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    Are Flyers running out of gas? After ugly Chicago loss, it's a real concern

    Charlie O'Connor Avatar
    March 31, 2024

    Flyers head coach John Tortorella is a lot of things.

    One thing he’s not? An excuse-maker for his club.

    This is the same guy who two weeks ago scratched his own captain, in defiance of all hockey culture norms, largely because he didn’t feel like he was playing up to snuff. And that was after the guy averaged 20 minutes a night for the season’s first four months, coming off a 1.5 season layoff and two back surgeries. Not getting the job done right now? Sorry, you’re sitting.

    So when Tortorella gets up in front of the media after two thoroughly disappointing losses to bottom-of-the-standings clubs in the midst of a playoff race and openly theorizes that his team is simply gassed, worn down by a relentless schedule and the demands of injuries on his remaining “healthy” players, it’s easier to accept as less an excuse, and more a reason.

    “When you see your whole team struggle, that has to come into play, at least in my head,” Tortorella noted after the team’s ugly 5-1 loss at the hands of cellar-dwelling Chicago. “We’ve got to try to get them fresh somehow.”

    The fatigue explanation didn’t come out of nowhere last night. Tortorella also alluded to the possibility unprompted in Montreal on Thursday, in the immediate aftermath of watching his club fall 4-1 to an opponent currently sitting 27th in the standings. Now, after a loss to an even-less imposing foe that Tortorella bluntly called “a drubbing,” he really believes it.

    “I do. When you see the whole team struggle the way we did tonight, I think that’s settled in,” he said. “And I think we’ve got some inexperience that has been thrown into this type of situation. But when you see a whole team struggle to make plays, and you watch our power play, our top guys struggle, I think it’s there.”

    It’s undeniable that the Flyers are in the midst of an intensely busy slate. Saturday’s battle with the Blackhawks was the team’s 15th game in 30 days, which included a stretch of seven straight games against Eastern Conference juggernauts that forced the Flyers to empty the tank on a nightly basis just to skate with their more talented opponents. But it’s some of the team’s most important players who have truly been pushed to their limits.

    Start with goalie Sam Ersson, who allowed five goals on 24 shots against Chicago. Since officially taking over as Philadelphia clear-cut No. 1 netminder coming out of the all-star break in the wake of Carter Hart’s sexual assault charge, he’s started 20 of 25 games — a 65-start pace over a full season, and tied for third leaguewide in appearances since February 6th alongside stars like Andrei Vasilevskiy and Connor Hellebuyck. They have years of experience taking a heavy load at the NHL level. Ersson, on the other hand, is still just a rookie, and he certainly appears to be buckling a bit.

    Then there’s captain Sean Couturier, the team’s 1C through the season’s first half, who has just two goals in 2024 and is obviously gassed, which general manager Daniel Briere came about as close as possible to acknowledging in the aftermath of Couturier’s two-game scratch earlier this month.

    And finally, there’s the top pair of Cam York and Travis Sanheim, which Tortorella singled out specifically as players who he knows for a fact are feeling the effects of fatigue.

    “I know Sanny and Yorky are on fumes, just watching them play,” Tortorella said. “They’re not even thinking correctly.”

    Since Nick Seeler went down with a foot injury on March 4 and Sean Walker was traded on March 6, Tortorella and the coaches piled the minutes onto their two best blueliners, trying desperately to keep the positional group afloat. Over the next 11 games — prior to Seeler’s return on Saturday, which at long last gave the coaches a third clear-cut top-four blueliner to deploy — York was entrusted with 26:03 minutes per game, and Sanheim given 24:34 on average.

    That would have been difficult even if both players were operating at full health. But don’t forget that York suffered a not-insignificant shoulder injury back on February 15 that he’s been nursing, and Sanheim seems to get banged up in concerning fashion at least once a week — he had his leg roll up under him on March 9, and then took a painful slapshot to the leg on March 24. Sanheim returned to the game both times, but he’s been only a sporadic participant in practice since early March, and his breakaway speed — the hallmark of his entire playing style — has been nowhere to be found in recent contests.

    Frankly, it’s miraculous how well both have performed in spite of the brutal workload and their own bumps and bruises — since Seeler and Walker exited the lineup, York has posted a stellar 57.36 percent expected goal share at 5-on-5, and Sanheim isn’t far behind at 57.02 percent.

    But finally, at long last, they’re showing signs of dropoff.

    “I know it’s gotten to our top two defensemen. Because we’re killing them as far as ice time,” Tortorella admitted. “There are some plays that they could make, just checking-wise that they make all the time and they’re just not there.”

    “Yeah, obviously a lot of minutes for us over the last stretch,” Sanheim acknowledged. “But in saying that, we know that we’re relied upon. We’ve got to contribute and play well in those minutes. We’re gonna need to be much better moving forward.”

    Tortorella easily could have fumed and pouted about Saturday’s loss; he certainly hasn’t held back from making his displeasure with his team known publicly in the past. And this was against the Blackhawks, the second-worst team in the NHL. But Tortorella was less displeased with his team than sympathetic to their plight. He didn’t even theorize that the Flyers had taken the Blackhawks (or Habs) lightly, a popular sentiment on social media that both Seeler and Couturier pushed back on even if a frustrated Sanheim was less charitable.

    “Yeah, I just think for some reason, when we’re against top teams, we show up. When we play teams that aren’t in the playoff mix, we seem to play down to their level,” Sanheim said.

    If Tortorella believed that, presumably he would have delivered one of his patented sub-one minute postgame pressers. Instead, he just thought his club played an uncharacteristically bad hockey game.

    “We sucked tonight. We didn’t execute. We didn’t make one play,” he said matter-of-factly, with no obvious venom in his voice.

    And in his mind, it was because they were tired.

    But the rest of the league isn’t going to cut the Flyers a break just because they might be gassed. Tortorella acknowledged that lots of teams are tired in late March — but many of them are doing a significantly better job than the Flyers at picking up standings points, even some that are chasing the Flyers for a playoff spot.

    The Washington Capitals now have the same amount of points as the Flyers despite two fewer games played, officially taking over the third spot in the Metropolitan Division and pushing the Flyers to the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference on Saturday night. Detroit has lost four straight, but did nab a tough road loser point in Florida yesterday and are now just two points back of Philadelphia with a game in hand. Even the Isles are just five points behind with two games in hand, and head to Philly on Monday with the knowledge they could cut the deficit to a manageable three with a regulation win.

    “We should have a ton of energy. We’re fighting for a playoff spot right now, so we shouldn’t be lacking energy there,” Sanheim lamented.

    The Flyers still have the advantage of a weaker remaining schedule than their rivals. Dom Luszczyszyn’s model at The Athletic rates the Flyers’ schedule as the 25th most difficult over the final two and a half weeks, while ranking the Capitals’ slate 14th-toughest and slotting the Red Wings at 16th. But an easy schedule doesn’t mean anything if a team can’t beat easy opponents, and this current version of the Flyers just showed they were too spent to defeat even the Canadiens and Blackhawks. It doesn’t bode well for supposedly “manageable” games against Columbus and Buffalo next weekend.

    So what are the Flyers doing to overcome their apparent fatigue?

    A three-day gap in the schedule next week after the Islanders game should help, but it’s not going to fix everything. Seeler noted that the coaching staff is emphasizing getting more traffic in front, an obvious reaction to the fact that the Flyers have now scored just one goal in three of their last four games. Getting literally anything from a power play that has gone 0 for its last eight and scored just six goals in March would help, especially given the fact that the PP’s “half-court” nature is naturally less tiring than back-and-forth 5-on-5 play. Team captain Couturier focused on Philadelphia’s starts, pointing out that chasing a game — as they did both in Montreal and against Chicago — is inherently more exhausting than the alternative.

    “Doesn’t matter who you’re playing, when you play catch-up hockey, it’s always tough,” he said.

    As for Tortorella, he’s still taking a “they know where they’re at” approach to the room in terms of reminding the players of the playoff stakes at hand. But he is cutting back on practices whenever possible, leaving only light morning skates on gamedays as the only times the Flyers have been hitting the ice together as a group. Friday was an extremely optional skate consisting mostly of regular scratches. They didn’t practice last Monday after the Florida loss, or Wednesday in Montreal. Practice was cancelled for Sunday, and this Tuesday will be another off-day. These aren’t decisions that Tortorella takes lightly, even if he views them as necessary given the energy of the team.

    “See, I want to (practice). I think we need to practice. I do,” Tortorella said after Saturday’s loss. “I think that would help some guys. (But) I can’t. I can’t.”

    But are a few extra days off enough? How does a gassed team truly gets its legs back after 75 demanding, high-effort games?

    “I don’t know if there’s a specific answer for that,” Sanheim responded. “I think we’ll enjoy our day off tomorrow. Try and get as much rest as we can, and get ready for another big game on Monday.”

    Now that the Flyers are apparently deep in the throes of a fatigue-driven swoon, it’s easy to look back and play the second-guessing game. And to be sure, the coaching staff could have made different decisions along the way that perhaps would have left the team with more energy entering this final stretch. But it’s also worth noting that those choices were justifiable in the moment, and played a big role in keeping the Flyers in the playoff mix for this long.

    Did playing Couturier for 20 minutes a night for the season’s first four months have a negative cumulative effect that he’s paying for now? Probably. But along with Travis Konecny and Sanheim, Couturier carried the team in the first half, and centers like Ryan Poehling and Scott Laughton had yet to show they could thrive in bigger minutes this season. As for Morgan Frost, Tortorella would surely contend that Frost wouldn’t be rolling offensively like he is now (29 points in his last 37 games) if he was merely handed an every-night top-six role, rather than having to earn it the hard way.

    Has Ersson been overworked? Very possibly. But was the answer really giving Cal Petersen and/or Felix Sandström more starts, given how they looked in February and March?

    Could they have limited Sanheim and York’s March minutes a bit more? Sure, but that would have meant giving a much larger workload to players like Egor Zamula (who struggled mightily on Saturday) or Marc Staal (back to the healthy scratch world) or Erik Johnson (Flyers have been outscored 11 – 3 at 5-on-5 with him on the ice). That’s a road which likely leads to the Flyers already having fallen out of a playoff spot, rather than still hanging onto one with seven games remaining.

    The hard truth is this: the 2023-24 Flyers have always been a team punching above their on-paper weight class, and all credit to them for getting this far despite their inherent limitations. But it certainly looks like they’re now being pushed right to the very edges of those limits, both due to forces within their control (Couturier’s usage, the Sean Walker trade) and out of their control (lack of availability of Hart, injuries on defense).

    “One thing I know about this group is we’re gonna keep fighting until the end,” Couturier said.

    Now, the group faces its toughest challenge yet — finding a way to replenish a near-empty tank with minimal recuperation time in the midst of a tight playoff race.

    “We’ve just gotta get some sort of energy back and some confidence back in our game, and not lose our belief,” Tortorella said. “We’ve worked too hard to get to this spot to play these type of games. Now we’ve got to figure it out.”

    We’ll find out over the next two-and-a-half weeks if they can.

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