Old Problems Persist in Flyers’ loss to Devils

The more things change, the more things seem to stay the same with this Flyers team. A new coach, a new GM, a new philosophy, and some new players still have not been enough to cure the Flyers of their bad habits that have been plaguing them since the end of the Laviolette era.

Once again, as has become the routine, the Flyers started the game behind the 8-ball. Since 2011, the Flyers have matched up against the Devils like oil mixing with water. The Flyers, still, have no answer to the aggressive forechecking style of the Devils. As has become the case with any team that has some marginal amount of team speed, the Flyers take time to adjust to their pace of play. The Devils speed and aggressive pursuit of the puck led to another shaky and panicky performance from the Flyers. It was almost too easy for the Devils to create turnovers because the Flyers were out there playing hot potato with the puck instead of playing hockey.

In the case of this game, the Devils sent a 2 man puck side attack on the forecheck. The Flyers were constantly outnumbered and overwhelmed at their own blue line. The Devils took advantage of the Flyers’ wide open, east-west style break out and choked it at the source. With no safety release valve available for the Flyers’ puck carrier to dump the puck off to coming out of the zone, whoever is carrying the puck is forced to eat it and wait for help. Meanwhile the 2 Devils attacking the lone puck carrier, unsurprisingly won almost all of those encounters and came out with the puck ready to set up in the zone while the Flyers would be scrambling to get back into the zone.

It doesn’t take Scotty Bowman to tell you that teams that fail to take care of the puck, generally do not find much success. The Flyers right now are not taking care of the puck. Night in and night out they cough the puck up at their own blue line, they fail to clear their zone, they get too cute in the neutral zone and surrender possession, they panic and fumble the puck if it doesn’t hit their tape perfectly in stride. The worst part is that this problem is not just plaguing lower line players, it isn’t plaguing rookie Scott Laughton nor first year NHLer Evegeny Medvedev. The worst offenders of all have been our skill players. Giroux, Voracek, Read, Gagner, have all been careless with the puck in transition. Too many times the puck is surrendered on mental mistakes; blind passes, low percentage passes, passes to covered players, too much stickhandling around the blue lines. The Flyers are making simple fundamental mistakes with the puck and it is costing them.

These mistakes are not just occurring a few times throughout the game either, they are starting from the first shift and persisting until the game ends. Two games in a row now (both against teams who finished below the Flyers last season) the Flyers have gifted the opposition early opportunities by turning the puck over at their own blue line to start the game. The Flyers are just simply making too many early mistakes to get any rhythm going  at the start of games.

Puck possession is not the only issue affecting this team right now. Putting it bluntly, the special teams play has been a disaster on both ends of the ice. The penalty kill is unorganized, undisciplined, and out of position. And when I say they are undisciplined, I don’t mean they constantly take more penalties when short handed. What I mean is, they aren’t disciplined in their positioning. They constantly chase the puck. The Flyers seem more concerned with chasing a puck to the corner than they do about keeping the puck to the outside and making sure nobody is receiving a free open look. Some will blame coaching, others will blame Sean Couturier being injured, but what I see is the lack of a leader on the PK.

There is a huge lack of a general on the ice. A guy who can organize the troops, a guy who can be leaned on to calm everyone down and shoulder the load. This team’s PK has not been the same since Kimmo Timonen left the lineup. In his final season with the orange and black, the Flyers PK was among the league’s top 10. Since last season the Flyers have been languishing in the bottom 10 of the league in the penalty kill category. While it may sound like I am just trying to beat the dead horse by blaming the Flyers’ defense, in this case I think it is pretty hard to deny that the lack of a true veteran #1 defenseman has murdered the Flyers PK. With no major roster upheaval, especially among the regular penalty killers on this team, EXCEPT for the loss of Timonen, in the last 2 years, what other explanation is there for the sputtering penalty kill?

The powerplay is another story. Again, the first unit is generating opportunities. The issue is that their opportunities are only being generated one way at the moment. Very few chances are coming from down low around the goal mouth or in the slot. The Flyers PP has been living and dying by the success of their perimeter play. Every chance they generate comes on a cross ice pass from circle to circle or from playing catch with the point and setting up for the one timer. That may work great and without fail when you have Alex Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos set up for that shot, but Claude Giroux (who has a good one-timer in his own right) just is flat-out not a shooter of that caliber and neither is Jake Voracek. The problem with the Flyers’ PP is that it has become predictable. More teams are setting up in the diamond and keeping Giroux and Voracek within a stick length of their closest defender. Voraceks shots are always being blocked or defended in some way, even the ones that get through. Giroux has had some more success but not much. Teams are figuring out how to stop the Flyers’ powerplay now. They are realizing that if they key in on Giroux and Voracek and take away the one-timer and cross ice pass, then any threat they pose is contained.

The Flyers have had one of the league’s top powerplays for a number of years now. That is going to change in a hurry if they do not adjust and change their style. Their current umbrella has been figured out. I think one way it could be adjusted would be to modify the umbrella. Take the focal point of the powerplay away from the point and move it behind the net. Have your top playmaker, in this case Giroux, set up in Gretzky’s office. Get giroux behind the net with the puck and suddenly that diamond penalty kill is utterly useless. Bringing the puck behind the net also causes boxes and diamonds to sag lower and leave the points exposed which means a player like Voracek, who plays up high on the PP, would be given far more time and space to receive passes and take shots. If anything it is worth a shot just to change things up, if it doesn’t work they can always fall back on their old reliable standard umbrella.

Just a few simple adjustments would go a long way to fixing some issues this team has. Taking time with the puck to make the simple play or the simple pass would eliminate most of their turnovers. Simplifying the game is never a bad thing. Adjusting the breakout to add in player closer to the puck carrier to support him and give him an emergency option coming out of the zone, adjusting the position of the powerplay to throw a curveball at the opposition and create new looks and opportunities. The personnel is there. The talent is there for this Flyers team to be dangerous even if they are not quite among the league’s elite yet. They just need to simplify the game and eliminate some mental errors. If they can clean it up, who knows what could happen. Their saving grace is that it’s still early and they have a solid start to the season to fall back on as opposed to years past. Let’s hope they can right this ship sooner rather than later and give us something to cheer about well into the spring.

Thankfully the boys will get their chance to make amends for the last two games sooner rather than later. They will take on the Buffalo Sabres tonight at First Niagara Center at 7PM. Be sure to catch it on TCN (The Comcast Network).


(photo credit: Steven M. Falk/ Philly.com)