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Sharks 2, Flyers 0: 10 things we learned from a sleepy late night loss

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A tough road game against the defending Western Conference champs was made even more difficult by a less-than-optimal lineup.

NHL: San Jose Sharks at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.

#1: San Jose is just better than the Flyers... but the Flyers didn’t need to help

The most likely outcome of this game was always going to be a Philadelphia Flyers loss. The Sharks are a deep team strong in all three phases of the game, with elite veteran defensemen (Brent Burns, Marc-Édouard Vlasic), and dangerous scorers (Joes Thornton and Pavelski, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau). Add in the fact that one of Philadelphia’s best defensive forwards (Matt Read) and maybe their top defenseman (Radko Gudas) were out with injuries, and this was looking like a long night even before the lineups were announced.

But the Flyers’ task was made even tougher by two decisions made by head coach Dave Hakstol. At the morning skate, it became clear that Travis Konecny would sit for a game, in what the coach termed a “learning experience” for the youngster. In addition, Boyd Gordon would come in to replace Roman Lyubimov on the fourth line. You could see the underlying logic in both moves — Konecny might benefit from a reset in the midst of a 22-game goalless drought, and Gordon has the reputation of being a plus defensive player in game the Flyers probably didn’t expect to drive play. But those justifications aside, the numbers held that both moves would make the Flyers a weaker team for a single game. They did just that.

Konecny has been the team’s most efficient 5-on-5 scorer this season; Philadelphia was shutout in his absence. Lyubimov has driven play better than regular linemates Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde; the latter finished with a team-low 17.16% score-adjusted Corsi. And we haven’t even brought up the fact that Andrew MacDonald continues to receive top-pair minutes at even strength (second-most on the team in this one) despite posting the worst on-ice play-driving outcomes on the team.

Again — the Flyers were going to be the underdog in this game regardless. But a weakened roster helped expand the gap between the two teams, and unfortunately, a number of the wounds were self-inflicted.

#2: Buried in high-quality chances

The Flyers lost every advanced statistical battle last night, but the largest disparities came in the metrics that measure shot quality. In terms of raw volume (Corsi), Philadelphia finished with a 41.96% score-adjusted mark at 5-on-5, and that was actually the most flattering stat in their corner. Fenwick, which removes blocked shots from the equation, had the Flyers at 37%, and the scoring chance metrics were just plain ugly. The Sharks won in regular chances at 5-on-5 by a 28-11 mark, and in high-danger chances 14-4. As a result, they finished with a horrific xG% of 32.68 percent, which successfully showcases the extent of the beatdown that the Flyers received. If not for strong performances from both Steve Mason and Anthony Stolarz, this would have been a blowout.

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#3: Giroux line got buried by Vlasic, Braun, Thornton and company

One risk of stacking your top line with your two most skilled offensive players is that if an opponent can succeed in shutting down that unit, team offense dries up fast. Luckily for the Flyers, their top line of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Michael Raffl has a great combination of scoring talent and play-driving ability that makes it very difficult to nullify entirely. However, a team like the Sharks has both the horses on the back-end and the high-end forwards up front to pull off that difficult task, and they did just that last night.

Giroux saw a heavy dose of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, facing at least one of them for over 14 of his 16:52 minutes at 5-on-5. Against that top pair, the top line could not create much of anything, finishing with a 36.35% score-adjusted Corsi for percentage against Braun and 39.15% versus Vlasic. Giroux’s line also received over seven minutes against San Jose’s top unit of Thornton, Pavelski and Marleau, to similar results. Not only were they buried to the tune of around a 30% Corsi, they could not generate a single high-danger chance and allowed five. Jakub Voracek in particular seemed off his game, as he struggled to get anything going in the neutral zone — usually where he thrives. Raffl was more active with the puck, but had trouble finishing off plays, and Giroux was a non-factor aside from one snipe off the post in the third.

#4: Stolarz very good after replacing Mason

Not only did the Flyers lose the game, they also lost their starting goalie after the first intermission. Late in the first period, Steve Mason was spun around by Joe Thornton and then appeared to take a shot directly off his blocker hand. Mason stayed in the game through the remainder of the period, but did not return after the first intermission.

Luckily for Philadelphia, he was replaced by Anthony Stolarz, who continued his stellar start to his NHL career even while ending up on the wrong end of the scoresheet. The rookie faced 22 shots and stopped 21 of them, keeping the Flyers in a game that easily could have become a blowout as the Sharks carried play in both the second and third stanzas. Stolarz’s lateral mobility was fantastic, and so were his quick-twitch reflexes. As a prospect, he was long praised for his high-end athleticism in spite of his size, and that was on full display last night. In four appearances this year, Stolarz now holds a 0.938 save percentage, obviously a fantastic mark. That’s not to say he should be pushing for the starting job, or even that he should stay in the NHL once Michal Neuvirth is healthy. But Stolarz is sure making a great case to Ron Hextall that the Flyers don’t need to go shopping for a backup netminder in the offseason.

#5: Provorov was the Flyers’ best player

It’s been an interesting past few weeks for Ivan Provorov. He’s been elevated to the Flyers’ top pair at even strength, and now leads the entire team in time on ice per game — an incredible achievement for a 19-year old rookie. However, his advanced metrics have taken a tumble. It’s possible that is partially due to the increase in responsibilities, but most likely it’s driven by his partnership with Andrew MacDonald, who was also elevated to a top pair role and has a history of poor advanced metrics. The result has been a bizarre combination of cratering Corsi metrics and stellar reports via the eye test when it came to Ivan Provorov.

Last night, however, the young defenseman seemed to be the only Flyers’ player at full speed. He had his full bag of tricks on display — walking the blue line to find open shooting lanes, engineering zone exits, and winning puck battles in all three zones. He even overcame an especially poor performance by MacDonald, who misfired on four defensive zone exits within the first two minutes of the game and on one occasion nearly forced Provorov into a delay of game penalty due to poor breakout positioning. The pair was the only duo to finish with positive play-driving metrics (60.18% score-adjusted Corsi for the rookie) and that fact can be almost entirely attributed to Provorov.

#6: Couturier does little things right, struggles on the attack

In his second game back from the knee injury that kept him out for over a month, Sean Couturier had the type of game that makes him such a divisive figure among the Flyers’ fanbase. By a significant margin, he and his linemates (Dale Weise and Nick Cousins) drove play at 5-on-5 better than any other line on the team. However, Couturier himself struggled mightily in the offensive zone, both in terms of distribution and chance creation. He did finish with four shots on goal, but on multiple occasions, offensive pressure seemed to die on his stick, usually due to poor passing, puckhandling, or failed attempts at the net.

However, there’s a strong argument to be made that the Flyers wouldn’t have made it into the offensive zone nearly as often without Couturier providing his usual help on zone exits and in opening up lanes for his linemates. And he did lead the entire team in individual expected goals with 0.39 on the night. Combined with his solid play-driving metrics at 5-on-5 (+11.77% score-adjusted Corsi relative to his teammates), it leads me to believe that this was a classic “good process, bad result” game for Sean Couturier, maybe a result of the Flyers’ center still trying to find his timing after a long layoff.

#7: Second PP unit actually outplayed the big guns

Even though they’re in the midst of a bit of a slump, the Philadelphia Flyers’ top power play unit remains one of the best in the NHL. Both in terms of shot and goal generation, it’s a top-tier unit, and it remains perfectly structured to maximize the talents of each player. The Flyers’ second unit, however, has been below-average for years, and the infusion of Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov to it this season has done little to impact the unit’s effectiveness. If anything, it’s become less successful in generating shots versus last season. That’s why it’s so surprising when the second unit dramatically outplays the top group, which occurred last night.

Neither group was able to light the lamp, but the unit of Sean Couturier, Nick Cousins, Travis Konecny, Ivan Provorov and Dale Weise was the more threatening of the two. The main difference was in their zone entries — they could gain the zone successfully and with possession, while the top unit spent too much time bottled up in the neutral zone or chasing down cleared pucks. With Couturier on the ice at 5v4, the Flyers averaged 161.29 shot attempts per 60, while Giroux’s on-ice rate held at 118.23. Neither rate is especially poor, and one of the units probably should have scored considering the amount of pucks they blasted at Aaron Dell last night. But in the battle of PP1 and PP2, it was the underdogs that came out on top this time.

#8: Dale Weise had a surprisingly solid game

When Dale Weise was signed in the offseason by Ron Hextall, the expectation was that he would essentially be Ryan White Version 2.0 — a physical, netfront presence, good in the locker room, but actually able to score at a decent rate during 5-on-5 situations and potentially move up to the top-six in a pinch. Instead, the Flyers received a surprising adept play-driver, but one who has seemingly been allergic to scoring. It hasn’t just been bad luck, either — Weise is rarely involved in setting up or creating shots, as he seems to be crashing the net when his linemates need support on the walls, and playing the perimeter when a screen would be beneficial.

Last night, however, Weise played the type of game that could have been reasonably expected when the year began, even if he wasn’t rewarded with a goal. He was active on the attack (both at 5-on-5 and on the PP), and showed a willingness both to shoot on the rush and fight into high-danger areas to become a potential recipient for a pass. Couturier actually missed an open Weise in the slot at one point for what seemed like a golden opportunity. The play-driving was still there for Weise (+4.30% score-adjusted Corsi Relative), and if he can find a way to combine that with consistent performances like the one last night, I’m confident that the points will come.

#9: Provorov, Gostisbehere now both carrying limited partners

For weeks now, Ivan Provorov has paired with Andrew MacDonald, and only a stellar on-ice save percentage was preventing that pairing from being a total disaster from a results standpoint. But even with Provorov forced to spend the bulk of his time in the defensive zone, the Flyers still had Shayne Gostisbehere, who in sheltered minutes was driving play to an exceptional level. Ghost’s regular partner — Brandon Manning — is nothing special from a skillset standpoint, but he at least has the ability to make plays in all three zones. With Manning scratched and now Radko Gudas battling a nagging injury, Gostisbehere has found himself paired with Nick Schultz, and it’s not an ideal combination.

The best praise you can give Nick Schultz is that he fully understands his current skillset and the limitations that he has, and does not try to exceed them. As a result, he often does succeed in suppressing quality chances in the defensive zone, because his primary focus is to slow the game down to a safe, manageable pace. That’s the opposite of what Shayne Gostisbehere wants to do. He’s a “push-the-play, take chances” type of defenseman, and while it helps to counter-balance that with a blueliner willing to sit back and play prevent defense on occasion, there’s such a thing as taking it too far. Schultz’s ability to create offense at this stage of his career is basically nonexistent, making him a total drag on the cycle and in transition. Last night, he even dumped the puck into the zone (following a great Gostisbehere pass) on a possible odd-man rush. Ghost certainly didn’t have a perfect game last night, but his 32.71% score-adjusted Corsi was largely due to the ineffectiveness of Schultz.

Right now, the Flyers have little choice but to play both MacDonald and Schultz, with Streit and Gudas injured. But with those players back, it should be a no-brainer move to return Schultz to the press box, and MacDonald at the very least could be dropped down the depth chart. Philadelphia has two dynamic young defensemen — don’t shackle them to limited vets.

#10: Konecny’s scratch hard to fully evaluate

The big news leading up to the game was the scratch of Travis Konecny. The 19-year old forward obviously belongs at the NHL level — his 1.90 Points/60 at 5v5 leads the team, his offensive prowess has more than made up for some coverage and backchecking lapses, and he passes the eye test with flying colors due to his electric speed. But considering his age, he’s also far from a finished product. Hakstol’s justification of the scratch spoke to that fact yesterday, as he called the benching a “learning experience” and expressed that he felt Konecny would be a better player due to the night off.

The Flyers expect to be a playoff team this season, and that’s a reasonable goal. After all, they snuck in last year, and on paper have a deeper, better roster in 2016-17. But there are enough flaws (some poor players in the bottom-six, a mediocre defense corps) that prevent Philadelphia from being a true Cup contender quite yet. So the real question regarding the wisdom of the Konecny scratch comes down to this — is the deliberate weakening of the Flyers last night (which in turn, cuts ever so slightly into the team’s playoff chances) justified if there is a chance that this message makes Konecny a better player for future years when Cup runs are possible? In that lens, the move doesn’t seem as misguided.

However, the problem with that line of thinking is that there’s no way to quantify whether yesterday’s tough love really had a measurable impact upon Konecny’s development. We just don’t know if this will be a key moment in Konecny’s career, or if he’ll just remember it as “that one weird time the coach scratched me.” As a result, for fans to be okay with the decision to make the playoffs just a bit less likely in 2016-17, they have to possess a degree of trust in the player development strategies of Dave Hakstol. If that trust is there, the Konecny scratch is either no big deal or actually a laudable, bold call. But if the trust is missing, then it’s just another example of a coaching shooting himself in the foot for no good reason. Choose your side.