Following up on my previous fanpost about visualizing the Flyers decline from contender to pretender, I want to key on two Flyers players that I believe we're the major difference makers during the team's cup run and brief stint as an elite team in the Eastern Conference.
The Philadelphia Flyers can attribute much of their success in the 09-10 and 10-11 seasons to Mike Richards and Chris Pronger. Taking on the toughest minutes a hockey player can face both players have produced elite results at their position.
To comprehend just how good these two players were we can look at Hockey Prospectus' HLI, or Heavy Lifter Index, for forwards and defensemen. HLI is a compilation of several stats that considers Qual Comp, Corsi Rel, Zone Starts, and differentials for scoring, penalties, and corsi.
From 2007 to 2010, Mike Richards is ranked 4th overall on the HLI index for forwards. He is only surpassed by Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Ryan Kesler amongst forwards that routinely get the toughest minutes in the NHL.
Rank Name HLI HLI Res HLI Sit 1 Pavel Datsyuk 12.91 10.17 2.74 2 H. Zetterberg 12.60 7.73 4.88 3 Ryan Kesler 11.35 3.15 8.20 4 Mike Richards 10.47 2.77 7.70 5 Dave Bolland 10.42 2.99 7.43 6 Zach Parise 9.33 7.73 1.60 7 Alex Burrows 9.21 3.81 5.40 8 Andrew Ladd 8.44 3.96 4.48 9 Marian Hossa 8.04 5.82 2.22 10 Johan Franzen 8.01 5.47 2.54 11 Mikko Koivu 7.96 0.88 7.08 12 J. Pominville 7.95 2.34 5.60 13 Jordan Staal 7.85 2.18 5.67 14 Eric Staal 7.70 3.99 3.71 15 Tomas Holmstrom 7.07 7.04 0.03 16 Martin Hanzal 7.07 0.73 6.34 17 P. Bergeron 7.02 1.61 5.41 18 Patrick Marleau 6.87 4.25 2.61 19 Alexander Steen 6.76 0.72 6.05 20 Colby Armstrong 6.56 0.51 6.05
Link to Hockey Prospectus Article.
Additionally, Mike Richards strung together four remarkable playoff performances from 2007-2011 by scoring 49 points in 57 games. This puts him at .85 points per game in the playoffs while taking on the toughest minutes of any Flyer forward. In 2010 playoffs, Mike Richards PPG performance is what allowed the Briere line to break out and assert themselves as the Flyers biggest scoring threat. With Richards taking on and neutralizing the other team's best players, Briere and company could roll over relatively soft competition.
For those fans who still believe Mike Richards leadership was a legitimate issue, I'd like to point out that on virtually every team and in every organization he's ever played for, Richards was tapped as a leader. And he has been praised by many well respected hockey minds for his lead by example style. Ron Hextall, former assistant GM for the Los Angeles Kings, had this to say about Richards.
"The reason we were so attracted to Mike Richards was his leadership and his professionalism. I think we all know the hockey player," said Hextall. "That was the one thing we thought we needed injected into this organization and he's brought it. Mike, they way he plays, demands respect. People want to follow him."
In short, the questions about Richards' captaincy were bogus and driven by a sensationalist Philly media.
After his acquisition by the Flyers in 2009, Chris Pronger and Matt Carle quickly became one of the best defensive pairings in the league. Hockey Prospectus ranked them 9 and 8 respectively on their list of top 10 tough minute defensemen that year.
2009-10 Season Rank Name Pos Team HLI HLI Res HLI Sit 1 Zdeno Chara D BOS 3.67 1.18 2.49 2 Brent Seabrook D CHI 3.64 0.99 2.64 3 Duncan Keith D CHI 3.33 1.25 2.08 4 Nicklas Lidstrom D DET 3.05 1.43 1.62 5 Tom Poti D WSH 2.89 1.17 1.72 6 Brian Rafalski D DET 2.61 1.43 1.17 7 Marc-Edouard Vlasic D SJS 2.43 0.97 1.45 8 Matthew Carle D PHI 2.40 0.73 1.66 9 Chris Pronger D PHI 2.39 0.51 1.88 10 Shea Weber D NSH 2.20 0.49 1.71
Pronger was a big minutes, all situations defender who helped to transform the Flyers from a playoff bubble team, to one of the NHL's elite. In 2009-10 regular season he scored 55 points and followed that amazing performance up with 18 points in 23 playoff games. Great numbers for a 35 year old. Pronger's impact is most dramatically evidenced by what happened without him in the lineup. Suffering a broken hand in February 2011, his regular season was essentially over. Before Pronger's injury the Flyers we're 40-22 and hadn't had a losing W/L record in any month of the season. In Pronger's absence, the Flyers went 6-9 and limped into the playoffs playing their worst hockey. As with Richards, Pronger's ability to neutralize the other team's best players allowed defenders like Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen, and Andrej Mezsaros to excel with relatively softer minutes.
The Loss of Richards and Pronger:
Following the stunning off-season trade of Mike Richards to Los Angeles, the 2011-2012 season saw the Flyers get off to a surprisingly hot start. This was thanks largely to the efforts of Claude Giroux and Jaromir Jagr. But the loss of Chris Pronger to a career ending eye injury marked the slow decline of the Flyers. Though finishing as a strong puck possession team overall, the Flyers played poorly down the stretch and we're carried into the playoffs by a stellar month of goal tending from Iyla Bryzgalov. The Flyers and Penguins first round match up was an exciting offensive show, and the Flyers took advantage of a weak performance by Fleury to win in 6 games. However, the Flyers underlying numbers showed that they were losing the puck possession battle. The tides turned in the 2nd round and Philly was bounced by the Devils in 5 games.
Philly would finish 2nd to last amongst the 16 playoff teams in Fenwick Close. Since then, Giroux's Flyers have plummeted into the bottom half of NHL teams for FF% and CF% tied.
This stunning decline can be attributed directly to the loss of Pronger and the trade of Mike Richards. With Pronger missing, an aging Kimmo Timonen and a struggling Braydon Coburn were tasked with the toughest minutes. Kimmo has performed well given the circumstances, but he has clearly lost a step on the ice and is best served with less minutes against weaker competition.
Surprisingly Claude Giroux actually earned the qualification of "Shut Down" forward 2011-2012 and filled in for Mike Richards admirably. Rookie Sean Couturier also took on the shut down role and excelled, although he understandable got substantially less ice time than either Richards or Giroux. However, I think the future for Giroux hinges on getting used in a more offensive role.
In 2013, Giroux assignments softened slightly but he still performed well and Sean Couturier continues to improve despite limited minutes. The problem isn't with Giroux or his line mates. The Flyers issues stem from a lack of depth up front. On paper the Flyers are one of the deepest offensive units in the league, but in practice, they are a one line show. Honestly, this should be expected given the changes to the Top-9 forward unit. The 2010-2011 Flyers had Giroux - 76 points , Briere - 68 points, and Richards - 66 points up the middle and additional 50+ point scorers filling out the wings. That depth simply hasn't been replicated with Talbot, Couturier, and the Old Verson of Danny Briere anchoring the 2nd and 3rd lines.
In particular, the second line has been in a state of flux since 2011. Danny Briere was the first to get the job as the 2nd line anchor, and he failed to make a significant impact(See Figure C). He couldn't produce at the same clip offensively as years past and despite facing soft competition he was beginning to lose the puck possession battle. Contrast this with 2009-2010(Figure A), when Briere excelled in the scoring role.
Presumably Holmgren made a smart move acquiring Vinny Lecavalier to take up the 2nd line center mantle while Schenn and Couturier develop, but early in the season the team just hasn't gelled. However, it is still way too early to judge the success or failure of the Vinny experiment.
Climbing out the Basement:
The Flyers are a better team than they've showed this far. They are putting up relatively average possession numbers and should finish the season closer to the middle of the pack if their luck turns around. The potential is there for them to be a playoff bubble team, but they aren't quite a contender just yet.
Ultimately, the fate of the Flyers offense is going to depend on the development of Sean Couturier. If Couturier can continue to be an effective player against top competition he can take over fully for Mike Richards in the stopper role. The past two seasons, Couturier's TOI/G has hovered around the 14 to 15 minute mark. If he can grow into a Top-6 role getting 20 minutes a game and develop into a legitimate offensive threat, the Flyers should once again become a dangerous team to play against. That will free Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek to be deployed in a more offensive role, and allow the coaching staff to get more favorable match-ups. The Flyers are extremely lucky that a player like Couturier fell to the 8th spot in the draft. Otherwise, the Richards trade could have been an unmitigated disaster. Although Schenn was billed as the next Mike Richards, the coaching staff hasn't even attempted to use him in a shut down capacity, instead giving him favorable zone starts against relatively soft competition. Could Schenn be used in a stopping role? Maybe if the coaching staff dramatically changed his deployment, but I think most would agree that his defensive game has looked rough at times and he can't really be trusted to be a true shut down center.
Replacing Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen is going to be a far more difficult task for the Flyers. They don't have anyone in the system currently the projects as a top-pairing d-man. Kimmo is likely in his last year as a Flyer and his age is starting to show. Luke Schenn has been inconsistent throughout his entire career and its debatable if he has top-pairing upside at this point. Mark Streit is 35 years old and not a long term solution. Grossman and Coburn are known quantities. They'll give you solid minutes but aren't in the same class as Pronger and Kimmo. Mezsaros is perpetually injured or a healthy scratch. Gustafsson has shown top-6 upside but has had his own problems with consistency. Letting Matt Carle walk in free agency was a huge mistake for Paul Holmgren, as the young defender has shown in the past that he can handle 1st pairing puck moving responsibilities and tough minutes. (Even without Chris Pronger playing with him.) The Flyers drafted Samuel Morin 11th overall in this years draft, but by all accounts the big defender is a project and years away from making the club. So where do the Flyers go from here?
Barring a sure fire top pick in next years draft, the Flyers will need to make some roster moves to acquire defensive help. Ideally, the Flyers should have pushed for a young stud defender in Jeff Carter/Mike Richards deals. Unfortunately the only players who have close to that kind of value on the Flyers roster right now are Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek. I'm not so sure the Flyers are in the position to trade either of their best offensive producers at the moment. You could move a young prospect like Brayden Schenn, but I don't think he'd be enough to fetch a great defensive prospect on his own.
Currently, the Flyers just don't have the value on the roster to swing a deal for a stud defender without multiple moving pieces being involved. Any move is probably going to open up more holes in a Flyers roster that is spread thin. Its a tough situation, and Homer exacerbated his own circumstances by trading Mike Richards. He can't afford to move Schenn or Couturier because he absolutely needs to replace Richards' presence in the Top-6. At the same time, he can't afford not to replace Kimmo and Pronger's presence on the back-end. Stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place, Holmgren's next move or lack thereof may define his career as general manager.