PHILADELPHIA, PA -- The Philadelphia Flyers were mired in their annual early-season stupor, slogging along into the calendar’s second month of the campaign with a win-one, lose-one pattern in their schedule.
And this type of start is certainly nothing new to the franchise.
Over the past several years, the team has had to fight its way out of a cavernous, self-inflicted crater in which they had buried themselves to either barely qualify for the playoffs by season’s end, or at least be in contention until what turned out to be a very bitter end.
Worse yet was the fact the club was giving up an enormous amount of high-quality scoring opportunities every night, and the result was a pair of goaltenders who had very little chance on many of the NHL-high goals they had allowed. Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth often appeared as though they had been left all alone to keep the opposition from scoring all by themselves.
After all the unsuccessful forward line juggling and swapping of defensive partners among his blue line corps in an attempt to shake up the troops, head coach Dave Hakstol sent several not so subtle messages by giving a few players he felt needed to be performing better a seat in the press box.
Roman Lyubimov, Michael Del Zotto and Michael Raffl have each taken their turns in the lineup’s revolving door.
These coaches’ decisions have been met with what can only be described as resounding criticism -- one of the favorites I see the most is ‘Hakstol is in way over his head as a coach in the NHL’ -- especially when it comes to certain decisions regarding those selected to take an evening off.
Not surprisingly, the one to cause the most uproar was that of Shayne Gostisbehere, the popular young defenseman who burst onto the scene last season and finished runner-up to Chicago’s Artemi Panarin in the Calder Trophy voting for the league’s Rookie-of-the-Year.
There is no doubting that Hakstol’s timing for benching “Ghost” fueled the fire of his critics, as Gostisbehere had been named the “Philadelphia Pro Athlete of the Year” by the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association just a couple of hours earlier.
Hakstol mentioned “development and accountability to the group” as the reason for making the move. It wasn’t that “Ghost” was taking unnecessary offensive forays and leaving his teammates in a dangerous position going the other way, it was more his play in his own end and away from the puck.
Further compounding things was the replacement to be inserted into Gostisbehere’s vacancy in the lineup. Andrew MacDonald, arguably neck-and-neck with Chris VandeVelde as the fans’ top whipping boy when the team is struggling, would be coming back after a six-game absence.
Those in the advanced stats community pointed out how Gostisbehere’s numbers were all (unsurprisingly) far superior to that of MacDonald’s, and those using their eyes to judge play concurred that this was surely the beginning of the end for Philly hockey as we know it.
The move was vilified, as one of the club’s best defenders would be taking a seat upstairs despite the fact the Flyers had just dropped three of their last four contests.
Not only did the club defeat a red-hot Winnipeg Jets club, 5-2, that night in Gostibehere’s one-game absence, MacDonald was not bad, either. As a matter of fact, MacDonald’s game has improved dramatically since his six-game banishment, and he’s looked very good during the Flyers’ current six-game winning streak. Whether or not it means he’s someone the team will continue to employ moving forward, he’s actually gotten better and more consistent with each passing victory.
That raised level of play can only aid Philly’s cause should another team come calling in need of fortifying a depleted blue line, or even a little farther down the road at the Vegas Golden Knights’ expansion draft. MacDonald’s $5 million AAV has to be worlds more attractive to shoppers in this scenario, rather than with him withering away in the press box.
Each of the players to sit have returned with the knowledge that if they don’t perform up to expectations, it could mean a swift return to the press box, and it has shown in the players’ compete level.
Many -- in the media and fans via social media, alike -- have clamored each night an important player is benched, that ‘the coach was putting his team in a position to lose tonight’. While that may or may not have been the actual case in each circumstance, each and every maneuver was a short-term move in order to help construct a foundation for the long-term goals, and that is thankfully where Hakstol’s vision is focused.
We’ve seen the lasting damages caused by moves that appeared to be helping the club for the short-term. There was a whole line of such personnel change under Paul Holmgren’s tenure -- the GM had only done what he felt was in Philadelphia’s best interests at the time --and most will remember the progressively giant steps backwards the franchise took as a result.
Some of those disastrous additions have been creatively rectified by Ron Hextall, but there are others that still linger on to this day that he continues to attempt to correct.
Just like his GM, Hakstol has one of those minds that isn’t completely centered only in the here and now, but also pays heed as to the ripple effects that will come two or three steps down the road in each case.
It seems the more time passes by, the greater the sense of immediacy prevails upon our way of thinking. Nothing could possibly outweigh what is happening at this very moment, damn the lingering future consequences.
This train of thought falls in direct opposition with what Hextall has preached since the first day he took over the GM position from Holmgren. It’s always refreshing and greatly appreciated when the Wells Fargo Center staff actually plays a decent song through the loud speakers, but maybe they should consider trading in Guns N Roses’ “Paradise City” and instead refresh everyone’s memory that “all we need is just a little patience”.
Hakstol’s healthy scratches were, and continue to be, merely a tool with which he can improve his on-ice product as it proceeds through the campaign.
And the team has responded with their best overall play this season, reeling off a six-game win streak, which is the longest in five years. Their improved defensive awareness has been a key, and Mason has stepped up whenever there have been any breakdowns. Mason and the Flyers have not yielded more than two goals in any of their last five contests.
The timing of Hakstol’s healthy scratches is of the utmost importance, because we’ve seen how much -- or maybe better said, how little -- the Flyers squads of the past few years have had left come postseason time when they’ve had to face the last three-quarters of the regular season schedule in must-win situations just to get back into a qualifying spot.
As is proven every spring, the league’s annual Stanley Cup tourney is the most grueling -- not just physically, but mentally, as well -- of anything seen in any of the four major sports.
It’s a difficult enough task just to get through that grind in order to garner the 16 victories necessary to claim Lord Stanley as your own. But it’s damn near impossible when you’ve already got core guys nursing significant injuries that would have otherwise kept them out of the lineup if not for the incessant need to pick up another two points down the stretch, and even those lucky enough to be healthy in body need a mental break from the length of the 60-game win-at-all-costs full court press. There are few of the bruised and battered who can step up when going against the well-rested top teams, who have had the luxury of resting their elite players down the stretch for the upcoming battles.
With the Metropolitan Division being the most competitive so far this year – they’re the only bracket that has six of the eight teams already with at least 30 points – positioning will be key to their postseason fortunes.
By making the moves early enough to get Philly to begin to right the ship before things reached the breaking point, Hakstol has set his team up for what he and the rest of the organization can only hope will be a successful season-long run into a comfortable postseason slot, avoiding the need for what has become a typical prolonged, feverish mad dash just to reach the finish line.
No matter how unpopular Hakstol’s scratches have proven to be, they seem to have played a part in the Flyers’ recent resurgence.
David Strehle is the Philadelphia Correspondent for The Fourth Period. Follow him on Twitter.