The Philadelphia Flyers find themselves hovering in the middle of the NHL pack at the All-Star break. They've earned 53.2% of all possible standings points so far this year, ranking them 20th in the league. And while Philadelphia remains in the playoff hunt, it won't be an easy road, as the they sit five points (with one game in hand) behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the final wild card spot.
However, the ceiling for this season was projected to be fairly low. With a new coach, a limited defense, and a forward corps littered with question marks in the bottom-six combined with a very tough-looking Metropolitan Division on paper, a wild card berth was the most that fans could realistically expect. The Flyers certainly would never admit it, but 2015-16 looked to be something of a transition season, as the impressive pipeline continued to develop and bad contracts were excised from the roster.
Still, the season remained undeniably important for the Flyers, even if the Stanley Cup was a pipe dream. Philadelphia was breaking in a coach with no NHL experience, who would be forced to implement an entirely new system without any evidence that it could work at the top professional level. Now, after 47 games, we have tangible evidence to analyze.
But hockey systems are complex. It's not as simple as looking at a team's Goals For percentage, or even at more advanced metrics like score-adjusted Corsi. A team may be strong in one area of the ice, but deficiencies in other zones can drag the overall performance down to unacceptable levels. Luckily, with the help of manually tracked entry data, it's possible to evaluate the play of the Flyers under Dave Hakstol in each area of the ice - the offensive zone, neutral zone, and defensive zone.
Flyers' neutral zone play close to break-even
Neutral zone has long been misunderstood and difficult to measure. After all, few goals are scored from the center of the ice. But sound play in the neutral zone is what positions a team to spend more time on the attack, and less time in their own end trying to keep the opposition off the scoresheet.
As a result, the best way to measure neutral zone performance is by looking at the offensive zone entries that a team generates and allows. A team that utilizes slick passing and sound play design in the neutral zone will get into the offensive zone quickly and efficiently, and by the same token, a team proficient at disrupting the opposition in the center of the ice will keep their entries allowed to a minimum.
So far this season, the Flyers find themselves slightly over 50% in terms of entries generated versus entries allowed during five-on-five play. Through 47 games, Philadelphia has successfully entered the offensive zone 2,832 times, while allowing the opposition to get in on the attack in 2,824 instances. That gives the Flyers a raw Zone Entry For percentage of 50.07%.
But simply counting total entries is not a sufficient measure of neutral zone play. Since we know that controlled entries are more valuable than uncontrolled ones, it makes more sense to weigh carry-in entries higher than dump-ins. This is why Neutral Zone Score provides the best measurement of play in the middle of the ice. And the Flyers do sag a bit in this area, allowing more controlled entries to the opposition than they themselves generate.
|Total Entries For||2832|
|Total Entries Allowed||2824|
|Entry For Percentage||50.07%|
|Controlled Entries For||1245|
|Controlled Entries Allowed||1265|
|Controlled Entry Percentage||43.96%|
|Opponent Controlled Percentage||44.79%|
|Flyers Neutral Zone Score||49.90%|
The good news is that the Flyers have trended upwards in this area since the middle of November, to the point where they are now only one-tenth of a percentage point away from a break-even Neutral Zone Score. The better news is that the vast majority of Philadelphia's key long-term pieces have delivered positive neutral zone metrics.
|Rank||Player||Neutral Zone Score|
|8||Michael Del Zotto||50.86%|
Players with at least 100 minutes at 5-on-5 in 2015-16 and are still property of the organization.
Philadelphia's neutral zone performance through the first half of the season hasn't been dominant. But the numbers are moving in the right direction, and they have two full forward lines and two defensive pairings that are solidly over 50 percent. The Flyers may not be winning games in the neutral zone, but they're not losing them there either.
The Flyers are an above-average offensive zone team
Getting into the offensive zone is only half the battle when it comes to scoring goals, however. A team must then be capable of generating shots and chances in order to regularly light the lamp in the NHL. Through Corey Sznajder and his 'All Three Zones' project, it was determined that controlled zone entries result in an average of 0.66 unblocked shot attempts, while dump-ins and offensive zone faceoffs tend to generate 0.29 unblocked attempts. But those are averages. Is it possible that some teams and players are able to squeeze even more production out of their entries?
Unsurprisingly, the answer is yes. The prevailing research, as shown by Garik16 of Hockey-Graphs, asserts that while individual players may not be able to consistently outperform their peers in terms of offensive zone shot generation, a team as a whole can absolutely be more efficient than average when on the attack. This implies that offensive zone play can be primarily attributed to an effective coaching system, giving us a great way to evaluate Flyers coach Dave Hakstol.
First, let's determine how many unblocked shot attempts the Flyers would have generated so far this year if we assume a league-average performance in the offensive zone. Then, we can compare that to their actual unblocked totals to see if they've been able to produce more shots than expected.
|Expected Fenwick For||1,472.17|
|Actual Fenwick For||1,488.00|
|Offensive Zone Score||+1.06%|
That's not a dramatic increase over the expected totals, but it does show that so far this season, the Flyers have squeezed an extra 16 unblocked attempts out of their entries than the league-average. That comes out to a 1.06% increase across the board.
The numbers look even more impressive when broken down at the individual player level. As it turns out, the Flyers have lagged most in the offensive zone when one specific player has been on the ice. And it's not a player known for his scoring.
|Player||Expected Fenwick For||Actual Fenwick For||Offensive Zone Score|
|Michael Del Zotto||564.87||602||+6.57%|
Fourteen out of the Flyers' twenty regular skaters are outperforming their Expected Fenwick totals, and only Nick Schultz is dramatically underperforming expectations in the offensive zone. It's early, but it seems like the Flyers under Hakstol may be one of those teams that can exceed the league averages once they get in on the attack.
But this evaluation only looks at shot attempts. What about scoring chances? Are the Flyers taking more unblocked shot attempts than expected, but at the expense of getting to high-danger areas?
We can explore this possibility as well, by looking at the rate of high-danger chances to overall unblocked shot attempts. War-On-Ice tracks these scoring chances, and by nature, it's highly unlikely that a high-danger scoring chance would have been blocked (read their methodology here). Therefore, it's mostly an apples-to-apples comparison of how many unblocked attempts were actually high-danger chances.
Since the 2010-11 season, the average ratio of high-danger chances to unblocked shot attempts in the NHL is 26.84%, meaning than a little over a quarter of Fenwick events are chances of the highest quality measurable. If a team is below that mark, there could be a systemic issue with their offensive zone play, hinting at a willingness to sacrifice shot quality for shot volume.
The Flyers, however, do not fall into this bucket. In fact, their high-danger percentage of 29.77% is actually third-best in the entire NHL this season. Combined with their ability to generate more shot attempts than expected given their entries, it's fair to say that Hakstol's system appears to have the right offensive zone process.
Of course, offensive production has been a legitimate issue in the season's first half, as Philadelphia ranks 27th in Goals For per sixty minutes of five-on-five play. But this poor level of performance seems unsustainable, since the Flyers are both generating more shot attempts than expected and a higher percentage of high-danger chances than the league average.
If the current trends hold, expect Philadelphia to score a lot more goals in the second half of the year and into the future.
Defensive zone play is another story entirely
The same principles that we used to isolate Philadelphia's offensive zone performance can also be used to measure the Flyers' play in the defensive zone.
Unfortunately for Dave Hakstol and his squad, they paint a far less encouraging picture this time.
|Expected Fenwick Against||1491.75|
|Actual Fenwick Against||1551.00|
|Defensive Zone Score||-3.82%|
|High-Danger Chance Percentage (out of total unblocked shots allowed)||26.24%|
The Flyers haven't bled high-danger chances against - their 26.24% rate is actually a bit lower than the recent league average of 26.84 percent. Where they've really struggled is in pure shot suppression, as Philadelphia has given up a lot more shots than their neutral zone performance would portend. Opponents have been able to add an extra 60 unblocked shot attempts to their totals this season simply due to poor defensive zone shot prevention on the part of the Flyers.
Just like offensive zone performance, defensive zone play seems to be repeatable at the team level, so this trend is a bit alarming for the future. If the Flyers remain a poor shot suppression squad, it could prove to be their Achilles heel even if the offensive play remains strong and their performance in the neutral zone continues its upward trajectory.
But has the poor performance been the result of a flawed system, or poor performance from the players executing that system? Let's take a look at the Defensive Zone Scores of the individual players and assess.
|Player||Expected Fenwick Against||Actual Fenwick Against||Defensive Zone Score|
|Michael Del Zotto||555.36||568||-2.28%|
The number of players above the break-even point is almost perfectly flipped in comparison to Offensive Zone Score - thirteen players are in the negative here. But what is most interesting here is the names of the players at the top of the list. With the exception of Nick Schultz, the top-ten could easily be a breakdown of the best veteran players on the roster.
That opens up the possibility that the Flyers' defensive zone tactics are not inherently flawed. Maybe the best and most experienced players on the roster have simply grasped the concepts quicker than their younger and less skilled counterparts.
In addition, the 5-on-5 ice time distribution has lined up very well with Defensive Zone Score for both forwards and defensemen, implying that Hakstol may be using defensive zone play as a key determining factor in who sees the ice. It makes sense that he would rely heavily on the players that can help to mitigate the team's biggest weakness thus far.
Strangely enough, the goal-based numbers again tell a different story, just as they did in the offensive zone. The Flyers rank tenth in the NHL in 5-on-5 goal prevention (Goals Against per 60). But their statistics speak more to the stellar goaltending that they've received at even strength than sound play from the skaters in the defensive zone.
For now, we can say that the Philadelphia Flyers have been a poor defensive zone team this season in terms of shot suppression. It remains to be seen if that performance is the result of a lack of familiarity with Hakstol and his preferred tactics, a fatal flaw in his system, or small sample size-induced noise. Regardless, it's certainly worth further attention during the second half of the year.
Through 47 games, the Philadelphia Flyers have established certain trends in terms of their play in each of the three zones. As a neutral zone team, the Flyers are rapidly approaching the break-even point, and have been trending in a positive direction since mid-November. They've delivered above-average results in the offensive zone, both in terms of shot generation and scoring chance creation.
But poor shot suppression in the defensive zone has been the team's biggest weakness. The Flyers aren't giving up lots of scoring chances relative to overall attempts, but their ability to prevent opponents from taking shots in the first place has been underwhelming at best.
The biggest question is how much of Philadelphia's performance in the three zones can be attributed to the players, and how much to the system. Hasktol's neutral zone concepts appear sound despite middling numbers, as the team's top two lines and two best defensive pairings are all above 50% in terms of Neutral Zone Score. It's easy to imagine that with a deeper lineup, Hakstol's system will produce solidly above-average results in the middle of the ice.
Their offensive zone performance is even more promising, with the vast majority of players producing positive results regardless of pedigree. On the other hand, thirteen regular skaters have underachieved in the defensive zone thus far, showing that this is a widespread problem.
But with players like Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds and Sean Couturier all performing admirably in the defensive zone, this could be a talent issue as well. At this point, the sample size is probably too small to write off Hakstol's defensive zone schemes, but it's certainly worth keeping an eye on moving forward. If the trend continues in the season's second half, adjustments in that area will be necessary in the offseason for the Flyers to extract the most value from their roster, and to match their solid performance in the other two zones.
All statistics from War-On-Ice.com, HockeyReference.com, or manually tracked by Charlie O'Connor.