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2015-16 Flyers season review: Ryan White's surprise goal scoring masked weaknesses

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Fourth liner Ryan White provided unexpected production in 2015-16, scoring as many goals (11) as Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier and Matt Read. But does that fact overstate his positive impact?

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Even in today's day and age, which has seen the gradual extinction of slow enforcers who lack puck skills, it's still rare to find productive scorers receiving bottom-line minutes. This is partially due to the continued existence of groupthink in the league, as skilled forwards are viewed as "top-nine or bust!" players rather than potential fits for a "scoring" fourth line. But the biggest reason why fourth lines lack offensive punch is due to the necessities of the cap era -- it's nearly impossible to regularly afford gifted forwards to fill the 10 through 12 spots on the depth chart.

Sure, a team may luck into a young, two-way forward on line four for a few years while he plays on a cheap entry level contract (Sean Couturier comes to mind). But eventually, those fourth liners with scoring talent will get paid, and the larger cap hits essentially require they play further up in the lineup, just from an ideal roster construction standpoint.

That's why there is hidden value gained from a traditional fourth line talent providing surprise scoring punch in a given year. This past season, Ryan White delivered such a season, scoring 11 goals in 73 games, and even earned a deserved spot on the team's second power play unit.

But while goal scoring is an added bonus from a player like White, the most important job of a fourth liner is to provide a breather for the team's true offensive talents and to avoid becoming a liability at even strength. In that area, Ryan White proved far less successful.

Ryan White

Position Forward
Age 28 (March 17, 1988)
Contract Status Unrestricted free agent
2015-16 Regular Season Numbers

Games Played G A P
73 11 5 16

Total 5-on-5 Power Play Penalty Kill Other
12.60 10.46 0.89 0.98 0.26

Corsi For % Corsi Rel % Goals For % PDO
46.16% -5.51% 37.78% 97.88

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
0.79 -5 6.21 5.89 11.94 263 267

Controlled Entry Percentage Entries Per 60 On-Ice Entries % For Neutral Zone Score
32.90% 18.14 48.89% 46.43%

Understanding White's goal scoring

When a player like Ryan White jumps into double digits in goals for this first time in his career -- nearly doubling his previous high -- it helps to understand exactly where the extra tallies originated. Did he become a more efficient player at even strength? Did his shooting percentage go through the roof? Or did his usage in certain situations change dramatically?

First, let's take a look at Ryan White's production at even strength in comparison to his regular linemates (Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde) on the Flyers' famed "Untouchables" line. Maybe White established himself as the "goal scorer" of the trio during 5-on-5 play.

But that proves not to be the case. White's scoring metrics at 5v5 are a little better than his linemates, but remain in the same general ballpark. It clearly wasn't even strength play that moved the needle so much for Ryan White.

Player 5v5 Goals 5v5 Assists 5v5 Points 5v5 Goals/60 5v5 Assists/60 5v5 Points/60
Ryan White 5 5 10 0.39 0.39 0.79
Chris VandeVelde 1 10 11 0.07 0.69 0.75
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare 5 4 9 0.38 0.30 0.69

White's goal scoring metrics at 5v5 are basically identical to those of linemate Bellemare, both from a raw totals and a rate standpoint. And his point production matches that of VandeVelde, who functioned as the distributor for the line this past season.

So during what situations did the other six goals occur?

Situation Ryan White Goal Totals
5-on-5 5
Power Play 3
Opposing Goalie Pulled (5v6) 3

Three of Ryan White's goals in 2015-16 came during his time as the netfront presence on the Flyers' second power play unit. That's just a result of different usage, and White being given a new, offensively-oriented role. But more concerning for White's future production is the fact that 27.3% of his goals were of the empty net variety.

To a degree, it's also attributable to usage -- after all, a coach needs to trust a player in defensive situations in order for him to even have the chance to score an empty-net goal. But three empty net goals is almost certainly not repeatable on a year-by-year basis. Since 2010, only five Flyers have scored three empty netters in a season (White, Claude Giroux, Michael Raffl, Wayne Simmonds and Matt Read), and just Simmonds has done it more than once.

11 goals in a season is still quite an achievement for Ryan White. But he'll probably have trouble hitting that mark again, unless he proves to be a very effective goal scorer on the power play.

White did showcase power play potential

Ryan White was used sporadically by head coach Dave Hakstol on the Flyers' second power play unit through the first four months of the season, but it wasn't until around mid-February when he earned the job outright. The idea seemed a bit outlandish at first -- a fourth liner on the power play? Weren't there more skilled forwards that could fill that role?

But in this case, Dave Hakstol's unorthodox decision was the right one. White was used exclusively as the netfront presence on the second unit, essentially mimicking Wayne Simmonds' job. He was tasked with setting screens, deflecting shots, and even occasionally possessing the puck down low. It was a simple job in theory, but a difficult one in execution. Luckily for the Flyers, White proved up to the task.

White scored just three goals on the power play, but it's better to use rate stats to judge his effectiveness in the role since he received far less PP ice time during the season than his teammates. When evaluated by Goals per 60, which shows scoring efficiency relative to ice time, White's power play goal scoring was right up there with Wayne Simmonds.

Player Goals/60 Assists/60 Points/60
Wayne Simmonds 2.44 1.69 4.14
Ryan White 2.40 0.00 2.40
Shayne Gostisbehere 1.96 2.62 4.58
Brayden Schenn 1.95 2.15 4.10
Sam Gagner 1.19 0.59 1.78
Matt Read 1.12 2.24 3.36
Claude Giroux 1.10 4.05 5.16

White didn't provide much in the way of distribution, but that's understandable. His puck skills are definitely not on Simmonds' level, and the second unit was also filled with lesser talents than the top unit would provide. White's job on the second unit was primarily to score goals and create screens in front of the net, and in an admittingly small sample, he did just that.

But what about shot generation? Did White make the second power play unit more effective at generating shots and chances?

Yes and no. White essentially took Michael Raffl's job on the second unit, so comparing their respective on-ice shot generation statistics is a good place to start in order to measure White's power play impact. It turns out that Philadelphia was better at generating raw shots with Raffl, but more efficient in creating high-quality chances with White.

Player On-Ice Shot Attempts/60 (Corsi) On-Ice Shots/60 On-Ice High-Danger Scoring Chances/60
Ryan White 85.67 48.84 18.41
Michael Raffl 96.53 51.84 17.88

Raffl leads the way by a substantial margin when looking at on-ice Corsi, meaning that the Flyers took more general shot attempts (blocked, missed and on-goal shots) with Raffl on the second unit. But the Ryan White second unit was better at turning those attempts into quality chances, likely due to his superior ability to generate traffic and general havoc in front of the net.

Comparing the two players, Raffl definitely brings more skill to the table, and is likely more capable of facilitating entries into the offensive zone on the PP. That would explain his lead over White when looking at on-ice PP shot attempts. White, on the other hand, brings little in terms of puck carrying or spacing help on entries, but is much more effective in screening the opposing goaltender.

Advanced data bears this out. Arik Parnass, who created the Special Teams Project this past season, also tracked on-ice high quality PP scoring chances accounting for successful screens. White graded out as the 24th most effective player tracked (out of 56) in this statistic during the season's second half, right in the range of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Shayne Gostisbehere.

It's a small sample (a little over 12 minutes), but there's a case to be made that Ryan White exhibited legitimate potential in helping a power play unit to generate higher quality chances once they set up in the offensive zone. His inability to aid in generating zone entries keeps him from being a first unit talent, but he very well could be a useful second unit netfront presence moving forward.

White's biggest weakness: defensive zone play

Ryan White's surprise 11-goal season certainly caught the attention of fans, as did his newfound ability to be a useful power play cog. But the majority of hockey games are played at even strength, so in order to get a full read on White's effectiveness as a player, it's necessary to evaluate his performance during those situations.

Dave Hakstol clearly was satisfied with White's 5-on-5 play. Particularly in the season's first half, Hakstol used the fourth line of Bellemare, VandeVelde and White more as a third line, and he kept the trio together for longer as a unit than any other line, earning them the nickname "The Untouchables."

That raised the ire of the stat-oriented section of the Flyers' fanbase, who noted that the trio's on-ice shot attempt differentials were very poor relative to the rest of the team. But Hakstol continued to look to them for extended minutes, often praising their aggressive and effective forechecking ability, which allowed them to pin opponents deep in their own zone for shifts at a time.

In this case, both sides had a point. The Untouchables line did post poor possession metrics at even strength, yet they were very effective on the forecheck. The line's biggest problems -- White included -- were awful defensive zone play and mediocre neutral zone performance.

Player Offensive Zone Score Neutral Zone Score Defensive Zone Score
Ryan White +6.93% 46.43% -8.05%
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare +10.40% 48.37% -18.41%
Chris VandeVelde +7.19% 47.42% -11.26%

White, like his linemates, posted a solidly positive Offensive Zone Score, meaning that the Flyers generated more unblocked shot attempts than would be expected considering the number of times and the manner in which they entered the offensive zone with White on the ice. In raw numbers, Philadelphia created about 30 extra unblocked shots with Ryan White playing at even strength, and that can be primarily attributed to the effective forecheck that Hakstol loved so much.

Unfortunately, the strong offensive zone play was counteracted by poor defensive zone shot suppression. White's Defensive Zone Score of -8.05% means that the Flyers allowed 39 shots more than expected considering the entries and own-zone faceoffs that White saw.

Basically, White gave back all of his gains from strong forechecking due to an inability to get the puck out of the defensive zone. Combine that with the worst Neutral Zone Score on the Untouchables line, and it's not surprising that White posted an underwhelming 45.67% score-adjusted Corsi, and that the Flyers performed 5.01 percentage points better from a play-driving standpoint with White sitting on the bench.

But the "zone score" metrics measure on-ice performance, not specific events that a player can drive. Was White doing the right things by individual metrics, and just being dragged down by the performance of the other players on the ice with him?

Defensive zone exit data, which measures the effectiveness of a player in moving the puck out of his own zone, isn't flattering to White. In fact, there's a strong case to be made that no regular Flyers forward was less effective with the puck on his stick in the defensive zone.

Player Turnover Percentage Percent of Controlled Exits vs. Uncontrolled Exits Percent of Controlled Exits vs. All Exit Attempts
Nick Cousins 8.46% 69.90% 60.00%
Jakub Voracek 9.66% 66.76% 58.04%
Claude Giroux 10.41% 65.13% 54.72%
Sean Couturier 11.45% 65.53% 54.39%
Matt Read 10.02% 63.53% 54.34%
Wayne Simmonds 10.82% 64.17% 54.12%
Brayden Schenn 12.08% 64.72% 53.02%
Michael Raffl 9.30% 60.19% 52.42%
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare 10.34% 60.15% 50.96%
Scott Laughton 12.98% 61.75% 48.50%
Chris VandeVelde 10.50% 57.80% 47.89%
Sam Gagner 9.62% 50.78% 44.34%
Ryan White 13.35% 54.29% 43.58%

White had the highest Turnover Percentage (which measures a loss of the puck due to a failed clear, intercepted pass, or obvious loss of possession while carrying the puck) among all regular Flyers forwards. In addition, the high Turnover Percentage was not the result of White consistently trying to make the tough play in moving the puck out of the defensive zone with possession. His Controlled Exit to Uncontrolled Exit ratio was an underwhelming 54.29%, better than only that of Sam Gagner.

At least this season, White didn't showcase consistent enough puck skills to help his line efficiently exit the defensive zone. That likely played a role in both his poor Defensive Zone Score (as failed clears equal more zone time for opponents) and Neutral Zone Score (since uncontrolled dump-out exits into the neutral zone often result in the puck coming right back into the defensive zone).

White's defensive zone struggles carried over into his penalty killing, as well. He was a regular member of the shorthanded forward rotation, averaging the sixth-most PK minutes per game this season. But the Flyers allowed more shot attempts and shots on goal per 60 minutes with White on the ice than with any other penalty killing forward.

The 28-year old may have performed at a strong level in the offensive zone, both in creating extra shots at even strength and by helping out on the power play. But White's defensive zone performance was undeniably a drag on the Flyers' overall performance.

Conclusion

Ryan White was granted the largest NHL role of his career during the 2015-16 season, and in many ways, he ran with it. Not only did he score an impressive 11 goals despite not even being guaranteed a spot in the opening night lineup, but he also established himself as a useful forward on the power play, a role not usually granted to an even strength fourth liner. His counting statistics may have been a bit inflated due to three empty-net goals, but White still provided far more tangible offense than anyone expected.

It was play in the defensive zone that proved to be White's Achilles heel. The value added from his strong forechecking ability was essentially neutered by poor shot suppression, and White's weakness in generating efficient zone exits resulted both in an increase in opponents' attack time and less Flyers control over the neutral zone.

White's contract expires on June 30th, making him an unrestricted free agent. It's clear that the 28-year old forward wants to return, and why wouldn't he? In Philadelphia, he has a locked-in role on the fourth line, steady power play ice time, and the trust of his coach. White is also a popular player in the locker room, which is also totally warranted. In my limited time spent covering White, he's easily one of the friendliest players I've met, willing to stay late to answer any media questions and always the first to welcome the many random guests that visit the post-practice locker room.

Still, I'm not sure White's forechecking and decent scoring instincts are enough to outweigh his limitations in the defensive zone. Philadelphia was outscored by twelve goals (18 goals for, 30 goals against) at even strength when White was on the ice, and considering his poor on-ice shot differentials, that can't merely be chalked up to bad luck. White is essentially a poor man's Wayne Simmonds, but the Simmonds from 2011-13, not the newly-improved Simmonds who has become an above-average play driver.

But unlike the Wayne Train from three years ago, age-28 Ryan White is likely a finished product. With free agency looming for White, the Flyers will now need to decide if his skillset is valuable enough to lock up to a new contract.

Player Card (via hockeyviz.com):

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