Flyers

Flyers should FINALLY add at NHL trade deadline

Flyers should FINALLY add at NHL trade deadline

VOORHEES, N.J. — Ron Hextall has one month to decide how he’ll proceed with a team that has made a rapid ascension up the Metropolitan Division standings.

With the Feb. 26 trade deadline looming, the Flyers have 14 games to help solidly their playoff position, which would give the general manager a little more clarity into the legitimacy of the team's current stretch of solid play.

Two years ago, when the Flyers advanced to the postseason in Dave Hakstol’s first year as head coach, Hextall was content riding with his current roster without making a single upgrade. You could even debate Hextall created addition by subtraction once he dealt Vinny Lecavalier and Luke Schenn to the Los Angeles Kings for Jordan Weal and a third-round pick, clearing roughly $8 million in cap space.

“I guess filling a hole and upgrading might be a little different,” Hextall said Wednesday. “I’m not going to say ‘no’ because we’re going to try and get better if we can get better.”

Which leads to a more pressing question.

What area(s) can the Flyers improve through a trade?

For depth purposes, the Flyers could use another defenseman, but so would every team and they don’t come cheap.

Personally, the Flyers need more flexibility at the forward position, in particular, at center. Sean Couturier has been a rock-solid No. 1 and Nolan Patrick is an emerging No. 2. Valtteri Filppula, who Hextall added at last season’s deadline, has proven to be a serviceable third-line center who plays reliably defensively and can easily adapt to the wing, but his lack of speed will become a factor in the playoffs.

If one of those three suffers an injury, then the Flyers would be forced to shuffle personnel to make up for the loss. Hakstol could move Claude Giroux back to the middle, but considering how well he’s played working in tandem with Couturier and now Travis Konecny, you'd prefer to keep Giroux at left wing.

Scott Laughton has the ability to contribute more minutes, but he’s settled into the role of a fourth-line center, who can also contribute on the penalty kill. Hakstol has even utilized Weal and Jori Lehtera at the center position at different times, but those moves are not ideal either. Weal has speed, Lehtera has size, preferably you would like a center who combines both attributes.

Hextall, and every other GM, knows you need two solid, reliable scoring lines. As well as Michael Raffl and Jakub Voracek have played, they could truly thrive with a center that brings more offensive upside.

Two years ago, when the Flyers battled the Capitals to a six-game series, their biggest downfall clearly was offensive production, having scored just six goals in six games, and never scoring more than two goals in any game of that series. The Flyers never had a chance in that series, as the Capitals were the deeper, more dominant team. Washington finished 24 points better than the Flyers in the standings.

This season is different. The Flyers are deeper and there’s considerably more parity, not just within the division but within the entire Eastern Conference. They’ve proven they can hang with the heavyweights by winning three straight games against the Capitals and Lightning. For the first time in the Hextall era, it’s a Flyers team that can not only make the playoffs but potentially win a series or two.

“Whether something is out there, I don’t know," Hextall said. "I feel like we have kids who can fill in if we have injuries or erratic play. Unless it was a nice upgrade at a reasonable price, I’m not going to trade a good young player at this point.”

Thankfully for Hextall, barring a rash of injuries to key players, the Flyers won’t need to offer up a talented prospect since they’re not in the market to add a marquee player or bonafide goal scorer, and unlike previous seasons, there appears to be a larger pool of prospective sellers, a list that includes the Sabres, Senators, Panthers, Canadiens, Red Wings, Coyotes, Canucks and Oilers.

According to SportsNet Canada’s Elliotte Friedman, Ottawa is already fielding calls on Jean-Gabriel Pageau (my preference would be Derick Brassard) and Minnesota has received inquiries into Charlie Coyle.

Still, Hextall doesn’t appear too convinced.

“If you look at the history of it, it’s not very good," Hextall said. "Name me a player, the big player the team got at the deadline and was a huge factor in them winning. It doesn’t happen very often. I don’t feel like we have to do that. Our big guys are our big guys and are playing well. Our kids are getting better.”

Flyers in uncharted territory with lack of penalties

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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.