Chris Szagola / Associated Press
The Flyers are off and running on the 2021 NHL Regular Season. The crowd-less, interdivisional, and shortened season certainly change the way the team must approach each and every game. Possibly the most important difference is the fact that the teams will play only their interdivisional rivals, and these games are played 2 at a time. (I’m going to take the assumption that you are familiar with the lay out of the season to this point, and jump right into it.) So far, the Flyers have seen the Penguins, the Sabres, and the Bruins. They hold a record of 3-2-1 with a -2 goal differential.
In the first two games against the Penguins, the Flyers had an edge about their game. Perhaps it was excitement to be back playing hockey, or relief that Oskar Lindblom and Nolan Patrick were back in the lineup. Either way, through the sloppy 6 periods of hockey, the Flyer put up 11 goals to the Penguins 5 on a strong offensive showing from the young guys. 2 goals from Joel Farabee, a hatless (except for Gritty and Brian Elliott) hat trick from Travis Konecny, and a pair from Oskar Lindblom had the team look like they were rolling. There was, of course, the loss of Sean Couterier to a rib separation (est. 2 weeks) in this series. His loss was almost immediately felt, and the Flyers defensive play over the next two series of games only got worse with the injury of Philippe Myers. They would go on to split the series with Buffalo and lose both games to Boston (very convincingly). So this begs the question: What happened to a team that just last season allowed the least amount of shots, and had one of the best goal differentials in the league, and what can they do to overcome this?
The Flyers’ woes all stem from bad defense. The D-men are consistently having issues clearing the puck from their own zone. Whether it be an errant back hand clearing attempt from the slot by Braun, or a misguided pass from behind the net by Hagg, or even a blatant pass the the guy in the wrong jersey by Gustaffson, the bottom 4 defensemen cannot seem to figure out where to play the puck when they have the opportunity to do so. These bad decisions leave little room for the forwards to make any plays through the neutral zone and to create strong forecheck opportunities. We see forwards simply skating full bore up the wings, or forcing a pass that either gets turned over or misses its target and becomes icing, which runs the whole thing back to square one, with the same tire guys out on the ice. This is not a recipe for success. This is more apparent when looking at shot totals after each game. The Flyers simply are not shooting the puck enough because they are not able to set up and break out, or get through the neutral zone, not because they lack high end offensive talent (see above). The Flyers of last season were able to take their time in their zone, often dropping the puck back a few times between defensemen while the forwards set up in the neutral zone before advancing the puck and beginning the break out. The lack of control of this through these 6 games is the major reason in which the Flyers are lacking on scoring chances, time on attack, and on the scoreboard. The Flyers never addressed the loss of Matt Niskanen in the off-season, and the injuries to the best defensive center in hockey and the guy who was touted as the replacement to partner Ivan Provorov have only exposed this short coming.
While there was no pre-season, and only 56 games to make your mark, the Flyers should have made some changes to the roster to account for this. They brought in Erik Gustaffson, who has yet to show any spark, and seems to be a pretty poor decision maker in his own zone. While it may be expected to have a slow start after joining a new team and trying to learn a new system with limited pre-season activities, Gus is going to have to step up his game or step onto the taxi-squad. Additionally, the Flyers are dressing Justin Braun, Robert Hagg, and Mark Friedman with him. These guys are an amalgamation of bottom end talent. It’s quite possible that Braun wouldn’t have been back had Niskanen not left, and his decline is showing. Hagg is a guy who has been on and off the ice for this team over the past two seasons. While he is not a perfect player in any sense, he is a good bottom pair option when you can limit his minutes and utilize him in key situations where he can shine (D zone draws and Penalty Kills). Friedman has been a guy consistently playing for the Phantoms, and has been a question mark for a few years now as far as his potential and what he could bring to the NHL. Over two games that he’s played in the NHL, I was surprised at how small the guy is for a defensemen. Additionally, he seemed undisciplined in the second game against Boston, which may have been frustration coming through or maybe the type of player he is. Not a ton of exposure at this point, but it continues to demonstrate the the Flyers have little to no depth at this point at the defensive position.
The Flyers do have some options in house to hopefully correct this issue. Unfortunately, the fan base is left to count on Shayne Gostisbehere, a guy who has been all but consistent in his play since coming to Philly. An insane first two seasons as a dynamic offensive defensemen were followed up by extremely underwhelming two more seasons of play. While the coaches and front office seem confident in him this year coming off knee surgery, and a flash of old Ghost seen during the Round Robin last playoffs, it is hard to depend on him coming off the COVID list and solving the issue. What I can say is that he is consistent at controlling a breakout, taking his time with the puck while things set up in the neutral zone, and when he’s on his game and playing confidently he looks dynamic. If Ghost can come in here and provide a shot in the arm for this defense, I would be willing to put some of his previous poor play in the dirt.
The Flyers could also try out Samuel Morin at his natural position of defensemen, annulling the change they made to move him to left wing over the off season. The team has certainly lacked physicality, and the 6-foot-7 defensemen could be the factor that changes this. The guy has shown a ton of potential, but every time he’s had the opportunity to translate that in the NHL he has been dealt season ending injuries. For a team that needs a physical presence (declining to react when their teammates are put through the boards and onto the injured list), and a guy that will play stay at home defense, Morin may be the answer.
They could go another route and try to fill the hole from outside. Columbus may be interested in moving David Savard in order to free up cap space to sign their newly acquired Patrick Laine. They could approach Minnesota and check in on Matt Dumba, or reach out to Vegas on Alec Martinez. All of these would be solid defensive candidates to fill a hole in the roster (should one of Gostisbehere or Morin not work out). Or, they could send smoke signals to Matt Niskanen, wherever in the wilderness of Canada he’s fishing today.
The Flyers haven’t put themselves out of contention at this point, still sitting at 3rd place in the East, but they have demonstrated a ton of flaws that teams who they play 8 times each a year will be able to identify and exploit. Now is the time to correct these issues and to do whatever possible to shore up their defensive play before it’s too late.