Without being prompted last week, Flyers coach Alain Vigneault again brought up how the Flyers have missed defenseman Matt Niskanen in all situations this season.
Make no mistake, Niskanen was a good player and a very good leader for the Flyers last season, his first and only year with the team.
But by the way the Flyers collapsed after he retired, you might have thought he was Bobby Orr and Victor Hedman rolled into one.
It has been a mystifying season for the Flyers, with goaltender Carter Hart going from ultra-promising to one of the worst goalies in the league, with the special teams being a disaster, with poor starts to games becoming the norm.
The most mystifying part, however, was this: The way so many parts of the Flyers’ game became dreadfully bad without Niskanen, a veteran called “Steady Eddie” by his teammates.
– The Flyers allowed just 2.77 goals per game last season, placing them tied for seventh in the league. This year, they are last in the NHL — 31st — as they have allowed 3.57 goals per game.
– The penalty kill was 11th last season, with a success rate of 81.8%. This year, it is 30th, clicking at 73.2%.
– The power play was 14th (20.8% success rate) last season and is 21st (19.4%) this year.
All of the above contributed greatly to the Flyers (22-22-7) missing the playoffs for the fifth time in nine years. They have a .500 points percentage (19th in NHL), compared to .645 last year (sixth in NHL), when they finished 41-21-7.
And then there’s this eye-opening stat: This year, the Flyers have actually had a higher percentage of scoring chances in their favor – 61% compared to 51.5% last season. That means they (A) haven’t been able to finish their opportunities, and (B) their opponents have cashed in far too often in limited chances.
When you’re indecisive or not sure about yourself when making a play, “it tends to not turn out well,” goalie Brian Elliott said after Saturday’s 4-1 loss to New Jersey, which had lost nine straight before outplaying the Flyers in every game and winning three times in their just-completed four-game series. “I think if we trust our instincts and do it hard … it usually works out. I think we need to be a little more decisive and try not to be in between what you’re thinking out there.”
The Flyers’ problems started in the offseason, when general manager Chuck Fletcher erred by not adding a defensive-minded player — he signed Erik Gustafsson instead — to replace Niskanen. The Flyers’ brass had faith in Phil Myers building off a strong season, and many thought he would be Ivan Provorov’s partner on the top pairing.
Gustafsson flopped and was traded for next to nothing. Myers flopped, too. And Vigneault spent a good part of the season rotating players on the No. 1 defensive unit, trying to find a suitable partner for Provorov.
Again, Niskanen was missed severely, but there seemed to be another underlying problem to the Flyers’ mostly miserable season.
Did the players who contracted COVID-19 have lingering effects after they returned from being sidelined by the virus? Did the constant changes in the lines and pairings prevent them from building chemistry? Did the players tune out Vigneault?
Some of the Flyers are not happy with Vigneault’s public criticism of them, according to a source connected to the players.
But Vigneault was critical of them last year, too, and they responded with much more energy than this group.
Maybe they had more focus last season, more drive, because they were trying to make a favorable impression on a new coach.
No matter how the Flyers spin it, that drive has been missing for a majority of this season, especially at the start of games, when opponents have repeatedly set the tone.
The Flyers have taken slow starts to another level; they have allowed the first goal in 19 of the last 21 games.
“There’s no doubt that everybody is aware we’re chasing the game,” Vigneault said after the Flyers’ latest loss. “We’re talking about it. We’re trying to do the right things. You’ve got to make teams pay for their mistakes, and we’re not doing that right now.”
Falling behind early makes it difficult “physically and mentally,” Vigneault said.
‘A little bit of doubt’
“We’re making mistakes right now that we usually don’t make,” captain Claude Giroux said. “A little bit of doubt in our game, and that’s what happens.”
Vigneault emphatically said the players’ “hearts are in it” this year, but if you have watched the Flyers over the last two months, it’s difficult to agree with him. Too many times they have had little pushback when they fall behind. Too many times they quickly give up a goal shortly after scoring one themselves, negating any momentum they might have built.
And, yes, the Orr-less, uh, Niskanen-less defense has been mostly awful, but Hart and Elliott have consistently deflated the team with bad goals.
The Flyers have five games left – starting Monday against the visiting Penguins – before their season comes to a merciful conclusion. Their two-month collapse has been stunning. They had the East Division’s best points percentage at the start of March, but have won just 11 of 33 games since then (11-18-4).
They are now closer to last place than first place.
Maybe it’s all for the best. The Flyers’ tumble has shown that the pieces just don’t fit. Too many passers, not enough shooters. Too little speed, not enough (any?) game-changing players.
That should entice Fletcher to become much more active in the trade/free-agent markets than he was last year, and it figures to make the offseason much more exciting than a regular season that can’t end fast enough.