Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Hakstol’s team wins by flipping his own script
Through a season and a month under head coach Dave Hakstol, some trends regarding his preferred on-ice tactics and off-ice philosophy have become apparent. For starters, his club tends to play a very aggressive game, especially in the neutral and offensive zones. As a result, the Flyers under Hakstol have regularly won the overall shot attempt battle ever since getting the hang of his preferred system midway through last year, even if they’ve often bled chances against due to the risk-taking. Also, he showed a willingness last season to let his young players (such as then-rookie Shayne Gostisbehere) to take chances and make plays without worrying that they would be pushed to be more conservative.
By those standards, this truly was an anti-Hakstol game from the head coach. For starters, the Flyers lost the shot attempts battle at 5v5 (44.97% score-adjusted Corsi) and were outshot on the whole 32-22 in all situations. Instead, they won by being opportunistic and a bit lucky, pouncing on Jets mistakes (like the first three goals) or just being fortunate (the final two). But the big change wasn’t in results; it was in philosophy. On this night, Hakstol seemed to de-incentivize risk-taking, especially from his young players. Obviously, Gostisbehere was a shocking scratch last night, but Hakstol’s treatment of Konecny followed similar logic. The 19-year old forward was essentially benched for the entire third period as the head coach went with a “safer” look while protecting the lead. He did the same on a late power play, using two defensemen on the top unit rather than maximizing the offensive talent on the ice.
Obviously, the end result was positive — the Flyers got a much-needed win. But my hope is that Hakstol doesn’t see this as validating a more conservative approach in all facets of his coaching. Philadelphia won this game because they scored on 22.7% of their shots and because Steve Mason finished with a 0.938 save percentage. Neither feels like a sustainable formula for long-term success. When I asked Hakstol after the game about his thoughts on getting outshot but still winning, he called it a “heck of a good win,” but then noted that the goals were “timely” and that Mason was very good. My suspicion is that he doesn’t view this as a replicable formula for victories, either, but only time will tell there.
#2: Outcome by itself does not justify Gostisbehere scratching
There will be talk today that Hakstol’s move to sit Shayne Gostisbehere was “proven right” by the team’s victory. After all, Ghost was ostensibly scratched due to underwhelming defensive play, and the Flyers gave up just two goals in the victory. However, the truth isn’t that simple. Philadelphia was dramatically outplayed at even strength, losing in raw shot attempts (44.7% Corsi) and weighted attempts (34.17% xG) by significant margins. Steve Mason was the main reason why the Jets were held to merely two goals on the night, not a dramatic improvement on the part of the defense. In fact, it’s more accurate to say that the team missed Gostisbehere’s controlled zone exit ability greatly, especially in transitioning play from defense to offense.
Let’s be honest — this was a calculated risk on the part of Dave Hakstol. Like every sane person in the hockey world, he surely knows that even a “struggling” Gostisbehere provides more on-ice value in a single game than Andrew MacDonald does. Essentially, this was Hakstol willingly putting a weaker team on the ice last night (and decreasing his chances of victory) in order to try and aid in the long-term development of Gostisbehere, who obviously will be a key piece of this franchise for years to come. Over one game, the risk paid off, as Mason and good fortune pushed the Flyers to a win. Whether Gostisbehere actually gets any long-term benefit from the scratching remains to be seen, and that was the driving force behind the lineup decision. A more effective Shayne Gostisbehere is the way this move proves justified, not one victory.
#3: Mason came through big time
The conversation following Tuesday’s shootout loss to the Ottawa Senators was driven by the game-tying wraparound goal that Steve Mason allowed late in regulation, but what did get brushed aside was the fact that Mason was very good aside from the big mistake. That’s not absolving Mason — it was a bad goal at an awful time — but including the Minnesota relief appearance, we were really looking at five straight great periods (and an overtime session) from Mason with one screwup sprinkled in. After last night’s performance, we can now change that number to eight.
Mason has posted other solid games this season (the loss in Montreal, last week against Detroit), but he had yet to deliver a 60-minute game with no obvious miscues. Last night, the Flyers finally got that performance from their goaltender. He stopped 30 of 32 shots, and allowed just two goals despite Winnipeg racking up 3.56 in all-situations Expected Goals. Both Jets tallies were essentially unstoppable, one-timer goals caused by defensive breakdowns and nothing that Mason did wrong. So has Mason stabilized? I’m fairly confident that he has, considering that he’s been above-average in four of his past five appearances and is clearly trending upwards on the whole. Not a moment too soon for this Philadelphia club.
#4: Third period was their best of the night
The Flyers might not have delivered a particularly strong performance at 5v5 last night, but to their credit, they saved their best for last. To a man, the players (and coach) after the game noted their satisfaction with the team’s play in the final period, and the numbers backed up their boasts. While it wasn’t a strong period from a Corsi standpoint, Philadelphia actually matched the Jets in regular scoring chances (6-6) and had a slight lead in those of the high-danger variety (5-4) at 5v5. Multiple players extolled the willingness to push the pace despite holding a lead, and that aggressive mentality paid dividends as the team scored twice and put the game out of reach for Winnipeg.
#5: Konecny dropped off second line for entire third period
In past games, Hakstol has chosen to remove rookie standout Travis Konecny from the Flyers’ second line in the late stages of the third period, when the team is protecting a lead. It’s no secret why — as a young player whose offensive skillset is far more developed right now than his defensive consistency, Hakstol simply does not trust Konecny in those situations. However, last night Hakstol took the thought process to an entirely new level, essentially benching the rookie for the entire third period. Konecny received just two shifts, while Dale Weise jumped up to the 2LW spot to replace him.
Truthfully, I have no issue with Hakstol removing Konecny late in games with Philadelphia up a goal. Not only do I understand that rookies need to earn the trust of their coaches and that doesn’t happen overnight, the numbers back up Hakstol’s belief that Konecny hasn’t been great defensively so far. He has a +3.20% Corsi Against Per 60 relative to his teammates, and in this instance, being positive in a stat is actually a bad thing. Teammates give up more shot attempts while playing with Konecny than they do away from him. They also generate more as well, but when protecting a lead, neutral and defensive zone play without the puck becomes more important because the opponent plays more aggressive. So I get where Hakstol is coming from.
But benching him for the entire period? That seems a bit over the top, especially during that first ten minute stretch when the main focus should be extending the lead, as the other team likely hasn’t yet really ramped up their urgency. After the game Hakstol noted that this was a special instance, driven by the fact that he perceived that things weren’t going that well for Konecny last night. He specifically noted a blown assignment on Winnipeg’s second goal, which is totally fair. Hopefully this truly was just a one-time personnel decision, and not a sign of things to come, though.
#6: Couturier line rebounded
The usually-dominant unit of Sean Couturier, Jakub Voracek and Travis Konecny had been quiet over the past few games, but they finally re-emerged last night against Winnipeg. The line’s goal may have been a bit fluky — a Scheifele turnover caused by an uncalled Voracek trip — but it was still heartening to see Couturier take full advantage of a golden opportunity. In addition, all three forwards delivered decent play-driving metrics relative to their teammates, as Konecny (+5.19% Corsi relative) and Voracek (+1.82%) both finished positive and Couturier just barely in the red. It wasn’t a great advanced statistical night for anyone, but Couturier’s unit was buzzing again offensively, which is a good sign moving forward.
#7: Gostisbehere scratching isn’t MacDonald’s fault
While it’s understandable that fans — both online and at the game — took out their Gostisbehere scratch-related frustration on Andrew MacDonald, I don’t believe he was the best target for their ire. For starters, this was Dave Hakstol’s call, so for those who vehemently disagreed with the move, he’s the person to blame. But most importantly, this was not a move made because the team believes that MacDonald is actually more likely to help the Flyers win games than Shayne Gostisbehere. This was a matter of the coaching staff wanting to scratch Ghost as a teaching tool, and MacDonald just happened to be the one to check back into the lineup.
While I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say that MacDonald had a great game, it was a pretty humdrum, passable performance by his standards. He actually delivered solid play-driving stats relative to his teammates (+8.93 score-adjusted Corsi Rel), and also nabbed a primary assist. Of course, that assist came on a shot of his that was partially-blocked and just bounced right to Simmonds in the slot, and MacDonald certainly made his fair share of defensive mistakes as well, so it’s not as if the 30-year old veteran was anything close to a standout star. But considering his talent level, this was no disaster level event like his performances prior to earning his initial healthy scratch.
#8: Gudas looking good again
Another player who had tailed off a bit in recent games had been Radko Gudas. After storming out of the gate following his suspension, Gudas had been sliding back into bad habits, especially blind clears out of the defensive zone and larger-than-ideal gaps in the neutral zone. But last night, the good Gudas was back. He was doing all the things that make him an effective defenseman — disrupting passes in the neutral zone, blasting shots from the point, and (of course) hitting opponents with authority.
In fact, this may have been Gudas’ most physically aggressive game of the season. He was credited with six hits, none better than this one delivered on Nic Petan in the third period. But even while dishing out punishment, Gudas stayed on the right side of the law, and drove play relative to his teammates (+7.39%). On the whole, Gudas was the Flyers’ most effective defenseman last night, and it’s good to see him return to that position after a few rough games.
#9: Flyers finally benefited from a “bad goals, bad luck” game from an opponent
So far this year, whenever I discuss “bad goaltending” in an article about the Flyers, it’s a reference to Steve Mason or Michal Neuvirth. However, in last night’s game, the Flyers finally had the good fortune of facing a netminder who made the type of mistakes that we’ve come to expect from Philadelphia goalies. Connor Hellebuyck was far from his best against the Flyers, with the Mark Streit goal being the most egregious example of a “softie.”
But in many ways, his game reminded me of what Flyers goalies have faced this year — high-quality chances due to awful turnovers or bad bounces. Both Couturier and Raffl’s goals were just Grade A chances due to defensive zone breakdowns, while Simmonds’ goal came on a bad bounce. Basically, Hellebuyck could have been a lot better, but he also dealt with bad circumstances. Man, that sounds familiar.
#10: Is Dale Weise figuring things out?
When Travis Konecny was dropped off the second line in the third period, it was Dale Weise who primarily took his place, jumping from line four all the way up to the top-six. Weise has been something of a punching bag for fans so far this year, and rightfully so — he has just two points and 16 shots on goal in 14 regular season games. But in this case, the temporary promotion wasn’t totally ridiculous, because Weise’s play had been trending upwards in recent games.
For the third time in four games, Weise finished with a positive score-adjusted Corsi relative, posting a solid +4.03%. In fact, Weise’s 52.34% season-long percentage actually betters that of Travis Konecny, Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux. Granted, he hasn’t received the minutes they have. But Weise has actually been above-average in the neutral and defensive zones so far this year, it’s just been on the attack where he’s struggled. And you can see him making a clear effort over the past couple games to engage more in the offensive zone, whether it be with shots or with aggressive forechecking. I certainly wouldn’t advocate for him to stay up with Couturier and Voracek, but this version of Dale Weise is a perfectly useful NHL forward, a far cry from how he looked just a few weeks ago.