Give credit to GM Chuck Fletcher, who was hired exactly one year ago tomorrow. In his first offseason with the club, Fletcher selected his own coach (he hired longtime NHL vet, Alain Vigneault, previously of the Rangers) and allowed the new staff to implement its own system. Fletcher signed his first splashy free agent, former Rangers center Kevin Hayes, for seven years, $50 million, and made his first big trade, swapping Radko Gudas for Matt Niskanen of the Capitals. What Fletcher takes most pride in? The improved defense.
Philadelphia finished last season ranked 29th in goals allowed, due in large part to their comically large (and NHL-record setting) rotating cast of eight goaltenders, though there is plenty of blame to go around. The Flyers enter December with the sixth fewest goals allowed and a penalty kill ranked third in the league (last season, they finished 26th).
"That was a big point of emphasis in training camp -- we needed to do everything we could to keep the puck out of the net, and I think we did a pretty good job in November," Fletcher said. "We feel pretty good about where we're at. With a new coaching staff, we felt in the first 20 games there would be some inconsistency, as the staff adjusted to the players and the players adjusted to the staff and new system. But we got through that stretch pretty well."
It helps that the Flyers have more certainty in net. Carter Hart, the vaunted prospect who debuted late last season, is officially here to stay. However, Hart had some early-season struggles and has started in only 16 of the team's 27 games, with 34-year-old journeyman veteran Brian Elliott taking the other 11. This somewhat fits into the NHL's emerging trend of goalie workload management, however Fletcher does offer a few qualifiers.
"Carter is a really talented goaltender, but he's just 21 years old, and we want to make sure we're giving him a chance to be successful," Fletcher said. "We don't want to overburden him at this stage in his career, we want to give him time between starts to practice and watch video. We're lucky to have a really good quality veteran goaltender in Brian Elliott who, knock on wood, came in healthy and has been able to gives us good starts."
The Flyers have 17 back-to-back games on their schedule, tied with Pittsburgh for the most in the league. "So I don't think we'll be in a position where we can run one goaltender seven or eight games," Fletcher said. "My expectation is we will need both of these guys throughout the year, whether it's a 50-30 split or a 45-35 split, I'm not sure. It certainly won't be a 60-20 split."
Hart isn't the only young player getting time. Fletcher's predecessor Ron Hextall was often criticized by the fan base by being too conservative with prospects. The Flyers have had 14 players age 24 or under suit up this season, including two of the team's top forward prospects, Joel Farabee and Morgan Frost.
The Flyers were impressed by the 19-year-old Farabee (the 14th overall pick in 2018) in camp, but for a few reasons -- some cap-related, another because Fletcher said the team was "trying to be extra-patient" -- he started the season in Lehigh Valley of the AHL.
"And that lasted all of a week," Fletcher said. "We quickly realized we were a better team with him in the lineup than without him. He's only 19 years old, but he has a tremendous hockey sense and a really good understanding of the game from a defensive standpoint -- how to manage the game, how to manage the puck. He does a lot of things you don't expect of a young player."
Frost (the 27th overall pick in 2017) made his NHL debut on Nov. 19 and dazzled with two goals and an assist in his first three games, though Fletcher said Frost earned his call-up by working on his defensive game and play without the puck during his six weeks in Lehigh Valley. "I don't think anyone ever questioned his ability to make plays and his offensive instincts, or his ability to play with good players," the GM said.
Niskanen has been everything the Flyers had hoped for as a top-pairing defender, and has brought out the best in Ivan Provorov, who has found his game again after some struggles last season. But it hasn't been an easy go for all veterans. Shayne Gostisbehere, once lauded as the team's best blueliner -- especially for his offensive prowess -- just weathered a three-game benching.
"Shayne trained really hard this offseason and worked really hard to get his game back; I don't think he was happy with how his season played out last year," Fletcher said. "We have a new coaching staff, a new system, and a new power-play coordinator, and there are some elements everyone is getting used to right now. His play has been a little inconsistent, but we're only carrying seven defenseman, so my expectation is we're going to need all of those guys over the course of the season as you get into the grind of the season -- which usually includes some bumps along the way. He's working on getting his confidence back offensively while continuing to manage the game well defensively. And he's working hard at it."
(Gostisbehere scored a power-play goal in his first game back after the benching, against the Red Wings on Friday).
Meanwhile, James van Riemsdyk is in a bit of a slump, ranking eighth on the team with five goals. But Fletcher isn't fazed. "When I came in last year, that was the talk; what was wrong with James? He wasn't scoring," Fletcher said. "And then he went on a tremendous surge. Like a lot of goal scorers, he can be streaky, but based off what we saw last year, we are not overly concerned."
Van Riemsdyk scored 21 goals in his last 39 games last season, after scoring just six goals in his first 27 games.
Hayes got off to a slow start offensively, but now has four goals in his past six games. Fletcher was effusive about what Hayes has brought to the team, especially defensively. Hayes leads all forwards in penalty-killing time (2:05 per game on average) and has started in the defensive zone 53 percent of the time, taking second most defensive starts of all Flyers forwards, trailing only Claude Giroux. "He's taken on some of the defensive zone starts Sean Couturier always had to handle by himself," Fletcher said. "And with the Nolan Patrick's injury, it's really been a godsend that we've had Kevin."
Last season, Couturier had 447 defensive zone starts, by far the most for any Flyers forward; Giroux was second with 385.
As for that Patrick injury, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2017 draft has been sidelined all season with a migraine disorder. Patrick has recently resumed skating and has been working out, but isn't cleared for contact. He's been with the team as much as he can -- including some travel -- though the Flyers have kept him home for some longer road trips.
"He's seen a lot of specialists," Fletcher said. "We're working with him and trying to do everything we can to help him get to a better place. It's been slow progress, but we do believe we've seen progress. The main focus is getting him back to being a healthy, happy human being again."
Now that we're into December, trade deadline talk is going to pick up, and I asked Fletcher if he expects the Flyers to be active or add to their group.
"That remains to be seen," he said. "We worked hard at adding to our depth this year, and since we have so many young kids, typically they only get better as they get more experience, so I think we have a chance to get better with the club that we have. We hope to get Nolan Patrick back at some point and that would be a tremendous boost to our lineup. He really would be a great acquisition, since we haven't had him all season. If we can add him, that could be the boost that we need at the time. But we'll see. We'll see how healthy we are, and we'll see how we're playing."
If they can continue to play how they did in November, they'll be in quite good shape.
Emptying the notebook | What we liked this week
Three stars of the week | Biggest games coming up
Emptying the notebook
I wanted to use this space to talk about the topic that was unavoidable in hockey this past week: mounting allegations of abuse and harassment. Coaches mistreating players. Systematic abuse of power. A culture of silence.
It came to a head with Bill Peters being ousted in Calgary. Peters resigned, but was forced to do so after Akim Aliu came forward with a story of how the coach directed racial epithets toward him when he was playing for the AHL's Rockford IceHogs a decade ago. As the Flames investigated Peters, other stories began emerging about the coach's time with the Carolina Hurricanes, including Peters allegedly punching and kicking players while on the bench. Aliu initially made the connection that Peters was a protege of Mike Babcock, who was recently fired from the Toronto Maple Leafs. Anecdotes were coming out about Babcock's tactics as a coach that included intimidating young players, like Mitch Marner in his rookie season. Sean Avery told the New York Post that then-Los Angeles Kings coach Marc Crawford kicked him during a game in the 2006-07 season. Ex-NHL forward Daniel Carcillo tweeted that he "personally witnessed" abuse from Daryl Sutter, his coach with the Los Angeles Kings during the 2013-14 season.
Carcillo put out a call to action on Twitter this week. He essentially told players, 'if you have something you want to get off your chest, DM me with your stories.'
I talked to Carcillo on Sunday. He said he has received more than 300 messages in the past five days. "Most of the things center around the rookie parties," Carcillo said. "Physical and verbal abuse, and there is some sexual abuse. There are a lot of mental health complications that have been derived from this."
It's hard not to wonder: Is the Peters story the tip of the iceberg? Carcillo certainly doesn't believe it's an isolated incident.
"This is the exact same thing as the Catholic church, because there is a systematic coverup," Carcillo said. "Now you have Don Cherry, who tumbled, he's like the pope. Then you have Mike Babcock, who is like a bishop. Then all of the sudden, people are like, 'holy s---,' I can actually enact change if I say something? I'm going to say something now. I'm going to take my power back now. And that's what it is. My whole campaign is waking former guys up, and waking current guys up, and letting them know that how they're being treated isn't even close to being right."
I couldn't help but make correlations to what I've noticed about hockey culture since I began covering the sport. Players rarely use the pronoun "I." They have this tick where they say "we" or "you" instead. It's not that players don't have a voice, they're just trained not to exercise it. Hockey players are so adamant about not standing out, they might view speaking out on injustices as a distraction. I posed this idea to Carcillo.
"If you go against the status quo in any way, if you show too much personality like P.K. Subban, if you are just different, then you are labeled as a 'problem' or a 'distraction' and it's really hard for you to stay in the league," Carcillo said. "The whole 'I' and 'we/you,' the pronoun stuff, we're just drilled from 4 years old to be unselfish and really to be robots. That's the messaging and the programming that is instilled in us from 4 years old."
It's a story I hope to continue to cover, but something that I think is food for thought for anyone in the hockey community.
Three stars of the week
MacKinnon had nine points (three goals and six assists) in three games this week. It's a good thing Mikko Rantanen is back, but let it be known that in the 16 games without Rantanen, MacKinnon had 27 points (11 goals, 16 assists). Unreal.
Put this guy in your Vezina Trophy conversation. In two starts this week (both wins), Hellebuyck stopped 56 of 57 shots for a .982 save percentage and 0.50 goals-against average. That includes a 24-save shutout against the Ducks and 32-save win against the red hot Sharks.
So what if it included two empty-netters? His 24th career hat trick passed Jari Kurri for 10th most in NHL history. Ovechkin had five goals and an assist in three games overall.
Games of the Week
Tuesday, Dec. 3: Toronto Maple Leafs at Philadelphia Flyers (ESPN+)
Check out the Flyers for yourself in this intriguing Eastern Conference matchup. The Maple Leafs already look like a much different team under Sheldon Keefe;they're confident, loose, and 4-1 under the new coach as they have already snuck back into playoff position.
Make your Tuesday night a hockey doubleheader with this late matchup, which should be a thriller. The Sharks also had a thrilling November, tying a franchise record with 11 wins (especially important after their dreadful four-win October). Behold the power of Radim Simek.
Don't look now, but the Rangers are in the mix for a wild card after going 6-3-1 in their last 10. Artemi Panarin is looking every bit like a stud and other new additions, like Adam Fox, are finding their groove. These two teams face off earlier in the week too (on ESPN+ on Monday night) so there's always a possibility of bad blood carrying over.
What we liked this week
- I found this moment extremely touching. Penguins goalie Matt Murray lost his father, James, in 2018. In this pregame moment, Murray went over to comfort his Vancouver counterpart, Jacob Markstrom. The 29-year-old Markstrom is grieving the death of his father, Anders, who lost his battle to cancer earlier this month.
- More NHL players should have signature celebrations. This new one by Artemi Panarin (debuted initially after scoring a goal, and then performed again after being named a first star this week) rocks:
- It came without ribbons, it came without tags. It came without packages, boxes, or bags. They're the most beautiful themed uniforms I've ever seen, courtesy of the WHL's Vancouver Giants.
What we didn't like this week
- Hated seeing Bruins star Brad Marchand make these comments after being pulled by concussion spotters in a game against the Rangers: "They had 15, 20 minutes to make that call before they did. They need to stop eating hot dogs and pizza up on the ninth floor and get their heads out of their butt. Pay attention." Marchand later apologized, tweeting: "My emotions got the best of me after today's game. I didn't want to miss any shifts with us being down 2-1. I know the spotters are there to help us and I shouldn't have [taken] my frustrations out on them." The NHL's concussion spotting program isn't perfect, but it's still an important safeguard as hockey grapples with how to best protect its players. Demeaning the process in this manner isn't going to affect change, and imagine the message Marchand's message sends to young players.
- I'm glad that Wayne Simmonds said this, but it sucks that this is a truth.
- Can the Pittsburgh Penguins catch a break? The team announced Sunday that Brian Dumoulin is out a minimum eight weeks after undergoing surgery to repair lacerated tendons in his left ankle. The injury occurred in his first shift against the Blues on Saturday, as he got tangled behind the net with St. Louis forward Zach Sanford. Pittsburgh is already without defenseman Justin Schultz (sidelined indefinitely) while Sidney Crosby and Nick Bjugstad both have long-term absences due to core muscle injuries. Bryan Rust missed Saturday's game with an undisclosed injury. Other Penguins who have missed time this year: Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Alex Galchenyuk and Patric Hornqvist.
- All the best to Guy Lafleur, who underwent another surgery on Nov. 28, just two months removed from a quadruple bypass heart surgery. The Canadiens announced it was a successful procedure to remove a lobe on one of his lungs, as well as to remove ganglions. Here's to a speedy and safe recovery.
Quote of the week
"I can absolutely look you in the eye and tell you that there's nothing to this other than the roster decision of what we think and specifically our coaching staff feels is our best lineup for every game. And I guarantee you -- 100 percent guarantee you -- that that's going to change many times during this year. I am very confident that Kyle's going to get a chance to play. Hopefully, he's in a position to take advantage of it, and we turn the page on that. There's nothing fair or equal in this business, so I can't operate like that or what have you. You've just got to make the right decisions. A lot of them are highly unpopular. ... It is what it is, and we're just trying to win."
-- Nashville Predators GM David Poile explaining why his $6 million center Kyle Turris is being benched