The Philadelphia Flyers have pretty good possession numbers and can generate offense with the best teams in the NHL. Their defensive play and goaltending? Leaky.
It was a rather forlorn Steve Mason who came out to face the music after the Philadelphia Flyers loss Friday night. NHL teams no longer require spectacular goaltending to be good teams, although it sure helps. Just ask the Montreal Canadiens. They do, however, required adequate goaltending and Mason did not provide it Friday night. He has not provided it enough this season.
The Flyers became the worst defensive team in the NHL last night. They entered the season ranked 27th in the NHL in that category, while their opponent, the Toronto Maple Leafs, were dead last. But by virtue of pumping six goals past the Flyers and giving up only three of their own, the Leafs and Flyers essentially switched spots. And there is no sugar coating this. Much of the reason for the Flyers’ travails is goaltending. Stop us if you’ve heard this before. If you’re looking for the NHL’s most fertile goaltending graveyards, Philadelphia and Toronto might be a good place to start.
“We’ve talked about this so much, guys,” Mason said when asked about his performance this season. “I mean…it’s just not good enough. It’s just not good enough. I don’t know how many times I can say it over and over again.”
There’s a lot to like about the Flyers this season. Their top six forwards are outstanding. Wayne Simmonds, already a consistent 50-60 point player, is having himself a terrific season. Rookies Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov are not only adjusting to the NHL, but thriving. But behind their own blueline and in goal, the Flyers are leaky. They’ve given up more goals than any other team in the league this season. They have the worst 5-on-5 save percentage in the NHL, the worst shorthanded save percentage, the worst overall save percentage. Of the 69 goaltenders who have appeared in the NHL this season, Mason is 59th in save percentage and Michal Neuvirth is 63rd.
“Realistically everything is stoppable,” Mason said. “Third period wasn’t good. We lost it there. We had an opportunity to win the hockey game and we let it get away.”
The Flyers are one of the better possession teams in the league and are the fifth best team in the league when it comes to shots against. Going into last night’s game, there were only three teams in the NHL – the Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins – that had a better ratio of shot attempts for and against in 5-on-5 play than the Flyers had. Only the New York Rangers are ahead of them in goals per game and they're tied for first in the NHL - with the Maple Leafs, ironically - in shots per game. Those are the kinds of numbers that should not be leading to the kinds of problems the Flyers have had keeping the puck out of their net. Against the Leafs Friday night, puck management was a huge issue for both teams, but you need your goaltender to come up big on the chances he faces, particularly when you outshoot your opponent by a 33-23 margin. And for a team that has that high possession numbers, the Flyers are a surprising fourth in the league in blocked shots.
One shudders to think what would happen if more of those shots were getting through. On Friday night, for example, they blocked more shots (24), than their goaltender faced (23). That seems indicative of a team that doesn’t have a lot of confidence in its goaltending. Nazem Kadri of the Leafs scored on the first shot of the game and it didn't get any better after that.
“We weren’t very good around our blue paint tonight,” said Flyers coach Dave Hakstol, commenting on the work of his defensemen as well in the game. “Take a look at tonight. We didn’t give ‘Mase’ a whole lot of easy saves, especially when you look at the third period with some second and third opportunities. To be blunt and honest, we gave up four goals in the third period, so everybody has got to do a little better.”
When the Flyers ran Sergei Bobrovsky out of town after one bad season and traded him to the Columbus Blue Jackets, they acquired three draft picks who have not amounted to much. Yet. In that trade, they used one of the picks to select Anthony Stolarz, who is now a 22-year-old goalie in his third year in the American League. At 6-foot-6 and 232 pounds, he’s off too a great start in the AHL and will almost certainly get a chance to play with the Flyers if their goaltending continues to flounder.
Both Mason and Neuvirth are unrestricted free agents after this season, which means the Flyers will be looking for a reliable No. 1 next season. Might they try to trade for Ryan Miller or Ben Bishop in an effort to save their season this year? They’re in the playoff hunt, but everybody is still in the playoff hunt. One thing is certain, though. If their goaltending doesn’t get better, GM Ron Hextall is either going to have go out and improve his team at that position or watch his team’s season circle down the drain.