Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Fair to say this was a game the Flyers should have won
While closer on the stat sheet than it may have seemed, this was still a game that the Philadelphia Flyers deserved to win. Though I admit, it’s always tough to use the word “deserved” in this context, because in the end the team (as a whole) did not do everything necessary to come away with two points. There are lots of potential scapegoats — Mason on the game-tying goal, the power play for going flat in the third period, an ineffective overtime performance and poor shots in the skills competition — but you can’t pin this defeat on one player. As every person in the locker room would say, these are shared losses.
At the same time, we can look at the numbers and note that the Flyers came out barely on top in almost all of the key categories. They posted a slight edge in score-adjusted Corsi (51.92%), generated 20 regular scoring chances (per NaturalStatTrick) to Ottawa’s 13, and even led in all-situations xG 3.25-2.88. They didn’t lead in all categories — the Senators won in high-danger 5v5 chances 11-9 and held a slight edge in 5v5 xG 2.59-2.53 — but on the whole, this certainly wasn’t a performance to regret. They’re not bleeding high quality chances against like they were just a few weeks ago, and the goaltending does seem to be trending upwards. It was a frustrating loss for the fans last night, but the overall trajectory of the team is still positive.
#2: Third period process at 5v5 was honestly fine
The easy narrative is that the Flyers choked away a victory due to a poor third period, as they were unable to add to their lead and ended up allowing a late game-tying goal. While most of this description is technically true, Philadelphia did a ton of things right in the final stanza. Despite holding a one-goal advantage for almost the entire period, Ottawa rarely set up shop in the Flyers’ end, and failed to generate much in the way of quality scoring chances. In fact, the Senators could muster just two high-danger chances over the final twenty minutes of regulation. It was a low-event period with play often bottled up in the neutral zone — exactly where the Flyers wanted it to stay.
But they simply could not avoid that one, backbreaking play. Brandon Manning could have tried to break up Kyle Turris’ rush, Radko Gudas could have challenged Turris more aggressively on the wraparound attempt, and of course, Mason could have been quicker to move to the far post. But this wasn’t a case of Philadelphia facing a deluge of shots and finally wilting under the pressure. The Flyers instead were in control until one breakdown changed everything. In fact, Philadelphia was down just 12-10 in 5v5 Corsi in the period prior to Turris’ tally, which is a very good margin considering they were holding a one-goal lead, which usually results in a heavy shots advantage for the trailing team. Last night’s result was obviously not good, but Philadelphia had a tendency in 2015-16 to sit back with a lead and watch their opponents attack in waves late, and it was good to see that didn’t happen here.
#3: Mason has great game with one big blemish
For 58 minutes, the primary narrative for last night’s game was obvious — Steve Mason had built off his strong performance in relief on Saturday and was now staking his claim to the starting role with Michal Neuvirth on the shelf for at least a month. Mason was equally adept at battling through traffic to locate pucks from the outside as he was in making highlight reel saves in front. But all of those great saves can’t fully erase the game-tying goal that he allowed with 1:59 remaining in regulation.
It’s difficult to see exactly what happened on replay that resulted in Mason being so slow to cover the far post. There was some talk that he may have locked his foot around the near post which made it harder to push off, which would be more of a technical issue than anything. But even though it may not have been an easy save (Turris was flying around the net), it was definitely a make-able one.
To Mason’s credit, he was back in top form during overtime and the shootout, and gave his teammates multiple opportunities to regain the second point. But that goal places this game in the same bucket as Neuvirth’s performances from two weeks ago — strong showings overshadowed by one bad goal. His decision to avoid the media after the game, while totally understandable, likely won’t do him any favors from a coverage standpoint, either. I still feel like Mason is trending in the right direction (he allowed two goals and Ottawa was actually “expected” to score 2.88), but he missed a real opportunity for a statement game last night.
#4: Bottom-six had a big night
The construction of the third and fourth lines has been a major topic of conversation across the fanbase so far this season, primarily because the overall performance has been so underwhelming. But last night against the Senators, the bottom-six picked up the slack as the big guns struggled to find their rhythm at 5-on-5. Not only did both Philadelphia goals come from the lower two lines (Nick Cousins and Michael Raffl added tallies), but the top play-drivers last night were the bottom-sixers as well. Weise, Cousins, Raffl, VandeVelde and Bellemare all finished with score-adjusted Corsi rates above 50 percent, in addition to coming out way positive on the chances ledger.
For the second straight game, the support of Raffl and Matt Read as play-drivers has helped Bellemare to grade out well by advanced metrics. As for the fourth line, it seems to be clicking even in the absence of Roman Lyubimov, who has been the team’s most effective forechecker in the early going. While I’d love to see him check back into the lineup soon, I assume Hakstol will not make any changes while these trios are working this well. Then again, shakeups often come after a loss, so you never know.
#5: Couturier’s zone exit issues
As he has often been during his time as a Flyer, Sean Couturier has yet again become a lightning rod for debate between stat-oriented circles and those who favor a more raw production-focused eye test. Despite playing on a line with Jakub Voracek and Travis Konecny, Couturier has just seven points in 17 games so far, and the critics are back out in full force. However, the Flyers’ second line center has continued to deliver stellar play-driving metrics at 5v5, ranking second among Philadelphia forwards with a +3.66% score-adjusted Corsi relative to his teammates. As a result, the debate rages on.
However, there is one area where both the eye test and public stats agree has been an issue for Couturier this year. Long a center adept at transitioning play from defense to offense via slick passes, Couturier has seemingly been turnover-prone in his own zone so far this year. That tendency reared its ugly head again last night, as his less-than-stellar passing in the defensive end forced Mason to make quite a few tough stops in the early going. Corey Sznajder’s data implies there is validity to the criticism. Going into last night’s game, Couturier actually had the worst Controlled Exit percentage (39.39%) among Flyers forwards this year and the highest Failed Exit rate (20.20%). It’s odd to see this regression, considering his relative strength in this area last year and his still-strong play-driving metrics. But the eye test hasn’t been wrong here — Couturier really does need to clean up this area of his game.
#6: Provorov is adapting to the NHL pace
There was far too much concern expressed in the early season after Ivan Provorov posted two poor games in a row against the Blackhawks and Ducks, though it was understandable. After all, Flyers fans are starved for a true #1 defenseman, and Provorov came with the pedigree and the hype to match. Also, after watching Shayne Gostisbehere’s seamless transition to the NHL last year, many were hoping to see Provorov jump into the NHL as essentially a finished product at age-19, as unrealistic as it sounds now. Rather than functioning as a reality check, that early season stretch had some worrying that Provorov might not possess the elite potential he was purported to have.
A month into the season, however, and Ivan Provorov continues to get better. He’s yet to score his first goal (which will surely be the next narrative from the skeptics, who are likely watching Zach Werenski’s rookie year with envy), but Provorov is getting better and better at pushing the play in the right direction without falling prey to the “big” mistake. Last night, he led all Flyers defensemen with a 60.61% score-adjusted Corsi, and was +15.15% relative to his teammates. He also posted a strong 57.37% Expected Goals for percentage, a stat in which he has struggled so far. He did this despite Mark Streit having an especially mistake-prone game, basically leaving Provorov to make all of the good plays on the pair. He performed admirably, however, making accurate passes, boxing out oncoming forwards, and cutting off plays in the neutral zone. There just isn’t much tension or concern among Flyers fans with Provorov on the ice, which might be the best compliment to give a 19-year old rookie.
#7: Top line playing too much dump-and-chase
While the second line of Couturier, Voracek and Konecny has generated the bulk of their chances off the rush, the nominal “first” line centered by Claude Giroux has apparently adopted a dump-and-chase centric strategy. Going into last night’s game, only 44.16% of the overall 5v5 entries that occurred with the captain on the ice came with possession of the puck — the rest were dump-ins.
Watching them play last night, it’s tough to tell if this is truly an intentional tactic, or if key players on the line are simply starting to play too conservative. On a number of occasions, Giroux (still an ultra-skilled puck handler) chose a simple chip-in rather than fighting to reach a visible open lane through the neutral zone. It’s tough to imagine that he simply “can’t do it” anymore, especially after watching him fly through the middle of the ice on the power play. In any case, the tactics weren’t effective, as Giroux and company all finished with score-adjusted Corsis and xG rates below 46 percent, and they feel like a waste of Giroux’s skillset, especially. I’d like to see if Giroux’s mentality changes given a linemate or two who can also create on the rush, rather than ones who instead thrive throwing their weight around in the corners.
#8: May be time to break up the top two lines
And that leads us into our next topic — might it be time to break up the top two lines with the goal of balancing out the skillsets? Konecny and Voracek are obviously controlled entry machines, while Couturier has overcome middling foot speed to turn into a 60% “entry-with-possession” player this year as well. On the other hand, Claude Giroux’s top line has become almost a third line in terms of tactics, which does seem to be wasting his all-world offensive talents at 5v5. Still, the Couturier line has been dangerous so far this season, even if the scoring has dried up in recent weeks. It’s tough to break that up.
Still, I think I’d risk it. Adding another puck carrier to Giroux’s wing should give him some much needed help, and the second line hasn’t played well enough in recent games to be truly viewed as untouchable. I’d probably bump Konecny up to the top unit to start, giving Giroux a speed option on the wing and a creative force in the offensive zone. Then I’d either drop Schenn to 2LW, banking on Couturier and Voracek being able to carry him to play-driving respectability, or move him to line 3 and bump Raffl up, putting together a super-Corsi trio. All three combinations have potential, and I’d be intrigued to see them test it out.
#9: Weise with maybe his best game as a Flyer
A player in need a season reboot is Dale Weise, who has quickly become Public Enemy #1 for a sizable portion of the Flyers’ fanbase. It’s primarily the contract that has them up in arms, as Philadelphia locked him up for four years with the intention of using him as a third liner who could occasionally move up as a complimentary piece in the top-six. Instead, Weise has struggled to create much of anything offensively, and was even briefly scratched as a result. Now receiving fourth line minutes, Weise was in need of a big game in order to change some minds.
It may not have been a flashy performance, but Weise was undeniably productive in this one. Not only did he chip with a primary assist on Michael Raffl’s goal, he was stellar by the fancy stats, finishing with a team-high 79.92% score-adjusted Corsi, a whopping +39.72% relative to his teammates. Interestingly enough, Weise’s neutral zone play had been strong coming into this game — you don’t luck into a 56.82% Controlled Entry percentage at 5v5. But his offensive zone production had been horrid, as he simply was not helping his linemates to creates shots while on the attack.
Last night was a good first step, as his forechecking game looked better, he was active in setting screens in front of the net, and even contributed in the cycle game. The fact is, Weise is probably overpaid both from a dollars and a term standpoint. But even if he’s not one of the nine best forwards on this roster, there’s no reason he can’t carve out a full-time role as an upgraded Ryan White, a fourth line stalwart who can actually drive play to a degree (White couldn’t) and score more than your average checker.
#10: Overtime lineup raises questions
No one would argue that there is anything wrong with the Flyers’ top 3-on-3 unit of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Shayne Gostisbehere. It’s a frightening barrage of speed, skill and creativity in all three zones, and Philadelphia’s game-winning OT goals understandably come from one of those three players most of the time. But beyond that unit, there’s certainly room for critiques. The tandem of Wayne Simmonds and Sean Couturier is skilled and perfect for a grinding cycle, but looks slow at 3v3. And then there’s the final forward duo of Matt Read and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, both of whom are apparently above players like Brayden Schenn, Michael Raffl and Travis Konecny on the OT depth chart.
The 19-year old Konecny seems to be the biggest snub. After all, no Flyers forward has been a primary part of more shot attempts at 5v5 than Konecny (adjusted for ice time), and no Philadelphia player has looked more electric this season, period. I asked Hakstol after the game why Konecny has yet to gain a full-time role at 3v3, and the coach noted that it was a role he would have to earn, stating, “There’s a lot of responsibility out there. He’s had a couple shifts out there, but that’s not a situation you just throw a young kid into. That’s a lot of responsibility there. So, when he earns it, when he shows he belongs in that situation, when it’s the right time, we’ll get him in there.”
Hakstol seems to be of the belief that Konecny’s offensive aggressiveness might cause too many odd-man rushes against, and that’s probably why he’s kept him mostly on the bench in overtime. My guess is that Hakstol wants to use his non-Giroux units essentially as time-killers, avoiding big mistakes and giving his big guns a chance to catch their breath before going back out. But I do believe that Konecny could provide a jolt to another unit, maybe paired with Couturier if Hakstol wants a forward who will likely “cover” for the rookie. It just seems like a waste to bench your most dynamic offensive weapon for the open ice of 3v3 overtime, even if his defensive skills can be charitably called a work-in-progress. It’s just a hunch, but I suspect we’ll see Konecny out there soon enough. I don’t believe Hakstol will wait anywhere near a full season before letting the rookie loose.