I am not one to react all that much to things that general managers, coaches and players say during Exit Day media availabilities. I believe that what's done in the offseason that follows to correct issues that need to be addressed is far more important than anything that is said. I don't need to see anyone publicly thrown under the bus (including personal or collective mea culpa statements) or vague expressions of confidence in improvement.
All I really want from Exit Day is a little bit of context added to what happened over the course of the season, the injury rehab/ surgery list (if available). I want direct identification of the issues to be solved. Lastly, I want some specific target goals identified for the offseason action plan.
This year, as far as the COVID-19 pandemic goes, there's a fine line between context of what day-to-day life both team-wise and individually has been like amid the whirlwind 56-game schedule and having that backdrop come off a built-in excuse.
Plain and simple, every team was more or less in the same boat as relates to day-to-day life amid pandemic related restrictions in the offseason last fall into this year. Some teams had more severe internal COVID outbreaks than the Flyers, others got away a bit luckier. Some players struggled with day-to-day life more than they ever expected to. These are, after all, human beings and I think their personal stories do matter in that context.
None of it, however, can be used as an escape hatch from accountability for the play on the ice and the win-loss record. Hockey is a business and the bottom line is performance. The Flyers' situation was identical to every other team's in many regards and the areas that were more challenging were not radically so. The playing field was still level, for all intents and purposes.
As someone who was a Flyers fan and hockey lover in general for as long as I have memories -- long before I ever set foot in a hockey pressbox and well before I started working for the team of my heart -- this season does not sit well. With the exception of the 2006-07 season (which at least ended with the team already taking the first corrective steps, I have never been as disappointed in a regular season as this one.
There were a whole lot of things that I did not like and which concerned me in the bigger picture about the Flyers' performance in 2020-21. First of all, virtually every vital underlying area that significantly improved last season reverted back to what was displayed in 2018-19 (and some were below even that bar from a non-playoff season). Some players had good individual seasons on the whole, but no one had a truly stellar campaign. Others went backwards, especially players whom the organization was counting upon to assist in setting the pace this season and take over leading the marathon in the long-term.
There were too many non-competitive blowout losses this season. Too many nights where the Flyers found themselves chasing the game because of poor starts and multi-goal deficits; Philadelphia even won a handful of those games and not infrequently made latter-game comeback bids that either fell a goal short (or a goal plus an empty netter) or resulted in battling all the way back to tie only to fall back into yet another deficit.
There were far too many times when the Flyers scored a goal only to quickly give on up in the next shift or two. Even worse, the team -- right up through the 4-2 win in the finale -- yielded an opposing goal and, rather than regrouping to at least stabilize the game if they couldn't make an immediate push-back, yielding another goal within two minutes of the first.
The team defense, both in terms of blueline play and in the broader picture of playing as five-man units, was abysmal overall. The goalie play started out fine despite so-so stats but then it crashed and burned in its own right, especially in March.
In terms of special teams, the penalty kill was never able to get in synch. There were brief signs of hope that lasted about 2-3 games but things rapidly and inevitably went south again. The PK had been such a major area of improvement a season ago; in the top 10 for much of the season and finishing at 11th. This year, it was awful.
The PK this season was worse than it looked in 2018-19 overall. That says a lot. That season, the PK was an utter tire fire in the first quarter of the season and then improved significantly after the coaching changes from Dave Hakstol and Gord Murphy to Scott Gordon and Rick Wilson. The Philly PK was at 82.3 percent success over the final 3/4 of the 2018-19 season but it came from such an abysmal starting place (roughly 67 percent at its nadir right after Thanksgiving weekend) that it took a whole of doing just to finish at 78.5 percent and 26th in the NHL that season.
Two seasons ago, at least there was a PK turnaround as the season went along. Those improvements carried over and personnel upgrades (Matt Niskanen, Tyler Pitlick, Kevin Hayes and his four shorthanded goals plus time-ragging ability) made the PK an actual asset during the 2019-20 regular season. The early retirement departure of Niskanen hurt the Flyers' PK this season as well as the team D as a whole and the slotting of minutes across the blueline, but that alone does not account for the disastrous penalty killing season.
The power play a year ago was inconsistent but at least finished in the top half of the league (14th, 20.8 percent) before going utterly AWOL in the Bubble during the playoffs. This season, the power play remained spotty and some of the deployments simply did not work at all. The droughts lasted longer and the situational success rates -- tied, down by a goal, up by a goal in the latter half of a game, four-minute power plays, 5-on-3 chances -- went the wrong way. The overall 19.2 percent success and 20th leaguewide ranking were among the many disappointing aspects of the season. Additionally, the Flyers yielded six opposing shorthanded goals (tied for 3rd worst in the NHL) and most of the six were backbreakers.
In terms of the team's tendency to get off to slow starts, it had disastrous consequences. Over the final 38 games of this season, the Flyers scored the first goal a measly 12 times. They trailed first in 26 games. The Flyers went 8-15-3 in the 26 games where they had to play from a deficit.
Beyond that, the Flyers weren't quick enough on pucks for retrievals, breakouts, and setting up a forecheck. They don't have blazing speed as a team but that can be worked around with good passing and players keeping their feet moving; the puck will always move faster than anyone can skate. Defensively, good gaps are crucial, and knowing/executing defensive coverage assignments routinely are a halllmark of a good two-way team. There were selective times when the Flyers did those things well; a period here, a few shifts there, even for the bulk of a few games. But it was not done with any consistency.
The Flyers too often were not not quick enough, they didn't show enough physicality (not just the rattle-the-boards kind, but also the heaviness on the puck type). There wasn't enough grit on either side of the puck in the trenches.
Offensively, there were too many open looks at the net passed up especially on odd man rushes that ended without so much as a shot on goal. Defensively, there were too many misreads and overloads. Exacerbating the issue was a significant increase in the volume of Grade B scoring chances -- the "not easy but not impossible save" types such as the D-man being used as a screen on a shot from just above the dots or plays where there was a sufficient chance to get squared after moving across -- that ended up in the Flyers' net.
Last season, the Flyers ranked 7th in the NHL on goals per game. Through the end of February, the Flyers had actually improved on that. They ranked 4th through the first 18 games of the season; largely because they were scoring on an unsustainably high volume of shots and had an 11-4-3 record because they were outscoring their mistakes.
Then March happened. The Flyers set a pair of unwanted new single-month franchise records: most goals allowed (75) and worst team GAA (4.41), eclipsing the 66 goals they allowed in 15 games and 4.40 team goals against in January 1993.
Playing from behind so often eventually had the effect of pulling down the offense with it. The Flyers actually started generating a lot more shots and scoring chances in the latter half of season and brought down both the volume of shots/chances they were allowing but they now had trouble scoring goals. Various players experienced lengthy goal droughts. Over the final 38 games of the season, the Flyers ranked 20th at 2.61 goals per game and ranked 24th from April onward at 2.57 goals per game.
As hard as this may be to believe, the team Corsi and expected goal analytics actually got better from March onward -- that was what Vigneault was alluding to when he made his much-ridiculed "we're trending the right direction comment amid the soaring GAA and and contracting GPG. Thing was: it was deceptive. There were still too many holes on the roster, too little execution at critical junctures, too many early multi-goal deficits, too few stabilizing shifts after a GA, too few momentum-creating power plays too few saves and too few goals. Those realities spoke louder than puck possession and shot location stats that suggested the results would turn around. It's hard to take solace in that when you're constantly putting yourself behind the 8-ball and playing catch up.
In short, Chuck Fletcher was not wrong when he said on Tuesday that are many, many areas that need to be addressed before the start of next season. Likewise, Alain Vigneault and his staff a lot of readjusting to do because every area that got so much better a year ago regressed and then some.
There's a whole lot of blame to go around for this season. I don't care so much in what proportion one cares to distribute said responsibility. I don't care about who said what on Exit Day and how emphatically. I do care immensely about what gets done over the offseason and, eventually, in training camp to correct the laundry list of issues that reared their hands. This will involve roster changes, physical conditioning, coaches re-assessing and adjusting the way they do things after problem areas were not fixed this past season. Truly no stone should be unturned, no one should be completely untouchable.
There is a danger to teams overreacting to the circumstances from this past season. However, there's an equal or even greater danger to underreacting to it and chalking everything up to the pandemic. The Flyers team this year talked the talk about playing for one another, addressing weaknesses and inconsistencies, etc. but the bottom line was that what went on the ice spoke to a lack of corrective actions.
That cannot happen again. It's not about effort or try; it's in the doing. That's the way of hockey world.
Quick Hits: May 12, 2021
1) The Lehigh Valley Phantoms (17-7-4) are in action on Wednesday night as they pay a visit to Newark to play the Binghamton Devils (6-17-7) at the Barnabas Hockey House inside the Prudential Center. Game time is 7:00 p.m. EDT. The game will be streamed on AHL TV. After this game, the Phantoms' season will conclude with home games against Wilkes-Barre Scranton on Saturday evening and against Binghamton on Sunday afternoon.
2) May 12 in memoriam: Flyers Hall of Fame defenseman and assistant coach Barry Ashbee passed away at age 37 on this day in 1977 after losing a battle with leukemia. The song in the memorial tribute video below, John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" was played at Ashbee's funeral; Ashbee was a fan of Denver's and of that song in particular.
3) Early next week, there will be an announcement of two major events involving the Flyers Alumni Association. Additionally, by the end of this week, the Alumni will donate and present an adaptive bike to a special needs child in the Delaware Valley as part of the new "Every Child Deserve a Bike" campaign. Please consider making a donation in any amount to this program. Those who donate $50 or more will receive an "Every Child Deserves a Bike" t-shirt with the Flyers Alumni logo on it. To donate, click here.