Sinking Flyers Ship To De-Rail Phantoms’ Playoff Train?

Hagg and Stolie, doing work against the Pens in early 2016. Photo: Jack Mitroka

Hagg and Stolie, doing work against the Pens in early 2016.
Photo: Jack Mitroka

der Eishockeyzuschauer

ALLENTOWN, PA

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In the wake of the slumping Philadelphia Flyers being blanked by German national team goaltender Philipp Grubauer and the rest of the Washington Capitals in a dispiriting 5-0 loss on Sunday afternoon, one cannot help how much more time passes before cult of personality deity Ron Hextall, now in his third full season as the organ-i-zation’s general manager, starts looking around for sacrificial lambs to toss onto the Altar Of Orange Sanctimony. There are several candidates on hand who could potentially be called to account for the Broad Street Bullies having lost nine of their last eleven and thirteen of their last fourteen National Hockey League engagements but perhaps none more qualified than head coach Dave Hakstol, the former University of North Dakota bench boss who has left many people puzzled over several of his personnel decisions this term. Should Hakstol ultimately be handed his marching orders and banished from the City of Brotherly Love by his fellow Canadian — the one who is really responsible for a whole laundry list of influential things such as the free agent signings of veterans Boyd Gordon and Dale Weise this past summer — then the most urgent question here in the Mecca Of Minor League Sports instantly becomes how would such a move affect the Lehigh Valley Phantoms’ quest to qualify for the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup playoffs for the very first time ever?

Should Hakstol be cut loose in the days / weeks to come, it is certainly quite possible that the Hamilton Street Heroes could also have a head coaching vacancy to fill just like their NHL parents would. After all, it was only just last season that the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins jettisoned then head coach Mike Johnston a couple of weeks before Christmas and concurrently promoted Mike Sullivan from the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins to take his place. So it is not entirely unrealistic to think that the Flyers’ AHL farm club mentor, Scott Gordon, who has had far more experience at managing adult professional players in his coaching career than Hakstol has had in his, could go to Philadelphia if Hextall chooses to wield the axe.
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If such a scenario actually materializes, the next logical question to follow would focus on the Lehigh Valley Phantoms’ two AHL assistants and whether or not either Riley Cote or Kerry Huffman (or perhaps even both) would be joining Gordon on a revamped Philadelphia Flyers coaching staff. Naturally, in such a case, of paramount importance to the loyal patronage at the PPL Center in Allentown would be the identity of the Heroes’ new head honcho. It certainly would be interesting to see how a new Phantoms head coach might influence strategies and tactics … would Lehigh Valley continue to ice four lines that can all score and play the skillful style of ice hockey that has been the hallmark of this season’s team or would a return to the traditional if rudimentary “dump and chase” game that the Philadelphia organ-i-zation has always truly loved be on the cards?
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Getting back to the Flyers general manager Hextall for a moment, it would be hard to give outstanding marks if one were to assign midterm grades to the three players who made the NHL club after being signed by Philadelphia as free agents in the off-season this past summer. Russian rookie Roman Lyubimov has performed fairly well if one considers a very defensive game as a checking line winger was always his role for CSKA Moscow but, then again, the organ-i-zation already had plenty of blue collar, lunch pail types before bringing him on board, too. However, the addition of the veteran checking line center Gordon has proved to be of such enormous benefit to the Flyers that the 33-year-old with more than seven hundred NHL games to his credit has recently been sent down to the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms.

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And then there is Dale Weise, the 28-year-old winger with decent size who scored 10 goals in 79 NHL games for the Montreal Canadiens during the 2014/15 campaign and a combined 14 goals in 71 NHL games for both the Canadiens and Chicago Black Hawks the season thereafter. Weise had a contract which paid out $ 1,050,000 for each of those two seasons but his salary nearly tripled after signing with cap challenged Philadelphia. In return for his $ 2,750,000 salary this term, Weise has rewarded the Flyers with the grand total of two goals in 41 NHL games thus far.
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No, not all off-season transactions in the free agent market pan out each and every time — BUT — considering all the “In Hextall We Trust” hoopla one routinely hears, it is rather interesting to note that neither of the Flyers general manager’s two ‘major’ veteran free agent signings for this season have really been all that successful by any stretch. Yes, I understand that Philadelphia have been stranded in salary cap hell for quite some time but being stuck with aging pieces of junk like $ 2.25 million dollar defenseman Nick Schultz, another veteran free agent signing of Hextall’s back in the summer of 2014, does nothing to improve the deplorable situation. In other words, some of the salary cap pain is actually the result of relatively recently inflicted wounds for which someone must be held accountable.
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Gotta love the Philadelphia Flyers organ-i-zation and its blindly loyal legion of never say die supporters sometimes, though. Like when everybody and their brother spouts the party line touting the fact that German Rubtsov, the 18-year-old who was the 1st round pick (# 22 overall) of the Flyers at the 2016 NHL Draft but an underachiever for bronze medalist Russia at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championships this winter, can learn English faster by playing junior hockey in North America. Never mind that Rubtsov will be living and skating in the French-speaking province of Quebec.
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Getting back to urgent matters that directly affect the quality of AHL life here in the Mecca Of Minor League Sports, how the Philadelphia Flyers fare in their NHL travels over the course of the next month or so could have a catastrophic impact on the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. The Hamilton Street Heroes have a good amount of depth and could easily survive the recall of a forward or two although it should be clear by now that neither Taylor Leier, who had one goal and one assist in ten NHL games for the Flyers earlier this season, nor former first rounder Scott Laughton are going to impact players for Philadelphia this term. The real danger is that Hextall will hold a genuine fire sale and dump a bunch of veterans who are making outrageous amounts of money (like former Phantoms defenseman Andrew MacDonald, for example) in exchange for a boatload of draft picks, thereby causing a tidal wave of promotions from Lehigh Valley’s squad.
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As the knowledgeable Lehigh Valley IronPigs baseball broadcaster Matt Provence has already well documented, there certainly have already been sensational late-season collapses in the International League largely as a result of farm clubs being ransacked and pillaged by “rebuilding” parental organ-i-zations. Ironically enough, this blog was extremely quick to lavish praise upon the Philadelphia Flyers front office very early on in training camp for having went out and signed a large number of ‘high end minor league free agents’ during the summer — but those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat it. This season, the surging Hamilton Street Heroes have become the second-most successful side in the entire 30-team American Hockey League but there are still plenty more precious games yet to be played and so anything resembling Napoleon’s ruinous retreat from Moscow would be unacceptable.
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On the subject of the most powerful team in the whole AHL, it just so happens that the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are the next opponent on the schedule for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, with the two teams set to meet at the PPL Center on Friday, January 20th.


Categories: Phantoms Hockey

2 replies

  1. Yeah, this is the worry, right? The Flyers did an excellent job–and paid a ton of money–to get us some nice AHL veteran pieces (Brennan, Miele, O’Neill, Knight, Zengerle, et al) to frame the younger talent on this team for their third AHL campaign in town. It has resulted in a really nice, winning, season thus far.

    But the Flyers giveth and the Flyers can taketh away. It could all come crumbling down. I’m not so much worried about the coach–as you rightly pointed out the Pens lost their coach last season and just kept on chugging. Their downfalls in the playoffs were likely due to Pittsburgh pillaging their goalies due to injuries. As we’ve discussed, this team is built on skill and offense, and despite the depth, if you take away a couple key pieces on offense (Weal, Miele, Carey) while at the same time removing some of the scoring and puck moving on defense (Brennan, Sanheim) then all of a sudden we’re an also-ran. Even with a playoff bid, we’d be an easy out for Wilkes Barre or Hershey or Providence. And, frankly, we’ve waited “so long” for playoffs, I’m not really going to be satisfied with getting swept in the first round.

    But ultimately, I don’t think that will happen. We could lose a piece or two, but we can withstand that. We’re not dependent on one hot goalie to win or a super-special coaching scheme. We’ll likely be able to ride the talent. And, I do think Hextall is smart enough to know what his team is and isn’t. Coaching moves and overhauls are more likely to occur in the off-season, methinks–unless someone comes along with a Rinaldo-esque Godfather deal at the deadline.

    Big game coming to start the second-half against the Pens. And what’s happening with them? Injuries and illnesses in Pittsburgh have lead to roster upheaval in the Wyoming Valley. How have they handled it? A 7-game win streak leading into Monday’s game. That’s how you do it.

  2. The WBS Machine never breaks. The 20-year-old rookie who is leading the team in scoring says, “Hey, I’m not happy with my ice time so I’m going back to Canadian junior hockey.” WBS says, “Suit yourself, we’ll just call up another player from the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL and not miss a beat … again, for the umpteenth time.”

    I figure the Phantoms can probably withstand the loss of two forwards and one defenseman – especially if 19-year-old Philippe Myers plays at the AHL level in the same effective manner that he did for silver medalist Canada during the preliminary round robin phase of the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship – because Lehigh Valley do have a certain amount of depth. For example, on defense Lehigh Valley have three high quality puck-moving defensemen (Brennan, Sanheim and O’Neill) and I, for one, will not be shocked when Sanheim is permanently promoted later this season because the Philadelphia Flyers decide it is time to acclimate this 1st round draft pick to the NHL no matter what much in the same way the organ-i-zation made a conscious decision at the start of the season to keep 1st rounder Ivan Provorov in the line-up come hell or high water. In that case, color me not worried because the Phantoms would still have Brennan (a First Team All-AHL selection last season) and O’Neill (a Second Team All-AHL selection last season).

    I figure even the loss of the entire coaching staff should really be no big deal because most of the Phantoms are experienced minor league veterans who know full well what kind of hockey they are trying to play and also have had half a season skating together already. In other words, this Phantoms team should be pretty much on auto pilot by now. Any new coaching staff, if they were smart, would not try to fix what is not broke and, instead, would simply focus on keeping the skilled and experienced minor league veterans sufficiently motivated to continue the Hamilton Street Heroes’ historic chase for Calder Cup glory.

    Philadelphia Flyers have lost nine of last eleven and 11 of last 14 — if this kind of form keeps up, the organ-i-zation might be left with very few options. The acronym, NHL, actually stands for “Not Here Long”. At some point, someone will have to be held accountable and I am just not sure that the luxury of waiting for the summer off-season exists.

    Not unless the organ-i-zation actually want the fan base to riot … again! (just like in
    Game Four of the first round playoff series against Washington Capitals) … 🙂

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