The first two months of the Philadelphia Flyers' season can be fairly called a major disappointment. Despite some positive underlying metrics, the team has posted a poor 10-10-3 record, primarily due to a total inability to keep the puck out of the back of their net. Many fans hoped that the Flyers' strong finish to the 2015-16 season would carry over into an equally-solid start to this year, but those dreams have been dashed.
Understandably, fans have looked for specific players and coaches to blame for Philadelphia's mediocre play. Dave Hakstol has been a primary target, with much criticism directed at his lineup choices. Goaltenders Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth also have received a lionshare of the blame, as neither have been able to post save percentages over 0.900 -- a mark generally associated with the bare minimum of netminding competency. Still others pin the issues on the defense, which has often struggled in preventing high-quality chances. Andrew MacDonald, Mark Streit, Michael Del Zotto, and even Shayne Gostisbehere have been primary offenders, according to detractors.
But a critical lens often shines extra bright on a new addition to the lineup, and that has been the case with Dale Weise. Signed in the offseason to a four-year, $9.4 million contract, Weise is off to a slow start from a scoring standpoint, with just four points (two goals, two assists) in 19 games played.
Considering the fact that many were underwhelmed by the signing in the first place -- questioning the wisdom of locking up a likely-to-be bottom-six forward to a four-year term -- it's been very easy to advance the narrative that the Dale Weise contract was a major mistake. Sean McIndoe of Sportsnet even recently included Weise as an example of a classic "Contract to Avoid," alongside such luminaries as Dave Bolland, Ryan Clowe and Deryk Engelland.
Two months into a four-year contract, Weise is already being placed alongside three players who essentially retired shortly into their ill-advised deals, two third-pair defensemen, and David Clarkson in terms of the shrewdness of the signing. So has Weise been this bad? Are we already looking at a player who will hamstring the Flyers' roster flexibility and cap situation for years to come?
Luckily, the answer is a clear no. While Weise has struggled to score in his first two months in a Philadelphia uniform, there are a number of very positive signs with regards to his overall play. In fact, Weise's issues so far have been exclusively limited to the offensive zone -- he's actually been one of the the team's most effective forwards in the neutral zone, which is helping him to post legitimately elite play-driving results at 5-on-5 so far this year.
First, the bad -- Weise must be better offensively
It's no secret why critics have been circling Dale Weise in his first season as a Philadelphia Flyer. After averaging 0.46 and 0.37 points per game in his final two years with the Montreal Canadiens, Weise is currently scoring at a 0.21 per game rate, and it's taken a two-goal-in-three-game recent "surge" to even get him to that point. In terms of being directly responsible for Flyers' goals so far in 2016-17, Weise has been basically invisible.
His rate scoring hasn't been much better. Entering Sunday night's game against the Calgary Flames, Weise was averaging 0.85 Points per 60 during 5-on-5 situations. That would have ranked him 345th last season among forwards with at least 300 minutes at 5v5, the range of a low-end fourth liner. Considering the $2.35 million cap hit that Ron Hextall gave Weise in July, the production is hard to swallow.
It hasn't been bad luck causing the poor scoring, either. Weise has not been particularly impressive in directly helping Philadelphia to create shots at even strength, as measured by Primary Shot Contributions. PSC (developed by Ryan Stimson) is a count of the total number of shots and passes that directly lead to a shot generated by an individual player.
Initial research implies that a player with a high PSC (or PSC/60, when adjusted for ice time) is likely to score more primary points in the future than a player who has scored well in the past but holds a lower PSC/60. As a result, this stat a good way to check if we can expect a slumping player to score more moving forward.
All data is accurate as of 11/22.
Weise ranks tenth, closer to the range of fourth-line talents like VandeVelde and Gordon than middle-sixers like Raffl and Cousins. This doesn't imply that a massive offensive breakout in on the horizon. Nor has his PSC/60 been improving much in November during 5-on-5 situations, despite his recent two-goal burst.
Critics of Dale Weise are undeniably correct that the winger must be more active in the offensive zone. So far, he's both scored and created shots at the level of a fourth-liner, which does not match up with his current cap hit or term. Weise simply needs to be better in this area.
The neutral zone is another story entirely
You might be thinking right now, "Wait, I thought this was supposed to be an article in defense of Dale Weise?" And you would be right to wonder why this article spent so much time critiquing his offensive zone play since supporting Weise is the main point of the article.
It's because even with Weise providing very little value in terms of direct shot and goal creation, he's still helping to drive positive outcomes for the Flyers on the whole.
It all starts in the neutral zone. It's been consistently proven that Controlled Zone Entries (entries into the offensive zone with possession of the puck) provide more value than uncontrolled entries, or dump-ins. This has always made intuitive sense, as a dump-in requires a successful puck retrieval (which is not guaranteed) before offense can be generated, while a carry-in provides the opportunity for immediate shot creation. As a result, all things being equal, you'd like your team to employ forwards adept at carrying the puck into the offensive zone with possession rather than constantly playing dump-and-chase.
Unsurprisingly, Jakub Voracek has the highest Controlled Entry Percentage at 5-on-5 on the Flyers (as of 11/22) with a 64.23% rate. Second place seems like it would go to another obviously skilled forward, like the electric Travis Konecny, the intelligent Sean Couturier, or do-it-all center Claude Giroux. Instead, it's Dale Weise who comes in right behind Voracek with a stellar 61.11% mark.
|Forward||5v5 Controlled Entry Percentage|
Accurate as of 11/19.
Generally speaking, bottom-six forwards don't post Controlled Entry rates over 50 percent, especially ones seemingly lacking elite speed or offensive skill. That makes Weise's performance here a clear anomaly, and one worthy of a closer look. Is it possible that Weise is just taking all of the "easy" controlled entries on his line, and not doing much to help the team's performance as a whole?
To answer this, we'll take a quick look at Weise's overall Neutral Zone Score. This is a measurement of the offensive zone entries created and allowed with a certain player on the ice. Essentially a Neutral Zone Score above 50% means that given league-average shot creation (and prevention) in the attacking zones, the team will outshoot the opposition and carry the bulk of play due to positive results in the middle of the ice.
And in this regard, Weise doesn't just grade out well. He's been the best forward on the team.
|Forward||Neutral Zone Score|
In fact, Weise has helped to facilitate the Flyers playing a top-six style despite receiving almost all of his minutes in the third or fourth line. With Weise on the ice, 49.08% of the Flyers' entries have been with possession of the puck, the fourth-highest mark on the team behind the trio of Konecny, Couturier and Voracek.
Basically, the presence of Weise on a line has allowed his teammates to utilize a rush-based attack in the neutral zone rather than resort to dump-and-chase on a regular basis. That's an outcome that has even eluded the "top" line, as the Flyers have a mere 43.17% Controlled Entry rate with 1C Claude Giroux on the ice. As a result, Weise's neutral zone contributions probably shouldn't be overlooked.
On-ice results line up with Weise's neutral zone play
It's great that Weise is performing admirably in the neutral zone, you might be thinking, but that's meaningless if the Flyers aren't generating positive results in the other two areas of the ice with Weise out there. And that is absolutely true -- all of the zone entries and slick passes in the middle of the ice don't matter if Weise isn't helping his team to win the shots and goals battle elsewhere.
Here's the thing, though -- Weise is doing just that.
Quietly, Dale Weise ranks third on the Flyers in Corsi For percentage (adjusted for score and venue) with a strong 55.34% rate, +4.59% relative to his teammates at 5-on-5. His metrics are even more impressive when removing blocked shots from the equation. His Fenwick For percentage is a fantastic 59.13%, and the Flyers perform a whopping 8.32 percentage points better in the metric with Weise on the ice versus when he sits on the bench.
Weise grades out positively in on-ice Expected Goal metrics as well. After adjusting his Fenwick for the quality of shots created and allowed, Weise sits at 53.61 percent, second on the team only behind Michael Raffl. Scoring chance suppression has been an obvious issue for the Flyers this season, but Weise has not fallen victim to the team-wide epidemic. With Weise on the ice, Philadelphia has averaged 1.85 Expected Goals per 60 Against, but with Weise off the ice, that number skyrockets to 2.74. His -0.89 differential in this area is a team-best.
Let's move away from the theoretical for a second, though, and take a look at how the Flyers have performed from an actual goal creation and prevention standpoint with Weise on the ice. After all, that's been his biggest issue -- helping the Flyers to create tangible offense.
Yet again, Weise grades out fine from an on-ice standpoint, with even better results likely on the way. In a little under 200 minutes at 5-on-5 this year, the Flyers have scored just as many goals as they've allowed with Weise out there, good for a Goals For percentage of 50%. But that's despite a 95.9 PDO and an awful 88.73% on-ice save percentage. Considering the fact that the Flyers aren't bleeding scoring chances with Weise on the ice, the likely explanation is that his PDO and on-ice save percentages are unsustainably low. PDO usually falls in close to 100 for single players in large samples, and Weise is already breaking even from a goal standpoint despite not getting the bounces.
If he keeps up this level of play, it's easy to envision very strong on-ice results on the horizon for Dale Weise.
How do we evaluate Dale Weise in light of his play so far?
Dale Weise may not be scoring at the rates that Ron Hextall and the Flyers hoped when they signed him to a four-year contract this past July. But his ability to drive positive on-ice outcomes over the season's first two months should protect him from being placed alongside disastrous deals like those given to Clowe, Clarkson and Bolland, at least for now. Good things are happening with Weise on the ice -- he just hasn't been the one finishing off the play with a shot or a shot assist.
It's fair to ask whether Weise's play-driving ability is truly sustainable. After all, this is a forward whose best Relative Corsi performance before this season was a -0.06% (basically break-even) last year, so it's not as if he has a long history of pushing the puck in the right direction. At the same time, Weise has progressively improved in this area every year since 2011-12, so it's possible this is just a culmination of lots of little gains sending his results to new heights. The neutral zone metrics also hint that Weise is taking an active role in driving play, increasing confidence that this might be sustainable to a degree.
And of course, if you want to argue that Weise's play-driving results might regress a bit, it's fair to note that his scoring seems likely to improve by the same line of thinking. After all, Weise averaged 1.63 Points/60 at 5-on-5 over the past three seasons, placing him in mid-tier second liner territory, rather than the low-end fourth liner range where he sits now.
In many ways, Dale Weise's start to the 2016-17 season is reminiscent of Matt Read's play last year. Like Weise now, Read was driving play at a rate comparable to the best forwards on the team, but was invisible offensively. The line of thinking that eventually took hold surrounding Read was that while he was far from a useless bottom-sixer, a $3.625 cap hit was at least a million dollars too high for a "good Corsi, bad scoring" player.
In an inadvertent answer to those prayers, Ron Hextall brought Flyers fans Dale Weise, who with a $2.35 million cap hit has fit the "cheaper Matt Read" bill perfectly. As a result, it's far too early to call the signing a bust, even if the four-year term remains disconcerting. If Weise can continue with his current formula, he's a useful bottom-six forward even if the scoring never comes around, which it very well might considering his track record. And if he does improve offensively while retaining these play-driving gains, Dale Weise should start to convince even his most ardent doubters that he was truly worth the money.
All statistics courtesy of The Energy Line, Corsica.Hockey, and Stats.HockeyAnalysis. Special thanks to Muneeb Alam for help in deriving Neutral Zone Score.