NHL On NBCSN: What do the Flyers need to contend again?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders. Flyers-Islanders stream coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

From a mathematical standpoint the Philadelphia Flyers still have some sort of playoff hope for this season. But it is fading, and fading fast. Realistically speaking, they should be looking ahead to next season, and based on their approach at the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline, they are already doing exactly that.

They enter Sunday’s game against the New York Islanders (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in sixth place in the East Division, four points back of the fifth place New York Rangers and eight points back of a Boston Bruins team that still has two games in hand. The Flyers not only have almost no margin for error within their own games, they are going to need some major help along the way. Even worse, they only have two games (both against the Rangers) against the two teams directly ahead of them.

Given how good the Flyers were a year ago when they finished with the sixth-best record in the league and the fourth-best goal differential, their 2020-21 performance has to be considered a massive disappointment on both an individual and team level. Entering Sunday, they are in 18th place in the league standings this season and 25th in goal differential.

[FLYERS-ISLANDERS COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Some players (Travis Konecny, Kevin Hayes) took a small step backwards, at least as it relates to their goal scorer.

Others, like Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere on defense and Nolan Patrick at forward, did not take any kind of a step forward.

There were injuries to key players (Konecny, Sean Couturier).

Then the biggest issue of them all — goaltending.

A common occurrence and problem with the Flyers over the past three decades. Carter Hart was supposed to be the player to change that, and after showing a ton of promise during his first two seasons — and even early this season — his season turned into a massive disappointment with injuries, poor play, and some questioning from his coach.

But it is not just Hart that has struggled in that area. Brian Elliott has also had a rough season, and when combined the Flyers rank 31st in both 5-on-5 save percentage (.890) and all situations save percentage (.878). It does not matter what the rest of your team looks like, you are going to have zero chance of competing for a playoff spot, let alone a championship, with that level of play in net. It just does not work. It ruins everything else on the roster.

While the Flyers do have some issues in their own zone, statistically speaking their defensive metrics have been solid for most of the season, at least as it relates to limiting shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances. It is worth asking what this team would look like with the version of Hart that we saw over his first two seasons in the league. It probably looks a heck of a lot better.

That has to be issue No. 1 for the Flyers going into next season — get Hart back on track.

[Your 2020-21 NHL On NBC TV Schedule]

He is the focal point of the next chapter of Flyers hockey, and the player that the whole thing is going to be built around. If he falters, the team is going to falter. If he success, well, guess what? The team is going to succeed. The talent level is absolutely there. He has shown flashes of being able to play at a high level, and he is still only 22 years old. It is not uncommon for young goalies to go through early struggles and then bounce back with great careers (Carey Price, Marc-Andre Fleury as some more recent examples).

But the Flyers can also help him by insulating him a little more with the defense in front of him.

Matt Niskanen’s retirement was a major development for the Flyers’ blue line coming into this season, compounded by the fact they did nothing to really address it in terms of an outside addition despite having a healthy amount of salary cap space. When you look at this Flyers defense it is pretty obvious they do not have that No. 1 guy that every Stanley Cup team has that can play a third of the game and excel in every possible situation. Shayne Gostisbehere never became that player. They sometimes treat Ivan Provorov like he is that player, but he is not. They are still useful players, and even very good players. But they are not the players that are going to lead a Stanley Cup caliber defense. At least not on their own.

Now, that is a difficult player to get. There are not many of them in the NHL, and they do not become available very often.

On the free agent market, Dougie Hamilton is the obvious choice but there are going to be 31 other teams (including his current team, Carolina) that are going to be lining up to try and sign him for major money.

Maybe Nashville explores a Mattias Ekholm trade again. Perhaps Columbus puts Zach Werenski on the market given his contract situation. Neither player is a true “No. 1,” but they would still represent a major upgrade to a unit that needs it.

No matter who it is or where they get it from, those are the two biggest factors that can get the Flyers back to where they should be.

Fix the goalie. Help the goalie get fixed by giving him more help in front of him.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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    Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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    Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

    The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

    Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

    After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

    Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

    Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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    MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

    But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

    “I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

    Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

    “I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

    Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

    Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

    Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

    All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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    SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

    Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

    The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

    Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

    Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.

    Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

    The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

    The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

    Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

    His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

    Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

    He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

    He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

    A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

    Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.