Flyers

Can Dave Hakstol, Flyers find balance between creative and cautious?

Can Dave Hakstol, Flyers find balance between creative and cautious?

For the first two months of the 2016-17 season, the Flyers were second in the NHL with 102 goals scored in 32 games (3.19 per game).

The problem was, they surrendered the league's second-most goals with 95 (2.97).

At the time, the Flyers were 19-10-3 and rising because of a 10-game winning streak.

The question was, would that ratio ultimately balance out in the win-loss column?

As nice as the scoring was, head coach Dave Hakstol was not pleased with the number of pucks mounting in his own net. Once the wins started fading and losses started piling because of crooked numbers by the opposition, the Flyers turned defensive.

Goals were less common as tight, low-scoring games took over. Hakstol even benched two of his most innovative players with the puck, Travis Konecny and Shayne Gostisbehere, a combined eight times to have the two focus on little things.

From Dec. 15 to the end of the season, the Flyers scored the NHL's third-fewest goals at 110 in 50 games (2.20 per game), while allowing the 11th-fewest at 136 (2.72).

The Flyers went 20-23-7 over that span and, of course, missed the playoffs.

Systematically, did the Flyers restrict creativity?

"I think that you look at all different aspects," Hakstol said Thursday. "There's a foundational side of the game where we talked about play without the puck and needing to be real solid in that area. We didn't start the year very strong in our play without the puck. We addressed it and improved it greatly as the year went on. With the puck, I think as you look at the game, there is room for creativity."

The Flyers will continue to get younger, especially next season, which is expected to result in faster players with greater skill. The Flyers hope to accentuate those characteristics because, well, the teams that score are the teams that win.

Sure, discipline and possession with the puck are important, but the Flyers simply did not score enough, specifically at 5-on-5 (128 goals -- 27th).

The challenge will be can Hakstol and his staff adjust and find a preferred style as more skill makes its way to the big club?

"Hak, he's a smart guy. He's a smart guy," Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said Thursday. "He knows what's going on. I think if you look lately here, we started playing really well. The one thing any coach, I don't care where, and I've been around a lot of them over however many years, they hate turnovers. Turnovers are a huge thing in a hockey game. Your players are all going north and all of a sudden there's a turnover and you're not set up defensively. That's where a lot of goals are scored -- quick breaks, 3-on-2s, when the other team is not set up.

"That's what systems try to do -- turn pucks over, get teams off guard. They're not in defending mode, they're in offensive mode, that's when you quick break. That's when you get scoring chances. It's hard to get scoring chances nowadays."

Jakub Voracek echoed his GM's sentiment, mentioning the increase in difficulty of scoring in today's NHL. He also knows an adjustment is needed because the Flyers didn't do enough.

"It's harder and harder every single year to get goals, but I think it's the system and the teams playing right now, it's a defensive system," Voracek said. "That basically everything is jammed up in the middle, we've got five guys, one is a defenseman that has to get it through. It's almost impossible to get it through. So it's obviously harder to score. But we have to find a way."

Hextall was adamant about the Flyers' wanting players to play freely and to their strengths. There's an exception, though.

"It's risk and reward," Hextall said. "And there are times where players have to recognize the risk vs. reward. If it's a 40 percent chance you're going to make a play for a scoring chance and a 60 percent chance it's going to go back the other way, it's probably not a real good risk to take. If it's 90-10, it's a good risk to take."

Is that shackling a player, though?

"No," Hextall said. "He's taking 10 percent of his plays that he might try to make, out of the mix. We do not want our players to not be creative. We want our players to be creative. We want Konecny, (Claude) Giroux, Voracek, we want them to make plays. We want them to set up scoring chances, we want them to score goals. What we don't want them to do is turn pucks over and come back our way and we end up minus-20, minus-25. That's got to stop. That minus stuff has got to stop. It has to stop."

What must start is the Flyers' striking a better balance between that risk and reward.

"You look at the different areas of generating opportunities, in the National Hockey League right now, a lot is off the rush," Hakstol said. "That's an area where we're really taking a step back and really looking at things. Looking at different ways to allow players to have that creativity."

Best of NHL: Blue Jackets shut out Rangers

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AP Images

Best of NHL: Blue Jackets shut out Rangers

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Sergei Bobrovsky made 36 saves for his 21st career shutout and Zach Werenski and Artemi Panarin scored in the Columbus Blue Jackets' 2-0 victory over the New York Rangers on Friday night.

New York ran into a hot goalie in Bobrovsky, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner who notched his second shutout of the season in powering Columbus to its third straight victory.

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist was nearly as good against the increasingly aggressive Blue Jackets, stopping 40 shots on the night. The Rangers (11-8-1) lost their second straight following a six-game win streak.

After a scoreless first period in which both goalies made some slick, sprawling saves, Werenski found the back of the net with his sixth goal of the season 13:34 into the second.

Brandon Dubinsky lost the handle of the puck in the slot, and Werenski picked it up just inside the right circle and beat Lundqvist with a one-timer.

Columbus (12-7-1) was the aggressor in the second frame, outshooting the Rangers 19-9, and kept up the pressure in the third.

Panarin scored his fourth goal of the season on a power play 7:14 into the third period, rocketing a slap shot from the high slot that ricocheted off the bar and in.

The Blue Jackets are 9-1-0 this season when allowing two goals or fewer (see full recap).

Red Wings’ 3rd-period goals enough to top Sabres
DETROIT -- Tomas Tatar scored a go-ahead goal midway through third period and the Detroit Red Wings went on to beat the Buffalo Sabres 3-1 on Friday night.

Detroit's Luke Glendening broke a scoreless tie late in the second period. Ryan O'Reilly pulled Buffalo into a 1-all tie 5:50 into the third.

Dylan Larkin scored late in the game and Jimmy Howard had 19 saves for the Red Wings. They have won consecutive games at home for the first time this season.

Buffalo's Robin Lehner stopped the first 20 shots he faced and finished with 30 saves.

The Sabres have lost four straight, one away from their longest losing streak of the season, but were thankful they didn't lose more than a game in Detroit.

Jack Eichel went to the dressing room late in the second period after coming off the ice slowly, keeping weight off his right skate following a collision with Glendening, and making a brief stop on the bench. Buffalo's standout center was cleared to return at the start of the third period.

After a scoreless first period with a combined 14 shots, Detroit outshot Buffalo 13-4 in the second and took control without that translating to a big lead (see full recap).

End to End: How to solve the Flyers' scoring woes

End to End: How to solve the Flyers' scoring woes

Throughout the season, we'll ask questions about the Flyers to our resident hockey analysts and see what they have to say.

Going End to End today are NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com producers/reporters Tom Dougherty and Jordan Hall.

The topic: How to solve the Flyers' scoring woes.

Dougherty
If Thursday night's 3-2 shootout loss in Winnipeg confirmed anything, it's the Flyers cannot break up their top line. They might not be able to score much, but their only scoring is coming from Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek.

The Couturier line accounts for 48 percent of the Flyers' offense, or 25 goals. Factor the defense and top line together, and that's 59 percent, as the blue line has produced six tallies this season.

Of the 21 goals the Flyers have scored that do not come from the top line or blue line, 12 have come from two players, Wayne Simmonds and Valtteri Filppula. Simmonds hasn't scored in 11 games, and Filppula has one goal in his past nine games.

Two lines have stayed intact since Day 1 — the Couturier line and the fourth line of Scott Laughton, Taylor Leier and Michael Raffl. Head coach Dave Hakstol has been hesitant about breaking up his fourth line, and rightfully so. Laughton, Leier and Raffl have chemistry, and they're almost always cycling in the offensive zone.

Nolan Patrick just returned after missing three weeks because of a "suspected" concussion and played sparingly against the Jets. He should help the Flyers' scoring woes, but he won't solve them. I think it's time to break up the fourth line, and based on the Winnipeg game, it looks like a possibility Hakstol is considering.

Here's why. Raffl played on the second power-play unit against the Jets, which was a first this season. Perhaps Hakstol didn't want to throw Patrick back into the fire and watched the rookie's minutes.

Breaking up lines Nos. 2, 3 and 4 is the best course of action. Travis Konecny is struggling with confidence, Jordan Weal hasn't been great, and those are two players the Flyers need to get going. It's time to end the Dale Weise in the top-nine experiment.

With what the Flyers have, here is what I would do:

Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Travis Konecny-Nolan Patrick-Wayne Simmonds
Jordan Weal-Valtteri Filppula-Michael Raffl
Taylor Leier-Scott Laughton-Dale Weise

Hall
There's no need to panic if you're the Flyers.

First, you finally have a no-doubt-about-it top line. Voracek, Couturier and Giroux have blended beautifully and are doing damage, as the Flyers entered Friday one of only three teams in the NHL with a trio of players over 20 points each. Don't break that up just because there's an imbalance below it. 

And second, it's a long season. Ups and downs are common and things can change quickly. Just look at last season. The Flyers ripped off 10 straight wins and scored the NHL's second-most goals through the first two months of 2016-17. As we all know, they didn't make the postseason and finished as a bottom-third goal-scoring club.

The Flyers simply need to continue experimenting with their middle six and see what eventually works best. A little patience was going to be required when you're relying on a 19-year-old rookie in Patrick, a 20-year-old still finding himself at this level in Konecny and a 25-year-old facing his first full NHL season in Weal.

And let's not forget, the defense is exceptionally young with two rookies (Robert Hagg and Travis Sanheim), a 20-year-old leader (Ivan Provorov) and a third-year player coming off a sophomore slump (Shayne Gostisbehere).

But back to the forwards. 

If you recall, a stretch from Oct. 10-17 featured Filppula centering Weal and Simmonds on the second line, with Patrick centering Konecny and Weise on the third unit. It resulted in a pretty productive three-game span in which the Flyers picked up two wins and outscored the opposition 18-9.

I really liked the dynamic of that middle six. And the Flyers can now return to it with Patrick suiting up. He will be eased back into heavier minutes, but he can make a difference when healthy and comfortable. Patrick and Konecny can still play plenty of minutes on the third line with less pressure and potentially more favorable matchups.

We've seen Weal and Simmonds work well together, and Filppula adds smarts and steadiness down the middle.

But the important thing to remember is the Flyers are only 19 games into an 82-game grind. Scoring can come and go at times, and there's no reason it can't come down the line.

So, here's what I like best for the Flyers right now:

Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Jordan Weal-Valtteri Filppula-Wayne Simmonds
Travis Konecny-Nolan Patrick-Dale Weise
Taylor Leier-Scott Laughton-Michael Raffl