We are a few days removed from the final game of the Philadelphia Flyers’ 2017-18 season. While the wounds are still fresh, there is an opportunity to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
It was a wild ride of 82 regular season games and six more postseason contest that the Flyers took us on. There were a ton of ups and downs along the way, and at the end of the day there is a lot to go through. There are plenty of positives to take out of the season, but there are also a handful of negatives. I wanted to take a broad look back at the season and try to see what we can take out of it moving forward.
In an effort to keep this piece shorter than a few thousand words (editing note: good try, Ryan), I tried to not go too in-depth to any one aspect. There is plenty of time for that in the coming weeks and months.
Let’s start with one of the main positives of the season that everyone should be able to agree on: the growth of the young players. At some points of the season over half of the Flyers roster was aged 25 or younger. Many of their impactful players were 25 or younger, and some are much younger.
Nolan Patrick, Robert Hägg, Travis Sanheim, and Oskar Lindblom all made their debuts this season and played big roles when they were in the lineup. Sophomores Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny also continued to blossom this season. To stretch it a bit further, the 25-year old Sean Couturier had a huge breakout season and the 24-year old Shayne Gostisbehere bounced back in a big way offensively while playing strong defense on the top pair.
It took some time for the young players to adjust to the professional game and grow into their roles, but sometimes that patience is worth it. Patrick and Konecny both had slow starts to the season and struggled in the first half, but they got stronger as the season moved along and they had phenomenal performances in the second half. Patrick became the two-way center that we all heard about when the Flyers drafted him, and Konecny turned it on offensively and showed his skills as a top-line scoring winger. Both of these players have flaws still, obviously, and they’re still developing, but they took big steps in the right direction this season and are going to come into next season looking for more.
It was a bumpier road for the other three rookies in Hagg, Sanheim, and Lindblom.
Hagg started out as a reliable second-pair defenseman, but he regressed a bit as the season moved along. He is still at-worst a third-pairing defenseman, which is fine, and could be a solid second-pair defenseman with the right partner. Nevertheless he went from the forgotten defensive prospect to a guy that can be penciled in to the third pair next season and perhaps beyond.
Lindblom, on the other hand, started out the season needing a few months in the AHL and bursted onto the scene in February. It took him some time to adjust to the North American game after playing in Sweden, but once he found his game he was on top of it. That transitioned to the NHL as well. He found his footing and became a strong second-line winger for the Flyers. He didn’t have great luck in converting on his chances, but he was doing the little things right, as he does, and driving play for his line.
Sanheim was the most interesting case of the bunch. He started and ended the season as a healthy scratch, but had plenty of success in the middle. Once he got into the lineup in the beginning of the season we started to see some strides. He is a dynamic defenseman with great skating ability that can jump up into the rush with ease, and also get back to cover himself. However, his defensive flaws and immaturity caused him to be sent back to the AHL in January. He regrouped there, found his game again, and came back to the NHL with confidence.
He looked like a different player during his second stint and that’s exciting moving forward. He’s only scratching the surface as a 22-year old defenseman in the NHL. He may need more patience than some, but once he gets to the top of his game, he’s going to be a force. He’ll definitely have that chance at the start of next season.
In summation, the young players provided a foundation for the Flyers that they are going to build upon in the coming years. Ron Hextall has built through the draft, cleaned up the salary cap mess, and is beginning to see the fruits of his labor.
Another obvious positive is the career years that the offensive leaders of this team had. It’s easy to just look at the playoff series and write them off, but that would be completely unfair given what they did in the regular season.
Giroux knew he needed to have a better season, and boy did he ever. He was moved to the left wing in the preseason and it stuck. It allowed him to have less wear and tear on his body while still playing to his skillset. From the beginning of the regular season to the end, he was the man for the Flyers. He had career-highs in goals (34), assists (68), and points (102), capped off with a hat trick to clinch a playoff berth in the season finale.
Voracek also seems to be the go-to guy to get blame when things go downhill. He had a few down years prior to this one, but his season should not be overlooked. It got overshadowed by Giroux, but Voracek’s season was arguably just as impressive. He also had career-highs in assists (65) and points (65) while cracking the 20-goal mark for the fifth time in the last six seasons.
He was a part of the team’s top line for the first few months, when they were one of the best lines in the league, then he became the anchor for the second line. He carried the play and was the offensive force on the right side for two separate lines. First he was with Michael Raffl and Valtteri Filppula, then he was with Lindblom and Patrick. He drove the bus for those lines and gave the Flyers a threatening top-six.
Couturier was arguably the Flyers’ most important player. That showed up in the playoffs, but even before that he was pivotal. He asked for a larger role offensively, and he delivered. He became the Flyers’ top-line center, allowing Giroux to move to wing, and he was one of the best centers in the league. He kept playing lockdown defense while putting up career-highs in goals (31), assists (45), and points (76). He had more goals this season than in the last two seasons (11 in 2015-16, 14 in 2016-17) combined. He has been named a finalist for the Selke Trophy as he begins to get national recognition, and he deserves it.
We’ve all been looking forward to the future of the Flyers for the past few years, but this season showed that we shouldn’t look too far ahead just yet. This veteran core will still be producing while the top prospects come into the NHL and make an impact. The crossover in the next few years could make for some dangerous teams.
On a smaller note, Wayne Simmonds had an interesting season as well. He certainly didn’t look like the same player that he had in past seasons due to nagging injuries throughout the season, but still scored 24 goals in a down year for him. The consensus on Simmonds has soured a bit in the past calendar year. He’s still a fan favorite, but the idea of trading him has become more palatable.
He is going to be a free agent after next season and will likely command more on the open market than the Flyers should give him. However, that doesn’t mean they should necessarily move him. He can be an effective middle-six winger and strong power-play presence. Hextall will surely listen to trades for Simmonds, who many teams would love to have, but he should not sell him low. He is a leader on this team and would be a much better “veteran presence” next year than some of the other potential options.
Speaking of veteran presence, let’s get into Dave Hakstol.
Hakstol’s biggest flaw is his affinity for a veteran presence. He prefers more-experienced players that play a safer game, even when those players are less skilled and, to put it bluntly, worse than his other options. In fact, Hakstol’s overreliance on veterans might be one of his only flaws. The trouble is that it is a huge flaw and an overarching one. It impacts his lineup choices, player usage on the ice, time on ice, and more.
Those flaws were magnified and exposed to a bigger stage during the playoffs. In short, the mistakes that Hakstol made during the first-round series against the Penguins showed why he might get fired. They were the reasons that will be pointed at when he does get fired. There wasn’t a ton he could’ve done to change things in a few of the games, but there were plenty of mistakes made.
Hakstol made minimal (if any) in-game adjustments, managed his goalies poorly, relied too much on his veterans, and kept trotting his veterans back out there after they made mistakes. He gave the veterans a lot more ice time than the younger, better players. Throughout the series Oskar Lindblom, Jordan Weal, Travis Sanheim, and Robert Hägg were healthy scratches while Jori Lehtera, Dale Weise, Brandon Manning, and Radko Gudas were in the lineup.
Going straight from college to coaching in the NHL could be the cause of Hakstol’s overreliance on veterans. It’s strictly speculation on my part, but in college hockey there is likely a lot more importance in experience. Seniors and juniors are older, more physically mature, and actually have more experience playing that type of game. But that changes in the NHL. All of these players are at a different level and experience doesn’t mean as much, especially in the regular season. You can’t have a team full of rookies or young players, but a good player with a few years of experience shouldn’t be docked that much for a veteran that has played poorly.
A short series magnifies Hakstol’s flaws and other teams can take advantage of that. He is still growing as an NHL coach, but three seasons is a pretty good length of time to figure it out. We’ll see if he can improve next season.
With that being said, Hakstol was the recipient of way too much criticism this season. He isn’t a great coach, he might not even be a good coach. Hell, he could even be a bad coach. But he brings some positives to the table and did not hold this team back. The team did not win in spite of him.
Hakstol was brought in to coach the Flyers because he has a track record of being a good coach that can develop younger players. He has done that in the NHL. Whether you want to give Hakstol any credit for it or not, all of the Flyers young players have developed well over the past few seasons. Provorov, Konecny, Gostisbehere, Patrick, Lindblom, Sanheim, Hagg, and others have all become better players. Yes, that was bound to happen anyway given their skill, but Hakstol has guided them on the right path.
He gave Patrick and Konecny lesser roles in the beginning of the season when they were struggling. He took his time with them and it paid off. An argument can be made that he waited a bit too long before promoting them back up to a larger role, but the players proved themselves in that smaller role, outplayed it, and Hakstol gave them a larger role. He handled every young player differently and they have all developed properly in these first few years.
Another thing that Hakstol does well is something that gets joked about most of the time. He keeps a calm demeanor, and that is important over the course of an 82-game season. It cant be a weakness in a playoff series when calmness turns to stubbornness, but he is able to keep a locker room together in the face of adversity. The Flyers were mostly the same during their 10-game winning streak in 2016-17, and their 10-game losing streak this past season. They took it one game at a time and kept pushing. Hakstol deserves some credit for that.
Hakstol will likely not be the guy to put this team over the top, but he doesn’t need to be. He needs to do what he was brought in to do, and he’s doing that so far. His status will hinge on whether or not he can grow with the players. If he can, we’ll see some of these flaws go away next season. If he can’t, he’ll find himself out the door and a coach with a winning pedigree will be brought in.
The depth of this team was a negative as well, but it will soon turn into a positive. Valtteri Filppula, Brandon Manning, and Matt Read are all unrestricted free agents, and there are a few candidates (Lehtera, Weise, MacDonald, Gudas) to be bought out or traded. This will open up spots on the roster for young players or free agent signings.
The Flyers have most of next year’s top-nine forwards on the roster already (Giroux, Couturier, Konecny, Voracek, Patrick, Lindblom, Simmonds), as well as most of the defense (Provorov, Gostisbehere, Sanheim, Hagg). They also have some depth guys in Raffl, Weal, and Laughton up front. There’s a few holes to fill, and this is the year to do it.
This is the offseason that Ron Hextall has been building up to. He said he had a five-year plan when he was hired four years ago. He has given the Flyers a great prospect pool, cap space to work with, and a roster that is nearly ready to compete.
It’s a bit odd to say, but the Flyers both exceeded expectations and were kind of a let down this season. No one expected them to make the playoffs, or come close to having 98 points, but once they became that type of team there was hope that they could make a run in the playoffs.
They were in first place at the trade deadline and didn’t clinch until their final game. That was undoubtedly a disappointment. On the other hand, they lost 10-straight games and were one of the best teams from December to the end of the season in order to make the playoffs. It’s fair to either be happy or disappointed with the season as a whole. Hell, you could even be both.
The Flyers laid the foundation for the future with breakout performances from their young guns, and the veteran core proved they could still play with a few career years. They also had depth and goaltending problems that led to a streaky team that was infuriating to watch at times.
Given all that, this still seems like a successful season for the Flyers on the whole. It wasn’t the successful season (we’ll have that before long, don’t worry), but this year should give a lot of hope for the future. They are a year ahead of plan and should continue to improve in the coming years.
Photo by Heather Barry/Sons of Penn
Sons of Penn Radio
Make sure you rate and subscribe to SOP Radio on iTunes or follow on SoundCloud!
Be sure to follow Ryan Gilbert and Sons of Penn on Twitter and Facebook for analysis, insight, GIFs and more regarding your Philadelphia Flyers.
Join us on our Facebook pages to connect with us and continue the discussion. We can be found at Sons of Penn and The Orange Update. Until next time, friends.