So here we sit four games into the NHL season with the Flyers in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division and ninth in the Eastern Conference with a 2-1-1 record. The Flyers had said to a man that it was imperative for them to avoid the slow start that had plagued this team in the past and so far they seem to have done that. They played well in their season opener against the defending Eastern Conference Champion Tampa Bay Lightening, playing them even for most of the game and taking them to OT before losing on a goal by Jason Garrison. They stumbled in their second game of the season against the Florida Panthers, giving up four goals in the first six and a half minutes of the game and eventually fell to the Panthers 7-1. They righted the ship in game three, putting together a solid defensive effort in their home opener against the Panthers winning 1-0. They followed that up with their best all around effort of the year against the Chicago Blackhawks in a very entertaining game, winning 3-0.
So even though the Flyers sit on the outside looking in at an Eastern Conference playoff spot, they have avoided the 1-3-1 type of start that has doomed the team in the past. And the additions the Flyers made this past offseason are a big reason for it. So let’s take a look at the key additions of this past offseason and the impact they have made on the team thus far.
Backup Goaltender Michal Neuvirth
Over the past two years, Steve Mason has proven himself to be a bona fide NHL starting goaltender. He has struggled with injuries though and when Mason has gone down, the Flyers have struggled as well. The 1-8-1 slump the Flyers went on last year when Mason went down with a knee injury pretty much doomed any chance the Flyers had of getting in to the playoffs. So upgrading the Flyers backup goaltender position was a priority for Flyers GM Ron Hextall. The Flyers went out and signed free agent goaltender Michal Neuvirth.
Neuvirth is a high-end backup goaltender who is a borderline starter. He posted a save percentage over .920 with the Buffalo Sabers last year who finished with the worst record in hockey. After Steve Mason struggled mightily against the Florida Panthers in the second game of the season and then left the team to deal with family issues, Neuvirth stepped in, finished the game against the Panthers and then posted back to back shutouts against the Panthers and Blackhawks in the following two games. He currently has a 2 -0 record with a 1.04 goals against average and an insane save percentage of .964. The Flyers can now be confident that if Mason goes down for any stretch of games during the season, there shouldn’t be much of a drop off in net with Neuvirth now firmly entrenched as the backup.
Winger Sam Gagner
The Flyers acquired Gagner in a trade with the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for defensman Nick Grossman and the contract of Chris Pronger. During the preseason, coach Dave Hakstol couldn’t seem to find a spot for Gagner. He shuffled him from line to line and moved him back and forth between left and right wing. Gagner was a healthy scratch for the first two games of the season, but was then inserted in to the lineup in the home opener against the Florida Panthers. Playing on a line with Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn, Gagner provided a spark with his speed and playmaking ability. This was clearly evident on the lone goal of the game by Brayden Schenn where Gagner used his speed to generate a shot on goal that produced the rebound that was tucked in by Schenn.
Gagner is a player that can provide the Flyers with much needed speed and skill. He can play either wing and can play on the power play. Gagner could also be a good veteran presence for Schenn and Couturier if coach Hakstol chooses to keep Gagner on their line.
Coach Dave Hakstol
A lot of the Flyers woes last year were placed at the feet of former coach Craig Berube. Just a few weeks ago R.J. Umberger lamented the fact that Berube wasn’t tough enough on the players when needed and that the Flyers’ game lacked structure. The Flyers game also lacked in the way of consistency as well. Time and again after a loss you would hear the players say in the post game interview, “We need to play a full sixty minutes”. The Flyers also tended to go in to a tail spin after losing big games last year. After losing to the Boston Bruins in a game that could have gotten the Flyers to within one point of a playoff spot in early March, the Flyers sagged and were never to be heard from again for the rest of the year finishing fourteen points out of a playoff spot. After the 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the Florida Panthers, one started to wonder if the Flyers would go into a tailspin and lose their next four or five games like they always had done in the past.
Hakstol took control of the situation right away before things could get out of hand, holding a closed door meeting with the players before everything started to come off the rails. Right away in the rematch against the Panthers, you could see the Flyers were a different team. They were playing with a purpose, they were physical, they were ANGRY!!!! Very early in the game one of the Panthers took a run at Neuvirth and right away you could see the Flyers were going to have none of it. He was immediately jumped on by Matt Read and Wayne Simmonds. It was refreshing to see the Flyers respond this way after a loss. Hakstol also showed he wasn’t afraid to hold even the star players accountable. Simmonds was relegated to the third line after a poor showing in the first Florida game. The way he went after the Panther player in the crease showed that he was not happy about it.
So far, the Flyers also play a sounder defensive game under Hakstol. Last year, the Flyers tended to break down in their own end and then it would be up to Steve Mason to not only make the initial save but also save two or three rebounds after that. As well as Neuvirth has played and as insane as his numbers are, he didn’t have to make a lot of ten bell saves. Most of the shots were from relatively far out and off to the side. Neuvirth just had to make the routine save. The Flyers played two solid, sixty minute games in a row against the Panthers and Blackhawks. Other than the first Florida game, the Flyers have been very consistent this year. Last year, the Flyers would look like world beaters one game and then look the Bad News Bears on ice the next and a lot of this comes down to coaching. I think Dave Hakstol is a big reason the Flyers are a more consistent team this year.
So when it comes to the offseason acquisitions Flyers GM Ron Hextall made this offseason, so far so good.