december 3, 2017 | 11:29am ET
BY Dennis Bernstein, The Fourth Period
IT’S ALWAYS MESSY IN PHILADELPHIA
LOS ANGELES, CA -- We are past the quarter mark of the NHL’s 2017-18 season and it has been a great start. Scoring is up (you can count on at least one high scoring game per night), there has been an unprecedented start by an expansion team and an early season venture to Sweden was an unabashed success.
Although the Tampa Bay Lightning look like hockey’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters on a lot of evenings, they have cooled somewhat from their torrid pace and while they rightfully are the short-money choice to win the Stanley Cup, there is no December coronation at hand.
There’s been good (the Jets, Blues, Kings and Blue Jackets) and bad (Arizona and Buffalo), and stunning (Edmonton and a current 10-game losing streak by Philadelphia with a dreaded GM vote of for an embattled coach), so it is time to take a dive into the pool.
In Philadelphia, the Flyers situation has taken a deep dive with no sign of the Good Ship Hextall resurfacing from a 10-game losing streak that forced GM Ron to deliver the last thing any coach in professional sports wants to hear – a vote of confidence.
While it may be true that Hextall is all in on Dave Hakstol as the long-term solution behind the Philadelphia bench, my issue with his support comes within the context of his entire statement. If he wants to stick by his coach and ride out the storm, I have no issue with it, but when you add the belief that the current Flyers roster is playoff-worthy, you’ve also paved the way for the exit of a coach you’ve just thrown your support behind.
Have the Flyers lost close games? Yes, they have. Has the losing streak been a total bust? From a point standings perspective, it has not. They have earned five points in their last 10 games, keeping them just ahead of the Florida Panthers and a few nautical miles ahead of the Buffalo Sabres. Parity being what it is, the Flyers trail the second wild-card qualifier, the New York Rangers, by only seven points, far from an insurmountable margin with the caveat that the climb over the five teams between Philadelphia and New York likely requires an eight wins in 10 games run at some juncture, a far-fetched assumption at this point.
The logic that supports moving on from Hakstol is buoyed by the fact that this losing streak is not an anomaly. Since Philadelphia’s well publicized 10-game winning early last season, they have won 28 of 74 games and have not built on their success of two seasons ago when they gave the Washington Capitals all that they could handle in a six-game first round elimination.
If you want to support keeping Hakstol, look no further than the executive suite of his boss. After doing strong heavy lifting in his early days to root out the poor contracts of his predecessor Paul Holmgren, Hextall has not built a current-day contender at Wells Fargo Center. He hasn’t figured out the goaltending situation – Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth are not the tandem that gives me confidence for any type of post-season run and although the Brayden Schenn trade was done for the future, his view of the player as one-dimensional has been severely tested in St. Louis.
My reference to “current-day contender” goes to the current state of the Flyers’ defense. Two seasons from now, the group could be among the finest in the League. Shayne Gostisbehere is once again effective offensively as he regained full health, Ivan Provorov will be a top-pair defenseman, and the group of youngsters that is trying to navigate NHL waters, I believe, will emerge as their journey lengthens. Nolan Patrick may prove to live to his lofty draft selection, and yes, Radko Gudas’ inexplicable actions have hurt this team, but if he’s the galvanizing force this team is missing, I owe you all a drink.
No one cares about 2019 because of what is being delivered in 2017 and soon to be 2018.
Though some recent defeats came via errors at a decisive moment, the Flyers’ last two home performances are very troubling. Coming off a tough overtime loss in Pittsburgh Monday, they dropped a 3-1 home decision to San Jose to which one high-ranking observer in the building suggested to me the team had quit on Hakstol given the level of compete shown.
With three days off and an opportunity to show the home fans that Tuesday was rock bottom, the Flyers went out and laid a bigger egg against the Boston Bruins on Saturday, 3-0. While Philadelphia shouldn’t have had a goose egg on the board courtesy of a goal being taken off the board by an uber-marginal goaltender interference call, the Flyers went quietly into the late-afternoon and if you don’t believe my somewhat trained eyes, here’s Tuukka Rask during the NESN post-game broadcast:
“They didn’t have too many opportunities,” he said, “we gave the some on rushes, but for the most part, nothing there.”
In a market that always carries high expectations, the impact of an early-season double digit losing streak is more impactful than most. The tenure of the Hex-Hak vote of confidence will continue to be challenged as the Flyers jet west to face the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks – all matches where they are likely to be underdogs in.
There is only so much a coach can do to reverse the fortunes of the team; they truly need a hat trick game from Claude Giroux or a 40-save performance from Elliott or Neuvirth to stop the bleeding from the arteries.
The Flyers’ failure is an organizational one – the players have underachieved, it appears the coach’s message resonates less and less with each game, and the man that runs the show has assembled a roster that has won a little more than a third of its games over the last calendar year. The Flyers have 10 games remaining before the NHL Holiday break/roster freeze, five each at home and on the road, and I feel those 10 will tell the tale of this season. If the Flyers continue this deep dive – there’s only two options, send Hakstol packing (I would have after the Boston game) or raise the surrender flag and start assessing the trade value for the one high-value, marketable commodity – Wayne Simmonds and his very attractive contract.
KINGS MAKING STRIDES
In Los Angeles, Kings head coach John Stevens has handled his first significant challenge well. His team took a significant dive when they lost Jeff Carter during a surprising strong start, and struggled mightily for the majority of November, but they’ve finally pulled themselves out of it over the past week and to no one’s surprise L.A.’s offense struggled mightily without a legitimate replacement for Carter.
Adrian Kempe, though making strides overall, has proven he is not a top of the depth charter NHL center, but if he practices his faceoffs enough over the next couple of seasons, there is potential as a third line center (and if your team has that skilled a player in the role, it’s a very good thing), but he is not and will not be the answer until Carter’s expected and hoped February return.
Stevens tried several options, including the recently acquired Jussi Jokinen, but throughout November only the trio of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Alex Iafallo were producing and that is a clear recipe for losing one-goal games. When those losses started to dot the schedule and the Kings were giving back ground off their strong October, Stevens went back to Nick Shore, a much-maligned player due to his inability to create offense as the solution to complete the line of wingers Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson.
Of all the Kings, Pearson misses Carter the most, with four goals in 27 games he’s far off the pace of the 24 he potted last season that earned him a nice contract extension, and managing expectations on what Shore can facilitate at even strength, you are a step backwards in production this season for Pearson. The bounce-back season from Kopitar (he has eclipsed last season goal production in just 27 games) and Brown should move than make up for the Pearson shortfall.
Toffoli, on the other hand, isn’t given enough credit for creating opportunities on his own. While never the fleetest of skaters, he possesses a unique trait that goal scorers with his skillset have – that quick, powerful burst that separates him from a defender and gives him time and space to finish. With Kopitar and Brown teaming so well, Shore just needs to make timely, if not spectacular, plays in Carter’s absence to keep Toffoli on track for what looks like a 30-goal season.
The Kings have powered through what looked to be an ominous four-game roadtrip a couple of weeks ago and one of the major reasons is that Stevens stuck to his guns. He did experiment for a while with Toffoli on Kopitar’s line, but quickly came off that and hopefully will resist the line blender that Darryl Sutter used early and often in his last three seasons here. If he wants to toy with the bottom three lines while waiting on Carter, that’s understandable, but he cannot separate Kopitar and Brown, even when they hit dry spells.
The Pacific Division race is wide open, there are chinks in the Vegas armor, who knows if the Anaheim Ducks will ever been 100% healthy, the Oilers are a disaster and the San Jose Sharks can’t score. Maybe the Flames are for real, but I’m not a buyer, so there is every reason to think Stevens, by continuing to exercise patience and consistency, can steer the ship to within the top three inside the Pacific, and if GM Rob Blake can add a solid veteran defenseman at the time of the Carter’s return, you might finally see a Pacific Division title banner in the rafters of Staples Center.
SIGN ON THE DOTY LINE
As an aside, the dormant Drew Doughty-leaving-at-the-end-of-his-contract novella reappeared this week. My one cent on this:
Drew talks a lot, both on and off the ice – probably a little too much to both his teammates and the organization’s liking. But it’s just talk; there is a more than a season and a half before he can make any move, so at this juncture his comments are for entertainment value as are similar comments made from Erik Karlsson.
Though his play has improved along with most of the team under Stevens, his game has not returned to the Norris Trophy-winning level of two seasons ago. You can give him a mulligan on last season – the Sutter influence, the lack of Jonathan Quick behind him to make riskier plays and breaking in a new partner in Derek Forbort – but now he has chance to push his game back to that dominant level that I have witnessed. Talking prematurely about a contract extension or leaving Los Angeles doesn’t help you focus on the task at hand.