Philadelphia Flyers reflect on why, how they fell short: ‘We still have some learning to do’

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Philadelphia Flyers reflect on why, how they fell short: ‘We still have some learning to do’

VOORHEES, N.J. — It’s straightforward, and not necessarily inaccurate, to point to the Philadelphia Flyers’ 0-6-2 stretch from late March into early April as the primary reason they failed to qualify for the playoffs. It was the absolute worst time of the year for them to squander points in the standings.

But there were other losses throughout the season, too, against teams they were in direct competition with for those final few Eastern Conference playoff slots. The Flyers finished just 10-11-5 against Metropolitan Division teams. The Washington Capitals gained five of six possible points against the Flyers, including a massive 5-2 win in Washington on March 1, while the New York Islanders also captured five of a possible six. Washington and New York will play again this weekend. The Flyers will not.

In a season that was primarily about the Flyers’ young core growing together as a group, it was a painful, yet important lesson: the games all count equally in the end.

“Some of those in-conference games kind of hurt us even before (the losing streak),” Scott Laughton said. “You could have put the teams away that were chasing you, and we just didn’t find a way. … Every game matters, every point matters. We still have some learning to do.”

Added Travis Konecny: “Going into next year, maybe it makes you realize that a nothing game on a Tuesday, (in a) random city — that game matters. It’s a good mindset for a team to have.”

The Flyers gathered one final time on Wednesday at their practice facility. Nineteen of them were made available to the media. Just about all of them spoke about how much they enjoyed each other’s company, and that the overall culture and foundation is solid. Even during their late-season collapse, there was no finger-pointing or in-house bickering. They all cared for each other too much to have any of those sorts of blowups.

“We’re going to miss each other,” Travis Sanheim said. “We loved that group in there. We didn’t want this to end.”

The problems they encountered were of the on-ice variety. They were working hard. They were working for one another. They just didn’t have the talent, or, in some cases, the health, to hang in the race long enough.

It starts on defense. When Flyers general manager Daniel Briere traded Sean Walker on March 7, he removed the player who was arguably their most consistent blueliner and who was a vital part of the transition game that made them so dangerous so often throughout the first half. That trade coincided with injuries to Nick Seeler, Jamie Drysdale and Rasmus Ristolainen, too.

“Any time you have a guy like that get traded, it’s obviously going to impact your back end,” Seeler said. “Walks was a big part of our group here and a big reason for the success we had. But Danny obviously made the decision because we’re in a rebuild, and he thought that was the best for the team. You need to trust in that. But it doesn’t mean that it didn’t, obviously, affect the back end.”

Added Cam York: “It’s hard when you have new guys coming in, and the first, like, 50 games we had the same core of guys. I think when you can build chemistry with that group, you can play some really good hockey. When it all of a sudden switches, it can be a big adjustment.”

Complicating matters is that both York and his partner, Sanheim, were apparently playing through some significant bumps and bruises at various points after the All-Star break. York admitted that he suffered a Grade 2 shoulder sprain on February 15 in Toronto and that he “probably should have missed a few games,” but played through it because he didn’t want to miss the Stadium Series two days later.

Sanheim, who was taking maintenance days on a regular basis late in the season, had “a pretty serious thing going on there,” according to York.

Still, coach John Tortorella leaned on them. He had no choice. And that was just fine from their perspective, even it it did require a certain pain tolerance.

“Obviously, playing a lot,” said Sanheim. “A little banged up, as well. Battling through some injuries. Obviously, a lot at stake. In saying that, I think me and Yorkie fully wanted that. We wanted to be carrying the load, we wanted to be a big part of it. For the most part, I thought me and Yorkie played pretty well.”

There were no further details as to what exactly Sanheim was dealing with, but he said it will only require rest, and not surgery.

Drysdale, though, who missed more than a month after taking a hard hit to his previously repaired shoulder in a game in Pittsburgh on Feb. 25, was evasive when asked about his situation. He seemed to suggest that he was playing through something from the time he arrived to Philadelphia, and when asked if he’ll need any sort of off-season procedure, only replied, “Potentially.” He does expect to be at full health when training camp begins, though.

A more thorough injury report could come on Friday, when Tortorella and Briere hold their final media availabilities of the season.

The other glaring weakness had nothing to do with injuries or trades: the power play, which will finish last in the NHL with just a 12.2 percent success rate, the lowest in the league since 2020-21. Nowhere was the Flyers’ lack of elite, high-end skill up front more evident than there, but it still shouldn’t have been as bad as it was. To put that number in perspective, even the league-worst San Jose Sharks managed a 19.9 percent power play this season.

“It’s tough to pinpoint (why),” Morgan Frost said. “A lot of the fans are frustrated with that and we were just as frustrated. … It’s obviously something that needs to be worked on.”

A sarcastic Laughton added: “It’s actually pretty impressive what we did all year with our power play, the way it was and not scoring goals.”

Another theory as to why the team faltered late is that there was just a little too much noise around the team from January onward. From the Drysdale-for-Cutter Gauthier trade, to Carter Hart’s departure, to Tortorella’s two-game suspension and various critical comments, to Couturier getting scratched, there was no shortage of headlines with the Flyers, both locally and in Canada.

Couturier spoke about his sitting for two games on March 19-21.

“I’ve tried not to look back at it, honestly. It’s behind me now,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a distraction or anything. I thought actually the team responded pretty well, with three points out of four the next two games. That’s all that mattered really. I might have (gotten) caught up in some comments that were a little blown out of proportion, I think, just through my emotions. Like I said, it’s behind me.”

As for his relationship with Tortorella, he said they’ve had some conversations and he expects more to come.

“We’ve agreed on some things and disagreed on others,” he said. “We don’t have to agree on everything. As long as we work together and push for the same goal, that’s all that matters. I think that’s the kind of relationship we have.”

Laughton spoke about Couturier getting scratched, as well as everything that seemed to be going on outside of the dressing room.

“It’s tough when your captain gets scratched,” he said. “He’s the leader of your team, and you want him out there in key situations. It’s tough. There’s different things that go on throughout every year. I think we’ve had different things for the last couple years here, and you deal with them. It’s your job to go on the ice and perform. The outside doesn’t really matter. You have to perform. That stuff happens throughout a year, and you’ve got to deal with it.”

So, did it adversely affect them as a group? Tough to say. But, Garnet Hathaway suggested that the young players, especially, can learn from those potential distractions.

“Things happen throughout the whole year that will try and distract you, pull you apart,” Hathaway said. “It happens to every team. That’s one thing that the good teams — you see those teams that consistently get in the playoffs, they know how to go through that. They know how to go through the ups and downs of the season. You look at losing streaks and you see the really good teams, they shut them down so fast. It doesn’t get any traction. I think that’s one thing that we’re gong to keep learning, and that’s the strides we need to take to get to where we want to be.”

Perhaps moving forward, some Flyers can take York’s approach, at least when it comes to some of the public criticisms of Tortorella.

“Anything he says, I try not to pay too much attention to — in a good way,” York said, with a smirk. “I’ve learned to kind of just ignore it.”

Perhaps that’s part of the reason that a guy like York, who was named as the Flyers’ most improved player this season as voted on by his teammates, was able to emerge as a future franchise cornerstone.

Others will have to follow.

Hathaway expects that will happen.

“I see guys wanting to learn and get better, and find out what it takes,” he said. “There’s no hesitating. On the ice, there’s a ton of skill, a ton of hockey sense. I think you put that with the work ethic that the organization has hand picked to be here, that’s a recipe for success.

“Guys right now wanted more than we ended up with. And so guys are, (with) how competitive we are and I think how much that locker room cares, excited knowing just how much hard work it’s going to take — which seems wild, a little bit, but that’s the kind of group that this is.”

(Photo: Eric Hartline / Getty Images)