So the Flyers are in a bad way, 4-7-0 this season, giving up goals by the truckload and failing to score enough themselves, and whenever the Flyers are in a bad way, the same speculation and assertions always arise: Something should be done, and something will be done.
The first suggested solution is practically a reflex by now: Fire the coach. In this case, fire Dave Hakstol. If you doubt the existence and strength of that sentiment, you must have missed the "FIRE HAKSTOL" chants Saturday afternoon at the Wells Fargo Center, during the Flyers' humiliating 6-1 loss to the Islanders. From there, the focus usually shifts to the players. And general manager Ron Hextall did tweak the roster this weekend, putting Corbin Knight on injured reserve, sending Mikhail Vorobyev down to the American Hockey League, and calling up Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Tyrell Goulbourne.
Replacing two rookies with two different rookies wouldn't qualify as the major changes that the Flyers once might have made in such situations. But then, the Flyers have rarely, if ever, adopted and maintained the approach that they have with Hextall and Hakstol. Under Ed Snider's ownership, the Flyers could always be counted on to act quickly and decisively to "fix" any problems. And if those remedies didn't work – and a 43-year championship drought suggests they didn't always – well, at least the Flyers were "trying." So for the sake of argument and tradition, let's apply the same principles and solutions to this Flyers team that the franchise's fans and followers have come to expect.
First, let's say the Flyers fire Hakstol. Is it reasonable to think that this team, as it's constructed now, will improve so dramatically with a new coach that it will become a Stanley Cup contender? Since 2013, when Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds became the team's top three forwards and leadership core, the Flyers have alternated between missing and making the playoffs and have yet to win a postseason series. Over that time, they have had three head coaches: Peter Laviolette, Craig Berube, and Hakstol.
If anything, that recent history suggests that the coach hasn't been and isn't the primary problem. If the Flyers were to fire Hakstol, they would do so on a dubious assumption: that a team with the worst goaltending situation in the NHL, a group of generally green (yet talented) defensemen, and – in James van Riemsdyk – a top-six forward who has been injured since the season's second game will morph into something other than what it has been for six years: a middling, mediocre club.
Ah, comes the likely counterargument, but the younger players, those whom Hakstol has been charged with developing, might actually develop at a faster rate. Perhaps they would. It's possible. But there are a couple of counterpoints to consider.
One, the notion that Shayne Gostisbehere, Sean Couturier, Travis Konecny, and Ivan Provorov have not improved under Hakstol is false. It just is. Gostisbehere was fourth among all NHL defensemen in scoring last season. Couturier set career highs in goals, assists, and points. Konecny went from 11 goals in his rookie season to 24 in his second. Provorov has been the team's best all-around defenseman for two years. None of them is playing well through 11 games this season, but that's hardly a large enough sample size to conclude that their maturation will stagnate forever unless Hakstol is replaced.
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Two, the notion that Hextall and Hakstol have been at this grow-from-within thing for too long already is, to put it mildly, ridiculous. From 2004 through 2012, the Flyers were spectacularly awful at finding and developing young talent. Over those nine drafts, they selected just three prospects who could reasonably be called impact players for them: Giroux, Couturier, and Gostisbehere. The list of misses and mistakes is long and diverse. Van Riemsdyk was traded for Luke Schenn. Steve Downie was a first-round selection. The three picks from the 2008, 2009, and 2010 drafts who played the most games for the Flyers were Zac Rinaldo, Eric Wellwood, and Tye McGinn.
This is Hextall's fifth season as GM and Hakstol's fourth as coach. They have miles to go yet in replenishing a farm system that was all but barren for nearly a decade. Despite those playoff appearances in 2016 and 2018, the Flyers have been rebuilding, and they still are rebuilding, and the irony of those two postseason berths is that they might actually have been a detriment, because they created a false sense of just how far along the organization was in a necessary, difficult process.
Fine, then make a big trade. Perhaps it's time to break up the Giroux-Voracek-Simmonds core. Good luck. Giroux is signed through the 2021-22 season, with an average annual salary-cap hit of $8.275 million, and has a no-movement clause in his contract. Voracek is signed through the 2023-24 season, with an annual cap hit of $8.25 million. He doesn't have a no-movement clause, but at that price, for that duration, he might as well have one.
If you want to argue that Paul Holmgren and Hextall erred in signing both players to such long, costly contracts – or that Hextall should have found a better short-term solution at goaltender – you'll get no disagreement here. But what's done is done. As for Simmonds, because his contract expires after this season and his $3.975 million cap number is so reasonable, the Flyers might yet be able to trade him at the Feb. 25 deadline, provided the demand for him increases. The only way to know that is to wait, which, painful as it might be, is the best and only option for the Flyers right now.
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