Quick Hits: Boston, Slow Starts, Special Teams, Injury Updates
QUICK HITS: OCTOBER 24, 2018
1) The Flyers (4-5-0) will practice at the Skate Zone in Voorhees on Wednesday at 11 a.m. before departing on an early afternoon flight to Boston. On Thursday, they will take on the Boston Bruins (5-2-2) at TD Garden. Over the last three seasons, the Bruins are 5-1-3 against the Flyers with three of the four Flyers wins coming in Philadelphia. The last Flyers win in Boston was a 5-4 overtime win on Oct. 21, 2015. The Flyers are 2-6-2 in their last 10 games at TD Garden.
2) The last Flyers regulation win in Boston was back on Oct. 6, 2011: opening night of the 2011-12 season. The Bruins staged an elaborate pregame celebration of their Stanley Cup championship the previous season, which included a four-game sweep of the Flyers in the second round (one year after the Flyers defeated the Bruins in seven games in the second round after trailing the series, three games to zero, and Game 7 by a 3-0 score in the first period).
After the half-hour ceremony finally concluded, the Flyers made first-period goals by Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek (in his Flyers debut) stand up the rest of the way. Making his Flyers debut, Ilya Bryzgalov (22 saves on 23 shots) outdueled reigning Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas (27 saves on 29 shots) to earn the victory.
3) Through the first nine games of the 2018-19 regular season, the Flyers have been maddeningly inconsistent from game to game and, sometimes, from period to period.
One too-common theme has been slow starts. Six of the first nine opening periods have either been uneven (start shakily, get better over the latter minutes) or poor efforts. In eight of the first nine games, the Flyers have given up the match's first goal. Philly has been outscored 12-7 in first periods, trailed at the first intermission four times (1-3-0) and been outshot 107-96.
This is not a new problem and is rather disappointing because quicker starts was a key theme that was harped on repeatedly coming into the season. Dating back to the start of the 2015-16 season -- 255 regular season games to date -- the Flyers have given up the first goal 147 times (58-65-24 record) and scored first 108 (68-24-14). That includes three 0-0 ties through 65 mins decided via shootout, with the winning side credited as scoring first.
4) The 2018-19 season is less than 1/8th completed, so it is still too early to make assessments of players or whether teams have improved, stagnated or gone backwards. The earliest returns on the Flyers, however are disappointing. The team is a bit fortunate to be 4-5-0 rather than 3-6-0 or even 2-6-1 if they'd lost a shootout to Florida, and the only loss where the Flyers outplayed their opponent was a 1-0 loss to Vegas in which goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury basically stole the game.
There are many reasons why the Flyers are treading water early. Goaltender Brian Elliott hit the nail on the head in his comments after Monday's home loss to Colorado. He cited the abandonment of structure.
"What I mean by structure is everybody is working for each other, close support, when we have guys coming back hard, back checking, it helps the D out, prevents them from getting really good opportunities," Elliott said.
"That’s what I mean by structure, basically not having guys like hang below and hoping for a breakaway pass or hoping things come back the other way, it’s really working hard, we’ve had games, we’ve had stretches that we’ve played that way, but I think when we get away from it, it’s a little bit of a scramble and that’s what we don’t want to happen."
As for the goaltending play so far, while both Elliott and Cal Pickard have ugly looking stats so far, there have only been two games -- the Florida shootout win and the loss in Columbus -- where goaltending play was a major negative for the Flyers. There have been other situations where a momentum save was desperately needed but a goal was scored instead. There have been a few stoppable goals in otherwise well-played games by the goalies. On the whole, though, I'd classify the goaltending as OK: far from great, and no saving grace (no pun intended) but not the team's biggest problem so far except in one loss and one nearly blown game they ended up winning.
5) Sean Couturier's slow start was not entirely unexpected. He had abbreviated summer due to reinjuring the same knee he hurt during the playoffs last season. Couturier later missed a chunk of training camp due to "soreness" and he only got into the final preseason game. That is very often a recipe for a slow start to the season, and it's played out that way to varying degrees through nine games despite him scoring three goals (his only points, as he has yet to record an assist).
The Flyers vitally need Couturier and Ivan Provorov at the top of their respective two-way games. These two players are Philly's most crucial stabilizers and they play a whole lot of minutes. With both of them at something less than their best -- not every period, and not every shift, mind you, but too often so far -- segments of games that figured to either play to Philly's advantage or at the very worst to be a stalemate have instead gone against Philly. Especially with how the team as a whole is going so far, this needs to change fast or the Flyers are going to struggle to pull above .500 and avoid the overall sort of inconsistency that has been evident through nine games.
Couturier's "meh" offensive start is not really a big concern right now in and of itself. The Flyers have other guys who can score. However, the Selke Trophy finalist's positional gaffe on the early Avs power play goal on Monday night was uncharacteristic. Awareness is almost never a concern with Couturier. He has talked about shaking off the "summer hockey" mindset, but he's been a culprit a couple times this season; not regularly, but a couple of times, he's gone to the wrong spot or made a bad read. His skating has been been his strong suit, but he has seemed below his norms in that area as well.
I do expect that Couturier and Provorov (who has been inching back toward his norms, although his Monday stat line was ugly in the plus-minus department) will snap back into place in their games. Again, it's less than 1/8 of a season. They've both had enough of a body of high-quality work to be confident that they'll be fine and revert to being stabilizing forces on both sides of the puck.
When that happens, the Flyers should start to look much better from game to game as long as Claude Giroux keeps up his overall strong start, Jakub Voracek keeps producing and some of the support pieces who have been playing well so far -- such as Scott Laughton and the Travis Sanheim-Radko Gudas defense pairing -- keep that up. Right now, things are way too disjointed.
6) I'm not worried about the Flyers' power play, although the top unit has not looked good in the last two games. Overall, the looks are still there and neither the 5-for-20 start the team had nor the current 1-for-14 spell are realistic expectations for the season. I suspect the Flyers will comfortably finish above 20 percent again (25 percent would be wonderful but tough to do unless PP2, which has improved of late and gotten more ice time, clicks over an extended period).
As for the PK, the Flyers are doing a much better job so far at up-ice pressure and disrupting entries at the blue line. These have been encouraging developments. However, once an opponent gets set up, they are still far too easy to pick apart. That's not a new problem, either, and no PK is going to prevent entries/ get quick clears for two minutes time after time. The own-zone play has not improved. That's what shows up in the bottom line. In terms of the PPGAs so far, most have not been ones where a save could be expected through better puck-tracking, adjusting to a deflection that comes from the high slot, etc. These are positional errors, sticks being in the wrong place, PKers screening their own goalie, attempted blocks that get deflected rather than blocked.
Every once in awhile, these things happen to every PK. But, with the Flyers, they happen far too often and have gone on for far too long. The up-ice work and pressure at/ near the blueline are definitely a step forward. But unless the own-zone play picks up along with it, the PK numbers will continue to be below-average.
7) Michael Raffl will be out 4-6 weeks with the lower-body injury suffered on Monday. He was not putting any weight on his left foot when he was helped off the ice and up the tunn'el.
Raffl is a tough loss for the lineup. One of the team's steadiest 200-ft players and best puck possession guys. His points output comes in short streaks but the rest of his game is usually bankable and effective.
Hextall said that he is not imminently planning to make a callup from the Phantoms. With Giroux and Nolan Patrick taking maintenance days from practice on Tuesday, it remains to be seen exactly how the lineups will be arranged come Thursday. Wednesday's practice should provide a little more clarity. It seems, however, that Travis Konecny will go back to the Couturier line (things did not click during Wayne Simmonds' brief stint there). As for who goes in with Raffl coming out due to injury, the Flyers could get Mikhail Vorobyev back in the lineup or turn to veteran Corban Knight in a fourth line right wing role with Dale Weise moving to the left side.
Although left unsaid from a potential recall perspective, the Phantoms themselves have been pretty inconsistent through the first couple weeks of the season. None of the returning players has really has stood out consistently enough yet to deserve a callup on merit, and the rookies on the team have only played a few games so far and probably aren't quite ready yet. Vorobyev deserves a chance to work his way back into the Philly lineup based on his stellar training camp.
Among possible Phantoms recalls if they do go that route at some point soon, Nicolas Aube-Kubel still has the upside to be a Raffl-type player with a bit more offensive production. However all-around consistency still isn't quite there in the early going of this season. Consistency of his game is one of Raffl's best traits, and is the No. 1 reason so far in his third pro season why former 2nd-round pick Aube-Kubel still has yet to make his NHL debut. He's right on the brink based on his improvements of last season, but he needs to put together a string of good games first.
8) "Wavering compete level" is not a new criticism of Vorobyev. Ut has been made before this season from sources other than Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol. If you listened to the first "Broadcasters' Roundtable" podcast on Flyers Radio 24/7, which was recorded at the end of training camp when Vorobyev was knocking it out of park on a day-in and day-out basis at practice as well as in games, that matter was briefly alluded to as a potential concern heading into camp but which Vorobyev had seemingly addressed.
Has there been a drop-off in Vorobyev's play after the first couple games of the regular season? Charlie O'Connor wrote in The Athletic that both the analytics and the old-school "eye test" suggest that to be the case. I agree with Charlie. Sitting Vorobyev out was not a bad decision. However, once a stretch of being a healthy scratch gets to three games, four games, five games, etc. it becomes problematic.
Clearly, the kid can play. He sees the ice and passes extremely well, has good two-way instincts and, although he is strictly an average skater (his biggest weakness, and the main reason he was a fourth-round pick rather than an second), he can get from point A to point B efficiently because he is strong in the hockey sense department.
9) Michal Neuvirth is ready to be cleared for a conditioning assignment to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, per Ron Hextall. The announcement of the assignment came this morning.