After two straight years of unimpressive results, the once-fearsome penalty kill of the Philadelphia Flyers bottomed out during the team's first round playoff series last spring against the Washington Capitals. The shorthanded units allowed eight goals on just 17 opportunities in the first three games of the series, essentially gift-wrapping the Capitals a 3-0 series lead that proved impossible to overcome.
Last April made it abundantly clear that changes were necessary in order to bring the Flyers' penalty kill back to respectability. To that end, BSH released a four-part series this summer breaking down the team's tactics and results while shorthanded, and offered suggestions to improve the unit. The general finding was that better structure in the neutral zone and more aggressive tactics in the defensive zone might be the best ways to fix what ailed the penalty kill.
The talk coming from the Flyers organization during training camp was that strategic changes had indeed been made to the PK units over the summer. In preseason, it was immediately clear that the forwards were attacking the outer edges of opponents' power play formations more often than they did in 2015-16, and the team was also experimenting with different neutral zone structures as well. Still, the changes were only being flashed in meaningless games. The important question was whether adjustments would carry over into the regular season.
With five games in the books, we can now confidently state that the coaching staff did draw up noticeable changes to the penalty kill over the offseason. It's too early to accurately judge whether the changes are having a positive (or negative) effect, but the fact that they exist is undeniable. Specifically, the Flyers made two tweaks to their tactics: they increased the level of aggressiveness in the defensive zone, and introduced a new version of an old neutral zone formation.
Defensive zone aggressiveness way up
While tracking the Philadelphia penalty kill from the 2015-16 season, it became obvious that the penalty kill had an almost-pathological aversion to placing pressure on the outer edges of opposing power plays. I've referred to their primary strategy as a "Passive Triangle +1" as it included three forwards down low in a shifting triangle shape and one forward up high primarily concerned with blocking lanes -- not actively pressuring the puck carriers.
As I described back in August when reviewing this clip, the high forward or F1 (usually Ryan White here) put very little direct pressure on the Montreal players with the puck. The positive to this approach was that White often prevented any realistic possibility of a shot on goal by standing in between the Montreal player and the net. The negative was that the Canadiens were able to cycle the puck around the horn for an extended period of time without having to worry about attacking pressure from the PK.
The Flyers didn't always use the Passive Triangle +1 strategy, of course. They occasionally used a tactic referred to as the "Czech Press," which is distinguished by heavy pressure from the F1 forward. His goal is to "press" on the PP forward on the half boards, driving him down towards the goal line. Philadelphia shifted to this strategy during the Washington series starting in Game 4, and it did help to slow the Capitals' power play.
Even though the Czech Press was used on occasion last year, Philadelphia was still primarily a passive defensive zone penalty kill. Through my manual tracking, I determined that the Flyers used the Passive Triangle +1 on 72.2% of potential opportunities during the 2015-16 regular season. Pressure-based tactics, on the other hand, were used just 27.8 percent of the time.
This season, however, the ratio of passive-to-pressure hasn't merely changed; it's flipped almost entirely. So far this year, the Flyers are relying upon the Czech Press as their base defensive zone penalty killing tactic.
|Defensive Zone Strategy||Times Used in 2016-17||2016-17 Usage Percentage||2015-16 Usage Percentage|
|Passive Triangle +1||9||34.6%||72.2%|
2016-17 statistics are accurate through October 20th.
Here's an example of it in use this year against the Arizona Coyotes. The key is the actions of Chris VandeVelde -- on two occasions, he loops high in the zone to gather momentum in order to press down on the Coyote stationed on the half boards. On both occasions, the challenge spurs a quick decision on the part of the Arizona player, which is the major benefit of employing the Czech Press, as it takes time and space away from the opposing power play.
It's still early in the season, but a shift from a 72/28 passive-to-pressure ratio to a 65/35 pressure-to-passive one seems to be a clear sign that there has been a change in penalty killing philosophy. We'll see if it holds for the rest of the year.
A new version of an old forecheck
The Flyers employed various neutral zone PK forechecks in 2015-16, all with varying degrees of success. But in the end, they stuck to four base tactics -- the Passive 1-3, Retreating Box, Same-Side Press and Tandem Pressure. Out of those four, the Passive 1-3 was their top choice.
It's important to note that while Philadelphia's most frequently-used PK neutral zone forecheck was the Passive 1-3, the forecheck did not always look exactly the same. Sometimes, the Flyers used a classic Passive 1-3, with all three penalty killers on the back line parallel to each other in a horizontal line across the ice, such as the example below.
Other times, they employed a more aggressive variation, with the center player in the line stationed a bit ahead of the two flankers and granted the freedom to attack puck carriers moving up the middle of the ice. In the clip below, Matt Read plays the role of the aggressive center penalty killer, turning the Passive 1-3 into something close to a 1-1-2 formation.
So far this year, the 1-3 again has been Philadelphia's forecheck of choice in the neutral zone on the PK, even moreso than it was last season. Through the first four games, the Flyers utilized the 1-3 formation on 80.6% of all potential forechecking opportunities, a staggering rate.
However, it's not the same old Passive 1-3 as last year. Nor is it a full-time shift to the more-aggressive 1-1-2 center forward variation that the team regularly utilized in 2015-16. Instead, the Flyers are now using the flankers of the three-man line as the aggressive forecheckers in the formation, turning the 1-3 into something like a 1-2-1. Here's an example of the structure.
Boyd Gordon performs the usual tasks of the F1 in a Passive 1-3, placing a degree of pressure on the puck carrier and subtly trying to guide him to a preferred location in the middle of the ice. But notice how far back the center penalty killer (Ivan Provorov here) is in relation to the two flankers in the three-man line. Andrew MacDonald and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare are instead the aggressive ones, positioned a few strides in front of the blue line and ready to challenge any puck carriers who try to enter the zone via the left or right sides of the ice.
Will this strategy work over the long-term? There is an obvious positive to the new formation, and one key negative. The strength is that this functions as a far more aggressive neutral zone forecheck than either variation of the Passive 1-3 that the team used last year. The majority of power play zone entries occur via the wings rather than the center of the ice, and the Flyers so far this season are making a conscious effort to challenge those entries in the neutral zone with goal of breaking up the rush or at least forcing a dump-in. If penalty killing is all about taking an opposing power play out of its comfort zone, it's easy to see how this formation could succeed.
However, the biggest strength of the Passive 1-3 that the Flyers employed last season was its ability to disrupt power plays' attempts to set up in offensive zone formation after they successfully gained the zone. By having the flankers hang back, they had a head start on retrieving dump-ins if the power play chose that as their method of entering the zone. They also were better positioned to immediately attack the forwards on the half-boards post-controlled entry.
This new strategy places a great deal of post-entry responsibility on the center penalty killer in the line. He'll likely be the primary puck retriever on dump-ins due to his positioning deeper in the zone, and he'll have to cover extra ground in order to reach the corners than the flankers would have last season. That slight increase in time could be the difference between an easy retrieval-and-clear and a 50/50 puck battle.
It's possible that this new version of the 1-3 could force more uncontrolled entries and breakups than last year's model, but those gains might be counteracted by opposing power plays becoming more efficient in gathering dump-ins and getting set up in attacking formation. As the season progresses, it will be fascinating to see which scenario plays out.
Any worries that the Philadelphia Flyers would enter the 2016-17 season with the intention of rolling the same ineffective penalty killing tactics as last year can be safely brushed aside. In the first five games, the Flyers' coaching staff has made major adjustments to the team's shorthanded strategies, with the overarching theme of increased overall aggressiveness in both the neutral and defensive zones.
The intent is admirable. Last season, the Flyers were a particularly passive penalty killing squad, and the mentality finally burned them in their playoff loss to the Washington Capitals. It's clear that coaches Dave Hakstol and Ian Lapierriere have no interest in watching a repeat of that horror show.
Still, it's far too early to tell if the tactics will have a positive impact on results. Thus far, the Flyers have actually been a worse shorthanded shot suppression team (98.85 Corsi Against Per 60 in 2016-17 versus 88.44 in 2015-16) this year as compared to last, so the early returns aren't especially promising. But we're dealing with very small samples here -- it's extremely possible that a few bad shifts are skewing the numbers, considering the fact that Philadelphia has spent just 32 minutes shorthanded thus far this year.
As we move deeper into the season and the samples grow larger, it should become more clear whether these tactical shifts are working for the Philadelphia Flyers. But at the very least, it's reassuring that the team is not satisfied with their poor results from 2015-16, and are trying out new tactics with the goal of improving. It's said that the definition of insanity is using the same process over and over again and expecting different results. So far this year, the Flyers' coaching staff appears sane in this area, and fans can only hope that sanity leads to a far more effective penalty kill.
All stats courtesy of Corsica.Hockey or manually tracked by Charlie O'Connor.