Unlucky 13: Flyers stumble in franchise-worst losing streak

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VOORHEES, N.J. — The stirring “Rocky” soundtrack cranked full blast inside the Flyers’ training complex seemed a strange dichotomy for a fallen franchise mired in the longest losing streak of its 54-year existence.

Then again, much like the fictional fighter, the Flyers’ championship heyday peaked in the 1970s.

These Flyers are defined by losing, fan apathy and playing second string in their own building.

So with that as the backdrop, Flyers chairman Dave Scott had something to say:

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“You deserve so much better than what we’re dealing with right now. This isn’t what anybody signed up for,” he said Wednesday.

The Flyers are indeed sorry — in a sorry state.

They are losers of a franchise-record 13 straight games and in last place (13-22-8) in the Metropolitan Division. The Flyers have lost four in a row in regulation, five away from matching the team record set in 2006. The Flyers also became the first team in NHL history to have a pair of 10-game losing streaks within the first 40 games of the season.

The first streak cost coach Alain Vigneault his job. Mike Yeo was named interim coach for the rest of the season and the Flyers will wait until the offseason to decide on a new coach.

But for the fans who have waited since 1975 to win a Stanley Cup, the wait will go on without bottoming out — akin to fellow Wells Fargo Center tenant, and attendance sellout regulars, the 76ers and their Process.

“I don’t really see this as being a three-, four-, five-year rebuild at all,” Scott said.

Flyers fans on Twitter promptly broke out the rolled-eyes emoji.

Scott noted the core of Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes, Joel Farabee and Ryan Ellis make a strong enough starting point for general manager Chuck Fletcher to build into a contender.

“I’m going to give him a blank check,” Scott said. “We’re going to get this right. Whatever we need to do. Don’t want to wait; want to deal with it now.”

The Flyers are expected to have roughly $12.5 million in cap space this offseason, though that’s factoring in pending free agent defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen and other players in need of a new contract.

With three months left in the season, the Flyers are playing out the string with an eye on next season, and a future that could be shaped by what Fletcher does at the March 21 trade deadline.

Flyers captain Claude Giroux, the longest-tenured player, is still having a fantastic season at 34 and leads the team with 15 goals and 34 points.

Giroux could waive his no-movement clause as he plays out the final months of his $66.2 million, eight-year contract and allow the Flyers to trade him for prospects and draft picks. Fletcher and Giroux’s agent, Pat Brisson, met this week and will have more discussions about the All-Star’s fate. Giroux’s salary this season is only $5 million, which would make him easier for smaller-market teams to take on.

“Ultimately, that will be his decision,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher acknowledged the Flyers need more “top-end talent” but raised eyebrows among the dwindling faithful when he said a “winning core” was already in place. There is? The Flyers have won just one playoff round and reached the postseason only four times since 2012.

They’ve churned through six coaches over that span, birthed Gritty, tore down the Kate Smith statue and had Jawn night.

But they didn’t raise a banner.

Fletcher was hired in December 2018 to clean up a mess left behind from a halfhearted rebuild and poor draft picks from the previous regime. His moves have largely failed to pay off.

Scott, though, threw his full support behind Fletcher and said the GM — who hired and fired Vigneault and had his 2021 offseason overhaul backfire — made “some smart moves. I think we put a really strong roster together.

“Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out for us.”

As the losses piled up, so have the empty seats inside an arena once packed and crazed for every game. The cure all, of course, is winning, and should the Flyers blossom into contenders again, fans will show up in droves. Until then, the crowd for an opening faceoff will continue to look like the third period of a preseason game; the loudest noise from the boos at the end of the horn.

While a number of season-ticket holders and former players grumble about the disconnect from the days the late Ed Snider ran the ship, Scott said Comcast Spectacor has no interest in selling the team.

The Flyers are about miss the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since a string of five straight absences from 1990-94. Perhaps they can cling to history as a guide — the Flyers reached the Stanley Cup final in 1997. They haven’t gone that far since a six-game loss to Chicago in 2010, when Giroux burst into a future star and so many brighter days seemed ahead.

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    Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

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    DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

    At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

    “Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

    The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

    There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

    The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

    “Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

    “Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

    The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

    “Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

    Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

    “We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

    The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

    Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

    Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

    Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

    “They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”

    Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

    Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

    Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

    Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

    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.