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What's the Flyers' biggest weakness right now?

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There's not a whole lot that the Flyers have done poorly in recent weeks. Is there anything in particular we need to be concerned with as the Flyers head down the stretch and hopefully into the playoffs?

Here are the Flyers in the defensive zone. No, I did not choose a picture of Andrew MacDonald on purpose, I swear.
Here are the Flyers in the defensive zone. No, I did not choose a picture of Andrew MacDonald on purpose, I swear.
Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

An interesting tweet popped up on my timeline on Tuesday afternoon:

For those of you unaware, Micah (on Twitter as well as over at his excellent website hockeyviz.com) is one of the best folks out there at taking hockey data and putting into visually appealing form. From single-game pictures to season-long trends for player or team, he does a lot of really interesting and fun work.

Let's zoom in on the one above and talk about it for a bit, then.

What this chart attempts to do is look at what each NHL team has done in its last 25 games and project just how well it's playing in several key areas -- shot generation at even strength and the power play, shot suppression at even strength and on the penalty kill, goaltending at 5-on-5, and a team's expected shooting ability (i.e. "shot quality"). From there, it compares each team's proficiency in each area to league-average, in both home games and road games. Categories in which a team is above-average go on the right side as "Strengths", while below-average marks are shown on the left as "Weaknesses". For example, you can see that the Boston Bruins are way above average in 5-on-4 power play shot generation, but are way below average in 5-on-5 shot suppression.

Finally, it essentially "ranks" each team by how much better/worse than average they are collectively across all areas, compared to all of the other teams, again breaking performance out into home and road games. It makes sense in theory -- take the things that make up most of the game of hockey, try to measure and quantify how good/bad teams are each at them, and rank them. Simple enough.

You'll notice that the Flyers are fifth in the entire league in these rankings, behind just the three excellent California teams and Pittsburgh. If you've been paying attention in the last two months while the Flyers have climbed from the pits of the playoff race to an 80% chance at a playoff spot, this may not be surprising to you. You can't make a climb that quickly without getting either extremely lucky or playing some damn good hockey. For the Flyers, it's mostly been the latter. So that's cool.

More interesting, though, is what the Flyers show in the "Weaknesses" column: nothing but some white space. Literally, nothing -- according to Micah's calculations, the Flyers haven't been below league average in any of the categories listed above over their last 25 games.

It should go without saying that this goes a long way towards explaining the Flyers' hot streak of late. When, in a given game, you can be expected to out-shoot, out-power-play, out-penalty-kill, and out-goaltend your opponent, believe it or not, you're gonna win a lot of hockey games. The Flyers haven't been really, really dominant at any one thing, but they've been consistently average to good at everything.

Still, I think most would agree that this isn't a perfect team, and when one suggests that there's no obvious weakness to it, it's at least worth examining that claim. So let's look beyond the standard buckets of 5-on-5 play/special teams/goaltending and ask: what's the biggest weakness with this team right now? What should we be concerned about?

Here are a few things that come to mind.

  • The power play, still: It's truly a strange world we live in where the unit that's doing the worst is the team's power play, but that certainly appears to be the case right now. The Flyers' top power play unit hasn't scored since the third period of their game on March 7 against Tampa Bay. Only an uncharacteristically strong month of March from the second unit has kept the power play as a whole from being a total failure. Now, despite its struggles, Micah's chart above states that they've still been above-average at generating shots on the power play, which suggests the current dry spell won't last forever, but there's probably still at least a little bit of cause for concern here.
  • Protecting a late lead: With recent collapses -- such as last week's loss in Columbus -- in mind, this may be the freshest one to a lot of fans. Still, there's some actual weight to it. The team's allowed five game-tying third-period goals with the opposing team's goalie pulled this year, second-most in the league. And while the Flyers have been a much-improved possession team of late, over their last 25 games they sit 19th in the NHL in shot attempt percentage when leading in the third period, which isn't too good. They're 11th in that same mark when leading by just one goal, though, so maybe the effect isn't all that bad. But this is certainly something that fans have been worried about. (All stats in this paragraph via war-on-ice.com.)
  • Goaltending depth: No, Steve Mason is not a problem. He's been outstanding for much of the season and has been excellent ever since news broke that Michal Neuvirth would miss the remainder of the regular season. Still, the fact remains that if Mason keeps having to play as much as he has been, there's a decent chance fatigue starts to hit him and he doesn't play as well. Right now, until Neuvirth returns, the Flyers' only options are to run Mason out every single night and take that aforementioned risk, or turn to either a rookie who's never played in the NHL or a vet who they pulled in off the street yesterday. Not exactly reassuring options.
  • Defensive zone play: Though it's improved in recent weeks, many of the Flyers' worst games as a team this year have come when they've been awful in their own zone, and even at its best the team's defensive zone play usually lags behind its performance in the neutral and offensive zones. While we've already seen that the Flyers have been an above-average shot suppression team in recent weeks, one could argue that much of that is driven by strong neutral zone and possession play rather than actual defensive acumen. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but few would argue that the Flyers' sometimes-subpar play in their own end can be a problem at times.

We may be picking nits here, but when you've got a team playing as well as the Flyers are, that's generally what we as humans tend to do. There's a whole lot to like about this team right now.

The big question is what we need to worry about moving forward. Some of these things may just be blips on the radar, while some of them may actually be bad signs. Do we think that the power play that's been so good for so long became a legitimate problem? How confident are we in Mason playing in literally every single game down the stretch? And can a team with fairly limited defensive personnel really keep up a solidly above-average defensive performance like this for so long?

So many questions, so little time. So you tell us: with seven regular season games left and hopefully a playoff run coming, what are you most concerned about with this team moving forward?