The Philadelphia Flyers have played themselves out of a playoff position in the MassMutual East Division, thanks to a 5-9-1 stretch in March. They were embarrassed in two recent blowout losses to the New York Rangers, 9-0 on March 17 and 8-3 on March 25. The Flyers sit 30th in the NHL in average goals allowed, above only the futile Ottawa Senators. Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere pointed out that his team has “really lost its identity” since beginning the season 11-4-3.
The identity that Gostisbehere was referring to was established during a successful 2019-20 campaign when the Flyers achieved their highest point percentage since 2010-11. Forwards Travis Konecny and Kevin Hayes were integral to developing the swagger that sparked the Flyers’ turnaround in their first season under head coach Alain Vigneault.
However, they are both accountable for a lack of consistency and the sloppy team defense that has plagued the Flyers this season. Although Konecny and Hayes have provided adequate statistical offensive contributions, the team needs significantly more from both players if they have any hope of earning a playoff spot in the crowded East Division standings.
Kevin Hayes: The Game Changer
Hayes clicked almost instantly with the Flyers after signing a seven-year, $50 million deal in the 2019 offseason. His eccentric personality was considered an important addition to a dressing room with a unique combination of up-and-coming young players and reputable veterans. He showcased an excellent 200-foot game and silenced critics who questioned the organization’s long-term financial investment in him. He quickly earned the nod as an alternate captain midway through his first season in Philadelphia.
With 23 points in 33 games in 2020-21, Hayes has narrowly improved offensive pace from last season. However, his impact beyond the stat sheet has been disappointing. He was a major part of the revamped penalty kill that improved from 26th in the league in 2018-19 to 11th in 2019-20. His strength in maintaining possession of the puck was a boost to the penalty kill last season, and he led the team with four shorthanded goals.
The Flyers’ penalty kill has struggled in 2020-21, sitting at a dismal 72%. Hayes has not shown the same confidence in puck possession on the kill or at 5-on-5. His reputation as a solid defensive center has not helped the team solve their ongoing defensive zone coverage miscues.
Hayes showed mounting frustration on Tuesday in a loss to the New Jersey Devils. With the Flyers trailing by two in the second period and in desperate need of momentum, the 28-year-old center missed a key chance to cut the deficit on a shorthanded breakaway. He was seen on the bench snapping his stick in half following the shift. The Flyers and the Detroit Red Wings remain the only teams in the NHL without a shorthanded goal this season. The visible frustration after the missed opportunity was indicative of a player struggling to recapture the rhythm that made him a pivotal game-changer in 2019-20.
Travis Konecny: The Scrappy Fan Favorite
Konecny led the Flyers in scoring in 2019-20 with 61 points in 66 games. He earned his first NHL All-Star selection as a 22-year-old, and his pesky style of play and colorful personality made him a fan favorite in Philadelphia in the early years of his career. Appreciation grew after he notched his first NHL hat trick against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second game of the 2020-21 season, which provided fans with a moment of light-hearted consolation despite the empty seats at the Wells Fargo Center.
Konecny has been unable to ignite the same fire for reasons both within and beyond his control. He was a healthy scratch on Jan. 30 against the New York Islanders amidst Vigneault’s dissatisfaction with his defensive performance. He missed five additional games in February due to COVID-19 protocol. The 24-year-old winger has scored only two goals in his last 22 games, in which time the Flyers have gone into a free fall in the East Division standings. He is averaging .74 points per game this season, down from .92 last season.
Konecny effectively drove offensive play in Saturday’s matinee victory over the Rangers. He also showed his intensity in exchanges with New York defenseman Brendan Smith, and he hopes to build on that strong effort even if the scoresheet did not reflect his performance.
Making a Playoff Push
The Flyers’ problems have been on full display in recent weeks. If they expect to make a push for the playoffs, goaltender Carter Hart will need to drastically improve on his .869 save percentage. The defensive corps will need to tighten up the coverage issues that have persisted throughout the season, and Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux will need to stand out like true superstars. However, more than anything, Philadelphia needs to restore that same level of energy and winning attitude that they showed in 2019-20.
Hayes and Konecny are both top-six caliber forwards with proven NHL pedigree. They have seen success in the past playing alongside each other, and they will likely have the opportunity to do so in the final 23 games of the season as the Flyers steady into fixed line combinations. The potential for Konecny to break out offensively and for Hayes’ game-changing ability to again be a threat could be the key to propelling the team into the playoffs down the stretch.