BUFFALO -- One of the keys for the Flyers to turn around their lackluster season is whether a 68-year-old assistant coach who was coaxed out of retirement can straighten out Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere, defensemen whose ultra-promising careers have taken a strange twist.
Rick Wilson, hockey lifer, is the assistant who was hired Tuesday to reboot the defense – especially Provorov and Gostisbehere, stars last season whose decline in the first two months this year has been startling.
Wilson has a more open, fun-loving style than his intense predecessor, Gord Murphy, and should be a better communicator and teacher. The fact he has more than 30 years of NHL coaching experience, mostly as an assistant, makes him even more valuable.
If Wilson can get Provorov and Gostisbehere back to last year’s form, and if he can get young defensemen Travis Sanheim and Robert Hagg to keep improving, well, this won’t be a lost season, after all.
Provorov has been erratic with his puck handling and decision making. He said stalled contract negotiations with the team have not had any effect on his play, but club president Paul Holmgren has his doubts. “You’d have to be Superman for it not to have some effect,” Holmgren said.
As for Gostisbehere, he entered the weekend with a minus-14 rating, second-worst in the NHL. He was also on pace for only 38 points -- 27 fewer than last season.
“I don’t feel like I’m playing the worst hockey; just getting some tough bounces right now,” said Gostisbehere, who made great defensive strides last season but has struggled in his own end most of this year. “I think if I just worry about the 'D' that the offense will take care of itself.”
Having a new set of eyes, belonging to Wilson, can be beneficial, Gostisbehere said.
“A fresh start definitely helps,” he said. “I mean, a guy who is easier to talk to, easy to mesh with.”
“He’s going to have a different point of view,” said rugged defenseman Radko Gudas, referring to Wilson.
In the first two months of the season, the Flyers have had on-ice communication problems with their defense. That and inconsistent goaltending have contributed to their awful 3.54 goals-against average, 29th in the NHL.
“We’re still a young team to have the confidence to call some of the plays,” Gudas said. “…. Communication is a huge part of every successful team; there’s always time to work on it and there’s always room to improve on that.”
Defense was supposed to be the Flyers’ calling card, their identity, in ex-general manger Ron Hextall’s master plan.
Following a pattern set by his GM predecessor, Holmgren, Hextall went heavy on defensemen in his drafts.
Holmgren pulled a proverbial rabbit out of a hat when he selected a skinny kid who could skate like the wind in the third round of the 2012 draft. That selection -- Gostisbehere – turned out to be a stroke of genius, even though the 25-year-old defenseman has taken a step back this season.
In the next year’s draft, Holmgren took four defensemen among his six 2013 picks, topped by Samuel Morin – a first-rounder whose size and physicality made him an intriguing choice – and second-rounder Hagg.
Hextall took over in 2014, and the pattern continued. He drafted three defensemen out of his six picks, headed by Sanheim at No. 1.
Clearly, the Flyers were building from the back end to the front, and they added another great defensive prospect when they signed Phil Myers as an undrafted free agent in 2015. Some prominent scouts believe that if the 6-foot-5, 209-pound Myers was in the 2016 draft, he would have been a first-rounder.
Provorov. Morin. Myers. Sanheim. Hagg. Gostisbehere.
The Flyers defense would be set for the next decade.
Mix in some veterans to help the youngsters’ development, and the Flyers had a sound plan, one that has been slowed because of injuries to Morin, the growing pains of Sanheim, Hagg, and Myers (who has been inconsistent with the Phantoms), and the decline of Provorov and Gostisbehere.
Ryan Suter, Derian Hatcher, Alex Pietrangelo, Sergei Zubov, John Klingberg, Matt Niskanen, and Jared Spurgeon are just some of the defensemen whose level of play rose considerably from working with Wilson.
The hope is that Wilson, who was first contacted for the job by coach Dave Hakstol, will stabilize this defensive unit, and that the Flyers defense will still be their identity in the coming years.
“I think he’ll have a great effect on our entire group,” said Hakstol, who has known Wilson for years.
“He’s been around a long time," Holmgren said. “He’s sort of legendary in the NHL in what he brings to the table and what he does for a defense. It’s a huge coup for Dave Hakstol to talk him into coming."