In early November, fans of the Philadelphia Flyers would not have been faulted for writing off the 2015-16 NHL season as a rebuilding year. The team was languishing near the bottom of the Metropolitan Division, their underlying possession metrics ranked among the league's worst, and the squad was having trouble just scoring goals, let alone winning at a consistent rate.
How things have changed. As Philadelphia hits their holiday break, they find themselves only three points behind the Ottawa Senators for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and owners of a 8-2-2 record over the past 12 games. Increased familiarity with Dave Hakstol's system, more prominent roles for Evgeny Medvedev and Radko Gudas, and the emergence of Shayne Gostisbehere have been some of the key reasons for Philadelphia's turnaround.
But despite their recent resurgence, the Flyers remain near the bottom of the league table in goals scored. They remain 29th in the NHL in both total goals (73) and goals per game (2.10). It's not like the Flyers are lacking for gamebreaking talent -- Claude Giroux has more points than any other player over the past five seasons, and Jakub Voracek was nearly a point per game player last season.
Yet the team has still struggled to score goals. Recently the Flyers are producing consistent offense, but 12 strong games do not negate six awful goal-scoring weeks. On the whole, it's impossible to deny that Philadelphia has been a poor offensive team this season.
Entering the year, the book on the Flyers was that their defense was the key weak point. The forwards, on the other hand, were generally viewed as a strength. But despite their obvious high-end talent, Philadelphia's forward depth has been a serious issue this season. Due to a limited number of proven scorers that can produce offensively on the top three lines, Flyers coach Dave Hakstol has been forced to repeatedly shuffle his tandems in an attempt to extract the maximum value from his forward corps.
But no matter the combinations, the results are always the same. The Flyers have enough scorers to fill two lines, and are forced to rely upon their top-six for all of their offense at even strength. The bottom-six, on the other hand, has been a black hole in terms of point production so far this season.
What makes a viable top-nine forward?
There is a reason why the Philadelphia Flyers were not criticized for a lack of offensive depth in the weeks leading up to the start of the year. It's because the roster is filled with recognizable names who either come with impressive pedigrees or have delivered tangible point production in the past.
Even beyond Giroux and Voracek, Philadelphia's roster contained three veteran 20-goal scorers (Wayne Simmonds, Matt Read, Michael Raffl), four first-round picks under the age of 27 (Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, Scott Laughton and Sam Gagner) and two aging but previously-productive players (Vincent Lecavalier, R.J. Umberger). The prevailing thought process was that the Flyers would be able to build three solid lines out of that array of talent.
Unfortunately, only seven have made legitimate cases this season to be considered viable top-nine forwards.
In an ideal world, a team's top three lines would consist of nine superstars. Claude Giroux centering Alex Ovechkin and Vladimir Tarasenko, with Tyler Seguin between Taylor Hall and Jakub Voracek on line two. But due to the distribution of talent across the league and the salary cap, stacked rosters filled with stars on every line is an unrealistic dream even for the best of teams. As a result, effective top three lines are generally filled with a mix of three different player types -- all-around stars, possession-oriented players who lack elite scoring touch, and pure scorers who do not drive possession.
Let's break down the players that fit each mold for the Flyers this season.
Possession-dominant scorers: Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek
These are franchise players, the ones that a team can be built around. They score at the rate of first-line forwards, but don't depend upon elevated shooting percentages to do so. Instead, they rack up points because their team spends the majority of their shifts in the offensive zone, both creating chances to score and also limiting the attack time of opponents.
Giroux obviously fits in this bucket. Over the past six seasons, Giroux has averaged 2.04 points per sixty minutes of even strength play, while posting a Corsi relative to his teammates of +4.91%. When Giroux is on the ice, he scores at a high rate and controls the direction of play.
Voracek may be having a bit of a down year offensively thus far, but his even strength statistics over the same time period are even better than those of Giroux. Voracek has posted 2.06 points per sixty minutes at five-on-five, and has a Corsi Relative of +5.49 percent.
These are do-it-all players who are capable of carrying a line filled with lesser talent to respectability, or a line of solid talent to greatness. The Flyers are lucky to have two forwards in the primes of their careers that fit this mold.
Support Possession forwards: Sean Couturier, Matt Read, Michael Raffl
In this category, we have the largely unappreciated players. Support Possession forwards are the players that build a career upon doing the little things right -- the clean pass out of the defensive zone, the quick read in the neutral zone, the high-effort backcheck in the middle of the ice.
However, they cannot be counted upon to score points at an elite level. Their role is to get the puck moving in the right direction and into the offensive zone, so that the players who flourish on the attack can work their magic more often.
Couturier, Read and Raffl have performed admirably in this role so far in the 2015-16 season. All three players have stellar puck possession statistics, as the Flyers generate over 53% of the shot attempts at even strength when each player is on the ice.
Michael Raffl's career possession statistics are a bit inflated by playing so many minutes alongside Giroux and Voracek, but he still posts a positive Corsi (51.2%) when away from the two star forwards. Read and Couturier have historically been break-even possession forwards, but both have taken massive steps forward so far this year. Read's stellar Corsi (+5.22% Corsi Relative) can be primarily attributed to his play in the neutral zone, while Couturier's leap forward (+6.06% Corsi Relative) is a result of dramatically improved efforts when on the cycle.
They may not be scoring at an elite level. But Read, Couturier and Raffl are locked in as useful top-nine forwards due to their ability to push play in the right direction and create more opportunities for the true stars and point producers.
Offensive zone scorers: Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn
As skeptics of advanced stats are eager to point out, puck possession is meaningless if it doesn't eventually result in goals. That's why there will always be a place in the top-nine for those who may not be able to singlehandedly drive possession, but are very dangerous with the puck on their sticks in the offensive zone.
These are the snipers, the net-front presence forwards, the creative offensive minds who can sometimes lag defensively. And while they do not quite fit the mold of the "do-everything" possession stars, they can be elite players in their own right. Ilya Kovalchuk, Steven Stamkos and even Patrick Kane could fit in this category. The best offensive zone scorers are the ones that can sustain elevated shooting percentages, extracting the most goals possible out of their time on the attack.
Others function more as role players. They're capable of posting positive possession statistics, but only when alongside true drivers of play. When paired with "do-everything" players, they don't drag them down, and instead add another offensive threat to the line. But they would be unable to carry a line to possession dominance on their own.
For the Flyers, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn fit this category. Simmonds has been far more effective than Schenn this season, functioning as the presumptive scorer on lines with Sean Couturier, Matt Read and Jakub Voracek. Schenn, on the other hand, has struggled from a possession standpoint (-2.62% Corsi Relative) but has seemingly found a home alongside Claude Giroux on the first line recently, proving that he still can complement top talent in a key role.
Simmonds and Schenn may not be elite scorers like Kovalchuk or Stamkos. But despite their puck possession limitations, they are capable of providing enough offense to stake a legitimate claim to a top-nine spot.
There aren't enough scoring forwards
Now that we have an understanding of the viable scoring forwards for the Flyers this season, we can better evaluate why the team is struggling to score. One problem jumps out immediately - they simply do not enough players who have established themselves as viable top-nine options.
By this analysis, the Flyers have seven forwards who have proven capable of succeeding in a role on the first, second, or third line. Unfortunately for Philadelphia, it takes nine forwards to fill out three lines, putting the Flyers two forwards short.
The implications of this problem are easy to grasp. It means that the Flyers are capable of building two effective trios at the top of their lineup, but one forward will always be the odd man out. For weeks, Jakub Voracek was placed on the third line alongside Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde, as Hakstol attempted to solve the problem by asking Voracek to carry his line to respectability.
The results? Not even a Possession-Dominant Scorer like Voracek could make VandeVelde and Bellemare viable top-nine forwards. The trio posted a Corsi For percentage of 46.0% while together, and Hakstol eventually put Voracek back with real complementary pieces (Couturier and Simmonds). Currently, Matt Read is the seventh forward, skating with Scott Laughton and R.J. Umberger and unsurprisingly not scoring much in the way of points.
Because of a lack of forward depth, the Flyers have relied solely on their top two lines for offense this season. They also are forced to nullify the effectiveness of one of their seven best forwards at all times, forcing him to play with forwards delivering fourth line results.
More than anything, the absence of a third scoring line has been the biggest reason for Philadelphia's low goal-scoring totals so far this season. And because two more scoring forwards appearing out of nowhere seems unlikely, the Flyers will have to get very creative if they'd like to solve this problem.
The Philadelphia Flyers currently rank 29th in the NHL in total goals, and it comes as little surprise after breaking down the team's forward corps. They have seven forwards that are capable of producing on the team's top three lines, but their depth falls off a cliff after those players.
As a result, Philadelphia has become a two line team. When those lines go cold (as they did in early November), the Flyers will struggle to score any goals at all. In addition, there is always one forward that is forced to skate on the bottom-six, and his offensive upside disappears so long as he is away from the other six viable forwards.
Tomorrow, in part two of this series, I'll analyze the current bottom-six options, and determine if any may have the upside to make the leap into a viable third line scoring forward during the second half of the season.