The Philadelphia Flyers have 35 points and find themselves nine points out of the playoffs with just 45 games left to play in the regular season. The problem with that is that there are four teams between them and the New York Rangers who currently own the second Wild Card position in the Eastern Conference. The Flyers will play the Columbus Blue Jackets (35 points, 35 games played) twice, the Ottawa Senators (37 points, 36 games played) three times, the Boston Bruins (42 points, 38 games played), and the New York Rangers (44 points, 37 games played) once. So while it is possible to make up ground in the standings, nine points is a steep hill to climb this far into the season with so many issues facing a team that has not been able to win more than three games in a row in the 37 games they have played to date.
The difference between last year’s team and this year’s team is largely Kimmo Timonen, and it’s hard to argue that the Flyers are missing both his services and steadying presence on the blue line quite dearly, but the other problem they’ve faced is inconsistency and just plain terrible play on the penalty kill. The weird part about the Flyers having the league’s worst units a man-down is that it has been pretty good for the last two years. The team finished seventh overall with an 84.8% kill rate last season and fifth overall in the lockout shortened 2013 season with an 85.9% success rate. In 2011-2012 the Flyers killed just 81.8% of their man-down situations and while they finished 17th in the NHL that year, they were also shorthanded 319 times, more than any other team in the league, and faced two of the top 10 power play units in the NHL a total of 12 times in the Pittsburgh Penguins (fifth overall with a 19.7% conversion rate) and the New York Islanders (eighth overall with an 18.5% conversion rate). They also had two rookies playing big roles on the penalty kill in Sean Couturier and Matt Read as they filled the void left by the off-season trades of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards.
Now the other thing about the Flyers penalty kill each of the last three seasons is that it’s been worked to death. Already mentioned was the 2011-2012 season’s numbers as they finished with 319 total shorthanded opportunities for the opposition which was the league’s worst. In the lockout shortened 2013 season? 184 man-down situations which was good enough for 30th in the NHL. Last year the Flyers improved to 29th in the league with 316 times shorthanded, four whole penalties fewer than the league leading Ottawa Senators. This season? The Flyers have taken 127 penalties that have seen them go down a man, which again finds them in the bottom half of the league in this category.
Craig Berube has preached discipline. He probably had a hand in getting Scott Hartnell, who was often guilty of infractions that would send him to the sin bin alone and put his team at a disadvantage for two minutes, shipped out of town in the offseason for RJ Umberger. And that’s okay that Hartnell’s undisciplined, on the edge type of play isn’t here anymore because surely Philadelphia’s already taxed penalty killers would be in even more trouble. That said, things haven’t changed much after Hartnell’s departure. The Flyers may be pretty far away from the Winnipeg Jets who have have been shorthanded a league-worst 150 times, but they aren’t that close to the Calgary Flames who have been down a man a league-fewest 100 times to date.
The Flyers absolutely need to rectify their issues on the penalty kill to come anywhere close to the playoffs this year, that much is certain, but even if the kill improves and the numbers even out to where they ought to be, the discipline quotient hasn’t gotten much higher. They still take a lot of penalties and will continue to take a lot of penalties despite the coach continuing to harp on discipline and skating and all of the things that are supposed to make this team competitive. Maybe undisciplined hockey wasn’t the reason the Flyers found themselves with a new coach after three games last year, and maybe it wasn’t why they dug themselves a huge hole that they barely got out of and made the playoffs, and maybe it isn’t the reason they find themselves in 13th place in the Eastern Conference looking up at playoff teams once again in December. Maybe it’s personnel. Maybe it’s coaching. Maybe it’s the personnel won’t listen to the coach or maybe it’s the coach doesn’t know how make the personnel listen. Either way, change should come one way or another, but it’s really a question of when and not if at this point.