Do Flyers need shootout specialist?

Blues right wing T.J. Oshie. (Alex Gallardo/AP)

ST. LOUIS -- Try as the NHL’s general managers may to diminish it, the shootout isn’t going anywhere.

That isn’t great news for the Flyers, who dropped their second straight game in a shootout - be it against two of the league’s best teams.

Within minutes of the final horn sounding in overtime, the social media commentary from fans began pouring in about the Flyers’ shootout woes. Most were chalking up the loss before overtime even ended. 

And, well, it’s hard to blame the fan frustration.

The statistics are extraordinary. The Flyers are far and away the NHL’s worst shootout team (27-50) since it was instituted in 2005. They also have the worst save percentage (.571) in the shootout by a wide margin (29th ranked team, Toronto, is .607).

The Flyers are now 3-7-0 in shootouts this season, leaving 7 points in the standings on the table.

Craig Berube only has two players - Claude Giroux (43.6 percent), Matt Read (40 percent) - with career numbers who are above the league average of 32.6 percent.

Ray Emery, now 0-2 in shootouts in the season, has allowed 5 goals on 7 shots.

So, what can the Flyers do to win more shootouts?

The common refrain from coaches is to practice it more. With practice time being such a valuable commodity, especially during a condensed schedule, coaches often have a hard time squeezing it in with so much work focused on special teams.

We’ve heard that before.

Watching T.J. Oshie do his thing against Emery, the same way he repeatedly victimized Russia in Sochi for the United States, was a poignant reminder of what a powerful weapon a successful shooter can be. Of course, Oshie is so much more than just that for St. Louis.

Oshie, 27, is now 9-for-12 on the season. He is the NHL’s all-time leader in shooting percentage (56.2) and he’s already closing in on the record for game-deciding goals.

All of that which begs the question: are we reaching a time in the NHL where shootout specialists will have a role on the roster?

Football teams have long-snappers. Basketball teams have three-point snipers. Baseball teams have pinch-hitting gurus.

With such a premium being placed on points in the NHL, it’s a modern miracle we haven’t seen it happen already - considering some teams are still paying big money for an enforcer who might not play more than 4 minutes a night or 40 games a season.

I never would have thought that to be a possibility until speaking with Ken Hitchcock before Tuesday’s game against the Blues. Mind you, it wasn’t about the shootout, but rather about the role of a fourth line.

Hitchcock, the proud owner of a gold medal from Sochi as an assistant coach for Team Canada, said he used to believe it was important to roll four lines in a game to get everyone acclimated.

No more.

“Between all of the penalties, special teams and stoppages, I’m starting to change the way I’m thinking about that,” Hitchcock said. “We’re beginning to get back to the way we were maybe 20 or 30 years ago, when fourth line guys had a role and were specialists.”

So, if one of the brightest minds in hockey believes that a fourth line may be expendable in some ways, why not experiment? Find a player who isn’t a total liability when he’s on the ice and ride the heck out of him in the shootout.

He’s a total hypothetical, but a player like Brad Boyes would fit the bill. He can contribute on a couple different lines. He’d only earned $1 million in each of the last two seasons. And he is the NHL’s all-time leader in goals scored (37) in the shootout, operating at 46.2 percent.

Approximately 14.2 percent of all 1,230 games this season have gone to a shootout - just a few ticks off the record of 14.96 percent. They aren’t going anywhere.

Even if a supposed shootout specialist were to make up only half of the points lost by the Flyers this season - say 4 points through Tuesday’s game - he would be well worth that million and roster spot. He won’t be able to stop pucks at the other end, but he could be the difference between home-ice and/or missing the playoffs entirely.

Couple other quick hits from Scottrade Center:

> The Flyers and Blues previously played to a scoreless tie through regulation. The date: Oct. 26, 1969. The goalies? Jacques Plante vs. Bernie Parent. Not a bad matchup.

> Hal Gill’s mentoring role with Erik Gustafsson was the subject of today’s notebook in the paper. Gill, who is probably in better shape than most players in Berube’s lineup, said he’s tried to focus on not looking past this season.

He was dripping sweat yesterday after going through skating exercises on his own with assistant coach Ian Laperriere, long after scratches Steve Downie and Jay Rosehill had retreated to the locker room. That’s a pretty impressive drive for a 38-year-old with a Stanley Cup ring who is far down on the Flyers’ depth chart.

Since he’s gotten a taste of the mentoring role, learning the ins-and-outs of team makeup, is coaching in his future?

“I won’t lie to you and tell you I’m not thinking about it,” Gill said. “Right now, my big focus has to been ready in case I do play. I just keep a positive attitude. I enjoy the game, I enjoy being around the game. I come to the rink and practice hard and wait my turn.”

Gill is a smart guy. Amazingly, even after a 1,106-game career, he’s trying to glean everything he can from watching his teammates play. He still wants to be better.

“I’m watching the game, trying to get better,” Gill said. “It’s nice to be able to watch a guy like Kimmo play and see how he handles himself. I’ve learned from him, I’ve learned from ‘Coby’ and ‘Grossy’ and try to become a better player. I’ll worry about the rest of that (my career) after the fact.”

After this one last run with the Flyers, it’s hard to imagine Gill straying too far from the rink. Told he has the best job in the world - earning $700,000 a year to play 4 games, skate every day and be a part of a team - he couldn’t deny that.

“It’s not a bad gig,” Gill said. “I think anyone in my position, though, would want to be in the lineup. I have a great job. I’m not complaining about it.”

> One possible injury to watch: Defenseman Andrew MacDonald really seemed to be favoring his right ankle post-game, after blocking a shot against the Blues. He was walking pretty gingerly.

The Flyers have a complete day off on Wednesday, so he’ll have time to heal up a bit.

> Quotable. One positive of the Flyers’ brutal schedule over the final month of the season was that they’ve learned to play a versatile style to match some of the big guns in the NHL, says MacDonald:

“We competed. I thought we did a good job of getting in there on the forecheck. It was a really grind-type game from both sides. That’s the type of style (the Blues) play, we need to learn how to play in those type of games. I think it’s good for us to know that we can go out and perform in those type of situations.”

For the latest updates, follow Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @DNFlyers