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After a year of tracking Flyers zone exits, here's what we learned about the forwards

With the regular season over, we now have full 82-game exit statistics for the Philadelphia Flyers, on both an individual and team level. We'll close out the project by focusing on the forwards.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Microstat Tracking is a new feature that attempts to quantify the performance of the Philadelphia Flyers in the offensive, neutral and defensive zones. All statistics are manually tracked by Charlie O'Connor. All numbers are at 5-on-5.

Zone Exits - Forwards

Player Total Touches Touches Per 60 Successful Exit Percentage Controlled Exit Percentage Turnover Percentage Exits Per 60 Percentage of Controlled Exits vs. Uncontrolled Exits Percentage of Controlled Exits vs. All Exit Attempts
Jakub Voracek 580 35.02 64.31% 42.93% 9.66% 22.52 66.76% 58.04%
Colin McDonald 17 24.11 64.71% 41.18% 17.65% 15.60 63.64% 50.00%
Taylor Leier 26 34.90 61.54% 38.46% 15.38% 21.48 62.50% 50.00%
Michael Raffl 516 18.75 62.79% 37.79% 9.30% 18.75 60.19% 52.42%
Matt Read 449 29.67 59.24% 37.64% 10.02% 17.58 63.53% 54.34%
Wayne Simmonds 527 30.44 58.25% 37.38% 10.82% 17.74 64.17% 54.12%
Sean Couturier 524 36.88 55.92% 36.64% 11.45% 20.62 65.53% 54.39%
Nick Cousins 201 33.65 51.24% 35.82% 8.46% 17.24 69.90% 60.00%
Claude Giroux 634 35.47 54.73% 35.65% 10.41% 19.41 65.13% 54.72%
Brayden Schenn 596 35.37 54.70% 35.40% 12.08% 19.35 64.72% 53.02%
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare 464 35.41 57.33% 34.48% 10.34% 20.30 60.15% 50.96%
Sam Gagner 291 29.45 66.32% 33.68% 9.62% 19.53 50.78% 44.34%
Vincent Lecavalier 31 29.15 58.06% 32.26% 9.68% 16.93 55.56% 47.62%
Chris VandeVelde 400 27.43 54.75% 31.25% 10.50% 15.02 57.08% 47.89%
Scott Laughton 362 31.51 50.55% 31.22% 12.98% 15.93 61.75% 48.50%
Ryan White 322 25.29 54.35% 29.50% 13.35% 13.74 54.29% 43.58%
R.J. Umberger 150 24.59 63.33% 29.33% 7.33% 15.57 42.32% 41.51%
Jordan Weal 21 33.51 38.10% 28.57% 19.05% 12.77 75.00% 50.00%

Now that's certainly a lot of data, and difficult to break down in this form. Luckily, we can segment the data a bit more in order to better understand the value of the metrics and the players themselves.

To start, let's cut out all forwards with less than 100 touches of the puck in the defensive zone at 5-on-5 this season, focusing solely on those that received a meaningful amount of playing time. That removes Colin McDonald, Jordan Weal, Taylor Leier and Vincent Lecavalier from the dataset.

Also, let's separate the remaining forwards into two buckets -- centers and wingers. This is because the roles of centers and wingers during exits are distinct. The center generally plays low in the defensive zone, essentially in a support role for the defensemen in the corners. The wingers are usually positioned higher in the zone, waiting for passes from the defensemen (or the center).

As a result, centers generally touch the puck more in the defensive zone than wingers, but also have a higher percentage of in-zone passes (successful passes to a teammate that do not see the puck exit the defensive zone). As a result, comparing the percentages of centers and wingers is problematic, so we'll look at each separately.

Zone Exits - Centers

Player Touches Per 60 Successful Exit Percentage Controlled Exit Percentage Turnover Percentage Percentage of Controlled Exits vs. Uncontrolled Exits Percentage of Controlled Exits vs. All Exit Attempts
Nick Cousins 33.65 51.24% 35.82% 8.46% 69.90% 60.00%
Claude Giroux 35.47 54.73% 35.65% 10.41% 65.13% 54.72%
Sean Couturier 36.88 55.92% 36.64% 11.45% 65.53% 54.39%
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare 35.41 57.33% 34.48% 10.34% 60.15% 50.96%
Scott Laughton 31.51 50.55% 31.22% 12.98% 61.75% 48.50%

The entry data on Nick Cousins spoke well for his offensive skill level (51.18% Controlled Entry percentage), but here we see the biggest reason why he was so effective for the Flyers over the final two months of the season and playoffs. No Philadelphia center -- not even Claude Giroux or Sean Couturier -- was more efficient at moving the puck out of the defensive zone and kickstarting the rush than Nick Cousins.

This wasn't even a skill that was obviously apparent for me while watching the team in real time on a daily basis. But the more I tracked games, the more I marveled at Cousins' knack to always be in the right place down low, giving his defensemen an easy outlet to escape an opponent's forecheck. The addition of Cousins to the third line was most likely the biggest reason that it turned from an early season weakness to a late season strength, driven by his contribution to defensive zone exits.

It also helps to explain why the Flyers' third line was the team's most effective line through most of the playoff series against the Washington Capitals. The Caps often employed an aggressive forecheck with the goal of pinning the Flyers deep in their own zone for shifts at a time. Going into the series, Philadelphia had three centers who were above-average in the regular season at helping their defensemen to break a forecheck. Unfortunately, Sean Couturier was quickly injured and missed the majority of the series, while Claude Giroux was noticeably hampered by his later-revealed hip injury. That left only Cousins who could consistently help to neuter Washington's forecheck.

The regular season exit metrics for Giroux and Couturier are most notable for their similarities. Couturier was slightly better at generating controlled exits, but a tad worse in avoiding turnovers. On the whole, however, their effectiveness in transitioning play from defense to offense proved nearly identical. If I had to guess, I'd still give the overall edge to Giroux in terms of defensive zone exit efficiency, just because of my suspicion that his hip injury had a major negative impact on the skills necessary to be strong in that area. But it bodes well for the Flyers' future that Couturier essentially "caught up" to Giroux this season in the defensive zone, regardless of the circumstances.

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Scott Laughton brought up the rear among players who spent extended time at center. However, their issues were a bit different. Bellemare did a solid job of avoiding turnovers, posting a lower Turnover Percentage than both Giroux and Couturier. But too often, Bellemare would resort to uncontrolled exits to move the puck out of the defensive zone. Defensive zone exits without possession of the puck regularly result in the other team simply gathering the loose puck and firing it right back into the zone in order to get back on the attack, so avoiding them is key to winning the neutral zone on a consistent basis.

Laughton also struggled in generating controlled exits, as his 61.75% Controlled to Total Exit ratio was dwarfed by Cousins, Couturier and Giroux. But Laughton also turned the puck over way too many times this season while in the defensive zone, a fatal flaw when playing a position (center) that calls for reliable puck handling meant to support defensemen under siege. Looking at this data, it's totally understandable why Dave Hakstol chose to move Laughton to wing over the final two months of the year. It also shows why replacing Laughton (the worst center in terms of zone exits) with Cousins (the best one) as 3C had such a dramatic, positive impact on the play of Philadelphia's third line.

Zone Exits - Wingers

Player Touches Per 60 Successful Exit Percentage Controlled Exit Percentage Turnover Percentage Percentage of Controlled Exits vs. Uncontrolled Exits Percentage of Controlled Exits vs. All Exit Attempts
Jakub Voracek 35.02 64.31% 42.93% 9.66% 66.76% 58.04%
Matt Read 29.67 59.24% 37.64% 10.02% 63.53% 54.34%
Wayne Simmonds 30.44 58.25% 37.38% 10.82% 64.17% 54.12%
Brayden Schenn 35.37 54.70% 35.40% 12.08% 64.72% 53.02%
Michael Raffl 29.86 62.79% 37.79% 9.30% 60.19% 52.42%
Chris VandeVelde 27.43 54.75% 31.25% 10.50% 57.08% 47.89%
Sam Gagner 29.45 66.32% 33.68% 9.62% 50.78% 44.34%
Ryan White 25.29 54.35% 29.50% 13.35% 54.29% 43.58%
R.J. Umberger 24.59 63.33% 29.33% 7.33% 46.32% 41.51%

No concern about Voracek's down year

It's data like that explains why I'm not in the least bit concerned about Jakub Voracek even after a down year offensively. Just like Shayne Gostisbehere was head and shoulders above his defensemen peers when it came to zone exits, Voracek is similarly on another level when comparing his exit data to other Flyers wingers.

Voracek controlled the puck in the defensive zone just as often as a center while moving it up ice better than any other Philadelphia forward. He also turned the puck over on less than ten percent of his touches, one of only five regular Flyers forwards to do so. Essentially, Voracek functions as a second center while in the defensive zone, making the jobs of both the regular center and all of the defensemen significantly easier. So long as he retains this ability, Voracek will always be a play-driver at the NHL level.

A big drop off with the bottom forwards

As for the rest of the wingers, there is a clear dropoff in zone exit acumen from Michael Raffl to Chris VandeVelde. That's where the line between "solid top-nine two-way winger" and "defensive zone liability" seems to form. Raffl, Matt Read, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn all fall on the positive side of this list, as at least 50% of their exit attempts proved to be of the controlled variety.

In fact, it's the oft-criticized Read who grades out the best among wingers after Voracek. His 10.02% Turnover Percentage is solid, and his 54.34% Controlled vs. All Exit Attempts ratio slots in second-best among winger. It makes sense that Read would stand out in a category like zone exits -- it doesn't immediately lead to goals scored (his biggest recent issue) but they do contribute to moving play in the right direction, which was a strength of Read's game in 2015-16.

Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn also grade out well, though Schenn did struggle with turnovers at times this season. On the other side of the coin, Ryan White and Chris VandeVelde unsurprisingly posted mediocre zone exit metrics, with White's percentages the weakest out of the trio of "Untouchables." R.J. Umberger ranks dead last, primarily due to his inability to generate controlled zone exits and instead resorting to exits without possession of the puck.

Raffl, Gagner are intriguing

Michael Raffl and Sam Gagner's metrics are far more intriguing. Raffl, generally viewed as a stellar defensive forward, actually grades out as merely "good" by zone exit data. This probably shouldn't come as a huge shock -- after all, Raffl posted the worst "Successful Exits with Possession" percentage among Flyers forwards in Jess Schmidt's 2014-15 dataset. Still, it complicates our view of Raffl as a player. Is it purely Raffl's positioning and play without the puck that results in his shot suppression metrics at even strength looking so strong? That's a question certainly worthy of further study.

Then, we come to the curious case of Sam Gagner. For the most part, the order of zone exit efficiency for wingers lines up closely with the eye test's opinion of each player's skill. Maybe Matt Read comes in a little bit higher than expected, but it makes sense that skill guys such as Voracek, Schenn, Simmonds and Raffl would be in the top half of the list while fourth line talents like VandeVelde, White and Umberger bring up the rear. But then there's Sam Gagner, a talented offensive forward who was taken sixth overall back in 2007. What is he doing grouped alongside the regular fourth liners when it comes to defensive zone exits?

Gagner's biggest problem is his propensity to simply dump the puck out to center ice when given the opportunity for a defensive zone exit rather than attempt to create a more difficult (but ultimately more valuable) controlled exit. I don't believe it's a lack of puck handling skill that causes him to resort to the easier chip-out, because he showcased that talent on a regular basis while on the attack. One theory is that Gagner's seven years spent on pathetic Edmonton Oilers teams with five different coaches has resulted in Gagner becoming hard-wired to make the low-percentage play while in the defensive zone rather than the riskier but higher-reward pass.

I suspect that the Arizona Coyotes recognized this issue in Gagner's game, as well. Remember that after trading Gagner to the Flyers last offseason, Coyotes general manager Don Maloney famously stated, "At the end of the day we just didn't think he could play center at the National Hockey level for us." The statement appeared questionable at the time, but in looking at this data, I wonder if there may be truth to it.

As I mentioned earlier, a key role for a center is to provide support down low for his defensemen to help them transition the puck from defense to offense. If Gagner has adopted a "just dump the puck out of the zone immediately" mentality that disregards the value of controlled zone exits, it's easy to see why the Coyotes may have determined that style was not conducive to playing center at the NHL level. Gagner remains a useful player, but if he could somehow become a more effective forward with the puck in the defensive zone, I suspect his value would increase dramatically around the league.