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The Flyers have a Brayden Schenn problem

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The raw point totals simply do not tell the whole story when it comes to the Philadelphia forward.

NHL: Nashville Predators at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

At first glance, Brayden Schenn appears to be living up to preseason expectations. In the wake of a breakout 59-point season last year, Schenn was rewarded with a four-year, $20.5 million contract — an implicit assurance that the organization viewed him as a vital piece of the franchise moving forward.

He wasn’t being paid like a yearly 60-point scorer (neither in yearly cap hit nor in term), but with the commitment, the Flyers essentially announced that they were depending upon Schenn to be a core piece of the team’s top two lines and deliver scoring totals somewhere in the 45-55 point range yearly. And thus far, Brayden Schenn has done just that. In 34 games, Schenn has scored 23 points (10 goals, 13 assists), which has him on a 55-point pace over an 82 game season, and hovers either fourth or fifth in overall time on ice per game among Flyers forwards. Schenn won’t reach the 82 games mark — he was suspended for the first three games and can’t get those contests back — but he’s still on track to finish around the 50-point mark, which would be the second-best offensive season of Schenn’s NHL career.

But all is not well in the world of Brayden Schenn, despite his impressive raw totals. Schenn may have scored at an acceptable rate over the season’s first three months, but his performance at even strength has been nothing short of ghastly. Out of his 23 points, only eight have come during even strength situations, and just seven at the most prevalent of all situations, five-on-five play. Not only is Schenn struggling to score at 5-on-5, the Flyers are being outshot and outscored with the 25-year old forward on the ice, despite the fact that Schenn has almost exclusively played with impact linemates.

There’s a reason why Brayden Schenn has bounced around the Flyers’ lineup so far in 2016-17 — it’s because he’s been a liability in every role he’s been given at even strength this season. And the most troubling part of the problem? We’re now three months into the season, and Schenn is showing little signs of improvement.

Just how ugly has Schenn’s 5-on-5 scoring been?

Schenn’s stellar production on the power play — 13 points during 5-on-4 situations, tied for third in the NHL in PP goals — has masked his inability to produce much of anything offensively at even strength this season. The Flyers haven’t quite reached the halfway point of 2016-17, but Schenn has skated in 444:52 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, a not-insubstantial sample size, and not far under half of his total ice time in the situation last year (1015:48). In those minutes, Schenn has been totally ineffective.

The best way to evaluate even strength scoring efficiency is to control for a player’s ice time, which is the goal of the Points per 60 statistic. Points/60 is a rate stat that measures how many points a player has scored every 60 minutes of ice time that he was given by his team. By using this metric, we don’t penalize players who receive minimal ice time but score often anyway, and we also avoid overrating players who rack up decent point totals due to receiving boatloads of minutes.

Schenn hasn’t even fallen into the unflattering latter category. He’s getting lots of minutes at 5-on-5, and isn’t even posting decent raw totals. In over 400 minutes this season, Schenn has just seven points at 5-on-5, ranking him ninth on the team and one point ahead of Sean Couturier, who just missed a month due to an injury. His Points/60 is even worse. With a 0.94 Points/60 mark at 5-on-5, Schenn is behind such scoring luminaries as Boyd Gordon and Chris VandeVelde, and ahead of only Roman Lyubimov, Dale Weise and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare among Flyers forwards. That’s not the kind of company that a “scorer” should keep after nearly three full months of hockey.

For some perspective on just how poor Schenn’s scoring at 5-on-5 has been so far this year, let’s look at last season’s NHL Points/60 rates among all forwards who played in at least 300 minutes. Schenn’s current 0.94 Points/60 rate would have placed him 330th in the NHL, just behind Ryan Garbutt and Dominic Moore. If you break down the list into sections of 90 forwards (top 90 = first line NHL forwards, and so on), then it’s fair to say that Schenn’s 5-on-5 scoring this season has been comparable to that of a low-end fourth liner. And that’s despite spending 280 minutes alongside Wayne Simmonds, 172 minutes with Claude Giroux, and 146 minutes with Travis Konecny. Schenn is playing with high-end talent and is scoring (at 5v5) like a player barely worthy of a regular lineup spot.

Schenn’s been a play-driving liability, too

While the primary task of an NHL forward is to aid in the creation of goals, low individual point totals over a three-month span aren’t necessarily damning of a player’s overall performance. We know that things like abnormally-low shooting percentages, poor scoring rates from linemates, and just plain bad luck can play a role in scoring slumps. Individual scoring totals matter, but if the team is outplaying the opposition with a certain forward on the ice, we can reasonably expect that goals and assists will come at some point in the future.

Unfortunately for Brayden Schenn, the Flyers have struggled both in terms of driving play and in positive goal-based outcomes with him on the ice. In fact, there’s a strong case to be made that no forward has been worse in driving positive on-ice results at 5-on-5 than Schenn.

Let’s start with Schenn’s on-ice shot attempt differentials. There are three main ways to evaluate performance from a play-driving standpoint — raw shot attempt differential (Corsi For percentage), how a team performs with a player on the ice versus on the bench (Corsi Relative) and then how a player’s regular linemates perform with and without him (Corsi For% RelTM). We’ll evaluate how Schenn stacks up in all three.

First, we’ll look at his Corsi For percentage. With Schenn on the ice this season, the Flyers have generated 423 shot attempts at 5v5 and have allowed 468. As a result, his Corsi For (Flyers’ shot attempts divided by all shot attempts) is 47.47%, the lowest rate among regular Philadelphia forwards. After adjusting for score-based situations (a team leading will generally lose the attempts battle, a team trailing usually wins it), Schenn remains in the basement, coming in at a 47.09% rate.

Considering his position in the team rankings, it’s not surprising that his Corsi Relative is poor as well. When Schenn has been on the bench, the Flyers have posted a score-adjusted Corsi of 53.40%, giving Schenn a Corsi Relative (on-ice Corsi minus off-ice Corsi) of -6.31%. Basically, Philadelphia has performed over six percentage points better in terms of play-driving with Schenn on the bench.

This has been a season-long issue. At no point this season has Schenn delivered a positive Corsi relative to his teammates over a ten game span. He’s spent the whole year in the negative.

The effect on Schenn’s regular linemates has been just as detrimental. His Corsi For% RelTM — a similar metric to Corsi Relative but one that specifically measures the performance of a player’s regular linemates both with and away from him — is negative-5.2 percent, another horrific mark. In fact, the five Flyers forwards who have spent at least 50 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time alongside Schenn have all posted sub-48% Corsi For percentages with Schenn, and over 51.5% Corsi For rates away from him. Every line is worse when Schenn has been on it, most likely because Schenn has been on it.

Accurate as of 12/27.

Now, some might argue that metrics like Corsi and Fenwick are all well and good, but what really matters is goals. Let’s set aside for the moment the fact that shot attempt metrics have proven to be a better predictor of future goal differential than past goal differential, and respond to that criticism at face value. Even if you believe that even strength goal differential is a better way to judge a player’s performance than Corsi, Schenn is getting killed in those metrics as well.

With Schenn on the ice at 5-on-5, the Flyers have scored 14 goals and allowed 18, giving the 25-year old a Goals For percentage of 43.8%. That’s actually worse than his Corsi of 47.47 percent.

Basically, there is no measurement that judges Brayden Schenn as anything less than a total liability at 5-on-5 this season. He’s been a disaster.

Center versus wing

From the start of Schenn’s career, his regular position has been in a state of flux. After bouncing from center to wing over his first four seasons in Philadelphia, he seemed to finally find a home as LW on the Giroux line last year during his offensive breakout. But this season, it’s been back to the same old shuffle for Schenn.

Some have argued that Schenn’s performance has improved since being shifted back to his natural center position, which occurred starting with the November 27th game against the Calgary Flames. After all, the shift coincided with the Flyers’ ten-game winning streak, and also saw Schenn post his best games of the season, including a hat trick performance against Dallas and then two more gamewinning goals against Detroit and Colorado.

But when we actually break down Schenn’s performance in games at center versus games at wing, there is no measurable difference. He’s struggled to drive play at both spots, and he hasn’t scored appreciably more points in games at center, either.

Scenario Games Points Per Game Corsi For Percentage
Scenario Games Points Per Game Corsi For Percentage
Schenn at Center 19 0.684 47.39%
Schenn at Wing 15 0.666 47.58%

There’s no “surge” in performance that comes with Schenn playing at his natural center position rather than on the wing — his point and play-driving rates are almost identical. And this doesn’t even account for the previously-established fact that the bulk of Schenn’s points this season haven’t even come at 5-on-5 — they’ve been on the power play, when the center/wing debate doesn’t even come into play.

On Wednesday, the Flyers kept Schenn at center even with Sean Couturier re-entering the lineup. If that decision was driven by a desire to use a player with scoring potential at 3C versus Bellemare or Nick Cousins, it’s at least justifiable. But if it’s driven by a mistaken notion that Schenn has been much better at the pivot position than on the wing, or (more frightening) that the recent Konecny-Schenn-Simmonds line has worked, then it’s clear the numbers do not back up the reasoning. Schenn has been the same below-average 5-on-5 player regardless of position.

What is the problem, and how should the Flyers solve it?

The intriguing part about Schenn’s poor performance at 5-on-5 this season is that it is uncharacteristically awful. He’s never been an incredible performer at even strength in his career, but his scoring rates and play-driving statistics in 2016-17 are worse than anything he’s posted during his NHL career.

Timeframe 5v5 Points/60 5v5 Corsi Relative 5v5 Corsi For% RelTM
Timeframe 5v5 Points/60 5v5 Corsi Relative 5v5 Corsi For% RelTM
2016-17 Schenn 0.94 -6.31% -5.20%
2012-13 through 2015-16 Schenn 1.61 -0.63% -0.60%

Schenn’s scoring at even strength will almost certainly improve in the second half. Right now, he’s nursing a 5.88% individual shooting percentage at 5-on-5, and he and his teammates are shooting 6.57% while he is on the ice. His career averages are 10.37% and 7.53% respectively, so we can expect those to go up as the year progresses.

The play-driving metrics are more concerning, and go hand-in-hand with the scoring rates. After all, if Schenn is spending less time in the offensive zone, his point totals may not fully rebound even if his percentages regress back to his career norms, because the raw shot volume will be down due to lack of zone time.

Interestingly enough, however, it hasn’t been shot creation that has been the play-driving problem for Schenn. With Schenn on the ice this season, the Flyers have generated 57.12 shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, which is actually higher than the team’s performance with Schenn over the preceding four years (56.25). No, Schenn’s issue has been almost entirely on the defensive side of the puck. With Schenn on the ice this year, Philadelphia has allowed 64.8 shot attempts per 60 to the opposition. With him on the bench, that number drops a whopping 10.15 attempts, to 54.65. The Flyers have simply bled attempts against when Brayden Schenn hits the ice.

With the help of Corey Sznajder’s manually-tracked entry data (current through 11/22), we can try to pinpoint the cause of Schenn’s defensive struggles. It turns out, there is one specific area where Schenn has been unable to help his team — preventing controlled entries into the offensive zone. In fact, no Flyers forwards has seen a higher percentage of opposing entries come with possession of the puck, and it’s not particularly close.

Player Controlled Entry Percentage Against
Player Controlled Entry Percentage Against
Boyd Gordon 31.37%
Roman Lyubimov 38.71%
Michael Raffl 38.75%
Chris VandeVelde 41.34%
Pierre Edouard-Bellemare 41.98%
Matt Read 41.98%
Jakub Voracek 43.81%
Dale Weise 44.81%
Nick Cousins 44.86%
Travis Konecny 46.26%
Sean Couturier 46.93%
Claude Giroux 48.25%
Wayne Simmonds 49.68%
Brayden Schenn 54.09%

Schenn is the only Flyers forward to be on the ice for more opposing entries with possession than opposing dump-ins. In fact, he ranks nearly five percentage points worse than any other Philadelphia forward. Here’s a perfect example of his struggles from an early December game against the Oilers.

In this instance, Schenn is in perfect position to either break up a Leon Draisaitl entry or at least force him to play dump-and-chase. However, Schenn gets totally walked by the Edmonton forward, leaving him not only beaten, but also flat-footed and way behind the ensuing rush that would end with the puck in the Flyers’ net.

This is just one play, of course, but it also speaks to a key weakness on the part of Brayden Schenn. After all, in each of his seasons with the Flyers, the team has suppressed shots better with Schenn on the bench than when he has been on the ice. Even last season, Schenn ranked 11th among regular forwards on the team in on-ice Controlled Entry Percentage Against at 48.23%. There isn’t enough public data to state it with absolute certainty, but my guess is that Schenn’s poor neutral zone defense is a major contributing factor to his underwhelming defensive results.

So how do the Flyers address this issue? It’s concerning that Schenn appears to be getting worse at neutral zone defense in Year Two of the Hakstol regime, since most players appear to have a good handle on the unique tactics that the coach teaches. But the good news is that he did perform better in this area last season under Hakstol, so maybe it’s just a matter of forcing the 25-year old to watch 2015-16 tape of what he did right in the middle of the ice, in order to return to not-horrific levels.

But there’s another way to shelter Schenn’s weakness. Generally speaking, top lines play more of a rush-oriented, controlled entry style, while bottom-six units (lacking high-end skill) prefer dump-and-chase and a bruising forechecking style. When Schenn plays with Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Travis Konecny and Wayne Simmonds, he’s very likely to face skilled opponents with the ability to torch him in the neutral zone.

If Schenn was used in a fourth line role, however, he’d receive more matchups with lesser skilled players. With the Flyers fully healthy, it’s impossible to look at Schenn’s performance this season and believe he deserves a spot on the first or second line over any of Giroux, Voracek, Simmonds, Konecny, Couturier or Raffl. We also know that Hakstol has been leaning on the VandeVelde-Bellemare-Lyubimov line in the absence of Couturier, which means they’ll probably receive a decent amount of minutes moving into January.

So why not use Schenn on the fourth (or 3B) line with some combination of Matt Read, Dale Weise, and Nick Cousins? If the team wants him to remain at center, giving him two play-drivers in Read and Weise (whose strengths this season have been more on the defensive side) is an intriguing possibility. And if Hakstol prefers to move Schenn back to wing, Cousins could remain in the lineup at 4C. In both scenarios, Schenn gets easier minutes to allow him to work through his defensive issues, while remaining in the lineup to hopefully continue to rack up points on the power play.

There’s an argument to be made that Schenn will not turn his season around at 5-on-5 unless he’s given high-quality linemates. But even when Schenn is at his best, he’s probably not one of Philadelphia’s six best even strength forwards from a statistical standpoint. It’s time to replicate Columbus’ method of getting the most out of former Flyer Sam Gagner — sheltered minutes at even strength combined with top power play responsibilities. Right now, giving Brayden Schenn anything more than that is a disservice to the rest of the roster, and their goal of making the postseason.

All statistics courtesy of Corsica.Hockey, Stats.Hockeyanalysis.com, or Natural Stat Trick.