Catalyst of Collapse: The Night That Broke the 2018-19 Flyers, and How To Avoid an Encore
Everyone has a breaking point - even hockey teams. The Philadelphia Flyers 2018-19 season was filled with more bad than good. There are plenty of negative moments to look back on - firing Hextall and Hakstol, the eight-game losing streak, and a 3-10-0 stretch to end the season, including five straight loses to end the season and officially eliminate the team from playoff contention.
In hindsight, however, the moment that sent the Flyers season spiraling downhill isn't as hard to find. And it isn't any of the failures mentioned above.
The date was November 15, 2018. The Flyers entered the night 9-8-1. After a month plagued by inconsistency and injury, the Flyers seemed to be turning a corner for good. Despite coming off a hard fought 2-1 loss to the Florida Panthers, the Flyers had gone 4-0-1 beforehand. They were finally getting healthy, with James van Riemsdyk returning after being injured four periods into the season.
It's hard to argue the Flyers didn't outplay the ailing New Jersey Devils, who struggled all season after starting 4-0-0, that night (which, in hindsight, was the first of the many signs of a typical bad Flyers loss) Though the shots on goal were fairly even (29-27 Flyers), Philadelphia hit the post an incredibly unlucky six times that night, their highest single game total of the season. They also had a goal called back due to a spotty at best goalie interference call on JVR. Forward Joey Anderson scored his first career goal to start the scoring.
Though all of those were troubling signs, the beginning of the end of the Flyers season officially came with 6:08 remaining in regulation. Leading 1-0, New Jersey's Kyle Palmieri swung behind the Philadelphia goal, and tucked in a sneaky wrap-around for his 11th goal of the season (not bad for being only 19 games in). In the moment, the goal appeared to be the dagger in another frustrating loss. The aftermath was far more severe.
Brian Elliott, who had stopped 23 of 24 up to that point, could not get up. Elliott, who missed nearly two months after undergoing core surgery (and was rushed to be ready to play down the stretch before being pulled for good in Game 4 of the playoffs), tweaked something. Later, the Flyers would announce Elliott had suffered a lower-body injury. The Flyers starter would not play again until February 19th, a gap of just over three months.
Though this was "just one game," it unmasked many of the flaws of the Flyers Ron Hextall had created. The ticking time bomb in net, the stagnant if not struggling youngsters (especially on defense), the flawed defense, and the poor choice of leaders behind the bench all played key roles in the Flyers defeat. While Elliott was out, the Flyers (already poor in goals against) continued to bleed goals against. Though Carter Hart exceeded even the wildest expectations for his rookie season, goaltending remained an issue during Elliott's absence. Only after he returned did the Flyers have two goalies they could trust to keep the team in games.
It didn't take long for the dominoes to fall. The Flyers lost three of their next four, and eleven days after their defeat to New Jersey, Ron Hextall was let go. Dave Hakstol, assistant GM Chris Pryor, and assistant coach Good Murphy were dismissed within the coming weeks. A franchise face departed in February, as Wayne Simmonds was traded to Nashville. A late season surge proved to be fool's gold as the Flyers ultimately missed the playoffs for the fourth time in the last seven years.
Even after a summer of retooling and improving by adding Kevin Hayes, Matt Niskanen, and Justin Braun (among others), every Flyers fan fears that a game like the one above is waiting to unmask itself next season. But where Ron Hextall merely waded into the pool of roster improvement, Chuck Fletcher has dived in head first. The Flyers have cut their dead weight (six Flyers from that NJ game, including Dale Weise, Christian Folin, Andrew MacDonald, and Cal Pickard, are gone) and are prepared to field a deep, competitive roster. They hired a coach with a track record of regular season and playoff success at the NHL level in Alain Vigneault.
In order to avoid a similar fate, the moves made by Chuck Fletcher must pay dividends. Young players who either regressed (Provorov, Gostisbehere) or failed to improve (Patrick, Konecny - who was still good!) will need to turn a corner (in a good way). The tandem of Hart and Elliott needs to be strong, regardless of who earns more time in the crease. None of these asks are unreasonable. That's not to say that every single thing needs to go right for the Flyers to be good - but this year, they need to take control of what they can.
Otherwise? This game will keep repeating itself, returning season after season in a slightly different form, ready to derail even the most promising off seasons. Every team in sports is susceptible to this game - some more than others. Those who can hold it off will achieve the Flyers ultimate goal for the 2019-20 campaign: on-ice success. It sounds simple, but it will be harder than ever to find moral victories on the Flyers roster. One or two players taking a step forward will not change the mood of the fan base if the team around them struggles.
The good news is after all of the decisions the Flyers have made, they are in a position where they are better prepared to avoid this nightmare, not just compared to last year, but to most of the decade. The ball is in their court. Produce, and be loved by all who watch. Otherwise, a seemingly ordinary regular season game from last full could be the soundtrack to a Groundhog's Day type of season. It may be a bit harsh, but in Philadelphia, that's just the way sports are.
Whether Sean Rodriguez likes it or not.