With his Philadelphia Flyers in the midst of their first three-game winless stretch of the 2020-21 season, general manager Chuck Fletcher still has a playoff spot on his mind.
“We’re pushing to get back in,” he told the media during a press conference on Wednesday. “Certainly, we lack consistency this year. That’s been frustrating. Our goals against has been frustrating. I also look on the positive side. Two of our best games have been in the last week. I think as a group, we know the recipe for success. We just have to find it a little more consistently.”
The two good games Fletcher is referencing both came against the New York Islanders — a 4-3 road win last Thursday and a 2-1 overtime loss at Wells Fargo Center on Monday. In between, though, there was a 6-1 loss. And the memory of last week’s 9-0 shellacking by the New York Rangers is still vivid.
All told, the Flyers are now 4-8-1 in March. They’ll close out the month with a pair of home games against the Rangers and two on the road against the Sabres. April begins with two days off between games for the first time since Feb. 25-26.
Climbing The Standings
Heading into Wednesday’s games, the Flyers sit fifth in the MassMutual East Division with 34 points and a .548 save percentage through 31 games. They’re two points behind the fourth-place Bruins, who have three games in hand, and now six behind the Penguins, who have played one more game and face the Sabres on Wednesday night.
This month’s slide has the playoff projection sites concerned. SportsClubStats, for instance, is currently projecting the Flyers’ chance of reaching the postseason at just 7.2 percent. Even the Rangers, who now sit just two points behind the Flyers with the same number of games played, are getting odds of 20.4 percent.
Presumably, the Flyers’ poor projection is as much about the club’s terrifying defensive numbers as it is about recent results. In March, the Flyers have averaged a league-worst 4.38 goals against per game. That has dropped them to 30th overall for the season (3.52 goals against per game, ahead of only Ottawa) and into last place in team save percentage (.882).
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All Hands On Deck Defensively
“Last year, we defended well as a five-man unit and we had strong goaltending,” Fletcher said. “This year, we’re not defending well as a five-man unit and our goaltending has not been at the same level. That’s what I see really from last year to this year. Our goal now is to get back and defend better.”
That requires a full team effort.
“We’ve given up 27 goals off the rush this year,” Fletcher said. “That’s the most in the league by far. One of the hallmarks of our team last year is we defended well and we did not give up those types of chances. It starts up the ice. We put a lot of pressure on our D and goaltenders by the way we play up the ice. It’s something that we feel we can fix. We’re going to have to do it quickly, but we feel we can fix that.”
That being said, Fletcher is not absolving his defense group, which he admits is lacking chemistry.
“I think the makeup of our group probably is not right,” he said. “I think that’s a fair comment. I think we do need to address that going forward, to get the right mix. Certainly, some of our young players need to continue to take steps.
“I think our back end, like the rest of our team, needs to get better. But overall, our team defense has been a collective effort, and we just haven’t been good enough in any aspect of the game yet.”
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Trade Deadline Desires
Acknowledging that the defense corps misses retired veteran Matt Niskanen, Fletcher says not finding an adequate replacement didn’t come from lack of trying.
“We aggressively looked at a lot of options this offseason,” he said. “Certainly our cap situation was not helpful for adding significant dollars without moving significant dollars. We looked at a lot of different things, and this is what we ended up with.
“I don’t think I ever spent more time on the phone than I did this offseason. For various reasons, things didn’t break our way, the way we had hoped.”
Heading into the trade deadline, he’s ready to try again.
“We’re certainly not looking at selling right now,” he said, acknowledging that he’s been making significantly more calls than he has been receiving. “I’ve been much more aggressive, I think, than a lot of people, just looking at different options.
“Anything we do, we want to make sure it make sense. If we can fill a box for the long-term right now, we can potentially explore that. Certainly, if we can upgrade our team, we’ll do that.”
With so many NHL teams under tight financial constraints, it’s not easy to make a deal. But if more teams start to fall out of their respective playoff races as April 12 draws near, more players could come onto the market for aspiring contenders like the Flyers to consider.
This season’s all-divisional play could still see the standings around the league shuffle significantly before the playoffs begin.