activity. Fletcher admitted as much. If you think immediate help is coming or immediate changes, the only way you get that is if we all are caught off guard by a coaching change.
It’s still all too new for that group. It’s Chuck Fletcher’s third season as GM. It’s Alain Vigneault’s second as coach. Most teams don’t do something that drastic without trying a little bit of a shakeup.
It’s coming to that time. Whether it happens tomorrow or next week or at the deadline or in the offseason, be prepared for things to be very different with this team soon enough.
2. Goaltending Nightmares
These last two games against the Rangers really have been goaltending nightmares. It’s been brutal to watch not only the back-and-forth with the netminders, each giving up a game’s worth of goals in half of the game played, but just the overall struggles of the team and how easily they are exposed in these two games.
We just heard Chuck Fletcher talk about goals against, save percentage, goals allowed off the rush. Two of the first three goals were off the rush. The save percentage and goals against dipped again.
From that standpoint, the Flyers are the worst team in the league. They already were dead last in save percentage. Now, they are knocking on the door for dead last in goals allowed per game. Most of the time, it's not the goalie's fault.
Perhaps the worst part is that both goalies could use the mental break. Carter Hart looks lost. Brian Elliott looks tired from trying to carry the load. Combined, it’s a collective disaster.
3. Three for Mika Again
How close was this game to last Wednesday? Ok, so it wasn’t 9-0. But at 8-3, it came pretty close.
It even featured some parallels. One was Mika Zibanejad. When the Flyers played the Rangers a week ago, Zibanejad came in with three goals. He increased that total to six with a hat trick. He also had eight assists on the season. He increased that total to 11 that night. Zibanejad went from 11 total points to 17 in one night.
Now he entered this game with seven goals and 13 assists for 20 points. He left with another hat trick and six-point game, totaling 26 points on the season. That’s nearly half of Zibanejad’s points and 60 percent of his goals coming against the Flyers in two games out of 32 played this season.
That’s embarrassing to have a player carve you up like that.
4. Lost Identity
Let’s really get down to the heart of things. Much like when the Flyers lost 9-0 to the Rangers a week ago, there’s anticipation for what will be said when the game is over. That night, we heard Alain Vigneault focus on the embarrassment and vow for a better game the next day, knowing that so much had to improve. The Flyers played a strong 50 minutes the next night and ultimately won on a late goal.
After this game, his tone was somewhat different, expressing that the effort was there, and once again, the execution was not. That’s becoming as much a tired answer as any. The Flyers have really not been able to execute all season. That can be physical, it can be skill, it can be mentality – call it whatever. The bottom line is that when the puck drops and the game gets underway, there are moments where this team collectively completely forgets how to play the game.
In so many ways, it’s a mental issue. It’s lack of preparation. It’s lack of leadership. It’s lack of practice time and being able to address those issues in the place where you always want to.
That said, it was Shayne Gostisbehere’s answers that stood out.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s not like we’re losing games by a goal and we should be winning games that we should be better against, obviously weaker teams,” Gostisbehere said. “You know, right now, this team has really lost its identity. From where we were at the beginning of the year to where we are now. It sucks right now.
“We got to find something here, because we are too good of a team to let it squander away. We owe it to our goaltenders. We owe it to these older guys on our team. It’s just unacceptable.”
Gostisbehere’s honesty is certainly appreciated. This team performed like a dumpster fire in this game, a game that was supposed to be about getting revenge on the Rangers for the 9-0 debacle a week ago. And instead it was repeated.
The inconsistency of the defense all season has been especially frustrating. Gostisbehere fully expressed that with his next answer.
“We’re professionals. We know what we have to do out there. We’ve all played with each other enough that we can figure it out,” Gostisbehere said. “It’s just straight not good enough right now. We’re letting guys just [expletive] absolutely beat us up in front of the net and it makes our goaltenders look like absolute [expletive] and it’s not fair. We got to be better as a team. We have to be better as a D core. I think we just got to bare down.”
I found it somewhat ironic that a player that so many Twitter GMs have on the chopping block was the most forthright and honest with his answers following the game. No sugar-coating anything. It reminds me of when Steve Mason was on the team and he seemed to offer the most insightful answers despite being a big, yet small, part of the equation. As the goalie, his job was to make saves and be in the best position and frame of mind to do so. Yet, he would offer feedback and words that reflected the rest of the team’s play, as if he had anything to do with it, and be more forward and truthful than others.
Gostisbehere kept going with the final question asked to him. He was asked about games snowballing out of control, as several had in recent weeks.
“I really don’t know. We keep saying it in the room. When they score a goal, don’t get down, but it just keeps happening. I think if you look at any of the games the past couple weeks, every time they score a goal, I think they score in the next couple of minutes,” Gostisbehere said. “It’s just something that we’ve got to figure out. We’ve got to full reset. We just got to, it’s going to happen. We’re not going to shut out every team. We’ve got to get going. We got to handle some adversity. It’s really going to show what this team is made of in the next couple of weeks.”
Gostisbehere’s most telling statement came right up front. This team has no identity. They’ve seemingly lost the drive, the energy, the physicality, and at multiple times in a game the skills and smarts. It is a dysfunctional roster in need of changes to restore some of that. For this season, it’s almost definitely too late, especially now that the Rangers are technically in front of the Flyers in the standings with the same record, but better goal differential.
5. Long Road Ahead
If you think things are going to get better in an instant, by making some sort of move to start this process, you might be waiting a bit. There’s virtually nothing happening around the league. That means that the roster will remain status quo. The limited practice time will still be a thing.
The schedule only intensifies from here too. After playing the Rangers again on Saturday, the Flyers play two games with Buffalo – sure to be must-watch television. Then nine of their next 10 games are against sure-fire playoff teams – three against Boston, three against the Islanders, two against Washington and one against Pittsburgh. If this team is losing 9-0 and 8-3 to the Rangers, just wait until they get in front of Boston or the Islanders again.
Between the challenging times of an ongoing pandemic, the flat salary cap, the shortened season schedule, the fast-approaching trade deadline that is clearly affected by the impacts of the expansion draft, it’s not as easy to look at things as in years past and just say sell, sell, sell and start doing so. There will almost definitely be no fire sale during the season.
That means that the next six weeks or so will be a long one for this team. It’s going to get a lot worse unless the team somehow flips the switch and starts playing better – probably not to the level that would put them back in the playoff competition, but take them out of lottery discussions.
It’s crazy, at this time a year ago, the NHL had paused its season for two weeks and the Flyers and their fans were left wondering what might have been. They somewhat got the answer in August and September, but that wasn’t the traditional playoffs, and it came after a five-month pause.
Just when it seemed the Flyers were in a position to break that stretch of on-again, off-again playoff appearance, just when it seemed they had the up-and-coming roster with the netminder leading the way, it all fell apart collectively. It presents more questions than answers moving forward for the team, and they are left to figure it out without much ability to jump right in and take action.