Why Flyers need Samuel Morin now

Why Flyers need Samuel Morin now

VOORHEES, N.J. — We heard it again Tuesday night from Dave Hakstol: “Hard and heavy.”

“[The Ducks] are a heavy team, a hard team down low," Hakstol said. "They are going to get some pucks.”

So what exactly does hard and heavy mean? 

Here’s Brandon Manning’s definition: “With L.A., not only are they big, but they can skate as well. I think same thing with Anaheim. You look at their lineup and their back end, they’re physically strong. They win puck battles and that’s not always about size and presence, it’s about winning those battles.”  

Big. Hard. Heavy. Attributes more suited for Western Conference teams, who have tailored their lineups for the rugged Pacific and Central division style of play.

Even the Edmonton Oilers, who drafted high-end skill and speed for years, realized they needed some "hard and heavy" in their lineup, which explains the signings of 6-foot-3 Patrick Maroon and 6-4 Milan Lucic the past few seasons.

While the Flyers did a brilliant job eliminating Connor McDavid last Saturday, guess who provided the Oilers' only goal? Maroon, who physically dominated a smaller Nolan Patrick down in the corner.

From his perch on the bench, backup goalie Michal Neuvirth had this observation: "Anaheim is a big, heavy team, similar like Nashville. It seems like we’re having a tougher time against bigger teams.”

It may be a small sample size, but Neuvirth’s right and the Flyers' record indicates that: 2-0 against the East, 3-4 against the West. In fact, the Flyers have as many even-strength and shorthanded goals (11) in those two games against Washington and Florida as they do in the seven games against Western Conference opponents.

Jori Lehtera, having played three seasons in St. Louis, is well aware of the differences in styles.

"Our division now is like way more smaller guys," Lehtera said, "but more skill and speed. [Against the West], you have to be harder in the battles and you can't make easy mistakes." 

With a fresh Ryan Getzlaf returning to the lineup Tuesday, the Ducks were indeed bigger, harder and heavier, and from the opening period, it was rather obvious containing Anaheim’s top line of Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Rickard Rakell was going to be a monumental challenge for the Flyers. They had possession time and it was only a matter of time before the scoresheet reflected that.

Two goals, three assists and a plus-6 was the final tally on a team that crushed the Flyers, 6-2, at the Wells Fargo Center.

When the Flyers faced the Getzlaf-less Ducks for the first time Oct. 7, they were able to succeed in overtime with a more mobile, less imposing lineup. Defenseman Ivan Provorov almost singlehandedly shut down the Ducks' top line.

What the Flyers needed Tuesday night was a little bit of nasty. 

Paging, or texting these days, 6-6 Samuel Morin, that one player with size who has apparently drawn the short end of Hakstol’s stick.

While Morin made the Flyers’ opening night roster and stuck around for the four-game West Coast road trip, we still don’t know how his game translates to the NHL.

However, Morin’s stature, physicality and stick work could have been a disruptive force against the Ducks, or against any of these “hard and heavy” teams.

In fact, Morin’s desire to drop the gloves could have also come in handy after Kevin Bieksa leveled Radko Gudas with a hard right.

"The fight was a big thing for us,” Getzlaf said. “Sometimes it can get some momentum for you. Getting in there and building some momentum for our group and we built off of it.”

As much as the NHL has moved away from fighting and open-ice checks, the game of hockey is still played with a physical edge. The Flyers may have a handful of middleweight-division players who will get their hands dirty, but their only heavyweight is doing grunt work in the AHL.

And the best part of Morin’s game is he’s also capable of providing some skill with surprising mobility for a player of his size.

The Flyers should have seen this coming. In an unusual scheduling quirk, 23 of the team’s first 33 games come against the big, bad West.

If the Flyers were a Western Conference team (like they were during the expansion era), you would have to think Morin would be a mainstay on the 23-man roster.

Tuesday’s lackluster effort, coupled with the loss of Andrew MacDonald, forced Hakstol to play blue-line roulette once again.

Provorov started Tuesday's game with Robert Hagg, was paired with Gudas to start the third period and then teamed with Shayne Gostisbehere Wednesday.

Travis Sanheim started out on the right side with Manning, saw time with Provorov in the third period, and has now shifted back to the left with Hagg on his right.

At this point, it seems Hakstol will try just about anything … that doesn’t include Morin.

“Right now, it’s about the group of six that are here,” Hakstol said. “I don’t really want to go too far beyond that. These guys have done a good job, and I’ll be honest with you, the group of six did a pretty good job in the first period last night. So right now, the focus is on the group of six that are right here.”

Perhaps Morin will get a hard and heavy look when “hard and heavy” is on the Flyers' schedule again.

Patrick back
Surprisingly, Nolan Patrick returned to the ice for Wednesday’s practice session a little more than 12 hours after Chris Wagner unloaded a shoulder-to-shoulder hit that appeared to have jolted Patrick’s head. Patrick left the game and never returned for precautionary reasons.

“It was good to have the group that we had, and he (Nolan) was part of that especially for a young guy coming off a night like that,” Hakstol said. “You want him back in practice the next day and being sharp and working at his game. I thought Nolan was doing that today.”

Starting in Ottawa?
Neuvirth was the first player off the ice Wednesday, which has been a good indication he’s scheduled to start Thursday’s game in Ottawa. 

Neuvirth has been rock solid in his three starts, not allowing more than two goals. Neuvirth currently leads all qualified NHL goaltenders with a 1.36 goals-against average and a .957 save percentage.

“Yeah, I mean, I’ve only played three games," Neuvirth said. "I don’t think it’s a big deal about the numbers. For me, it’s all about winning games. I’ve only won one hockey game, so it’s definitely going to be a big game for me tomorrow.”

Flyers' focus shifts toward another busy NHL draft

USA Today Images

Flyers' focus shifts toward another busy NHL draft

With the Flyers' elimination from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the team's third-round pick in the 2018 NHL draft was officially transferred over to the Red Wings.

What was originally a fourth-round selection in the acquisition of goaltender Petr Mrazek was upgraded to a third-rounder once Mrazek won five regular-season games and the Flyers qualified for the postseason.

The Flyers could potentially still owe the Red Wings a third-round pick in the 2019 NHL draft if Mrazek is re-signed. However, that seems unlikely with Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth already under contract for next season and Mrazek’s poor play over the final five weeks of the regular season.

In all likelihood, the Flyers will have the 19th overall pick in the June draft, which is scheduled for June 22-23 at American Airlines Center in Dallas. If the Blue Jackets are eliminated before the Eastern Conference Finals, then they will select 18th with the Flyers slotted in at the 19th selection.

Once again, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall will be watching intently during Saturday’s NHL draft lottery, where the Flyers could also acquire the St. Louis Blues' first-round selection.

The Flyers have a 95 percent chance of obtaining the Blues' first pick as compensation in the Brayden Schenn trade that was completed at last year’s draft in Chicago. 

The Blues' pick is top-10 protected, but they have only a five percent chance of moving into the top three — 1.5 percent for No. 1 overall, 1.7 for No. 2, 1.8 for No. 3, 91.8 for No. 14 and 3.2 for No. 15. So, either the Blues draft in the top three, they remain at 14 or fall back to 15.

However, as Hextall discovered just a year ago, anything is possible.

Last year, the Flyers made the monumental leap from the 13th-worst record in the league to obtaining the second overall pick — a lottery move that had just a 2.4 percent chance of falling in their favor. With that selection, the Flyers chose Nolan Patrick.

Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin is the consensus No. 1 pick in this year’s draft and a future cornerstone blueliner. 

The NHL draft lottery is held in Toronto.

Now the pressure really picks up for Dave Hakstol, Flyers

Now the pressure really picks up for Dave Hakstol, Flyers

Dave Hakstol lifted his arm effortlessly with his hand steadily inclining toward the ceiling, almost portraying the takeoff of an airplane.

He was discussing the timeline for young hockey players, which his Flyers have a lot of and will gain only more as the blocks are stacked one by one.

And as the head coach digested a topsy-turvy, season-ending loss, his demonstration depicted what he knew wasn't the case.

"You always want development to be this smooth path and this smooth climb; it doesn't work that way," Hakstol said. "It's kind of a jagged climb, and as long as you're seeing a steady push to improve, then you stick with it and keep pushing in that direction."

The Flyers have been allowed to hit those jagged edges on their climb, like Sunday's 8-5 Game 6 defeat to the Penguins (see story). It was the final swing (and miss) in a best-of-seven first-round playoff matchup with the two-time defending champs, another cut along the grand hike for the Flyers.

But with it came a signal.

This is no longer the bottom of the mountain. The trek has been underway for three seasons and the long view should, expectedly, be coming into focus. In 2018-19, Hakstol will enter the fourth year of a five-year contract, according to The Flyers' core, looking at its peak, will be a year older, as will the foundation pieces, already here and being counted on to drive things forward. 

The Flyers played four rookies in the playoffs, while five of their top eight regular-season goal scorers were 25 years old or younger. 

"For the most part, I liked the growth of our young guys," Hakstol said. "I think they had an opportunity to really see some tough points during the year and figure out how to be a part of battling out of them. They had the opportunity to play through and be part of a playoff push that other teams weren't going away, and we knew that with eight to 10 games to go, we knew that we would have to win our way in. So they had the opportunity to be a part of that and gain that experience of understanding and knowing how hard that is. And they were successful in that."

It resulted in 42 wins and 98 points during the regular season, both highs under Hakstol, surpassing the 41 and 96 set in Year 1. It also led to another first-round exit, the second under Hakstol against a topflight opponent. In those series, the Flyers went 1-5 at home, where they were outscored 26-9.

Harsh yet clear reminders the Flyers aren't where they want to be.

The Penguins, no duh, are. 

"We're working to build toward something like that," Wayne Simmonds said. "I thought we took a step in the right direction this year."

Claude Giroux, the 102-point, 30-year-old captain, sees it, too.

"I know for a fact that we got better as the season went on," Giroux said. "Look at our team last year and look at our team this year. We improved a lot."

While patience is always of the essence with general manager Ron Hextall, Year 4 will demand much more, unlike seasons past. This is Hakstol's team — the blocks are in place, both old and now not so new.

"There's going to be a lot of good and a lot of things that we'll say, 'Hey, these are good steps for our team,'" Hakstol said of this season. "End of the day, we didn't come into this playoff series to make steps, though."

That undoubtedly won't be the objective in 2018-19. It can't be, and the Flyers should know it.