Flyers' Search for the Right Guys Need Not Extend to the Coach
With Joel Quenneville having opted for the sun and the comfort level of working with Dale Tallon again, the Flyers do not require a different coach than Scott Gordon. They do not need to break up a nucleus still playing at a high level just on some misguided notion that seven years without a playoff series victory is the fault of the stars. In reality, the highest-priced Flyers have been all that has kept a thin club competitive. It’s the rest of the team that hasn’t been good enough.
That’s still the case, even though there is no comparison in the promise of the supporting cast now to what it was when this drought began. It’s hard to find a talent evaluator for one of the 30 other teams who doesn’t believe Philadelphia could be on the verge of something really good as long as it now makes the right moves with all the hard-earned assets accrued during seven years of restraint.
That era of patience ended with the dismissal of Ron Hextall for reasons unrelated to talent acquisition. But the mandate to win now has been made ever more clear by this year’s failure to make the playoffs by a whopping 16 points, whatever the circumstances that caused two extremely different halves. Chuck Fletcher needs to have a good summer. And it is scapegoating at its Twitter worst to define the GM’s task by what he needs to dump instead of what he must add.
Quenneville has the rings and street cred with the fans and probably the players too. But he’s not the only guy out there who has proven he can coach, including the one in place who got a big-time response from underachieving Flyers after he took over in December. The team went 18-4-2 before exhaustion and, to a point, reality set in. They didn’t have enough time to dig all the way out. And not enough team.
As Fletcher acknowledged Monday, the Flyers improved defensively under Gordon for more reasons than Carter Hart, even if there obviously still is a ways to go, even though they let go of the rope as elimination became inevitable. For two years the Flyers have been a playoff-caliber team for stretches they have had stable goaltending, but that said, 29th on defense in the league demands the GM’s due diligence via a talk with Dave Tippett, who produced top defensive teams in Dallas and Phoenix, albeit with clubs less talented than the Flyer and built differently.
But Tippett is not going to do a better job than already has Gordon, with 51 games with a finger already on the pulse of this team. When he spoke Monday at length about the primary way to improve defensively actually being smarter and more persistent on offense, it rang truer that just blaming bad decisions in your own end of the ice. The Flyers were too much of a rush scoring team and, after they got going, still too reliant on the power play. Even at their best, five-on-five they didn’t play long enough in opposition ends.
“Our forwards have to get better at not just our entries and turnovers but how we play in the offensive zone,” said the coach-we-hope. “Not from a scoring goals standpoint, not necessarily a shot standpoint; it’s a willingness to work in the offensive zone under desperation like you would work in the defensive zone under desperation to keep the puck out of your net.
“When you’re in the offensive zone there’s almost a mindset that nothing bad is going to happen; that you can take the foot off the pedal, you can find shortcuts.
“I don’t know how many point shots St. Louis had against us (in a 7-3 debacle the final week) but I do know how many times they took pucks off the wall from behind the net and went to the net and tried to score or get into position at the net front. That is something we don’t do a lot of, and those are habits.”
That’s also having guys with different skills and higher hockey IQs than some of these Flyers, making that a priority moving forward, why it won’t work just to just give these kids more time to grow. As Gordon pointed out, the Lightning gave up 32 shots per game this season while going 62-16-4. Besides, the Flyers have too much offensive talent to play the trap or to blame the problem on Jake Voracek’s risks against his still-considerable rewards.
The mission Mr. Fletcher, now that you have chosen to accept it, is to bring in some smart and experienced guys who will make Jake better, slot Nolan Patrick more appropriately to his experience level and put every member of the team into an improved position to succeed.
The first step in that – cue the Hallelujah Chorus – was Carter Hart but he was forced to win too many games in which the Flyers were outshot. Gordon knows better than anyone as to what this team has, in addition to what it still needs.
1) A veteran first-or-second-pair defenseman, preferably to play with Ivan Provorov for 25-to 28-minutes a night, the most important of those being the final five with a one or two-goal lead, unless it’s the first ten minutes before the Flyers go down 2-0 again. Maddening.
2) A second-line center who can enable a coach, whoever he is, to play Nolan Patrick against third-line opponents while he matures, which apparently the kid needs to do a great deal of if he’s barking back at his coach after being corrected on the bench. Arguments will happen and most are forgotten. But that was not a good scene.
Now that the awaited cache of young defensemen has arrived there are more forward prospects coming–Morgan Frost, Joel Farabee, Wade Allison, Isaac Ratcliffe, Tanner Laczynski, German Rubtsov–none of whom are going to be ready for the big team next year, all the more reason why the development stage is over for this franchise and the winning must begin in October, not in December again. To do that, the Flyers need a couple of established winners who will lessen the burdens of the stars.
The continuing first-period deficits have been irritating and confounding, but like all a club’s faults, not entirely a reflection on leadership or coaching or attitude or even preparation. Actually, it’s depth. When your third and fourth lines can play, you won’t fall behind as often. Not only were the Flyers a mediocre 18th in scoring but a further weakness was the weak side on almost every line two coaches tried. For failures to read the play, too many two-on-ones came the other way.
This isn’t necessarily a character issue, or even mostly an experience matter, although in some cases that will help. It’s more an intelligence factor. The team requires some glue to put together some disparate parts and has the prospects, or young players or cap room to get it.
Fletcher acknowledged the 2019 free agent class is not particularly deep and exciting but that’s okay, thanks to Hextall, Fletcher has things to trade to get what he needs, the bigger question being whom he can most afford to take a chance on giving up.
Shayne Gostisbehere has been frustrating, including to himself, but beware of moving this kind of talent to make room for the defensive type needed to steady things down. Even if Fletcher is able to find a taker of Andrew MacDonald’s final year on his contract or chooses to buy him out, the Flyers still will have too many young defensemen for six slots.
This is a good problem to have as long as you make the right choice as to who goes. Fletcher said Monday he was willing to take that risk but also cited the 200-game threshold for fairly evaluating a young defenseman. All true, as even a guy who had virtually bulletproof freshman and sophomore years, Ivan Provorov, took a dip this season. How much to pay him now that his entry-level deal is up is a good question among many, but you can assume he and Travis Sanheim are untouchable and everyone else in play to get the right guy.
But it has to be the right guy. Hextall, accused of inertia even though he successfully added James van Riemsdyk last summer, was acutely aware of the need for a steadying veteran defenseman who can handle big minutes and pursued a deal for Calgary’s Travis Hamonic last summer. When that couldn’t happen, the GM didn’t just go to the next guy on the list because such a list is short.
Among the choices this might be defenseman Jacob Trouba, a restricted free agent on the cap-strapped Jets. Up front, the Flyers have some interest in the Blue Jackets’ Alexander Wennberg, who is signed for a $4.9 million cap hit through 2020-21, very attractive indeed, as would be the Islanders’ Brock Nelson, who will be unrestricted on July 1.
Center is the priority, but barring a sudden turnaround by Wayne Simmonds in a long run by the Predators, he’s not likely to get the long deal anywhere the Flyers wouldn’t give him before the deadline trade. Understanding he was coming off the same operation it took Claude Giroux a full year to overcome, No. 17 would be a good, even important, fit, on a shorter-term deal with the Flyers. Wherever he winds up, Simmonds will play better next season.
So will the Flyers, who are a lot closer than the standings would indicate, pending not just two good men but two good fits. If this team flops badly next year, then it will become wise to rip it up. But with stable goaltending, it has played too well down the stretch of the last two seasons to still not believe in its future.