PITTSBURGH - As they exited the visitors' locker room at Heinz Field late Saturday night, the Flyers wore the grim faces of a group of athletes beginning to recognize that they were going nowhere. Each of them looked sartorially sharp, dressed to the nines for a marquee event on the NHL calendar: an outdoor matchup against their fiercest rival, in front of more than 67,000 people freezing in a wind-whipped football stadium, all under the national spotlight of a prime-time NBC broadcast. Jake Voracek had donned a plaid suit and an ascot cap. Matt Read, a gray knit bowtie with a fat knot. Ivan Provorov, a sleek black ensemble. But none of them so much as turned up a corner of his mouth. It was as if they were attending Michael Kors' funeral.
Their 4-2 loss to the Penguins - a game that Voracek, hours before, had called the Flyers' most important of the season - had left them six points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Perhaps more telling, it had left them just five points ahead of the Detroit Red Wings and Carolina Hurricanes, the two teams at the bottom of the conference standings. For whatever optimism a player might have expressed about the Flyers' chances of reeling off 15 or 16 victories over their final 21 games and making an incredible push into the postseason, there was as much reason or more, mathematically speaking, at least, for pessimism. To hear defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere say half-heartedly, "We're still a great team," was to understand the reality of the Flyers' situation. There has been no tangible step forward this season. There has been stagnancy, even regression, and now there is only cause for questions about what to do next.
Since his promotion to general manager in 2014, Ron Hextall has approached all of those questions from the same philosophical foundation: that the Flyers would be, above all, patient. They would keep prospects such as Provorov and Travis Konecny at lower levels of hockey until the organization's talent evaluators were certain that these young players were prepared for the rigors of the NHL. They would be willing to see if the important supporting forwards already on the roster - Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier, Read - developed into franchise fixtures. They would bank that Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth, two veteran goaltenders in the final years of their contracts, would raise each other's level of performance, leaving Hextall with a happy problem of deciding which one he should re-sign.
So far, only Provorov has met the measure of the Flyers' greatest hopes, and the fact that he is already the team's most complete defenseman says as much about the overall quality of the group as it does his talent and maturity. Both Mason and Neuvirth have struggled - Neuvirth was poor Saturday night, allowing three preventable goals - leaving it an open issue whether either should return as a backup/mentor to whichever of the Flyers' goaltending prospects (Anthony Stolarz?) will get a chance to earn the No. 1 job next season.
Schenn has become a solid player but hardly an elite one, and Couturier and Read have been abject disappointments. The result is a team that doesn't score enough goals and gives up too many. The Flyers rank 23th in the NHL in goals per game and 26th in goals allowed per game. They outshot the Penguins, 38-29, on Saturday, and it didn't matter.
"There's no question they had two or three spurts where they carried some momentum for short periods of time," coach Dave Hakstol said. "But I thought overall through the 60 minutes, our group did a good job and played the type of game that we wanted to play."
If Hakstol was praising his players for their effort - and the Flyers do play hard, do try - he was revealing just how limited and outmanned his team really was against the Penguins, and often is against other opponents. If the Flyers play their game, and their game isn't good enough, what then?
"We didn't score too many again," said Voracek, who had the Flyers' first goal Saturday, his 16th of the season. "It's simple. It's hard to win a game when you're not scoring goals. We're getting opportunities. It's getting old. You can play good, but as long as you don't find a way to win, no one will care."
That's the micro-view of the Flyers' problems, and within that prism, Voracek was right. (That's also why it's a little silly, at this point, to suggest that the Flyers should change coaches. For one thing, Hextall has too much invested in Hakstol to give up on him now. For another, Hakstol is here for his purported expertise in working with young players, and it would be unfair and illogical to fire him before he had the opportunity to coach the best young players in the system.) But the macro-view, the view of the future, might be more concerning and challenging for Hextall.
Assume for argument's sake that the Flyers' defensive and goaltending prospects will be as good as advertised: Provorov, Stolarz, Travis Sanheim, Samuel Morin, all of them. By the time they are NHL players and beginning to peak, who will the Flyers' best forwards be? Claude Giroux is 29, his body breaking down. Voracek is 27. Wayne Simmonds is 28. Is it smart to assume any of these three will be a better, more productive player two years from now? Three? With the possible exception of Konecny, there are no forwards in the Flyers' system who are marked for stardom, which means there's a fundamental roster misalignment ahead - declining veterans up front, up-and-coming kids on the back end - unless Hextall does something to correct it.
What can he do? He can try to mine free agency for more offense, for the sniper the Flyers have long lacked. But he also might have to trade one or more of those core forwards: Giroux, Voracek, Simmonds, and/or Schenn. And he may have to choose which prospects he can't surrender and which he would be willing to sacrifice for the sake of improving the team's scoring punch and depth.
The in-season trade deadline is Wednesday. That could be the start of the gradual overhaul; Hextall suggested as much to reporters Friday. Either way, this Flyers season is all but finished. This group had their shot, and there they were Saturday after a loss in maybe their last big game of the season, the night's novelty and pomp having faded to a silent locker room of well-dressed men and a feeling that had gotten old for them.