Why Flyers' Depth Is Really a Mirage

VOORHEES, N.J. - Maybe there was a false of sense of reality right from Wayne Simmonds' opening hat trick to the eight-goal outburst against the Washington Capitals in the home opener.

"Just remember, after eight games, the media was all giddy about our team," Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said a month ago in Calgary. "We were like, ‘It's a little early about getting too giddy about this team.' We were a pretty good team then. Pretty good."

Perhaps the giddiness (if that truly existed) was a result of having some giddy-up to their game in that first month when the Flyers received contributions up and down their lineup while displaying an ability to transition out of their zone with efficiently and effectively.

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Offensively, the Flyers were ranked in the top five in goals per game, but the "O" was more of an oasis, the illusion of a balanced offensive attack.

Earlier this week, when asked about the Flyers' identity or lack thereof, head coach Dave Hakstol pointed directly to as that identifiable trait.

Coming out of training camp that may have been the case. Oskar Lindblom, who many believed was NHL ready, was assigned to Lehigh Valley, while Samuel Morin was essentially the eighth defenseman when the season started. The Flyers had a certain degree of depth, but as we've discovered over the past six weeks, it's not the organizational depth needed to carry them over an 82-game schedule.

Through those first 10 games, Jordan Weal had five points and was averaging nearly 14:26 a game. In the 23 games proceeding October, Weal has just five more points, averaging just 11:51.

Fourth liners Taylor Leier and Scott Laughton have seen their ice time take a significant hit as well. Combined, they were logging over 25 minutes through the first month of the season to just under 21-and-a-half minutes in December. Some of that decrease in ice time has been Hakstol's decision to take Leier off the penalty kill.

Laughton agreed a handful of the Flyers' supporting cast just haven't been relied upon as much as they were during the opening weeks of the season.

"Yeah, I'm not sure. I guess it's just the situation and you got to know your role," Laughton said. "That's the biggest thing. I knew my role coming into the year was going to be this and you got to stick with it. Even though you're not playing the big minutes, I think it's an important role to try and create momentum."

However, it's been the role players of the Flyers' opponents who have provided that momentum recently. On Tuesday night, the Penguins received a pair of goals from fourth liners Ryan Reaves and Tom Kuhnhackl. Last week in Florida, the Panthers' Jared McCann and Derek MacKenzie chipped in with decisive goals.

Hakstol has been forced to shorten his bench to protect third-period leads and has resorted to double shifting some of his skilled players when trying to make up a third-period deficit.

From a forward standpoint, you have Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Wayne Simmonds and Valtteri Filppula earning the bulk of the playing time, and then there's every other forward in one collective clump. Compare that to the NHL's top team, the Lightning, who have a perfect balance with eight forwards averaging in the 16-20 minute range.

Sure, few teams have the luxury, but it wasn't that long ago the Flyers were in that same boat. It just happened to be the last time they won a playoff series in 2012.

Only on defense has the Flyers' depth been tested through injury, as Hakstol has been forced to play 10 different blueliners, the same number they played with all of last season. Collectively that unit has a plus-10 rating, a respectable sum considering the injuries and suspension to Radko Gudas, plus the growing pains of a handful of rookies.

Depth has been an issue within this organization since the lockout in 2013. And unless the Flyers stage an impressive turnaround in the second half of this season, they'll miss the postseason for the fourth time in the last six years.

Perhaps when Hextall starts to feel giddy about this team again will we truly know they have the depth to compete for a championship.

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