Struggling Philadelphia Flyers are shadows of themselves
These are some troublesome times in Philadelphia. The Flyers, off to a franchise worst 1-7-0 start this season, have been hampered by injuries, shaken up by an early coaching change and mired deep in a scoring slump that has each player gripping their sticks like it might be their last lifeline to safety. Just two weeks in, it seems the Flyers have all the morale of a death march.
Two years removed from a season in which they averaged 3.17 goals per game (second best in the league), the Flyers are now having trouble scoring twice each night. Not since the 1964 Bruins has a team failed to score more than two goals in its first eight games of the season. And it's somewhat uncharted territory in Philadelphia, where scoring was never as crippling an issue as, say, being scored on. In fact, apart from their earliest years, the Flyers have never averaged fewer than 2.50 goals per game; but right now, they're lighting the lamp at pathetic frequency of 1.38. In 5-on-5 situations, they're scoring at a rate of 1.0.
The team's star center, Claude Giroux, hasn't tallied yet, and neither have their last two goal-scoring leaders, Jakub Voracek and Scott Hartnell. At this point, Philadelphia and its stars simply look like lesser versions of themselves. Taking the extra split second to look for the surefire scoring chance, they make the extra move that gives defenders just enough time to thwart them. Hockey players will often say that when they are at their best, they're barely thinking at all and are guided primarily by instincts and reaction. The Flyers are overthinking.
Given their circumstances, however, it's tough to blame them for being trapped in their heads. After just three games, their coach Peter Laviolette was fired despite getting a public vote of confidence from owner Ed Snider as late as September 13. "Last year was an anomaly," Snider told reporters then. "He's been a very good coach for us. A good coach in this league. We're thrilled to have him."
Less than a month later, Snider and general manager Paul Holmgren were introducing Craig Berube, a longtime Flyers assistant, as the new coach.
To the players, switching regimes so early in a season must be like knocking down a house right after the frame goes up. And really, if his leash was that short, Laviolette probably shouldn't have started the season at all. In that way, perhaps his abrupt dismissal sent the wrong message down to the players. Firing Laviolette looked like a panic move, and panic does little to instill confidence in an organization. Responding accordingly, the team looked like it should be worried most of the time the players were on the ice. Even on Thursday, against their bitter rivals, the Penguins, the Flyers often looked listless, cautious and largely overmatched.
Without the necessary practice time to absorb Berube's vision and system, the Flyers have been ad libbing. That's led to fleeting scoring chances and more than a few defensive breakdowns. In a word, they look disorganized. Their special teams have been ordinary: a 9.1 percent power play despite having the most minutes with a man advantage in the league, and a middling 81.6 percent penalty kill. And in Philadelphia tradition, they remain the league leaders in times shorthanded -- at 38 through Thursday.
They haven't been able to put together a complete game, oftentimes fading late. Outscored 12-2 in third periods so far this season, the Flyers haven't carried the confidence that buoyed them during the last several years, helped them fight back from a 0-3 playoff deficit against the Bruins in 2010, and propelled them past Pittsburgh with authority in the 2012 postseason. And that's what might be the most worrisome thing of all for Philadelphia and its fans.
Before Thursday's game against Pittsburgh, the top team in the Metropolitan Division, Giroux came out and called it a "measuring stick" game, a litmus test to see where his team stacked up. He of course thought his Flyers would win, that they'd gather all their frustration, take it out on their rivals and turn a corner. After all, if there is any team that could bring it out of the Flyers, it would be the Penguins. In their 2012 playoff series, the two teams combined for 56 goals and 337 penalty minutes in six games, and there are few places in America that hold more contempt for Sidney Crosby than Philadelphia. But it didn't happen on Thursday night. The Flyers responded with a lifeless second period in which they were outshot 17-5, and were kept in the game only by solid goaltending from Steve Mason.
With six days and four practices before their next game, the Flyers now have some serious work ahead to learn and buy into Berube's system as quickly as possible. After all, it's not all lost in Philadelphia quite yet. Recall the 2008 Chicago Blackhawks, who fired coach Denis Savard four games into the season. They went on to the Western Conference Finals that spring and won the Stanley Cup the following season.
"It's a long season, and it can only get better," winger Wayne Simmonds said. "I don't think it can get any worse."