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Flyers need to show improvement

The Flyers struggled without center Sean Couturier in the lineup against the Boston Bruins, dropping both games last week. The Flyers’ slow start is magnified by lofty expectations heading into the season. Photo by Zack Hill, Flyers senior director of communications.

Expectations often play a huge role in perception.

Last year, the Philadelphia Flyers were one of the surprise teams in the regular season, vaulting to the top of the Metropolitan Division standings before the league was temporarily shut down due to the pandemic, ending the season with about a dozen games to go.

This year has been surprising in another facet, as the Flyers don’t look much like the team that was winning exciting games against tough opponents last winter. The Flyers entered this season as a 14-to-1 favorite to win the Stanley Cup — their shortest odds since 2012-13 when they opened at 12-to-1. Incidentally, the Flyers missed the playoffs that year, which was 48 games due to a lockout-shortened season. They started off slow at 2-6-0 through eight games.

Last year, there wasn’t too much concern after the team was 2-3-1 after six games; or two years ago, when they started off an even keel 3-3-0. But this season, the alarms are sounding after the Flyers are 3-2-1 following their first half-dozen games. And there’s a reason for it: The fan base expects better.

In years past, there has been a honeymoon period after a few wild off-seasons of new acquisitions, buyouts and coaching changes. Fans were willing to give the Flyers the benefit of the doubt after slow starts to find their footing before a late-season push. This year, the Flyers shouldn’t expect that same gratitude. The team balked at trading for big names like Patrik Laine when they became available, and they failed to improve the team or at least replace the hole left by Matt Niskanen’s retirement after his $5.75 million contract came off the books. And don’t expect the Flyers to be rescued at the trade deadline, as they have just a little over a million bucks left before reaching the salary cap, not to mention the complications of trying to trade for players when quarantines have become an issue and the Canadian border is locked.

This group of Flyers, which has a healthy mix of veterans and young talent, is going to have to figure it out on their own.

The Flyers woke up Monday morning in fifth place in the East Division (sixth, in terms of points percentage), which, at the moment, would put them out of the playoffs. And besides a 3-0 Brian Elliott shutout over the Buffalo Sabres in which Philly was badly outshot, the Flyers have really struggled to make things look easy. They have been outshot in all but two of the 18 periods they have played and rank at the bottom of the league in both shots attempted per game and percentage of high-danger chances at 5-on-5. Their PDO (combination of shooting percentage and goaltender save percentage at 5-on-5) is the fourth-highest in the league, which means regression could soon be coming. It’s likely the Flyers are going to have to improve their defensive coverage and perhaps find a new philosophy on how to break the puck out of the zone in transition to keep their young goaltender Carter Hart in Bruce Banner form, instead of the stick-smashing Hulk we saw after a 6-1 loss to Boston over the weekend.

Although 10 percent of the season is gone in the blink of an eye, it’s not all doom and gloom for the Flyers, who did manage to bank seven points in their first six games, giving them a lot of time to make a move in the standings. Piling up points when you’re not at your best is something only good teams can do, and it will be crucial to continue that trend in a pair of back-to-back meetings with the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders this week.

The good news is Sean Couturier and Philippe Myers will be back at some point this season, Travis Konecny remembered how to score goals after a sluggish playoff, and Kevin Hayes has adapted well to an increased role as the team’s temporary top center with eight points in six games. Stick taps to Jakub Voracek (seven points) and James van Riemsdyk (five) who sometimes draw criticism from the fan base because of their salaries.

The Flyers will need to build on the good and figure out how to change the bad. Quickly. ••

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