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February 18, 2017 | 10:52am ET
Hextall's patience needs to be tested

BY DAVID STREHLE | TheFourthPeriod.com

PHILADELPHIA, PA -- Just a few months shy of the three-year mark in his tenure as Philadelphia Flyers' General Manager, Ron Hextall's use of the word "patience" seems to be taking on more of a metamorphosis than that of his on-ice product.

As the losses continue to mount and with the prospect of a postseason berth quickly fading, what had begun as a season of building upon the foundation Hextall had laid has deteriorated into a campaign that could leave many more question marks than those that will be answered along the way.

Although they had for the most part done well to stick to head coach Dave Hakstol’s defense-first philosophy -- they had yielded just 11 goals, one of which was an empty-netter, over the course of their first six February games through a 2-1 defeat in Calgary on February 15th for a goals-against average of 1.83, good for third-best in the league for the month up to that point -- at the root cause of the club’s woes has been the continuing inability to put the puck in the opposition’s net.

During those same six contests, Philadelphia had managed all of seven goals themselves, which rightfully stood dead last in the NHL over that time span (1.17 goals per game).

It’s not that the team hadn’t been putting the puck at the opposition cage. During that same time frame, Philly had scored an average of one goal for every 24.4 shots in had taken, the worst ratio in the league. What this translates into is what everyone knows; there are no snipers on this squad, and these Flyers are going to have to work, muck and grind -- and then some -- for everything they get.

Philly has had some pretty lopsided games in terms of shots on goal and shot attempts, showing a propensity for controlling the puck and throwing a lot of rubber the opposing netminders’ way.

But sometimes those numbers can be deceiving, too. Oftentimes the final score sheet makes it look as though the ice had been completely tilted in Philadelphia’s favor for the entire contest and it must have been a situation where the goaltender was standing on his head. But truth be told, there may have been one or two notable stops in addition to the majority of unscreened, long-range perimeter offerings that ended up as one-and-outs after no rebounds could be garnered.

Those performances have made backup goalkeepers such as Philipp Grubauer, Keith Kincaid, Curtis McElhinney, Aaron Dell, and journeymen Peter Budaj, Carter Hutton, Thomas Griess, and Brian Elliott look like Vezina candidates.

This punchless bunch of Flyers hasn’t exactly been something totally new, either.

If you go back even further in the calendar to the game just prior to their bye week on January 15th in Washington against the Capitals -- a matinee in which the visitors hung in for nearly two periods before the afternoon degenerated into a 5-0 horror show -- the Flyers amassed a measly 16 total goals over their next 12 outings (1.33 goals per contest) before finally “exploding” for three against the Oilers Thursday night in Edmonton.

With that type of power outage, they’re basically requiring their goaltenders to be nearly flawless each and every time out -- and just hoping that someone from their side can step up and pot one at some point during the tilt.

This squad’s goal-scoring futility had some very notable moments during a recent home stand, in which the Flyers went:

  • 134:56 between goals
  • 151:10 between non-empty-net goals, and
  • A stretch of 111:50 in which neither the Flyers nor the opposition had netted a non-empty-net goal during regulation play

The frustrating skid included being blanked in back-to-back games, first by Budaj and the Los Angeles Kings in a game that required overtime -- and wasted a fantastic effort that featured a pair of miraculous diving glove saves by Michal Neuvirth -- and the other by Hutton and the St. Louis Blues in regulation.

At the forefront of the slumping Flyers are some of their biggest names:

  • Jake Voracek -- their leading point-scorer -- has gone nine consecutive games without scoring a goal, and has just one goal in his last 18 and three in his last 28
  • Claude Giroux has one point in his last six outings and just two goals in his last 23 games
  • Brayden Schenn has managed just two goals in the last 13 games since setting a career-high with goals in four straight contests January 8th-14th
  • Shayne Gostisbehere has been a shell of the dynamic, offensively-gifted defender that burst onto the scene last year and finished with 17 goals, 46 points in 64 games, and runner-up in the Calder Trophy balloting for the league’s Rookie-of-the-Year. “Ghost” has four goals and 22 points in 52 contests and has been held without a goal in his last 31 games, with some healthy scratches mixed in between, and holds a team-worst -22 plus / minus rating. His booming point shot has done little to ignite the first power play unit for some time, and the 23-year-old’s confidence level appears to be at a new low.

ayne Simmonds has 24 goals and has been the lone consistent goal-scoring threat in the lineup, and remains poised to record his second consecutive 30+-goal regular season.

The danger when playing in a protective defensive shell -- skating to not lose instead of playing to win, and not encouraging your defensemen to jump up and join the rush when the opportunity presents itself as they were doing earlier in the year when the club was among the highest-scoring teams and enjoying success -- is that a lot of the other NHL clubs have one or two of those game-breaking, offensively talented youngsters in their lineup that the Flyers have in their pipeline that are just not ready at this point in time, and they are the ones who can create something out of nothing.

And that’s what has been happening.

The classic example was January 31st when Philadelphia visited the Carolina Hurricanes.

The Flyers laid back and did little to generate anything for much of the contest, seriously threatening to break their record-low of 13 shots on goal in one regulation game. As a matter of fact, Philly had all of six total shots on goal -- that’s right, S-I-X -- at the midway point of the third period, only one of which came off of the stick of a Flyer forward, as Steve Mason was given little support and was left to try and hold the fort by himself.

Although Philadelphia did manage to put on a late push and finish with 16 shots and break the shutout, the normally low-scoring ‘Canes were moving in a different gear and skated circles around the disheveled visitors, with rookie Sebastian Aho recording his first career NHL hat trick in a 5-1 beat down.

Perhaps the larger issue is the absence of team identity.

This team began the year looking like it would be the same scrappy, never out of it type of never-say-die squad that was a trademark of Peter Laviolette’s early stay as head coach. Comebacks from multiple goals were seemingly routine and all the right pieces appeared to be doing what was required of them.

Everyone knows you cannot rely on making a habit of having to repeatedly come back from those multi-goal deficits. Players actually pointed this out to us in their post-game interviews, and they knew continually putting themselves into early game deficits was something that couldn’t continue to occur if they were to be successful.

Somewhere along the line, things caught up with them. They’ve scored the game’s first goal in 21 of their 58 games, and held a lead after the first period in only nine -- that’s right, N-I-N-E -- of those 58 contests.

By no stretch of the imagination is it imperative to have a lead after the first period, but if anything has become clear in this somewhat murky league, is that it’s better to play with a lead than trying to play catch-up. And that goes especially for teams such as the Flyers, who are having all kinds of trouble just scoring a goal.

As for Hextall’s building plan, he has done a fantastic job accumulating extra draft picks and more importantly, added young assets with those picks for the betterment of the organization’s future.

What is so disconcerting is the kind of take one step forward, take two back situation it appears is happening in the present. Last season’s playoff appearance and extension of their first round exit to six games was something of a surprise, a sort of unexpected bonus, even if Philly’s brass expressed their feeling that they were good enough to have been there from the outset.

Truth is, minus Neuvirth’s superhuman 44-save Game 5 shutout when his teammates were only able to muster 15 shots of their own and eked out a victory, the Capitals would have rolled through them much quicker.

Heading into this season, the Flyers had qualified for the postseason in two of the past three springs, and were promptly ousted in the opening round.

With last night’s 6-3 loss in Edmonton they dropped a point below the New York Islanders in the chase for the Eastern Conference’s final wild card berth, and now have a pair of teams to pass (the Toronto Maple Leafs being the other) in order to garner that last postseason spot. Things become even more complicated when you consider that the Florida Panthers are only one point behind with three games in hand, the Tampa Bay Lightning four points with a pair of games less played, and Carolina six points back but with a handful of games in hand.

Even the Buffalo Sabres, a team many slated to be one of the bottom teams in the East, are just one point back with the same number of games remaining.

This is where all of those contests early in the campaign where Philadelphia coughed up late-game leads and points in the standings translate into late-season calamity. They have basically taken their fate out of their own hands and have to hope that their opponents somehow don’t capitalize on all of those games in hand.

Without even delving into whether or not the GM wants to consider making blockbuster trades and restructuring the very makeup of the core of his roster, he is still going to have some tough decisions to make in less than two weeks regarding another large group of upcoming free agents.

Forwards Roman Lyubimov, Nick Cousins, and Jordan Weal, as well as defenseman Gostisbehere, all stand to become restricted free agents and will each certainly receive their qualifying offers.

There is a more-pressing collection.

Despite the fact the Flyers have seven players -- a pair of forwards (Pierre-Eduoard Bellemare, Chris VandeVelde), a trio of defenders (Mark Streit, Michael Del Zotto, Nick Schultz), and both goaltenders (Mason, Neuvirth) -- slated to test the waters of unrestricted free agency come July 1st, there have been little in the way of trade rumors involving the Orange-and-Black as the March 1st NHL trade deadline rapidly approaches.

With neither Mason nor Neuvirth firmly taking over the reigns comfortably as the undisputed No.1 netminder and Hakstol seemingly switching things up and riding the other after one has a bad outing, it’s not out of the question that there could be an entirely new tandem next year.

Or maybe even as early as after the trade deadline.

It will all depend on the market demand for goaltenders and where Mason / Neuvirth fit into the shopping-plans of other organizations. Neither one has the best numbers (Mason: 16-17-6, 2.90, .900; Neuvirth: 9-7-1, 2.82, .890), but it’s doubtful that any of the top goalies in the league would have fared that much better playing in front of this defense. The tic-toe-toe tap-in goals allowed by opposition players standing all alone at the side of the net, or left alone to screen / deflect shots from point blank range, have been at an unacceptable level.

What both goalkeepers have proven is that if the team in front of them gives them a fair chance, they will keep them in and will not cost them a game.

There still have been murmurs that Philadelphia covets Tampa’s Ben Bishop, who stands to become an UFA this summer. The now 30-year-old was heavily pursued by the Flyers when the Ottawa Senators eventually dealt him to the Lightning, and his prorated cap hit for the remainder of this season is a bit under $1.72 million.

But it should be expected that Bishop will be looking for a raise on the $5.95 million AAV he earned during the two-year pact that’s about to expire, and a trade-and-sign situation is likely going to require Hextall to commit to a long-term pact at a huge annual number.

And that’s not even considering what Bolts GM Steve Yzerman will be demanding as a return for Bishop, which you can bet will include a young roster player and probably at least a pair of blue chip prospects as well as a draft pick or two.

With how well 6’ 6”, 232-pound Anthony Stolarz performed during his recall and the fact that he just turned 23 years old a couple of weeks ago, it would seem best that Hextall stick with his plan of ‘patience’ between the pipes.

The need for the process to allow for youngsters to be brought along is also brought about by the excellent depth of prospects in Stolarz’s current partner in Lehigh Valley, Alex Lyon, as well as Carter Hart, Felix Sandstrom, Matej Tomek, Ivan Fedotov, and Merrick Madsen.

It would seem that going with either Mason or Neuvirth -- each of whom is nearly two years younger than Bishop, and will be much more affordable to re-sign than what Bishop will cost -- for a short-term contract might be the best course to chart as the youngsters continue to develop.

Mason will be more expensive to extend -- his expiring deal was for $4.1 million, while Neuvirth was $1.625 million -- but Neuvirth’s inability to remain healthy throughout his career has been a continuing concern in Philadelphia.

Hextall’s focus should be centered on reconstructing his forward lines and defensive pairings, and bringing about depth to both areas in the organization.

The GM’s moves up front this past offseason have fizzled out. Dale Weise was looked upon as a guy who would be an energy guy, taking over Ryan White’s role but having the ability to move up into the top-six and be able to provide the appropriate offense. Nothing like that has happened. Barely anything has happened at all when Weise is on the ice, really.

Weise has been a bad fit from the start, and has not brought much to the table. Where White was a good fit in just about every aspect, and even provided the occasional jaw-dropping spectacular goal, Weise scored goals in back-to-back games during a late-November Florida trip. That’s it in the goal-scoring department in the 46 games in which he’s appeared. And he also had one amazing assist where he batted the puck out of mid-air to a teammate in the latter stages of a power play for a goal, but that is literally the list of memorable Dale Weise moments as a Flyer as of late-February.

He’s ended up as a healthy scratch more often as of late, and it will be interesting to see how the next three years of that $2.35 million AAV will fit into the team’s plans moving forward.

When Weise has been sitting recently, it’s Lyubimov who plays. The 6’ 2”, 207-pound Russian has managed four goals and five points in 42 games, skating almost exclusively with Bellemare and VandeVelde on the fourth line.

It’s tough enough to generate offensive numbers when playing fourth line minutes, but it’s even tougher when you’re skating on the right side of the Flyers’ fourth unit. Bellemare and VandeVelde have the hearts of lions, are fierce checkers and appropriately get penalty-killing time, but they have their difficulties when it comes to the other end of the ice.

Boyd Gordon was inked as a free agent and it was hoped he could assume some of the penalty-killing responsibilities and take some of the burden of defensive faceoffs off the shoulders of Giroux. After scoring the club’s first goal of the season, Gordon was injured and was ineffective upon his return. The surprising emergence of Simmonds as an effective penalty-killer pretty much ended Gordon’s time here, and he was re-assigned to the Phantoms after clearing waivers.

Hakstol’s continual line juggling has failed to come up with any that have been able to shake Giroux or Voracek out of their respective slumps. Schenn works well with them as part of the power play unit -- Schenn leads the league with 13 PP markers -- but there has been little success at five-on-five.

The hope that Michael Raffl’s 2014-15 goal output of 21 goals could be replicated seems to be a fleeting memory, as his 13 in 82 games last year and eight in 48 outings this year have proven.

With five goals in his first five games, Matt Read appeared to have rediscovered the scoring touch he had lost over the past three regular seasons. But even with time on the top line, the now 30-year-old has managed just two more goals over his last 39 contests, and it will be worth keeping an eye on if Hextall will receive any sort of interest in Read, who has one year left at $3.625 million.

With no legitimate left winger to go with Giroux and Voracek, the pair has struggled on and off throughout the years and Hakstol eventually split them up.

As has been the desire for some time, acquiring a bona fide top line left winger to go with Giroux and Simmonds would be preferable, and go with (now injured) Travis Konecny-Schenn-Voracek as the second line.

It’s probably safe to say that Sean Couturier hasn’t made the offensive strides the organization was hoping for -- especially with how much the club has struggled to put the puck in the net -- but the nine goals he’s scored in 42 games is actually the highest ratio of his career. The trade-off is his 16 points are the lowest points-per-game average he’s registered in the last four seasons.

There has been some positive news developing up front, as Nick Cousins continues to improve in his role as a pest and is chipping in with offense, as well, and Jordan Weal -- who was leading the Phantoms and second in the AHL in scoring -- was impressive in a brief stint when recalled before suffering an upper-body injury after being boarded by Eric Gryba in Edmonton Thursday night.

Depending on what Hextall decides to do with UFAs Bellemare and VandeVelde and RFA Lyubimov, both Cousins and Weal could become eventual integral pieces on the third or fourth lines.

Colorado Avalanche GM Joe Sakic has been shopping a couple of top line wingers and depending upon what he would be looking for as a return, Gabriel Landeskog or Matt Duchene could be players in which the Flyers would have interest.

Despite Gostisbehere’s disappointing campaign, the real anticipation of what is to come for this club remains on the backend. Ivan Provorov has been far and away the best Flyers’ defender, and under the right circumstances, there’s no reason to think Ghost couldn’t return something closer to last season’s form.

On the way are Travis Sanheim, Sam Morin, and Robert Hägg, so Hextall should be able to man the phones to see if he has any takers for Streit, Schultz, or Del Zotto at the deadline. There should be plenty of contenders in search of reliable blue line depth for the stretch run and postseason push, and all three provide varying levels and should be decent in a rental capacity.

They won’t bring back the type of return that Kimmo Timonen did from Chicago, but they should add draft picks and just the addition by subtraction that the roster / cap space will provide for the youngsters to be brought into the fold will be invaluable for the growth of the roster moving forward.

It’s hard to imagine that Andrew MacDonald still has three more years remaining on his contract that pays him $5 million annually. But the organization has to decide whether they want to continue to play him as many minutes as they have this season, or perhaps return him to the AHL for the upcoming campaign, as they did last year, to save a huge chunk of cap space. That kind of savings could go a long way in bringing in a top line winger that is so desperately needed.

As the team spirals out of control in its current free fall, the organizational patience of which Hextall spoke the day he took the reins from Paul Holmgren seems to have a far-different look today and has splintered into several areas.

As the GM’s patience with the process over three years has taken this team through some tremendous ups and downs, the apparent steep, slippery grade they’ve been riding since their 10-game winning streak -- they’re 9-15-5 since -- is nowhere near where they were envisioned to be at this point.

And though there are a few youngsters sprinkled in the mix, the core remains the same. That’s something that needs to be reviewed as to where each of the marquee players fit into the mix moving forward.

When extreme liberties are taken with one of their own, there is no fire, no passion, and certainly no retribution. Granted, there isn’t any “enforcer-type” player on the roster, as the game continues to move away from that breed, but outside of Simmonds, there is basically no one that opponents have to fear if they take a run at a Flyer. And the last thing Philly needs is for Simmonds, who has been far and away their best skater, NHL All-Star, and team MVP this season, to be stuck in the penalty box for an extended period of time or worse yet, tossed with a game misconduct.

This is particularly an issue in the club’s own end, where outside of Radko Gudas and maybe even Brandon Manning, there is very little in the way of physicality among these Flyers rearguards. Morin would definitely bring that missing size and nastiness that has been lacking for so long, and might even help the goaltenders to have some room to see the puck, or cause an opponent have to get up off of their back side for going near the area around the Philadelphia blue paint.

That has not been happening for some time now.

Fin

ally, the fan base is being asked a massive solid to remain patient under extremely difficult circumstances. This team can sometimes be somewhat unwatchable as it has its annual on-ice identity crisis.

The fans like to have a connection with the players and see some type of effort that piques their enthusiasm, but the often robotic type walk-throughs are unlike anything this organization has been known for over the course of their 50-year existence. It’s almost as if they have taken on the zombie-like characteristics of themselves from Mason’s mask.

I have never had so many fans -- in person, via email and social media, and many long-timers -- tell me they are absolutely fed up with this team, and are ready to move on to watching something other than hockey as I have over the past month.

I’m guessing most of these good folks weren’t around for the Flyers teams that spent five consecutive seasons out of the playoffs in the early-90s, but then again it’s much easier now to voice your dissatisfaction via social media and blogs, as the internet was not even a thing back then.

This franchise will always have its loyal followers, in Philly and abroad, as evidenced each and every road trip and seeing all of the Orange-and-Black spread throughout the road building.

All they ask for is that is looks like someone is trying to put things in the right direction, and that is what’s missing at the moment on what appears to be a sinking ship.

The club had fixed its problems by this point in the schedule last season and was streaking towards the finish line. This year is a completely different story, as the team doesn’t look like it will finish anywhere near the two wild card spots.

This squad looks to be the first team in NHL history to fail to qualify for the postseason after having won 10 straight games during the year.

Hextall’s patience has to be tested. It’s quite clear the GM’s game plan of just waiting for all of the young players to develop and mesh with the existing core will need to be altered, and sometime soon.

David Strehle is the Philadelphia Correspondent for The Fourth Period. Follow him on Twitter.

 
 
 

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