Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Provorov provided a steady display
On Monday night, Ivan Provorov skated a whopping 28:48 minutes in his preseason opener against the Devils. Yet he was right back at it Tuesday against the New York Islanders, this time backed by a much-improved set of teammates. He played just under 22 minutes in the contest. As head coach Dave Hakstol noted at the morning skate, it was going to be a real challenge for the 19-year old to battle through fatigue and deliver a strong performance.
The results were mostly positive, with Provorov specifically shining in his efforts defending against the rush. Provorov faced seven entry attempts at 5-on-5, allowing two controlled entries, forcing two dump-ins, and breaking up three rushes entirely. That's a single-game controlled entry allowed percentage of 28.57% and a Break-Up Percentage of 42.86%. For comparison, Shayne Gostisbehere led the Flyers' returning defensemen in both categories last season, posting 44.78% and 17.20% rates, respectively. With the caveat that it was a preseason game, Provorov topped both of Ghost Bear's season-long numbers.
His efforts engineering the breakout also were impressive, as Provorov's attempts to move the puck up ice generally resulted in positive outcomes. On 16 defensive zone touches, he finished with a strong 37.5% Controlled Exit Percentage (Ghost led the defense in 2015-16 at 28.93%) and an acceptable Turnover Percentage of 12.5%. Microstats like entry defense and zone exit efficiency help to quantify whether a player is "doing all the little things right," and by these metrics at least, Ivan Provorov was up to the challenge.
#2: However, it wasn't perfect from Provorov
That's not to say Provorov's performance was flawless. It's fair to note that his single-game 5v5 Corsi For percentage was a low 37.5%, good for a negative-23.37% Corsi Relative. At the same time, single-game Corsi metrics are lacking in usefulness (without context) even in the regular season, let alone for a meaningless preseason contest. Moreso than the numbers, I was disappointed in Provorov's lack of assertiveness in the offensive zone, specifically when given the opportunity to pinch down along the boards on the forecheck to keep pucks alive. On a number of occasions, Provorov chose to retreat back into the neutral zone rather than charge forward to chase down a loose puck and try to keep a cycle going. While the fact that the Flyers were rarely dangerous in the offensive zone with Provorov on the ice cannot fully be blamed on him, the young defenseman didn't do much to help.
It could have been due to fatigue, which may have sapped a bit of Provorov's quick-twitch acceleration. It also could be a case of the defenseman preferring to "play it safe," rather than take offensive zone risks that might result in an odd-man rush against. After all, Provorov is in a legitimate battle for a roster spot, and he might be concerned that the "big mistake" could jeopardize his chances. Still, compared to fellow prospect Travis Sanheim, who was pinching like crazy in the offensive zone all night long to great effect, Provorov looked downright passive on the forecheck.
I asked Hakstol after the game if he felt that Provorov had "passed the test" when it came to battling through the fatigue of two-games-in-two-nights, especially with the heavy minutes that he faced. The Flyers' coach described Provorov's performance as "pretty good," and noted that he had noticed some impact of fatigue, stating, " I think there was for sure there was probably some little signs of fatigue that creeps in but that’s to be expected. I think overall he answered the bell and I thought he competed hard tonight. I thought sometimes you see some of the fatigue in some of the sharp details." In the same breath, however, Hakstol praised Provorov for being "a detailed player in all regards," so it's clear that the Flyers' coach thinks highly of the Russian defenseman. We'll see if that earns him a roster spot in the coming days.
#3: PK significantly more aggressive
After icing a mediocre-to-poor penalty kill in the 2015-16 season and then seeing it become the team's Achilles heel in their first round playoff loss to the Washington Capitals, the Philadelphia Flyers understandably are focused on improving their shorthanded units this season. In last night's game, the Flyers ramped up the defensive zone pressure dramatically, at least in comparison to their preferred tactics last season.
They utilized the Czech Press -- meaning that the high forward in the PK formation actively pressured the outer edges of the power play formation -- regularly throughout the night, and they even activated defensemen down low to attack the forwards on the half-boards as well (a technique called the Low-High Press). But what's truly interesting about this increased pressure is the fact that the Flyers have yet to practice special teams during camp, a fact that Steve Mason confirmed after the game.
So it's possible that last night's aggressive penalty killing was simply a product of the players doing what comes naturally to them, and not indicative of a philosophy shift on the part of the team. Or it could be direction originating from the coaching staff during internal meetings. As training camp progresses, it will be intriguing to see if the aggressive tactics remain or if the Flyers will fall back into their old tendencies.
#4: Wrist surgery hasn't slowed Del Zotto
In his first interviews of the season, Michael Del Zotto admitted that following offseason surgery, he would never again have full range of motion in his wrist. The initial reaction was one of understandable concern -- does that mean that Del Zotto's play could be negatively affected even though he is technically "healthy?" After all, the 26-year old defenseman is expected to take on a top-pair role for the Flyers this season, making it essential that his full skillset remains intact.
If last night is any indication, Del Zotto will be better than ever in 2016-17. He was the best defenseman on the ice, and it was his passing (which certainly requires the use of a wrist) that stood out the most. In all three zones, Del Zotto's feeds were crisp and accurate, even when the degree of difficulty was at its highest. Expect the pending UFA to pick up right where he left off last season.
#5: Philippe Myers was the best of the rookie blueliners last night
Everyone was so focused on Ivan Provorov prior to the preseason home opener that Philippe Myers slipped under-the-radar, despite Hakstol dishing out high praise to him after the morning skate. Originally, Myers was not scheduled to play in this game, but as the coach noted, his performance in camp and in the Newark contest resulted in him jumping the competition (probably Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg) and earning a spot in the lineup.
Myers took full advantage of the opportunity. With the puck, he consistently made smart decisions that put his teammates in positions to succeed. In one such example in the first period, Myers drew two forecheckers to him while slowly moving the puck into the neutral zone, before dishing it to a waiting forward for a controlled zone entry. In the second, he facilitated Andy Miele's goal through some slick passing in traffic at the point.
But the most impressive play to my eyes was a subtle one, also in the first period, that saw Myers box out an Islander forward for a loose rebound using expert positioning and strength. Not that exciting of a maneuver at first glance, until you realize that the player he outmuscled was Anders Lee, an established NHLer and a 228 pound net front presence. Plays like that make you wonder just how close Myers is to being able to hold his own at the highest level of hockey. I still expect that he'll be sent back to the QMJHL soon enough, but Myers clearly is not some raw project like fellow prospect Sam Morin. He's far more polished than most observers ever anticipated.
#6: Sanheim played his preferred style
During last year's preseason, Travis Sanheim was strangely unassertive in his style of play. Known for his offensive aggressiveness in the WHL, Sanheim seemingly tried to dial it down for camp, and the result was an early trip back to Calgary. But last night, we finally had the opportunity to see the Travis Sanheim who has been such a dangerous weapon for the Hitmen over the past two seasons.
Whenever he could, Sanheim was jumping into the play offensively. He created zone entries, controlled the puck below the goal line during offensive zone cycles and power plays, and was especially willing to pinch deep along the boards on the forecheck whenever the puck was loose. He truly earned his team-leading 75% Corsi For percentage on the night.
Dave Hakstol's team utilized an aggressive 2-1-2 forecheck regularly last season, and for that tactic to be successful, it requires defensemen with the instincts to know when a loose puck should be chased, the acceleration to get to the puck first, and the strength to withstand onrushing opponents looking to regain control. Sanheim showed last night that he checks all of these boxes, even at the NHL level. He may have some kinks to work out in the defensive zone, but the Flyers are going to extract a lot of extra shots out of their offensive zone entries with Travis Sanheim on the ice.
#7: Simmonds still a power play god, even with a visor
At the urging of general manager Ron Hextall, Wayne Simmonds is apparently testing out a visor during the preseason, with the goal of becoming comfortable enough in game situations to use it during the regular season. But the cosmetic change did nothing to stop Simmonds from imposing his will upon the Islanders during the power play, where he is one of the league's most feared forwards.
Simmonds potted two goals with the man advantage last night. The first was the usual Simmonds PP tally -- using his strength and natural goal-scoring instincts to battle for the puck in front and bat it home. The second goal, however, was a bit more unorthodox. Rather than score from his office, Simmonds found a way to add a power play rush goal, beating the Islanders' goalie to the short side. Visor or no visor, the Wayne Train clearly remains a power play locomotive.
#8: Mason on his game, especially on the PK
The Flyers may have won this game going away, but despite the lopsided score and the talent disparity between the two clubs (it was a split-squad night for New York), the Islanders actually outshot Philadelphia 23-20. The difference was Steve Mason, who played the entire game for the Flyers. Mason was particularly sharp on the penalty kill, despite facing over 11 minutes of the Islanders power play.
Last season, Mason actually outperformed Michal Neuvirth in even strength save percentage, by a decent margin. But Neuvirth made up the gap due to Mason's odd struggles on the penalty kill, where he was one of the league's worst statistical netminders. Due to the small samples, PK save percentage is a particularly volatile metric for goalies on a season-by-season basis, so it was fair to expect Mason would rebound in this area in 2016-17 anyway. But it's still reassuring to watch him stand on his end to start the preseason in the situation that gave him the most trouble last year.
#9: Weise providing aggressiveness and dirty goals
In Matt Read's exit interview, he noted that the Flyers' third line last year did lots of the little things right on the outside in terms of sustaining zone time, but struggled to "get to the dirty areas" where goals are often scored. Dale Weise was signed at least in part due to his willingness to battle to those high-danger areas in front of the net, and the hope from Hextall and Co. was that by adding Weise to line three, the unit may become more efficient at turning puck possession into tangible production. Last night, the 28-year old winger did just that, scoring his first (unofficial) goal as a Flyer by crashing the net and knocking the puck past the goaltender.
It remains to be seen if the Weise signing was a wise move -- that will likely come down to whether Weise can replicate his solid play-driving performance from last season while chipping in with 10+ goals as a bottom-six forward. But last night, he showed why old school fans will likely love his game. Not only did he score a stereotypical "greasy" goal, he threw his weight around on a number of occasions and even rushed to the defense of teammate Nick Cousins after he was confronted near the benches at the end of the contest. Even if his on-ice performance is just okay, I suspect most Flyers fans are going to like Dale Weise.
#10: Lyubimov brings an intriguing skillset to the table
Playing right wing on a line with Boyd Gordon and Chris VandeVelde, Roman Lyubimov stood out as the most dynamic player of the unit. While the advanced stats don't show it -- Lyubimov finished with a team-low 26.67% Corsi For percentage -- the KHL import showcased a nice combination of speed and strength, looking almost like a hybrid of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and VandeVelde. I'd be surprised if Lyubimov doesn't get a long look as an option for the fourth line during this camp, as via the eye test, he certainly looked more impactful last night than players like VandeVelde.