Flyers

The Flyers are in a big rebuild — and they can't hide it

The Flyers are in a big rebuild — and they can't hide it

They can't win away from the Wells Fargo Center, and they can't win at the Wells Fargo Center. The Flyers, quite frankly, can’t win anywhere.

The Flyers aren’t who we thought they were. This season wasn’t supposed to go this way. This team was expected to be better. The harsh reality is, it’s not. That much is clear after the Flyers' ninth straight loss Tuesday night, a 3-1 decision to the San Jose Sharks in a game the orange and black didn’t look interested in playing.

What the fanbase is disgruntled with isn’t so much the process; in large part, the Flyers faithful have embraced the rebuild, even though general manager Ron Hextall hasn’t called it what it is. The fans are more so growing miffed with the handling of the youth, and both the head coach and general manager sugarcoating a nine-game losing streak.

Hockey, in the Philly sports landscape, is irrelevant. The Flyers are last in the Metropolitan Division, mired in a downward spiral with no end in sight. Meanwhile, the Eagles are the NFL’s best, and Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are must-watch commodities with the Sixers. The Flyers are nothing more than an afterthought.

How did they get here, what needs to change and are we overreacting? These are all questions we have to examine here. We have to take a step back and again evaluate whether we placed too high of expectations on a team we knew wasn’t a contender yet.

“I’ve always said, ‘Talk is cheap,’” Hextall told NBC Sports Philadelphia on Wednesday afternoon. “It does take time. I think if you look at Chicago and L.A. and do the timeline when they build, it takes time. In saying that, we can be competitive right now. … 

“As much as right now things aren’t real positive — we don’t feel real positive about things right now the way they’ve gone recently — there are some positives.”

Los Angeles timeline
Let’s look at the Kings' because, well, Hextall was directly involved in it. Many have made these connections before, and it’s fair to connect the dots again. It’s a good blueprint for what Hextall is doing here, and in L.A., it took a while to see the results.

After four straight seasons of missing the playoffs, the Kings reshuffled their front office in April 2006. Dave Taylor, who had been the general manager since 1997, was replaced with Dean Lombardi. Two months later, Hextall was hired as assistant GM.

We’re using the Lombardi hire as the benchmark, though three major players — Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick — were drafted by the Taylor regime. For the first three years of the Lombardi era, the Kings didn’t qualify for the postseason but did improve each season. By Year 4 — 2009-10 — the Kings were in the playoffs. And then in Year 6, Los Angeles won its first of two Stanley Cups with Lombardi as the GM.

The 2011-12 Stanley Cup team had 13 drafted players and one undrafted free agent, which we’ll include since they had to come up through the ranks. Eleven of those 13 played throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs, while two other picks also saw time. Three players — Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Dustin Penner — were acquired in trades during the rebuild with draft picks. Of course, Lombardi had some free-agent signings, too, that contributed — Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi, Simon Gagne, to name a few.

Under Lombardi and Hextall’s guidance, the Kings won a Stanley Cup in six years. They were a non-playoff team in the first three years of the rebuild, a playoff team for two years before finally adding missing pieces via trades and free agency in Year 6, which, again, has to go to the credit of drafting and developing. The Kings were the 10th-oldest team in the NHL when Lombardi took over and by Year 4, they were the youngest team in the league. When they won the Cup, they were around the middle of the pack at 13th.

State of the Flyers
Fans have every right to be displeased with how this season is playing out. When Dale Weise is getting more ice time than Nolan Patrick, like he did last game, there is a reason to be ticked. When Samuel Morin, who many believed should be here along with Robert Hagg and Travis Sanheim, is stuck in Lehigh Valley, there is a reason to be upset. When the Flyers scratch Taylor Leier and Jordan Weal for Jori Lehtera and Weise, there’s a reason for fans to yell behind their keyboards. When the Flyers have lost 46 of their last 74 games since their 10-game winning streak last season, there’s a cause for concern.

The fan is the customer, and right now, the product they’re paying for — attending games, tuning in, buying merchandise, it’s all relevant — isn’t satisfying. Philly fans don’t want to hear Dave Hakstol say, “I think in seven of our last 10, we’ve gotten a point” after the Flyers lost their seventh straight, or Hextall say the Flyers “are not playing poorly” after the ninth straight loss. Even if it's true, that's what bothers them.

While the Flyers are last in the Metro, they are within striking distance of a wild-card spot in a jam-packed Eastern Conference. We're just hitting December and there is plenty of time to turn this season around. Playoffs are not out of the picture. Yet. But if there is anything this losing streak has reminded us, it’s this team is not quite there.

It might not even be as close as we believed it was, either.

“We’re a young team,” Hextall said Wednesday. “We have a lot of young kids coming and we’re going to get better. We’re going to play better than we’re currently playing.

“We’re going to get better every year. We’re going to get younger every year and we’re going to be competitive and we’re going to get there.”

Hextall has continually said the Flyers are going to get younger, and since he came back to Philadelphia in 2013-14 as an assistant GM, the orange and black have done just that. When Hextall was the AGM in 2013-14, the Flyers were the fourth-oldest team in the NHL. This season, in his fourth as the GM, the Flyers are the seventh youngest. And they’ll get even younger next season and the following year, too.

With youth comes growing pains, and it might even get more painful. Hextall refuses to put a timeline on when the rebuild will be complete. He says the Flyers will be competitive while they build, and they have been. This team can make the playoffs. But if we use the Los Angeles blueprint and factor into what Hextall inherited as GM — a nightmare of a salary cap situation — we might be looking at three or four more years before this team becomes a legitimate contender.

When discussing the Flyers' nine-game losing streak Wednesday and last season's 10-game winning streak, Hextall said, "You do have to keep a balance, a realistic view of your club."

The realistic view is, this rebuild is just getting started. The Flyers are younger than last season, and they'll be younger next year. For all intents and purposes, Hextall has drafted well. The reality there is, we won't know for a few more years if his picks hit.

Perhaps a little more transparency with what’s currently going on would help with the fan backlash.

Best of NHL: Senators snap 5-game skid in return home

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USA Today Images

Best of NHL: Senators snap 5-game skid in return home

OTTAWA, Ontario -- Craig Anderson made 27 saves to stop his seven-game losing streak and the Ottawa Senators snapped their five-game skid Wednesday night with a 3-2 win over the New York Rangers.

Bobby Ryan, Cody Ceci and Zack Smith scored for the Senators (10-13-7), who returned home from a seven-game road trip and improved to 2-10-2 in their past 14 overall. It was only their second victory in regulation since Nov. 11, which was the last time Anderson had won.

Michael Grabner and Pavel Buchnevich scored for the Rangers (16-12-3), who dropped to 4-7-0 on the road. Henrik Lundqvist had 27 saves, becoming the 15th goalie in NHL history to reach 20,000 for his career.

Ottawa, which eliminated the Rangers in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs last season, was coming off a 3-2 loss at last-place Buffalo on Tuesday night (see full recap).

Pitlick, Benn lift Stars over Islanders
NEW YORK -- Tyler Pitlick scored twice and Jamie Benn had a goal and two assists to lead the Dallas Stars to a 5-2 victory over the New York Islanders on Wednesday night.

Alexander Radulov and Remi Elie also scored for the Stars, who won their second straight after a three-game skid. Kari Lehtonen stopped 32 shots for his 300th career victory, and John Klingberg had two assists.

Anders Lee scored twice for the Islanders, who have lost five of seven (2-4-1), and John Tavares and Josh Bailey each had two assists. Jaroslav Halak, starting for the seventh time in nine games, was pulled near the midpoint of the second period after giving up four goals on 20 shots. Thomas Greiss came on and stopped six of the seven shots he faced (see full recap).

Sean Couturier proving he belongs in Selke Trophy conversation

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AP Images

Sean Couturier proving he belongs in Selke Trophy conversation

VOORHEES, N.J. — By definition, the Frank J. Selke Memorial Trophy is awarded to the NHL forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game.

Since the day Sean Couturier arrived in the league as an 18-year-old rookie straight out of the June draft in 2011, the defensive element has always been part of his game. He was tasked with shutting down one of the league’s premier centers in Evgeni Malkin as a teenager and a fourth-line center. His commitment to defense was the primary reason the Flyers drafted Couturier eighth overall in 2011.

Of all the NHL’s major postseason awards presented in Las Vegas next summer, the Selke may be the one piece of hardware the Flyers have the greatest chance at claiming, as Couturier has refined his all-around game. The paradox of the award is how winners typically need respectable offensive numbers to receive serious consideration for what’s regarded as a defensive accolade.

The last 21 winners have all scored at least 20 goals, while 11 of the last 12 winners have racked up 50 or more points. Couturier has never reached either scoring plateau, which probably explains why he’s never finished higher than eighth in the voting. He’s currently on pace this season for 41 goals and 82 points.

“It would be a nice recognition,” Couturier said Wednesday. “Obviously, just getting your name thrown out there with those guys that are there every year, it’s kind of nice. It gives you that extra boost to kind of push yourself and try to be as good as you can.” 

This season, Couturier has proven he belongs in that elite conversation. Tuesday’s game against the Maple Leafs was a vintage Selke effort: winning faceoffs, including draws that led to goals, staying committed defensively while playing 1:35 of the final 2:12, preserving a one-goal lead.

Over his last 50 games dating back to last season, Couturier also owns an impressive plus-32 rating.

“I know some people don’t like the plus/minus. Five-on-five, if you’re in the plus, it's usually a good thing and you’re helping your team win," Couturier said. "My mentality is still the same: being solid, taking care of details and like I said, if you take care of details defensively, the offense will come and that’s always the thought process I’ve had.”

Another Selke measurable is faceoffs — an area in which Couturier has improved greatly over the past two years from a 48 percent success rate to winning 55 percent from the beginning of last season.

“It’s the one area of his game that he’s taken a lot of pride in,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “I think if you look at the numbers in both faceoff dots, he’s done a real good job, as well as the neutral zone."

For an award voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, there’s almost no way to accurately assess the defensive play of 300-plus forwards without extensive video review, as most writers are solely covering the team in their city. So faceoffs, plus/minus, consistency on the penalty kill coupled with shorthanded goals can be areas that separate Selke candidates.

Currently, Boston’s Patrice Bergeron is the Selke gold standard as a four-time winner, and he’s finished first or second in voting in each of the past six seasons. Fair or not, Bergeron’s reputation alone will likely land him in the top three once again barring injury.

“When you look at (Anze) Kopitar, Bergeron and (Jonathan) Toews, I think Coots is up there with those guys,” Jakub Voracek said. “Without a doubt [Couturier is a Selke candidate]. He’s got 15 goals in 30 games. His stick is very good and he’s always one step ahead defensively. He doesn’t over-backcheck. He just knows what kind of responsibility that he has. You can see it on the PK, it’s really hard to get a puck through him. Those kind of players are very hard to find.”

Just ask the Flyers' organization. They haven’t had a Selke winner since Dave Poulin 30 years ago.