Alain Vigneault hasn’t been able to “put a finger” on the Philadelphia Flyers issues. Here, we put five on the Flyers’ concerns lately.
This Philadelphia Flyers’ season is taking on frustration akin to the Philadelphia Eagles.
“If I could put a finger on it, I’d have it fixed already.”Alain Vigneault; 3/21/2021
It isn’t one thing. It is a conglomerate of things surrounding a specific area of hockey. For the Flyers, anyone can spot the defensive deconstruction. The only team struggling more than Philadelphia are the Ottawa Senators. They’re ranked 30th in the NHL.
You would have to go back to February to find the last time the Flyers won consecutive games. The team who has the recent dishonor of losing back-to-back to Philadelphia are the Buffalo Sabres. They’re the only team worse than the Senators in the NHL.
Following the 6-1 loss to the New York Islanders, Alain Vigneault uttered the above quote. At first, his words presented a similar feeling Doug Pederson did during his press conferences. The difference is, Pederson tried to instill a sense of righting the ship instead of a sense of mystery. Pederson said this following a 17-37 loss to the Dallas Cowboys:
“This is not what we expected. I know we can turn it around and get it fixed.”Doug Pederson; 12/28/2020
Both franchises, though different sports, struggled following a playoff berth. Now, the Flyers front office needs to get on the same page, unlike the Eagles, to fix their identity.
Striking Out After Niskanen
Retirement is a part of professional sports. Successful franchises make intelligent decisions after a pivotal player rides off to the sunset. Unfortunately, Chuck Fletcher botched free-agency after Matt Niskanen hung up the skates. Niskanen was the balance to Ivan Provorov on the first pair. Nothing is more evident than that in 2020-2021.
Instead of signing a defenseman with a balanced style, Fletcher spent $3mil on Erik Gustafsson. Before the 6-1 loss to the Islanders, there was statistical evidence to show that Gustafsson had been trending above Shayne Gostisbehere. Upon signing Gustafsson, Gostisbehere had been the better defenseman in a career comparison. When signing a defenseman to fill the responsibility Niskanen left behind, the aim shouldn’t be paying another who replicates the skillset of a player who was on the trade block a season ago.
There were better options available nearly a week after Philadelphia agreed to a one-year, $3mil deal with Gustafsson. Consider Dmitry Kulikov, who signed a one-year, $1.15mil deal with the New Jersey Devils.
A Lack of Defensive Identity
At the mention of Kulikov, I could imagine many clamoring on about how he doesn’t present a blue-line scoring threat. Perhaps that is what the Flyers don’t need. The current defensive unit in Philadelphia is full of offensive-minded skaters who cannot jam the slot.
Vigneault wants a physical presence, and it isn’t coming from Gostisbehere, Gustafsson, Provorov, and Travis Sanheim.
Against the Washington Capitals, stretch passing ate any Flyers goaltender alive. Defensively, a soft coverage cannot allow Alexander Ovechkin to sit in the low slot. It happens every time Philadelphia takes on the Capitals. Rinse and repeat for the rest of the Mass Mutual Eastern Division.
Remember the much-anticipated date at Lake Tahoe? The first line forwards from the Boston Bruins made the Flyers lunch, then ate it. Sure, some of that is on the health of the roster due to COVID protocol. Since then, not much has changed. With a healthy lineup, Philadelphia surrendered nine goals to the New York Rangers.
Defensemen need to come equipped with a defense-first mindset. Goaltenders wouldn’t be without confidence if the priority changed to “staying home” to anticipate a rush in transition.
That timestamp represents the least amount of time Provorov has spent on the ice during a hockey game in 2020-2021. For a point of reference, that’s during the 3-7 loss to the Bruins at Lake Tahoe. During that game, Provorov played the longest of any Flyers skater. It’s even longer than Brian Elliott, who replaced Carter Hart after two periods. Including Provorov in every scenario doesn’t help, especially when Philadelphia lacks the defensive depth to keep fresh.
On average, Provorov is on the ice for 25:08 per game. That timeframe depends on the number of times the Flyers are on special teams and the general gameplan of line changes for defensive pair matchups during even-strength. The powerplay and penalty kill units split time evenly. Putting Provorov on the first or second unit doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll see a decrease in minutes.
What makes sense is keeping Provorov on the first line and the powerplay. Those areas accentuate his skillset.
While in the market for a defenseman, especially before the trade deadline and after the NHL Expansion Draft, Philadelphia needs to capture a defensive defenseman. One who can throw his body, block pucks, and eat minutes on the penalty kill. Relieving Provorov with a suitable replacement would help alleviate a twenty-sixth best penalty kill.
No Gimmicks Needed
In training camp, it was interesting that Samuel Morin made a position change to left-wing. Wanting to replicate Matt Martin made sense after the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs. Morin could represent a physical presence on the bottom-six in short shifts. Knowing what we know now, “interesting” is trivial.
Morin is what the Flyers need. If any experiment should happen, it’s a defensive defenseman playing defense on a unit without an affinity for physicality.
Yet, the Morin experiment was short-lived, and Mark Friedman became another duel forward-defenseman that didn’t work. The cost of that error was losing Friedman to the Pittsburgh Penguins on waivers. Pardon me, but the taxi squad is for carrying players who otherwise fill in their natural roles. Lately, demoting Nate Prosser from the NHL roster to the taxi squad doesn’t seem like a risk, especially when he is closer to a 35+ contract. Give Morin his opportunity, as it is warranted.
Should the Flyers Buy or Sell?
Currently, Philadelphia is three points behind Boston. As bad as the Flyers have had it this month, they are down but not out of playoff contention.
Nashville Predators brass has been present at Lehigh Valley Phantoms games. Mattias Ekholm is a name running rampant around the rumor mill in connection to Philadelphia. Many concerns become addressed if the Flyers add the first-pair defenseman. Provorov is a complimentary piece and needs his Batman. If this trade takes place, Fletcher adds longevity to Philadelphia’s defense.
The Flyers could be in a forward selling position. Defensemen are a tough sell by Philadelphia. Expect forwards (James van Riemsdyk or Jakub Voracek) packaged in the system with prospects and draft picks, which always hold value. Clearing cap space to replenish the defense is a priority Vigneault and Fletcher can put their finger on.
Photo Credit: Alex McIntyre