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2015-16 Flyers season review: Wayne Simmonds had the best year of his career

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Wayne Simmonds finally broke the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career. But that's not the only reason why 2015-16 was his best season yet.

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

There's a strong case to be made that Wayne Simmonds, if not the most popular player on the Flyers, is at least the most universally liked by fans.

He's the closest on the team to the stereotype of the ideal "Philadelphia" athlete -- a high-effort, extremely productive player who plays with an edge and can more than hold his own when things get nasty. It also didn't hurt that Simmonds scored at a 25-goal pace in each of his first four seasons as a Flyer, ranking him 20th in the NHL in total goals over that time period.

However, Simmonds' game had limitations. Entering the 2015-16 season, he was primarily viewed as an elite power play scorer (particularly as a netfront presence) but more of a role player at even strength. The numbers backed it up -- through Simmonds' first four seasons in Philadelphia, he posted a mediocre 48.85% Corsi For percentage during 5-on-5 situations, and the team drove play 1.35% percentage points worse with him on the ice compared to when he sat on the bench.

After accounting for his scoring ability and undeniable power play prowess, Simmonds was still a net positive player for the Flyers, but he looked far more like a middle-six forward at even strength than the top line staple his raw numbers might lead one to believe.

However, if Simmonds' 2015-16 regular season is any indication, he's quickly erasing that black mark on his resume.

Wayne Simmonds

Position RW
Age 27 (8/26/1988)
Contract Status Signed through 2018-19 for $3,975,000 per year
2015-16 Regular Season Numbers

Games Played G A P
81 32 28 60

Total 5-on-5 Power Play Penalty Kill Other
17.40 12.81 3.62 0.02 0.95

Corsi For % Corsi Rel % Goals For % PDO
53.10% 3.60% 52.81% 99.73

Points Per 60 Minutes Penalty Differential Scoring Chances Per 60 Shots On Goal Per 60 Shot Attempts Per 60 Offensive Zone Starts Defensive Zone Starts
1.91 -3 9.25 9.37 16.48 361 404

Controlled Entry Percentage Entries Per 60 On-Ice Entries % For Neutral Zone Score
46.83% 21.84 51.01% 51.13%
Simmonds finally hit 30 goals, even with a weaker PP

During each of Wayne Simmonds' previous seasons with Philadelphia, forces were seemingly conspiring against his push towards the 30-goal mark. 2012-13 saw a lockout destroy any realistic chance he had of potting 30. The following year, he was stuck at 29 despite playing all 82 games. Finally, it appeared he was destined to break through in 2014-15 as he found himself with 28 goals and seven games remaining to score just two more, but an untimely lower-body injury put him on the shelf for the season's final weeks and halted his push.

This season, Simmonds had no interest in leaving his quest for 30 up to the final game of the year. He broke through in Game 80 with a key tally against the Toronto Maple Leafs, sending the contest to overtime and earning the Flyers a huge point in their push towards the postseason. Leaving no doubt, Simmonds would then score two more goals against the Pittsburgh Penguins two days later, helping to clinch that much-desired playoff berth.

Most impressive about Simmonds' stellar goal totals in 2015-16 is that they came during a year when the Flyers' power play production was merely decent. After four straight seasons in the NHL top-10 in power play efficiency, Philadelphia slid to 11th this year. Simmonds' personal PP goal scoring dropped as well, as he fell from a stellar 3.48 Goals per 60 mark on the man advantage in 2014-15 to 2.66 during the 2015-16 regular season.

The 27-year old made up for the dip in power play scoring by playing better than ever at even strength. His 15 goals during 5-on-5 play was a career-high, and Simmonds' 0.87 5v5 Goals/60 mark was second only to his play during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. He also shot the puck more at even strength than ever before, racking up a strong 9.42 Shots/60 mark that blew away his previous career-high of 8.49.

Wayne Simmonds had been banging on the door of 30 goals for quite some time, and he finally hit that mark by getting a little bit more efficient in every area at even strength.

Finally a top line even strength forward

It wasn't just goal-scoring where Simmonds took a leap in terms of even strength play this season. Across the board, the Wayne Train put up points at the most efficient rate of his career at 5-on-5 and drove play better than ever.

First, we'll evaluate the scoring. Simmonds posted a 1.93 Points/60 at 5-on-5 -- his best mark as a Philadelphia Flyer. Also, it wasn't a mark inflated by an inordinate amount of secondary assists, as his Primary Points per 60 of 1.52 was his best performance in that category since 2011-12. It ranked him 60th among all NHL forwards who played at least 700 minutes of 5v5 ice time this year, and placed him solidly in the range of a low-end first liner.

Wayne Simmonds Scoring

Another major jump came in the performance of the Flyers from a play-driving standpoint with Simmonds on the ice. Long viewed as a break-even to slightly-negative puck possession player, Simmonds found a way to post the best metrics of his career in 2015-16. No matter the category -- total on-ice attempts, unblocked attempts, expected goals -- Wayne Simmonds has never been better.

Simmonds Advanced Metrics

All metrics adjusted for score, zone and venue via Corsica.Hockey.

During the first three seasons of Simmonds' Flyers career, the team consistently lost the shot attempts battle with him on the ice, and did better when he was on the bench. His regularly solid performance in Expected Goals (which weights each shot according to location and quality) does imply that Simmonds was helping the Flyers to generate quality chances and limit those of the opposition, but the poor overall attempt metrics hint that Philadelphia was spending too much time playing without the puck when their power forward hit the ice.

That trend began to reverse itself last season. For the first time as a Flyer, all of Wayne Simmonds' on-ice attempt metrics were on the positive side of the ledger relative to his teammates, meaning that Philadelphia was driving play better with Simmonds on the ice than when he was off of it. The upward trajectory continued in 2015-16, as he posted career-highs in on-ice Corsi, Fenwick, and Expected Goals relative to his teammates.

So what changed for Simmonds? It could simply be that at age 26-27, he's simply at the peak of his hockey powers. The majority of research places the scoring prime of NHL forwards somewhere between the ages of 21 and 28, depending upon the methodology used, and play-driving ability seems to follow a similar arc.

But that doesn't explain the specifics of what changed in Simmonds' game that has resulted in such a dramatic improvement. I lean towards two main theories. First, I believe that Dave Hakstol's preferred aggressive forechecking system plays to the strengths of Simmonds' game. His +7.71% Offensive Zone Score shows that, at least this season, the Flyers were able to extract extra shot attempts from their zone time with Simmonds on the ice, and the eye test backs up the theory that his strong forechecking could have been a major contributing factor.

In addition, Simmonds has become much more adept with the puck on his stick in the defensive zone. His zone exit metrics this season were most comparable to those of teammate Matt Read, a winger who rightfully has earned a reputation as an above-average defensive forward. It was a big step up even from last season, when Jess Schmidt of Pattison Avenue placed Simmonds closer to the efficiency range of fourth liners like Chris VandeVelde and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare when it came to defensive zone exits.

The combined impact of system changes that better fit Simmonds' skillset and legitimate improvement in his play with the puck in the defensive zone could help to explain why his on-ice shot attempt metrics improved so much this season. Regardless of the reason, the result has been a far more effective and valuable Wayne Simmonds.

Conclusion

About the only negative comment you could make about Wayne Simmonds' performance during the 2015-16 season was that his stellar production did not carry over into the playoffs, as he managed just two assists in the Flyers' first round loss to the Washington Capitals. But Philadelphia almost certainly does not even make the postseason without the play of Simmonds, both because of his stellar season-long numbers and his clutch goals during the stretch run.

Not even a less potent Philadelphia power play could stop Simmonds from finally reaching the 30-goal plateau. He made up the difference through the best even strength season of his career. Simmonds shot the puck more than ever at 5v5, and scored points at his highest rate yet.

But it was the dramatic jump in his play-driving ability at even strength that stands out the most. With his solid 2014-15 season as a springboard, Simmonds leaped into high-end territory in all of the key on-ice shot attempt statistics. Long an above-average performer in Expected Goals, the 27-year forward is now driving play from an unadjusted attempt standpoint as well. The improvement is giving Simmonds even more time to wreak havoc in the offensive zone on the attack.

The only remaining question is whether the standard that Simmonds set this season is now the new normal for him. He'll turn 28 in August, and by the numbers, that is around the age when NHL players begin to decline statistically (on average). Still, considering the arc of Simmonds' career, it's possible that his prime could last a bit longer since it took him longer to peak in the first place.

Regardless, the Philadelphia Flyers should be thrilled to have Wayne Simmonds under contract for another three seasons at a steal of a $3.975 million dollar annual cap hit. His deal was already a bargain for a middle-six forward with elite power play scoring ability. But now that's he's performing like an impact forward at even strength as well? He's become a true building block for the future.

Player Card (via hockeyviz.com):

Simmonds Player Card

Neutral zone data via BSH's Charlie O'Connor; all other data via war-on-ice.com unless otherwise noted.