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Identifying the cause of the Philadelphia Flyers' recent swoon

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Around the midpoint of January, the Philadelphia Flyers were playing their best hockey of the season. What has changed over the past month?

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

If there was a "high-water mark" of the Philadelphia Flyers' 2015-16 season, it occurred following the team's 2-1 shootout victory over the Detroit Red Wings on January 17th. The Flyers were on a 5-0-1 stretch, two points out of a playoff spot, and only five points away from third place in the Metropolitan Division. The postseason actually seemed like a viable possibility.

Today, things are far less rosy. While the Flyers are theoretically within striking distance, a 5-4-2 record in their past eleven games has not helped the team in their push for the playoffs. They now sit seventh in their division and are missing two key players - Sean Couturier and Michael Del Zotto - due to fairly serious injuries.

Sometimes, poor stretches in terms of win/loss record are not symptomatic of a larger problem for a team. Maybe they're creating lots of shots and chances, but just struggling to finish. In other cases, a team's goaltending may be letting them down. Unfortunately for the Flyers, neither has been the case.

Philadelphia's decline in results over the past month has been mostly caused by poor play at even strength, specifically in terms of driving possession. That poor play can be traced to increased struggles in one specific zone of the ice - the Flyers' biggest weakness.

Charting the Flyers' Decline

The best method that we have to judge a team's ability to drive play at even strength is by using score-adjusted shot attempt differentials. Tracking goals for and against is simply too small of a sample, and subject to massive fluctuations such as unsustainably high shooting percentages or save percentages.

On the other hand, score-adjusted possession metrics provide insight into how well a team is driving play, while also accounting for the unique situations of each game. Then, we can use a ten-game rolling trend line to see the improvements and struggles of a team at even strength over the course of a full season.

The Flyers' metrics over the past 30 days have not been pretty.

Score-Adjusted

Around the time that Shayne Gostisbehere was called up in the middle of November, Philadelphia jumped above the 50% mark (positive shot attempt differential) for the first time, and spent the majority of the next two months in the plus column. That all changed in mid-January, when the team began a steady fall in terms of score-adjusted Corsi.

In fact, since January 17th, Philadelphia's 45.5% score-adjusted Corsi ranks 28th in the NHL, ahead of only the Arizona Coyotes and the Colorado Avalanche. For a team that had played like a solid, competitive hockey club for two months, the Flyers' recent regression is extremely disturbing.

Surely the injury to Sean Couturier has not helped, as he has played in only four games since January 16th. Couturier remains the team's best player when looking at on-ice shot attempt differential, and he's delivered those results despite receiving the most difficult minutes among Flyers' forwards. But an injury to one player, valuable he may be, does not fully explain Philadelphia's tailspin from solid puck possession club to one of the league's worst.

Defensive zone play has sunk Philadelphia

At the All-Star break, I took the time to evaluate the Flyers' performance in all three zones - offensive, neutral and defensive - to determine where the team's strengths and weaknesses lie. Using the entry data that I have manually tracked this season, I noted to that point in the season, Philadelphia has posted above-average offensive zone results, below-average defensive zone results, and basically broke even in the neutral zone.

Clearly something has changed over the past month, causing the Flyers' shot attempt differentials to crater. By using the same methodology as I did a few weeks ago, we can again isolate the biggest cause of Philadelphia's recent struggles.

Interestingly enough, it has little to do with the team's neutral zone play. From the start of the season through January 16th, Philadelphia posted a 50.05% Neutral Zone Score, finally peeking above water after three and a half months of swimming upstream. Their performance has dropped over the past 30 days, but not dramatically. From January 17 through February 14, Philadelphia's Neutral Zone Score is 49.48% - not fantastic, but not the main cause of such a large decline in the team's overall possession statistics.

Therefore, the problem must be originating in the attack zones. Either the Flyers are failing to extract full value from their offensive zone entries, or they must be bleeding unblocked shot attempts against while defending in their own zone.

It's certainly not an offensive zone problem. Over the past month, Philadelphia has actually done a better job of shot creation than they did up to January 16th.

Time Period Expected Fenwick For Actual Fenwick For Offensive Zone Score
October 8 - January 16 1335.58 1332 +0.26%
January 17 - February 14 357.94 370 +3.37%

After basically breaking even through the season's first three and a half months, the Flyers have actually stepped up their game while on the attack recently. This is unsurprising from a tactical perspective, as increased familiarity with Dave Hakstol's aggressive 2-1-2 forecheck would likely help to create extended cycles in the offensive zone.

That leaves us with the team's recent performance in the defensive zone, and the numbers are staggeringly awful.

Time Period Expected Fenwick Against Actual Fenwick Against Defensive Zone Score
October 8 - January 16 1338.01 1376 -2.84%
January 17 - February 14 375.25 422 -12.46%

From October through the middle of January, the Flyers were simply performing like a run-of-the-mill, poor defensive hockey club. Over the past month, however, they've fallen off a cliff, allowing nearly 47 shots above the expected total. Considering how opponents are entering the Philadelphia zone, the Flyers should be doing a much better job at shot suppression.

Instead, the Flyers are losing games due to their inability to retrieve pucks in their own end and successfully exit the zone. It's been their biggest issue all season, and has been particularly devastating recently.

Conclusion

Sometime around the middle of January, the Philadelphia Flyers went from a team on the rise to a club scratching and clawing for every win. Fresh off a run with stellar win/loss results and positive underlying shot attempt differentials, the team went into a puck possession free fall. As a result, the Flyers are struggling again at even strength, and the playoffs are becoming more unlikely by the day.

So what exactly is the problem? Many have pointed to the injuries, specifically the foot injury suffered by key center Sean Couturier. But that does not detail the specific areas in which Philadelphia has struggled. By using entry data, however, we can pinpoint the team's biggest problem over the past month - defensive zone shot suppression.

The good news is that it seems unlikely that the Flyers will sustain a -12.46% Defensive Zone Score over a long period of time. It's simply too poor considering the team's solid performance elsewhere. Still, the metric illuminates a key issue that the Philadelphia coaching staff would be wise to address.

Identifying the problem is one thing; fixing it can prove to be a whole other issue entirely. Regardless, the Flyers' playoff hopes will depend upon Dave Hakstol and his players finding a way to mitigate their biggest weakness over the next two months and move forward.

All statistics courtesy of War-On-Ice or manually tracked by Charlie O'Connor.