On Peter Laviolette's System and the Call For Change

BOSTON - MAY 03: Head coach Peter Laviolette of the Philadelphia Flyers directs his players during a time out in the third period against the Boston Bruins in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at TD Garden on May 3, 2010 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Bruins defeated the Flyers 3-2. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

There has been a lot of talk lately about Peter Laviolette's system and whether or not it is to blame for, well, everything. From turnovers to Bryzgalov's season to the playoff exit to many other things we've surely missed.

Part of that is because GM Paul Holmgren, in answering a question about the number of goals allowed by the Flyers this season, said "It is related a little bit to how we play."

That one little sentence has sparked a discussion on Peter Laviolette's system, perhaps best covered by Bill Meltzer on Sunday. First, it is important to mention that this is a great conversation to have. I am fully on board with discussing Laviolette's system, evidenced by my... writing about Laviolette's system.

The problem, however, is maintaining intelligent discussion about it. That's a very complicated thing to do when talking about such a complex issue that almost every observer only gathers bits and pieces of evidence. As someone who is not an expert on Laviolette's system - and very few people are - any discussion should start with the specifics.

Rather than immediately blame the system for the Flyers' second round exit, we should start identifying what we know, what we think we know, what we hope to learn, and what we are unlikely to ever know.

If you have continued reading without yet reading Meltzer's column, do so now. It really is a good look at the positives and negatives to the Flyers traits under Laviolette.

Before discussing Laviolette's system, let's just point out the difficulty that comes with separating out how much blame should be assigned to individual factors, such as the poor play of Ilya Bryzgalov, Chris Pronger missing most of the season, trading away elite shutdown centers in Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, Peter Laviolette's system, or any other contributing factor.

If anybody is able to properly assign blame for the Flyers' rise in goals against across those multiple factors, they should be working in the team's front office. However, the fact that there are multiple factors that could reasonably be blamed for more goals against should, by itself, be enough to absolve Laviolette's system of blame.

Unfortunately, that's not how things work.

What We Know

So let's get right to the discussion: Below are some of the Flyers' relevant defensive statistics, followed by League rank:

Goals Against/Game PK% Shots Against/Game Shots Against/60
Score Close
Shots Against/60
4-on-5
Flyers 2.74 81.8% 28.4 26.17 40.2
League Rank 20th 17th 7th 7th 3rd

The Flyers were in the top 75 percent of the NHL in terms of shot suppression, whether it be total shots against, shots against with the score close, or shots against on the penalty kill.

The problem was not preventing shots. It was preventing goals.

Ilya Bryzgalov

It is no secret that the goals against problem starts with Ilya Bryzgalov. Holmgren said so himself the sentence prior during his press conference.

Afterall, the Flyers had the worst save percentage while on the penalty kill of every team outside of the Steve Mason-led Blue Jackets. They were tied with those same Blue Jackets for 22nd overall in 5-on-5 save percentage. Surely not all of that falls on Ilya Bryzgalov, but different people - including our own Eric T. - have shown that team effects on save percentage are negligible.

While we don't know how much of the problem is Bryzgalov, we know a good portion of it was.

What We Think We Know
Scoring Chances

If the issue was not solely the number of shots, that leaves either the quality of shots or the quality of goaltending. We already know the goaltending was poor, even if we don't know just how poor. We can't be sure about the scoring chances due to a lack of readily available resources, but through 41 games, Todd had the Flyers giving up 13.66 scoring chances per game whereas George Ays had the Rangers giving up 11.73 per game and Josh Lile had the Stars giving up 11.69 per game.

Maybe some of that two per game differential is the result of how Todd tracks scoring chances, maybe the it is not reflective of the Flyers second half performance, or maybe the Flyers just gave up a lot of chances.

It certainly seems that the defense may be allowing too many scoring chances, at least on half a season's worth of data. We don't know this to be true, though, due to the lack of League-wide data or even an entire season worth of data. Even then, where would the blame fall for those chances against? On Peter Laviolette's system, the absence of Chris Pronger, individual player mistakes, too much time spent on the penalty kill, or more are all viable answers.

Ilya Bryzgalov

Once we receive more scoring chance information, we might be able to conclude that Ilya Bryzgalov is expected to give up slightly more goals per year than the Stars or Rangers. Until then, however, we are left with the conclusion that team effects played a small role in Bryzgalov's struggles this year, but that goaltending is more of an issue than Laviolette's system.

In the Blueshirt Banter article linked above, you see that the Rangers have told their goalies that they are expected to stop six out of every seven scoring chances. If the Flyers have a similar criteria, I would guess - and rely on Todd to back this up - that Ilya Bryzgalov failed to stop 85.7 percent of scoring chances this season based purely on his save percentage for the season and the Flyers' propensity to be a man down that.

Laviolette's System

Most observers talk about Laviolette's system as an offense-heavy, attack-style system, which certainly seems accurate. But we would have to explain the flaw in his system that causes goals against.

The defensive zone coverage seems to be a style that emphasizes one-on-one matchups along the boards - including defensemen following the puck carrier to the point if need be - with a lot of rotation among forwards and defensemen. We see mistakes, especially turnovers and slow reactions, but those don't appear to be systemic issues.

What We Hope to Learn

After we compile all the zone entry and scoring chance data from the season, we hope to learn just how many odd-man rushes the Flyers gave up - and how that compared to how many they generated. We also hope to learn just how many scoring chances they gave up and then compare it to other teams who tracked such information.

What is Laviolette's system in the defensive zone, and how does that result in goals against? For someone who primarily watches on TV, it is difficult to see enough off-the-puck play to analyze the defensive system employed, let alone how it differs from other coaches.

Do the wingers play the point men more closely, opening up the middle of the ice? Does Laviolette play more of a one-on-one style of defending than most?

What We Are Unlikely to Ever Know
Laviolette's System

Are the goals against caused by Laviolette's system, or are they errors in judgment by the players? Those two are almost certainly related, if not causal, which would render this question almost unanswerable. The same is true of whether forwards break from their assignments early, the result of anticipating a breakout sooner? Does the weak-side defender worry more about the puck than his assignment, as Meltzer suggested?

Conclusion

Near the end of Meltzer's discussion of Laviolette's system comes this quote from the coach himself:

"When we make changes, they are minor changes, where somebody is positioned, where somebody goes to, maybe a set break out, maybe something to look for to try and get away from D-zone coverage, maybe an option that might be open or putting the puck in a certain area but they're not drastic changes to what we do."

If Laviolette's system is a problem, I want to know why. Yes, we can all see that the Flyers' defensemen are aggressive in attempting to keep the puck in the offensive zone. Absolutely this creates a likelihood of odd-man rushes against, but through the middle of December, odd-man rushes weren't a problem.

We know the Flyers were very good at suppressing shots but bad at stopping pucks. We think we know the Flyers give up more scoring chances than most teams, but we don't know why or if it excuses Ilya Bryzgalov's poor play. We hope to learn how Laviolette's system is run in the defensive zone and how that system is connected to the goals against, but we are unlikely to ever know for sure whether the goals were the result of a systemic flaw or human error.

Further, unless there was a different system last year, the evidence would point to a personnel problem and not a systemic problem.

Before calling on the system to change, I'd like to know what about the system needs to change. Everybody is in favor of fewer goals against, but before demanding something be different, we need to better pinpoint the problem.

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