Flyers

Michael Raffl, Matt Read healthy and in shape, looking for rebound seasons

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Michael Raffl, Matt Read healthy and in shape, looking for rebound seasons

VOORHEES, N.J. — Their 20-goal seasons seem like an eternity ago, and now Matt Read and Michael Raffl are spending this year’s training camp trying to prove themselves all over again.

“A little bit, yeah,” Read said recently. “I try and tell myself every day to be the hardest-working guy out there, and move your feet as much as you can, win puck battles and the other things will come as we go. Just try and be in a lot better shape than I was, not that I was in bad shape, but just try and play a full game and every shift at a high pace. Just keep working hard and hopefully, things can turn around, opportunities will come, and you just got to bear down on them.

“You've got to have something inside you that drives you through the summer,” Raffl said. “You've got to have a goal in mind. I want to come to camp and be the fittest guy in here. That’s all I can do in terms of how I prepare, especially with last season and all the injuries. I don’t want another year like that.”

From the day Read arrived in 2011, he seized his opportunities by utilizing his speed and relying on his hardest-working-guy attitude. His 24 goals led all rookies and he finished fourth in Calder Trophy voting behind Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog, Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and New Jersey’s Adam Henrique as the league’s top rookie. Read was considered one of the Flyers' most productive even-strength forwards. You may be surprised to know, but during that stretch (2011-14), only Claude Giroux’s 49 and Jakub Voracek’s 47 even-strength goals topped Read’s three-year total of 46. 

Read was rewarded with a four-year, $14.5 million contract and he hasn’t been the same since suffering a high ankle sprain just a month into that new deal. Once the injury became publicized, every time Read went through a scoring drought, questions regarding the ankle would resurface, and yet, he never missed any significant time playing through pain.    

Two years after Read burst onto the scene, Raffl followed suit, earning a roster spot with the Flyers straight out of camp as another undrafted rookie. Raffl’s transition to the NHL was not nearly as impactful as Read’s, as he scored nine goals to go along with 22 points in his rookie season. However, Raffl found his niche during his sophomore season, scoring a career-high 21 goals playing on a line with Giroux and Voracek. The big-bodied Raffl quickly understood that to keep up with highly-skilled players, the best thing to do was crash the net and good things would happen. Like Read, Raffl also benefitted financially by inking a three-year, $7 million extension.

However, last season was Raffl’s worst in orange and black. He never felt right battling through an upper-body injury during the first month of the season and then missing the final six weeks after suffering an MCL sprain.

“I was banged up all the way through,” Raffl said. ”I had a long summer and a lot of time to work on some stuff. I feel fantastic out there right now.”

Both guys felt better when their cellphones went silent back in June as Vegas was composing its expansion roster. And even though Read and Raffl were left exposed, the Golden Knights selected Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. Raffl clearly had no ambitions of continuing his career in Nevada.

"I like it here, I like where I’m at. I love Philadelphia,” Raffl said. “This is where I’ve signed for three years. I want to be here.” 

Read, on the other hand, had a more realistic and philosophical approach to the situation.

“It’s completely out of your hands,” Read said. “If it happened, it happened. If it doesn’t, you just come back to camp here and get ready for the season. If it’s out of your control, why worry about it, why fret about it? You just prepare yourself and it doesn’t matter if you’re there or you come back here. You just have to show up and be able to have a good season again. It’s out of your hands and I didn’t worry about it too much.”

Now Read and Raffl are back in the same dressing room and, for the first week of camp even, on the same line along with Scott Laughton. Together that trio proved to be a hard-checking line against Islanders superstar John Tavares, Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee in the preseason opener.

“Laughts brings a lot of speed to the middle and Raffy is obviously someone on the forecheck who separates a guy from the puck, and when he has the puck he usually does the right thing with it,” Read said. “It’s easy to play with those guys and we had fun. We had a lot of ice time. It’s a good way to start the preseason."

They may be together now, but one of those final roster spots could essentially come down to Read or Raffl.

Roster cuts
The Flyers reduced their roster by 18 players Thursday morning. Connor Bunnaman (Kitchener — OHL), Pascal Laberge (Victoriaville — QMJHL), Ivan Kosorenkov (Victoriaville — QMJHL), German Rubtsov (Chicoutimi — QMJHL) and Carter Hart (Everett — WHL) were returned to their junior teams.

Rubtsov, the Flyers' 2016 first-round pick, was returned to his junior team, rather than sent to the AHL for which he was eligible.

Forwards Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Radel Fazleev, Tyrell Goulbourne, Danick Martel, Carsen Twarynski, Mikhail Vorobyev, defensemen James de Haas, Mark Friedman, Maxim Lamarche, Phil Myers, Reece Wilcox, and goaltenders Leland Irving and John Muse were assigned to the Flyers' AHL affiliate, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. The Flyers' training camp roster now stands at 36.

“Obviously, today there’s separation in terms of where we go from here in camp,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “We still have a good number of players in camp. Today is the day when the competition starts to rise in terms of some of the tougher decisions that are coming down the road here.”

Tonight in the preseason game against the Bruins, Hakstol will be forced to dress nine players who suited up in the split-squad games against the Islanders, including Taylor Leier, who continues to make a strong push to make the opening night roster (see story).

“Taylor Leier will be back in the lineup tonight,” Hakstol said. “He’s coming off a really good performance last night. Those are the kind of performances and that’s the type of impact you want to see out of the young players who are working to make our hockey team.”

Here is tonight's roster:

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.