Many Philadelphia Flyers fans believed their problems to be over after the firing of two-year head coach Craig Berube at the end of the previous season. The former Flyer himself held a complicated relationship with the team during his short tenure. After relieving bench boss Peter Laviolette three games into the 2013-14 season, a decision that was criticized due to the short leash that seemed to be unfairly placed upon the coach, Berube stepped in to quite an impossible task. Berube righted the ship for a time, but it collapsed again last season after slow starts, an inability to play better than bad teams, and repeated mismanagement of player personnel.
When Berube was fired, Philadelphia hopefuls thought Flyers owner Ed Snider would go all out to nab one of the big names on the market, namely in former Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock. Instead, the Flyers went the college route and got 11 year North Dakota bench boss Dave Hakstol for the job, the first college coach to jump right to the NHL since 1982. The move had many excited, and for good reason. Hakstol built up a program in North Dakota, taking the team to seven Frozen Four appearances during his time with the university. It was an unorthodox move for sure, but one that brought in new blood to the team, someone with no connections that could give the franchise a fresh start.
One month into his first NHL season, however, there have been some grumblings about growing pains thanks to the Flyers recent struggles. As of November 3, Hakstol’s Flyers are 4-5-2, sixth in the Metropolitan Division and on a four game losing streak facing a week long road trip across Canada. Philadelphia started the season strong with a 4-2-1 record over the first few weeks of the season. Excellent play by backup Michal Neuvirth and increased secondary scoring jolted the team to rank among the top of the Metro, a start that surprised many as other top division hopefuls were still finding their legs.
Now, the roles have reversed and the Flyers have faltered quite significantly, dropping them into the basement of the Metropolitan Division with the Carolina Hurricanes and the Columbus Blue Jackets. Falling back to their expected standard of mediocrity was expected, though it’s not necessarily the fault of the new head coach who has had just one full month at the helm of his team.
Coming into the 2015-16 season, the Flyers were not slated to be a playoff contender. Much of the Metropolitan Division got better, adding strong key pieces and big names, while the Flyers mostly shred dead weight in the forms of some defensemen and Zac Rinaldo. Losing a few of their low-tier defensemen to either trade or to the minors and Rinaldo to the Bruins does make the Flyers better in a sense, that their contracts are putting less stress on the payroll while starting to correct the mistakes of former GM Paul Holmgren.
However, Philadelphia wasn’t one of the many Metro teams to add a potential game changing player to the mix, like Phil Kessel in Pittsburgh or T.J. Oshie in Washington. Essentially, the Flyers are icing the same roster as their last few previous seasons, with only the additions of a stronger backup in Neuvirth and a few different defensemen to replace the ones they lost. It should be no surprise then that the Flyers have faltered back to the norm, settling in where many predicted they’d land in the Metro, average but not good enough for the postseason. It doesn’t help Philadelphia either that injuries to important players such as defensive forward Sean Couturier and fourth line grinder Pierre-Edouard Bellemare have thrown things out of order over the last few weeks.
Outside of the injuries, last season’s leading points scorer Jake Voracek has yet to register a goal, though not for lack of trying. Voracek leads the team with 50 shots on goal and essentially is just fighting off some bad luck, coming in with the third worst PDO on the team with 94.2. Just below Voracek? Teammate Wayne Simmonds with 93.3, who only has one goal and five assists so far through 11 games played. This lack of offensive production has hurt the Flyers, dropping them to 27th in the league with 24 goals scored, an average of a mere two goals per game.
Certainly there’s room to criticize Hakstol after just one month of play. Player personnel moves are under his control now, setting lineups and dictating the daily scratches. The recent decision to scratch Evgeny Medvedev, a defenseman who has played beyond expectations to be one of Philadelphia’s top blueliners, over the last few games has not sat well with fans. It was a perplexing decision to sit Medvedev, who has shown more defensive skill than veteran Nick Schultz and first time NHLer Brandon Manning, both standing out for horrid defensive play in the first handful of games. However, Tuesday evening it was revealed that Medvedev has an upper-body injury sustained sometime earlier in the week. Regardless, the decision to scratch Medvedev instead of revealing the injury is a head-scratcher.
It’s a bit concerning to see Hakstol fall back into the same patterns as Berube so often did during his last season with the club, scratching clearly better players for mediocre ones to send a message. However, Hakstol is just one piece of the Flyers puzzle, and one that has not so far made or broken this team. One potential mistake by the head coach is not the reason for the Flyers woes over the last few weeks. Expecting Hakstol to come in and magically fix the roster with the same players was a pipe dream from the start, so bumps in the road should not come as a surprise when this team is almost essentially the same as last year’s club.
(Stats via hockey-reference.com)