December 1, 2017 | 2:09pm ET
BY David Strehle, The Fourth Period
FREE FALLING FLYERS STICKING TOGETHER AS HEXTALL'S PATIENCE PUT TO TEST
PHILADELPHIA, PA -- Once upon a time, there was a fiery goaltender named Ron Hextall, who backstopped a team called the Philadelphia Flyers. You remember him. The guy almost single-handedly revolutionized the game at his position with his puck-handling abilities, essentially giving Philadelphia something of a third defenseman at times.
His competitiveness was legendary and his will to win was off the chart and second to none on the teams in which he played, and that never-say-die spirit rubbed off on his teammates. He was one of those guys that was much better to have on your team rather than having to play against.
Hextall was the netminder who extracted some semblance of vigilante justice when he attacked Chris Chelios, after the Montreal Canadiens’ defender went unpenalized for a cheap shot that concussed Flyers’ star winger Brian Propp during the 1989 Eastern Conference Final.
Throughout the years, Ed Snider -- the father of the franchise -- was an extremely vocal voice to be reckoned with, and he had no problem laying out, in no uncertain terms, just how upset he was with the squad when he felt they were underperforming.
Always a contributing factor that would exponentially increase Snider’s wrath was when the throng of avid Flyers supporters voiced their displeasure and dissatisfaction when things were spiraling out of control for the club. Coming along with Snider’s imposing voice was an absolute knowledge that he was not going to stand for the status quo, and that heads would roll if things did not improve within days of one of his classic, heartfelt tirades. A quick-fix approach was much easier in the pre-salary cap era, and Snider’s sidekick, the heart-and-soul of the franchise, Bob(by) Clarke -- GM for years and the current Flyers’ Senior VP -- was there to orchestrate dozens of maneuverings that kept Philadelphia perpetually in contention for their collective goal, a third Stanley Cup.
Snider went ballistic following the infamous “Carousel of Goalies” situation in the spring of 2011, which was borne mostly out of then-head coach Peter Laviolette’s mishandling of youngster Sergei Bobrovsky. The Chairman was a bit more hands-off in his last few years, but always maintained a say in the ongoing restructuring of the organization, both on and off the ice.
Since Snider’s passing a little more than a year and a half ago, there hasn’t been a general voice of the franchise to call out the other moving parts of machinery within the organization when things are going badly. Someone to let the fanbase know that yes, they are aware of the problem, and damn the torpedoes, it will be fixed by those presently in place, or changes will be made in order to put the people into place that will rectify the issues. These days, there seems to be a much calmer approach, one that not-so-coincidentally falls right in line with the organizational preaching of ‘patience’.
Exhibit One to just how patient this franchise is willing to be was played out right before our very eyes after Tuesday night’s 3-1 home loss to the San Jose Sharks. It was a terrible showing for a team in desperate need of a win, stretching the current losing skid to nine straight games (0-4-5), one in which many of the fans in attendance began “Fi-re Hak-stol!” chants during the latter stages.
There was a players-only, closed door meeting after the devastating defeat, one that didn’t rest solely with that night’s performance, but one that may have been a overdue.
“It’s not this one,” said Wayne Simmonds regarding the closed door session. “It’s all nine [losses], it’s a cumulative thing. We have had leads. We have had chances to win in overtime, shootouts, whatever it may be, and we haven’t done it. I know it’s unacceptable. This isn’t right.”
Shayne Gostisbehere agreed.
“I don’t think our game is at where it’s supposed to be,” ‘Ghost’ chimed in. “It’s purely unacceptable. When you’re down two and you get one shot in the third, it’s pretty sad to see. We’ve got to refocus. We talked about it, we can’t look at anything. We’ve got to look at ourselves.”
Hextall addressed the media following the debacle -- in which Philly mustered all of one shot on goal until late in the third period while trailing by a pair of goals -- and most may have expected a disgusted, peel the paint off the locker room walls-type tirade from the GM.
Consistent with his philosophy and low-key approach since taking over the position, Hextall appeared much more content with the situation. He didn’t take issue with the overall play of the team during the losing streak, and pretty much said they had deserved a much better fate over the stretch.
“If you look at the way we’ve played from the start of the year,” Hextall analyzed after the game, “I’m pretty good with the way our team has played. [I’m] pretty good with the way our team has played the last nine games. I think tonight, we ran out of energy. Obviously results lately are not very good. We deserve better, but we haven’t gotten better. Obviously, we have got to find a way.
“If we were playing poorly, I would be the first to say we were playing poorly. We are not playing poorly. To look objectively at our team right now, and say, ‘Are we playing poorly?’ No. Are we shooting ourselves in the foot at times? Yes, we are. Critical mistakes at critical times? Yes. It’s kind of what happens when the snow ball starts to go the wrong way, and you start doing things that are unpredictable. If you took the score away from the last nine games I’ve seen and told me we’re 0-9, I’d be like ‘come on.’”
He is correct. With the exception of the most-recent loss to San Jose, the Flyers hadn’t played as poorly as their record might suggest.
As a matter of fact, they had played more than well-enough the night before to come away with a victory against the arch-rival Pittsburgh Penguins. Instead, the Flyers came away with bad bounces to the tune of four second period crossbars that failed to increase a two-goal lead, a couple of controversial goals allowed, which combined with ill-timed penalties, resulting in their eighth consecutive loss.
“You definitely get pissed off at things,” said Gostisbehere. “A couple bounces, it’s a different game. You can’t feel sorry for yourself, no one is going to feel sorry for you.”
It always seems to be something with this Philadelphia squad. When they are able to score goals, gives up just enough to outweigh their production. If they clamp down defensively and hold a team to just one, they get shut out. It’s a bad recipe, one that sees them finding ways to lose games and unnecessarily throwing away numerous points at an alarming rate, instead of finding ways to be victorious.
“The point is, we have to find ways to win,” Hextall said. “Nobody is looking for excuses around here. We are going to battle though this. If we thought we were a really poor team, that’s totally different. Losing nine games in a row is unacceptable, let’s be real. It’s not acceptable for many franchises, and certainly not ours. In saying that, as a manager, I’ve got to be realistic with how our team’s playing. Let’s say the last nine games we were .500, 5-4, somewhere in there. It’s not great, but it’s not bad. It’s what we deserve. Now again, we shot ourselves in the foot, but as a whole, we’ve certainly played better than our record.”
He wasn’t there to throw anybody under the bus, or even say he was about to place someone on the next one headed out of town. This, unlike his persona as a player, is the kinder, gentler Ron Hextall. He instead talked about everyone hanging in together, and reiterating the same when asked if it’s an issue the players need to rectify, or if that responsibility is on the coaches.
“That falls on all of us,” Hextall answered. “We’re all in this together. Nobody’s jumping off any ship here. We’re in it together. Right now it’s hard to find a positive. I think one of the impressive things is this group hasn’t started pointing fingers at each other. That’s a sign of strong character. It’s a sign that we’re going to come out of this.”
And really, that’s the most important part, if the Flyers can get themselves out of the current tailspin and back on course again.
The problem with patience -- especially in a town like Philadelphia, not to mention the present success of the NFL’s Eagles and the promise of the NBA’s improving Sixers -- is giving what could perhaps be perceived as undue optimism. Hextall was asked if the current state of the Flyers gave rise to the possibly of needing to reassess expectations for the team, and the GM didn’t even hesitate with an answer.
“No,” he said without even blinking, “I still believe we’re a playoff team.”
Hextall and his staff have done a fantastic job of assembling maybe the best group of prospects of any NHL franchise, and there are plenty of nice pieces already in place on the current roster with which to build for the future. Perhaps the biggest key is to take what has become something of a Rubik’s Cube, and maneuver all of those parts into the correct placement.
One major success for the coaching staff was the move of Claude Giroux to left wing, and placing Sean Couturier between the captain and Jake Voracek. After that, the remaining forward lines continue to be a frustration of inconsistencies.
Some of that can be attributed to the constant shuffling due to what oftentimes seems like a never-ending run of injuries, but there hasn’t been any consistent support of secondary goal scoring when all have been healthy.
Nolan Patrick has had some impressive outings, with the development of the rookie centerman being interrupted by an ‘upper-body injury’ that cost him three weeks. It’s appears as if Hakstol would really like a second line of Jordan Weal, Patrick and Wayne Simmonds to be a consistent thing, but Weal has unfortunately had ‘upper-body injury’ issues of his own.
Prior to the head injuries, Weal was a perpetual motion machine, a player that shift-in, shift-out, Gene Hart would have referred to as a “whirling dervish.” Weal has been plagued by inconsistent play since returning -- failing to score a goal and recording just one assist in his last 10 games – and was moved around the lineup before becoming a healthy scratch for the last two.
Simmonds is another area of concern. After leading the Flyers in goals scored in each of the past four seasons, the “Wayne Train” was in full motion early on this year. He became the first Flyer to ever notch an opening night hat trick, posted five goals in his first five games, and four of his first six goals were game-winning tallies. But the injury bug hit Simmonds, as well, and he went an unheard of stretch of 14 games without scoring a goal, and has just one in his last 17 outings.
With Philly being blanked in five of their first 18 contests, a return to form from their most consistent goal-scoring threat is a must. The list of forwards going through ridiculous, elongated scoring droughts is longer than those who have not; Michael Raffl, Travis Konecny, Scott Laughton, Taylor Leier, Valtteri Filppula, Dale Weise, and Jori Lehtera, all of whom are presently mired in double-digit slumps, or recently snapped one.
If you notice the names of Leier, Laughton and Raffl, until recently, that’s each member of what was the club’s ‘new-and-improved’ the fourth line. They looked good enough to be termed the third line for all of the exhibition season and beginning of the regular season, but were faltering since the calendar flipped to November. Their production was pretty much on par with what Philadelphia was getting last season from a rotating trio that consistently included Chris VandeVelde and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.
Hakstol made a long-overdue move by promoting Raffl to the third line and demoting Weise to the fourth unit, and Leier has been scratched in favor of Lehtera for a couple of games. Weise continues to be a square peg the team keeps trying to fit into a round hole, no matter where he is inserted. The only bit of success he’s had since signing a free agent pact in the summer of 2016 is at the tail end of last season, when he played on a line with the departed Brayden Schenn and Couturier.
Danick Martel -- who scored 14 goals in his first 17 AHL games -- gave a glimpse of some good things in his brief recall from the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. But he was benched by Hakstol for much of the second period against San Jose, and was loaned to the Phantoms Wednesday morning.
With the ever-improving, No.1 defenseman Ivan Provorov as one of several youngsters in the mix, the blue line has been satisfactory. Robert Hägg has been one of the top NHL rookie rear guards in hits and blocked shots, and has been a solid addition. Travis Sanheim has shown glimpses into the steady, two-way threat he seems destined to be, but there have also been the expected growing pains.
The veteran core of Gostisbehere, Andrew MacDonald (recently returned from a leg injury), Radko Gudas (still sitting out the remainder of his 10-game league suspension) and Brandon Manning round out the corps, but as all of the blown two-goal leads would attest, it’s one that can use a big, physical injection of a shutdown guy. Sam Morin seemed to fit the bill, but the organization decided to return him to Lehigh Valley after a recent two-game recall stint.
And that seems to be a trend with the Flyers, the desire to go with veterans in an attempt to break themselves free from this ongoing funk. That means going with experience over talent and offensive creativity, with Lehtera and Weise back in the lineup for Weal and Leier up front for the past two outings.
On the back-end, the decision not to keep Morin up and go with a trio of rookies didn’t appear to be a viable option from late-summer on. Morin had a great training camp and exhibition season, but only began the regular season on the Flyers’ roster when Gostisbehere was injured late in the final preseason contest. He was kept along as an insurance policy for the four games of the season-opening west coast trip, did not see any action, and was assigned to the Phantoms when it became apparent that ‘Ghost’s’ injury wasn’t going to be an issue.
The GM made it clear his defense is young enough, and adding another freshman to the mix might somehow only make things worse.
“When I looked the other night, we had a 20, a 21, two 22, and a 24-year-old defenseman,” Hextall said. “That’s five of our six. That might be the youngest defense I’ve ever seen. And to say right now we need to get younger on defense, not sure that’s a solution. I think we missed ‘AMac’. He’s an older guy, he’s a glue guy, he’s a guy that makes the younger guys feel better. Radko Gudas is the same, the veteran presence. I can’t explain it to you guys, but it makes a huge difference, so just to patch six kids in there and say ‘go get ‘em guys’, you’re looking for a disaster, you’re not helping those kids.”
That may be the case, but it has predominately been a lot of veterans making the crucial, game-altering mistakes at the worst possible times, not the kids. Throw in the fact that Gudas’ every move is likely to be under the NHL microscope due to his well-earned reputation and status as a ‘repeat offender’ by the league, and his physicality -- which is his most-valuable asset to the team -- could very well become a constant liability.
We already saw that earlier in the campaign, when he drilled Ottawa Senator Chris Wideman with a hard but clean check on October 26, only to be given a five-minute charging major and game misconduct. That was not the first time he’d been either banished from a game or sent to the penalty box for a call when he probably shouldn’t have, but after too many reckless, careless, and dangerous infractions where the safety of other skaters has come into question, it’s unlikely he will ever get the benefit of the doubt from any referee. When combined with the club’s inability to kill off penalties, which will be highlighted in an upcoming paragraph, having Gudas in the lineup could become detrimental to anything positive.
MacDonald seems to have come to terms with having to earn $5 million per year, a situation that plagued him as he attempted to live up to the bloated contract during his initial year here. He has become a much more steady presence than many give him credit for, and is fearless in putting himself in harm’s way in order to block opponent’s shots, as evidenced by the injury he suffered in late-October. The team went 3-6-6 during ‘AMac’s’ absence from the lineup, and are 0-1-1 since his return. He has not played badly, as he’s posted an assist, two hits, four blocked shots, and a +1 rating in an average ice time just under 22:00 per contest. It’s doubtful the 31-year-old will ever be cut any slack from fans who refuse to see anything other than his fat pact, which has two more seasons remaining after this year.
What has sometimes been noticeable about the ‘veterans versus youngsters’ argument is the total and utter lack of legs late in games for the older guys. Combined with the fact those vets also possess a much-lesser skill set than their younger counterparts, it becomes a huge problem. It’s almost like binding your own hands and feet during a time you’re desperately trying to create offensive chances at pertinent junctures of the contest.
That issue was on full display during Tuesday’s loss, and the fact that Martel -- who other than Giroux was the lone Flyer to have a great scoring chance in the first period, and was one of the few Flyers who was able to match San Jose’s speed -- was nailed to the bench for almost the entire second period.
Hakstol’s position on goaltending has always to not name a No.1 guy and a backup, but rather go with the tandem approach, and play the netminder who has possessed the hot hand.
Brian Elliott looked awkward in the early games and Michal Neuvirth was nearly invincible, but Philadelphia outscored their opponents in Elliott’s appearances and was shutout in two of Neuvirth’s first three starts. The situation is almost an exact duplication of last season, minus the wins for Steve Mason. He did not play as well early on as he had during the rest of his tenure with the Flyers, but did turn things around in time to keep an undeserving squad in the postseason hunt much longer than what they deserved.
Neuvirth struggled all of last year, and after leading the league in goals-against average and save percentage in the early stages of the current campaign, has been mediocre, at best, since. Granted, Elliott’s excellent play has given him the lion’s share of starts, but both goalkeepers need to have the ability to come in cold and give the chance to win.
“Nobody said this was going to be easy,” Hakstol explained Tuesday. “If you don’t want to be in this spot, that’s a choice. That’s how I react to it. There’s high expectations in this market and we have maybe the best fans in the National Hockey League and they’re full of value for having expectations. As I said, nobody said you won’t go through hard times, nobody said that it’s going to be easy. You better be able to stand up and handle that.”
While fans have called for the coach’s head, the players have taken the blame upon themselves.
“It’s the players,” Gostisbehere said. “We know it’s us. He doesn’t play the game, we do. We know that. Quite frankly, I feel sorry. We’re the ones out there playing the game. We’re the ones out there putting the effort in, and it’s not good enough.”
“They can chant whatever they want,” said Giroux of the fan’s calling to replace the bench boss. “We’re in this together, we’re all in the same boat here. It’s not on him, it’s on everybody.”
Hakstol isn’t the only member of the coaching staff that should be feeling some amount of heat, as the penalty-killing -- which has been near the NHL’s bottom five units for much of the past four seasons -- continues to be an Achilles Heel.
Their 75.3% success rate at snuffing out man advantages currently sees them tied with the Florida Panthers for the 28th spot in the league, with only the Calgary Flames (75%) and Edmonton Oilers (71.4%) being worse. That becomes a huge problem when your skaters continually take undisciplined, sometimes ‘lazy’ or ‘tired’ stick penalties, among other unnecessary violations.
“I thought tonight was a combination of careless sticks and some I call tired penalties,” Hakstol explained Tuesday. “Instead of moving our feet and getting into better position, a couple of them were -- I think one of the ones on the power plays towards the end, ‘Simmer’s’ penalty -- it was an effort penalty, and we end up negating the final, probably 20 seconds of that power play. But, I thought we had some penalties tonight where we were sloppy with our sticks and or a combination of what looked to me like tired penalties.”
“There have been a lot of stick infractions,” Simmonds admitted, “I’ll say myself, I got two tonight. One I kind of had to take, the second, it’s unacceptable on the power play, and I can’t do that.”
Tired or not, it’s something the Flyers have to rectify.
“We’ve got to play a little bit smarter there,” said Hextall. “I think in the last eight games, we’ve given up seven more penalties then we’ve taken. It doesn’t sound like much, but two minutes a game is quite a bit. Especially the way our special teams haven’t exactly been right in the last eight games. That’s a big difference. Those are the types of things we’ve got to clean up.”
The responsibilities of the PK unit lay on the shoulders of Ian Laperriere, the beloved ‘Lappy’, who is adored by Philadelphia supporters for the fearless and gritty style in which he played during his short tenure as a Flyer. No one will ever forget his willingness to throw himself in front of an opponent winding up for a slap shot, or the damage he sustained after taking the full impact of a Jason Pominville blast between the nose and mouth, and the improbability of returning for the third period after being stitched up and having a full shield placed on his helmet. The adoration intensified even more after an almost identical sequence later that year in the first round of the playoffs against the New Jersey Devils, in which he was forced to miss the next two rounds before returning prematurely in the latter stages of the Eastern Conference Final against the Montreal Canadiens.
Bottom line, along with the collective discipline of the Philly skaters, the penalty-killing unit has got to improve. And that’s just the start, one aspect of the many that have maligned the Flyers, not only during their nine-game winless skid, but on and off during the entire campaign.
During any negative stretch of this type, players find themselves gripping their sticks tighter than usual, and seem to play afraid of making a mistake rather than confident that their next move could make a big, positive impact on the game.
Still, the GM sees a lot of good in how the club has reacted to such adversity.
“It’s not easy,” Hextall said. “You’ve been in a locker room when you’ve lost seven, eight, nine games in a row, and it’s ugly, right? But this group, I give them credit. They’ve stuck together, they’ve battled through it. If we weren’t battling right now, we’d have a problem.”
When asked if there were moves forthcoming to shake things up in an attempt to end the losing streak, Hextall said he was looking at nothing other than what is his norm.
“I try to make this team better every day if there’s something that can be done,” he said. “That doesn’t change throughout the year.”
It remains to be seen which way works better; the eruption of an iconic figure to call to an end of what has become completely unacceptable, or the public patience preached by a GM who has to be churning on the inside.
Remember, with all the good that Snider’s outbursts brought about through the decades, the one regarding an organizational embarrassment regarding the ongoing goaltending issues turned the temperature up and caused a reactionary chain of events which resulted in signing Ilya Bryzgalov, and the eventual trade of Bobrovsky, who would have been a franchise treasure by this point.
It’s Year Three of Hextall’s patient approach, and there have been some expected and unexpected bumps in the road travelled. They will not just magically disappear, and anyone who thinks otherwise is not dealing in reality.
The organization has done well to rebuild the foundation of this franchise -- and have stockpiled a plethora of integral pieces that have them on the precipice of something special -- while refusing to use the word ‘rebuild’ to describe the process. And any structure that is built for the long haul takes valuable time until it comes to fruition.
The key will be the growth experienced by a young roster as a result and the progression of the squad, as well as the individual parts, along the way. If things go from bad to worse, even a patient Hextall may be forced to pull the trigger on a personnel move or two, or even restructure the coaching staff. Or maybe both. With all of their flaws, no one can really pinpoint a single area that can make an instant, impacting change for the better. But the organization seems to be under the impression that if they remain a close, tight-knit group, it will only take one thing to turn things around.
That is to go out and get the elusive victory that will snap this long, frustrating losing skein, something they're hoping they can do on home ice against the Boston Bruins.
“We need to be better at some critical moments,” said Hextall, “but part of it is we need to continue to do what we’re doing. We’re doing a lot of good things. Again, [Tuesday against the Sharks] I don’t think was our best game. We’re feeling some fatigue, probably a little bit of frustration. We’ve got to stick with it. We’ve got to stick together. We’ve got to win Saturday. That’s our focus right now. We’ve got to win Saturday.”