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Why the Philadelphia Flyers are improving, or the Shayne Gostisbehere effect

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Since November 14th, the Philadelphia Flyers have played competitive hockey. Shayne Gostisbehere was called up on November 14th. Hmmm.

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After a disastrous stretch in late October and early November, the Philadelphia Flyers have righted the ship. They've won four of their last five games, and have earned a point in seven of their last nine. The Flyers may not look like a world-beater, but they are playing like a competitive hockey team.

As Kurt R. wrote on Monday, the improving results are supported by the underlying numbers. All of Philadelphia's even strength puck possession metrics are on the rise, implying that this run of wins is not simply due to forwards putting the puck in the net at unsustainable rates or the goaltenders carrying the team. It's been caused by a tangible improvement in all-around play.

But how have the Flyers turned their play around? Is it simply a result of better execution, or has the team changed their tactics in some way? Could it be the result of a certain young defenseman's addition to the lineup? Let's take a look at the numbers.

Better entries, better results

Through the first month of the season, the Philadelphia Flyers showcased some early trends in terms of their style of play. As outlined in November, the Hakstol-coached Flyers utilize an aggressive forecheck with the goal of pinning a team in their half of the ice. After forcing an opponent to dump the puck out to center, the Flyers were shooting it back into the offensive zone via dump-and-chase and getting back in on the attack.

The result was a victory in terms of raw entries, ostensibly "winning" the neutral zone. The problem was that when the forecheck failed, opponents were moving through the neutral zone with speed and entering the offensive zone with possession of the puck. The Flyers may have been generating more entries, but their opponents' entries were more valuable.

Since the November 14 game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Philadelphia's neutral zone results have shifted dramatically. The Flyers are now generating more controlled entries and allowing less to their opponents.

Time Period Controlled Entry For Percentage Controlled Entry Against Percentage Zone Entry For Neutral Zone Score
10/8 - 11/12 42.25% 50.31% 50.61% 48.99%
11/14 - 12/1 45.63% 40.30% 48.47% 49.57%

The Flyers may not be winning the neutral zone in terms of raw entries anymore, but they're making up for it by generating better entries and forcing opponents to dump the puck in much more. The end result is an improvement in the team's overall Neutral Zone Score.

But these statistics do not tell a complete picture of Philadelphia's recent turnaround. During the Flyers' recent run of solid results, a key flaw has been their efforts in holding a lead, as they've sat back and allowed opponents to dictate play in the neutral zone. While it's a concerning trend, it could be more of a tactical shift rather than an accurate measure of the team's play in the neutral zone over the past three weeks.

In order to account for this possible shift in tactics, let's take a look at the Flyers' neutral zone play only in close situations (score tied or within one goal during the first two periods, tied in the third period) versus their overall numbers. Close situations data isn't ideal, because it does shrink the sample size. But unfortunately, we do not yet have score-adjusted neutral zone formulas, so this is the best way to account for game-dependent coaching tactics.

Score Situation Controlled For Percentage Controlled Against Percentage Zone Entry For Neutral Zone Score
Close Situations 45.83% 39.36% 50.25% 51.58%
All Situations 45.63% 40.30% 48.47% 49.57%

Now we see the degree of Philadelphia's improvement in the neutral zone. During close situations, they're still winning the raw entry battle, but they're supplementing it with better entries for and worse entries allowed.

The Flyers' turnaround is clearly no mirage. It's been caused by a real shift in neutral zone outcomes.

The Ghost effect

When analyzing the season-long neutral zone statistics, November 14 was chosen as the day to split the data. That's no accident. It was the first day that Shayne Gostisbehere entered the lineup, assisting on the game-tying goal in a victory against the Carolina Hurricanes.

The addition of Gostisbehere to the Flyers has reinvigorated the fanbase, giving them a tease of the exciting pipeline that Ron Hextall and the Philadelphia front office has built over the past few seasons. Ghost has scored two overtime game-winners, and is already fourth on the team in goals despite only nine games played.

Philadelphia's neutral zone metrics dramatically improved once Gostisbehere was called up from the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, and it's no coincidence. In his limited time in the NHL, Shayne Gostisbehere has performed like a dominant neutral zone defenseman. The statistics are staggering.

Time Period Controlled Entry For Percentage Controlled Entry Against Percentage Zone Entry For Neutral Zone Score
11/14 - 12/1 With Gostisbehere On-Ice 44.38% 29.53% 52.20% 54.19%
11/14 - 12/1 Without Gostisbehere On-Ice 46.19% 42.24% 46.96% 47.76%

Gostisbehere may have came with a reputation of being poor defensively, but so far in his NHL career, that has been limited to play in his own zone. In the neutral zone, however, Ghost has delivered stellar results. Teams are only entering the offensive zone with control of the puck 29.53 percent of the time while Gostisbehere is on the ice, and are losing the overall entries battle as well.

Without Gostisbehere on the ice over the past three weeks, the Flyers have actually been a worse neutral zone team than they were through the season's first month. They're still generating more and allowing less controlled entries than earlier in the year, but opponents are overwhelming Philadelphia in raw entries. That simply isn't happening while Gostisbehere is playing.

One caveat - some of this gap in neutral zone play by the Flyers with and without Ghost is driven by score effects. As Scott T. of Pattison Avenue noted yesterday, Gostisbehere is rarely used when Philadelphia is protecting a lead, so he has not been subject to the passive neutral zone play that the team has employed in recent third periods.

In close situations, the Flyers have a 50.20% Neutral Zone Score without Gostisbehere, implying that the young defenseman isn't the only reason for the team's recent improvement. But Ghost is just as dominant when the score is close as he is in all situations. His Neutral Zone Score during close situations is 54.02 percent - almost identical to his overall performance.

Shayne Gostisbehere isn't the only reason that the Flyers have improved their play in the neutral zone over the past three weeks. But he very well may be the largest one.

Conclusion

Since November 14th, the Philadelphia Flyers have played like a competitive NHL hockey team. The driving force behind their improvement has been more efficient play in the neutral zone. The Flyers are generating more offensive zone entries with control of the puck, and making it tougher for other teams to do the same.

Shayne Gostisbehere's call-up has provided an offensive spark to a team desperately needing one, but his biggest impact has been felt in the neutral zone. Through his first nine games this season, Gostisbehere has been able to prevent opponents from entering the offensive zone with possession of the puck, decreasing their effectiveness at even strength. The Flyers are also generating more raw zone entries with Gostisbehere on the ice.

The addition of Gostisbehere to the Flyers' lineup is not the only reason that the team's play has improved. Even without Ghost, Philadelphia has cleaned up their efforts in the neutral zone and are placing more of a focus on entering the offensive zone with speed and disrupting opponents so that they cannot.

But the 22-year old defenseman has been the largest driver of the team's neutral zone improvement. The question is whether his stellar neutral zone play will continue, as NHL coaches study his tape and learn to attack his weaknesses. For now, however, Philadelphia is reaping the benefits of their talented young blueliner.