Despite going into a league-mandated break with three straight wins, the Flyers are flawed.
In the first half of the season, their penalty kill was awful, and their all-around consistency was worse. They started slowly in too many games, they didn’t get enough scoring from their middle lines, and their energy level varied from night to night.
But all is not doom and gloom.
The Flyers’ five-on-five play was among the league’s best, and they have three of the NHL’s top scorers, including Sean Couturier, who is having a breakout, all-star-worthy season. They have a dangerous power play, and a goalie, Brian Elliott, who has played better than his middle-of-the-road stats suggest.
And after coach Dave Hakstol recently put Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds on three different lines, the 19-15-8 Flyers have been getting more scoring balance.
That should help them stay in the playoff race in the second half.
So should this: Most teams in the Metropolitan Division are also flawed. Big time.
Oh, they’re not as inconsistent as the Flyers — who became the fifth team in NHL history to have a 10-game winless skid immediately followed by a winning streak of at least six games — but most of the other Metro teams have also been up and down.
That’s good news because the Atlantic Division has only three strong teams: Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto. That trio figures to make the playoffs, but the two Eastern Conference wild-card teams should come out of the crowded Metro.
Pittsburgh, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion, is barely in a playoff spot. Columbus has played below expectations and has been erratic. New Jersey, the Metropolitan’s surprise team, has shown signs lately of slipping in the standings. The Rangers, like the Flyers and most teams in the division, have been streaky, losing seven of eight early in the season and later winning six in a row. The Islanders’ defense is the worst in the NHL. Carolina has had a pair of four-game losing skids, and winning streaks of three and four games.
Up. Down. Up. Down.
The Metro is full of mediocrity, and the Flyers fit that description perfectly. They will have a great chance to climb the standings in the second half, and they figure to get better as their young players gain experience.
“We didn’t play the Rangers or Devils yet. We played Columbus once, Washington once, so obviously it’s in our power,” said high-scoring right winger Voracek, whose team is one point out of a playoff spot.
One of the Flyers’ flaws has been their maddening penchant for playing up or down to the level of their competition.
They are 4-1-1 against the top six Eastern Conference teams, including a 5-3 win at best-in-the-NHL Tampa Bay and an 8-2 victory over Metropolitan-leading Washington.
Yet, they have just five victories in 12 games against the rest of the Eastern Conference, including losses to Buffalo and Ottawa, the East’s bottom-feeders. (In addition, they lost to the Western Conference’s Arizona Coyotes, the NHL’s worst team.)
“You don’t even have to be a hockey fan to know we have to be more consistent,” Voracek said.
Voracek said the Flyers need to play with a more physical style, like they showed in their 6-4 win Thursday over the Islanders. They finished off more checks than usual, and three players who normally aren’t involved in fights – Travis Konecny, Couturier, and Scott Laughton – dropped their gloves.
“It reminded me more of the games we played four or five years ago,” Voracek said, referring to a time when the Flyers were tougher to play against. “I think everybody on our team was very physical and strong on the puck [Thursday]. I would like to see more games like that. Obviously, it’s hard to play like that with that kind of edge every single game. There are games where you’re going to be tired, but that’s when you have to step up and find a way to win, especially on home ice. I think we have to play more like that at home.”
Nobody is calling them the Baby Broad Street Bullies, but they are hoping they play with more of an edge in the second half. Which is why scrappy Tyrell Goulbourne was recalled from the Phantoms and made his NHL debut Saturday. (He was sent back to Lehigh Valley after Sunday’s game but might return after the Flyers’ break.)
The Flyers play 34 of their remaining 40 games against the East, so they will have a chance to make up ground.
General manager Ron Hextall made it clear he wants to make the playoffs – and believes his team is good enough to get there – but that he won’t sacrifice the future to add players at the trade deadline.
Hextall, whose farm system is loaded, is not losing sight of his goal: Making the Flyers a legitimate Cup contender down the road.
“You always keep things open because something may come up to make you better,” he said the other night. “Are we going to be a buyer? I don’t plan on trading young players for older players, and I don’t plan on trading draft picks for rentals. We have a long-term plan, and we’re sticking it out.”
Unless the Flyers show more consistency, Hextall is more likely to be a seller than a buyer near the Feb. 26 trade deadline. Simmonds, an elite power forward, has a team-friendly contract ($3.98 million cap hit) through the end of next season but will have a bigger payday after that. If traded, he could bring the Flyers high picks — and more — in what is regarded as an extremely strong draft this June.
Will Simmonds stay or be dealt? Will the Flyers continue their roll and reach the playoffs? Stay tuned. To their credit, they have regrouped and gone 11-4-1 since their 10-game losing streak, making the season’s second-half prospects intriguing.