Flyers

Flyers fans, don't be surprised by Morgan Frost … yet

aaron-bell-morgan-frost.jpg
Photo: Aaron Bell | OHL Images

Flyers fans, don't be surprised by Morgan Frost … yet

Morgan Frost has taken just about the whole gamut by storm.

Whether it's Flyers fans tracking his progress or the hockey world keeping tabs on the game's future, Frost's jump in production would seem staggering to most.

Except for one person.

The guy who sees and knows the 18-year-old's game as well as anybody.

His head coach, Drew Bannister.

"I'm not totally surprised," the Sault Ste. Marie leader said Thursday in a phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia.

Frost, a teenage center the Flyers drafted 27th overall last June, is the primary reason the Brayden Schenn trade doesn't sting as sharply as it could. The Flyers acquired the pick in the deal that sent the 2018 All-Star to the Blues, and while Schenn is on pace for a career season, Frost is in the process of shattering his personal bests in junior.

After putting up 20 goals and 42 assists in 67 regular-season games last year for the Greyhounds, Frost has 27 goals and 44 assists in only 42 games this season. His 71 points lead the OHL, as does his astounding plus-50 rating.

Talk about blowing up, right?

The scary thing is, Bannister isn't blown away. Instead, Frost may be sprouting with much more growth in store.

"I don't know if he's made huge strides this season, I think he's just continued his development," he said. "The biggest development I saw for him was probably in his first season here as a 16-year-old — from the first couple of months until after Christmas time was probably the biggest jump I've seen with Morgan. I think Morgan is just a little bit more comfortable in the position that he's been put in with his linemates and being a No. 1 centerman on his team here compared to the past couple of seasons. I think that took a little bit of time to adjust to, but now he's more comfortable, obviously playing some real good hockey and has for quite a stretch here now."

In 2016-17, Frost enjoyed feeding Bruins 2015 first-round pick Zach Senyshyn, who scored 42 goals on the wing before graduating to the pro ranks. So, last summer, Frost said he wanted to show he could do more than just pass — that his offensive game was expansive, that he could make a difference on the penalty kill and prove his defensive worth, as well.

This season has been his chance and Frost is flourishing.

"Morgan has had a little bit more opportunity this year than he has in the past and we're starting to use him more on the penalty kill and he's been very responsible," Bannister said. "We hold Morgan accountable to be better defensively. His all-around game, especially his play away from the puck, has gotten better. Not that it was poor before then, but I just see a more committed player away from the puck, the way he tracks pucks down. For him, he's creating more offense for himself and his linemates right now playing that way, and he's recognizing that, too."

Sault Ste. Marie implements a style in which it utilizes its skilled players on the penalty kill, resulting in greater pressure on the opponents' power play with the shorthanded unit looking to attack instead of ice the puck. Frost and company have parlayed that tactic into a league-leading 16 shorthanded goals and a top-10 PK (81.5 percentage). The team also won 23 straight games and is atop the OHL at 37-3-2.

"When you're down a man, you want to make sure that you have players on the ice that are making the right reads," Bannister said.

"Putting a guy like Morgan Frost in that opportunity this year certainly works in our favor. He's been doing a good job on it."

That's on top of Frost and his linemates, Boris Katchouk and newly acquired Taylor Raddysh (both NHL second-round picks), making for a matchup nightmare.

"They're seeing the best defensive pairing and they're seeing checking lines or another team's top line," Bannister said. "It's impressive that line and Morgan himself are able to defend and create offense against other teams' best players.

"What stands out for Morgan is his hockey IQ. It doesn't matter who you put him with, he's just going to make them better players."

Those abilities are what could make Frost a sleeper to crack the Flyers' roster next season as a 19-year-old rather than play a fourth campaign of junior hockey. If 2017-18 is any indication, it's that Frost is coming along … and pretty darn quickly.

"For me, he's going to play in the NHL, there's no question about that, it's just when is it?" Bannister said. "Nothing surprises me these days, but he could be in the lineup as early as next year. Who knows, right?"

Bannister hasn't been surprised by Frost.

He might know best.

Flyers in uncharted territory with lack of penalties

usa-dave-hakstol.jpg
USA Today Images

Flyers in uncharted territory with lack of penalties

To the Broad Street Bullies of the 1970s, today’s brand of hockey is simply unrecognizable, and perhaps to some, even unacceptable.

When the Flyers take the ice Thursday against the Blue Jackets, the clock will be ticking on one of the most un-Bully-esque streaks in franchise history. 

The Flyers have somehow managed to play their last 215 minutes and 14 seconds without having to kill off a single penalty — a stretch of hockey that extends to the second period of a game against the Devils on Feb. 13 when Sean Couturier was whistled for tripping. 

Not only is the box an uninhabited area for the Flyers recently, but it’s also uncharted territory. They’re just the second team in NHL history to exhibit that kind of discipline since the league began keeping penalty records in 1977-78.

If this somehow continues, the guys at Comcast-Spectacor’s premium seating division could be looking at a prime opportunity to add a luxury suite at ice level. Fast food restaurant chain Jack in the Box would be the perfect sponsor.

The Flyers' penalty kill has also improved slightly by virtue of not having to kill penalties, from 30th in the league to now ranked 28th, still holding steady at 75 percent, but more importantly, their commitment to steer clear of the sin bin now has them ranked seventh in the NHL in the number of times they’ve been shorthanded.

The reasons behind their whistle-free work ethic can be attributed to a number of areas. 

For one, the Flyers have made the necessary adjustments to the league’s new slashing penalty, where a stick anywhere near the hands has resulted in a two-minute minor. Secondly, the entire team, and especially rookie Nolan Patrick, who went through a tough stretch earlier this month, has been very mindful of not committing high-sticking, hooking and other lazy infractions when chasing down the puck carrier.  

“I don’t think we’ve dominated puck possession over the last couple of games,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “But when we haven’t had it, we’ve worked hard to get it back the right way. At this time of year, it’s moving your feet, trying to get above plays and trying to check the right way.”

Secondly, as the season enters the drive towards the playoffs, NHL referees have shown a tendency to allow players to decide the outcome and not enforce the game as tightly as they did over the first three months of the season. In the first 30 games, the Flyers were forced to kill off an average of 3.4 power play opportunities per game. Over their last 30 contests, the number has been reduced significantly to 2.33.

More importantly, Dave Hakstol’s team is better equipped this season to play more effectively 5-on-5 and in all even strength situations, which was a point of emphasis after missing the playoffs a year ago. The Flyers' goal differential this season is plus-11 at even strength, whereas last season it was a minus-19.

“I think we’re doing a pretty good job 5-on-5,” defenseman Andrew MacDonald said. “I think you have to realize that most of the game is going to be played 5-on-5 and at even strength, and you have to generate in those situations throughout the rest of the year and into the playoffs.”

Even if the Flyers can’t maintain this unimaginable penalty-free pace, they clearly have more success and their penalty kill is much more efficient when they’re forced to kill off just a handful of penalties, as the chart below illustrates.

PK Attempts   Record     Kill %
2 or fewer        18-8-1        87.5%

3-4                      9-9-5         68.0%

5 or more          4-2-4         75.0%

In the 27 games where the Flyers have killed two or fewer power play opportunities, the success rate is nearly 88 percent, and they’re winning 67 percent of their games. They’ve been able to extend their energy throughout the 60-plus minutes while rolling four lines more consistently.

“If you have to kill three or more minor penalties, you’re at a little bit of risk, but you can get the job done,” Hakstol said. “When you get in the five, six range now you’re draining the bench, you’re draining energy, and you’re taking guys out of rhythm who aren’t killing penalties. There’s a lot of things that domino off of that.”

All of which conserves energy and creates good habits as the Flyers inch closer towards the postseason.

It's time to give Dave Hakstol credit

It's time to give Dave Hakstol credit

It wasn't long ago when some fans filled the Wells Fargo Center with chants to fire Dave Hakstol.

Back on Nov. 28, the displeasure was bubbling amid a confounding 10-game losing streak. The Flyers were wrapping up a 3-1 defeat to the Sharks as the skid apathetically hit nine.

That's when the boo birds came out in full flock.

The scene, so ugly, forced Ron Hextall into the Flyers' dressing room postgame to deliver what felt like a state of the union address in front of cameras and recorders. Over the next handful of days, on multiple occasions, the general manager had to defend his head coach's job security, and at times vehemently.

Oh, how things have changed.

Since Dec. 4, when the free fall was halted, the Flyers have gone 23-8-3 with 49 points, third most in the NHL behind only the Bruins and Golden Knights. Hakstol's bunch has climbed into playoff position, sitting in third place of the Metropolitan Division and only three games behind the first-place Capitals. 

When the losing streak was at its worst, the Flyers were in dead last of the eight-team Metro. At the time, things looked troubling.

But give credit where credit is due. 

Hakstol deserves plenty of it this season, especially for his constant maneuvering of personnel, which has proved wise time and time again.

First, it was shifting Claude Giroux from center to left wing during training camp. That was not an easy decision when asking a player as decorated as Giroux, on the verge of turning 30, to make a position change. The result has been a career resurgence for the Flyers' captain. After 58 points (14 goals, 44 assists) and a minus-15 rating in 82 games last season, Giroux has 70 points (20 goals, 50 assists), tied for the NHL's second most, and a plus-15 mark through 60 games this season.

Not only has the move behooved Giroux, but it has also allowed for Sean Couturier's anticipated breakout. With Hakstol entrusting the 25-year-old to be his first-line center, the do-it-all Couturier is blossoming into the team's most valuable player, already shattering his career highs in goals (29), assists (31) and points (60).

This was all before the curtain even opened for the 2017-18 season.

To date, Hakstol's adjustments have only continued throughout the season — and they've worked. 

Despite topflight production early from his first line of Giroux, Couturier and Jakub Voracek, the Flyers struggled, so the third-year coach broke up the trio in order for more balance within the forwards group.

The split created room for Travis Konecny to eventually make his way onto the top unit — and so far, so good would be an understatement. The 20-year-old has discovered his first-round potential with 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in as many games since Dec. 28, a stretch in which the Flyers are 16-6-2.

To squeeze out even more ability, Hakstol has plugged in Konecny on the first 3-on-3 overtime grouping. In their last six games decided in OT, the Flyers are 6-0.

Meanwhile, Voracek hasn't missed a beat since joining the second line as he leads the league in assists with 55, the defensive pairing of Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere has paid dividends, while the team is currently riding a historic stretch of discipline

And, most recently, the important choice of filling Wayne Simmonds' first-unit power-play role saw immediate results. Hakstol on Tuesday used No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick, who wasted little time rewarding his coach with a man-advantage goal on the team's first chance.

"Hak, first of all, is a very good coach," Hextall reaffirmed on Nov. 29. "He's as hard a working person as I've ever seen in the game.

"We're a young team, 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."

Hextall may be the most prudent general manager in the game.

He sure wasn't about to overreact 26 games into a season — and you can see why that's not his nature. What Hextall adamantly believed is what has transpired — the Flyers are improving under Hakstol.

There's no denying that. 

They were 8-11-7 and scoring 2.69 goals per game with a minus-9 differential (79-70) when the losing streak was at 10. They've been one of hockey's best teams since then with 3.24 goals per game and a plus-20 differential (110-90).

Look at the broader picture: Through 60 games last season, the Flyers were 28-25-7 with 63 points and a minus-29 goal differential (179-150). This season, at the same juncture, the Flyers are 31-19-10 with 72 points and a plus-11 goal differential (180-169).

With two new goalies and no Simmonds (upper-body injury) for two to three weeks, Hakstol has bigger decisions ahead, ones he'll have to get right with a postseason berth in the balance.

But he's already done a lot right — and it's time he gets a little credit for it.