Flyers' NHL-leading scoring defense sparked by tweak in mindset

Flyers' NHL-leading scoring defense sparked by tweak in mindset

Heading into the Christmas break, there are some trends that speak positvely on the Flyers' defense, heading into what will shortly become the second half of the season.

Among them, is defensive scoring.

As of Thursday’s pre-Christmas finale against the Devils, the Flyers led the NHL in scoring by defensemen with 89 points.

Shayne Gostisbehere and the injured Mark Streit (left shoulder) each have16 points, followed by Ivan Provorov (15). Andrew MacDonald (11) and Radko Gudas (10) are also in double figure scoring.

It’s no accident.

The Flyers coaching staff asked their blueliners to be more offensive-minded in training camp this year, but only in tandem with the forwards doing a better job covering for them when they pinch.

“We talked about it in camp,” said coach Dave Hakstol. “Being available. You can’t force something back there. Just being part of the attack and being there to support the attack when the play is there, absolutely, go ahead and lead it.”

Foremost, Hakstol still wants his defensemen defending in their own zone and moving the puck up ice as their initial responsibilities.

Second, he wants a third forward high in the offensive zone covering any D-man on the pinch.

“The two have to work hand-in-hand,” Hakstol said. “If you are going to be aggressive offensively and defensively, everybody has to be on the same page working together.”

Among those still in the lineup, Ghost and Michael Del Zotto lead the defense with four goals. Streit, who could return after the Christmas break, has the most goals (5).

Obviously, the attack mode perfectly suits Gostisbehere’s offensive game.

“He [Hakstol] definitely wants to see us jumping up in the play more,” Gostisbehere said. “We’re definitely a five-man unit out there and not just forwards and defense. It is something that is working for us right now.

“It helps us a lot when you are making a pinch and know a forward has your back. It’s a big thing for us. They are sound positionally. We take care of each other out there. One dives in, one backs them up.”

Whereas in the past, this was a hit or miss part of the Flyers game, it has become commonplace every period to see the defense an active part of the Flyers rush off the breakout, even on set rotation plays in the offensive zone.

“When we have confidence knowing we have forwards coming back we can step down on the walls, keep pucks in, keep pucks alive, and they know we’re going to step up in those situations,” MacDonald said.

“It makes it easier for everyone when you are on the same page. It wasn’t anything like, ‘Hey we need to be better offensively.’ It wasn’t an opportunity to go for it. We can recover, just make sure it’s the right time and you are not taking a big chance.”

As an aside to all this, Provorov, the only rookie defenseman on the club, leads the entire team in ice time average at 21:01. That ice time is also highest among any rookie in the NHL, whether a forward or defenseman.

During the Flyers 10-game winning streak, he had games logging more than 24 minutes.

“It doesn’t matter how many I get,” Provorov said. “I had a really good summer and I am in really good shape.

“I will play as much as I need to or the coaches need me to. In junior, my average? A lot higher than 24 minutes and lots in the playoffs. But it’s different here in the NHL than there.”

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.