One by one, the Flyers came through Virtua Center Flyers Skate Zone on Tuesday and walked out into the offseason. The entire roster stopped by over the course of the afternoon to wrap things up in the locker room while also meeting with GM Ron Hextall and head coach Dave Hakstol individually, and later to undergo exit physicals.
Traditionally the colloquially-known “breakup day” is rife with lament over a season that did not end the way anyone wanted. While there was an element of that as the players recounted the season, there was a notable sense of optimism for the times that lie ahead.
“We realize we have a great core of guys here,” said defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, whose arrival in Philadelphia was one of the highlights of the season. “We’ve got a great team. Of course it didn’t end too well, but we gained a lot of experience. We realize we have a very good team, and we’re going to keep pushing forward and hopefully have a really bright future.”
The Flyers by and large acknowledged that Washington is an outstanding team that earned its victory, but while not happy with losing the series, they weren’t ashamed of their effort against the Presidents’ Trophy champions.
“I think obviously we could be better,” Brayden Schenn said. “We didn’t score a whole lot of goals. But I feel like their team, they’re tight defensively and didn’t give us a whole lot. When you go into the playoffs, obviously guys like me and other guys we have to score to win, and we didn’t do that. But give Washington credit – they did a good job on our whole team. Five goals in six games. There wasn’t a whole lot out there. Honestly it would have been nice to score a few goals. It just didn’t happen.”
Said Gostisbehere: “[We’re] definitely not satisfied. We wanted to push it to Game 7 and eventually win the series and move on. You watch the games now, and [there’s a] shoulda-coulda-woulda sort of feeling. I try to step away from the game a little bit and not watch too much. Right now there’s still a little sour taste in our mouths. We’re not happy about it. But you have to move on and take the positives from it.”
The positives were many. For one thing, there was a lot of praise headed in the direction of Hakstol, who was somewhat of an unknown in the professional hockey world this time last year, aside for the many NHL players who played for him at North Dakota. Eleven months after his hiring, Hakstol is earning rave reviews around the hockey world for what he did with the Flyers this season.
“I think he had a huge impact on us,” said Wayne Simmonds. “The way he handles himself, his calmness, the way he is on the bench, that just went right down the line. It brought a sense of calm to the guys. I think we fed off that and it helped us out a lot.”
“He expects a lot out of us,” said Scott Laughton. “He’s one of the best coaches I’ve played for, for sure. He’s got really good systems, and that’s why we got to where we were. A lot of our systems were good. we forced teams to dump a lot of pucks and things like that. We didn’t give up a lot in the latter half of the year. It was a good year for him, for learning the NHL game, and I think next year will be even better when he knows everyone.”
Flyers captain Claude Giroux said the whole team bought into Hakstol’s philosophy early in the season, and things began to come together from there.
“Everybody at the same time, first day of camp,” Giroux said. “We understood that it was going to be a process. I think it only got better. Every week we were learning, we were excited to play those games, and I think guys did a good job of staying motivated.
“Just the way we played compared to the start of the year to the last two months, I think we were a different team. We grew defensively, offensively. It was really important to us to grow on our identity, and we just need to keep growing here.”
One of the positives was that Laughton is doing fine after his scare in Game 4 when he collided hard with the end boards and was stretchered off the ice. Laughton talked with the media for the first time since the incident and expressed his gratitude for the well wishes that came his way.
“I was conscious the whole time,” he said. “I think [the backboard and stretcher] was just more precautionary from [Flyers trainer] Jimmy [McCrossin]. I could move everything. It was just a tough play, a really weird play. I know it was scary for a lot of people including myself. I really appreciate all the support from all the people who did reach out. It definitely meant the world to me.”
Another positive was the Flyers’ fourth line, which was the one group that played together the most over the course of the season. Ryan White told reporters it was something he saw coming when the season started.
“Just even from day one we were put together and I remember saying to my girlfriend I didn’t think this is going to be changing too much this year,” White said. “I didn’t get to play with them much last year, but I liked the way they played and I thought I fit in good with them. They’re so tenacious on the puck; it seemed like some nights I didn’t have to work too hard because they were so hard on the puck that I just had to get open for them. I think Hak having a lot of trust in us and giving us a lot of big minutes against big lines early in the season, and us having a little bit of success, made us a little more confident and carried throughout the season.”
So while the loss is still fresh – many players said they haven’t been able to watch any of the other games just yet – the optimism is showing through, and the Flyers are already starting to see the positives that will eventually shine through the loss to Washington.
“I think we have a lot of things to be proud of,” Giroux said. “The way guys battled the last three months, I think the guys should be proud… we learned a lot from Hak and our assistant coaches, and we got better. We worked really hard to make sure we grew as a team.”
Said Simmonds: “I don’t think we’re that far. We’ve got a great group of guys. Everyone likes each other, we’re pretty tight knit. I think this year we built and we got better and better throughout the year. Our compete level, our effort, that’s one of our big strengths. I don’t think we’re too far off.”