Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Murphy’s Law game in a Murphy’s Law season
Last night’s contest against the Washington Capitals truly felt like a microcosm of the Flyers’ season. It’s no secret that Philadelphia is not on the level of the truly elite squads in the league (such as the Caps), but that was obvious even before the 2016-17 season began. And the 5-on-5 statistics from last night tell that story — a 47.99% score-adjusted Corsi and 46.89% Expected Goals rate don’t imply that the Flyers “should have” won this one. However, while the loss wasn’t an unfair outcome, the blowout nature of the game probably was. It didn’t feel like a 4-1 contest anywhere except on the scoreboard.
That’s because the Flyers truly cannot catch a break right now. It started in the first minute, when they finally got a juicy rebound off one of their many point shots and capitalized with a goal. But no, Dale Weise had apparently pushed Braden Holtby, resulting in an overturn of the call on the ice. Later, Ivan Provorov rang a shot off the crossbar that actually inspired the goal horn to sound, but on replay it was obvious that the puck did not pass the line. Then there were the 29 regular and 12 high-danger scoring chances by the Flyers on the night that could only create one actual goal. And on the other side, two Capitals goals came on beautiful snipes from high-skilled forwards (Backstrom and Kuznetsov) and a third was caused by a weird deflection by Radko Gudas against his own goalie.
Almost every player talked about “not getting the bounces” after the game, and while the especially frustrated fans may view that response as something of a cop-out, the Flyers really aren’t wrong. What we have right now is a just-decent team that is having every break go against them. Does that absolve them for not being a high-end squad in terms of talent? Not really. But I find it difficult to believe that an honest viewer of the team is blind to the fact that Philadelphia is getting basically no breaks at the moment. It truly has been a “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” season.
#2: Can’t say the effort isn’t there
The Capitals are clearly more talented than the Flyers. That’s something that is obvious just via a quick glance at the pregame rosters, and even more glaring when you watch the respective clubs try to execute on odd-man rush chance. One team makes seamless passes and pick the corners on their shots; the other can barely execute enough clean passes to generate even a shot on goal. But even though the results haven’t been there over the past two months, it’s tough to fault the team’s effort. Last night, the Flyers got off to a fast start, had an early goal overturned, and kept pushing forward. Backchecking, physicality and speed through the neutral zone were all apparent on basically every shift.
Even after falling behind 2-0 by the first intermission, the Flyers reset and came out strong for the middle stanza as well. They even flipped the quality chance battle in that period, an area where they had struggled even in the high-effort first. For all of their faults, this isn’t a team that is giving up on the season or on each other. Get angry at them all you want for the win/loss record, or certain coaching decisions, or the talent gaps on the roster. But don’t act like these players aren’t trying their best to turn things around — this isn’t a complacent squad.
#3: The insistence upon using Neuvirth is odd
The Flyers have now played nine games in the month of February, and Michal Neuvirth has started all but one of them. At the beginning of the month, it made sense — Neuvirth delivered two straight stellar performances against Montreal and Los Angeles, and was even very good against Toronto right before the all-star break. You could understand that head coach Dave Hakstol was trying to get Neuvirth into a rhythm and then hopefully ride him to a playoff berth similar to how he did so last year with Steve Mason.
However, Neuvirth’s strong play has not continued throughout the month, even as Hakstol has continued to throw him out there for start after start. Over his eight February games, Neuvirth now holds an 0.894 save percentage, and in his past four, that number drops to 0.854, a totally unacceptable rate. Yet Steve Mason (who for all his faults this year has a better save percentage than Neuvirth overall) remains on the bench. Considering the fact that Neuvirth’s play hasn’t justified the workload, it’s fair to wonder if the coaching staff simply believes that Neuvirth is the superior goaltender, and therefore are giving him a chance to work through his issues because they believe the long-term reward is greater than with Mason. That’s about the only explanation I have, unless this is just an extended audition for a Neuvirth contract extension that they’ve already decided they won’t be giving Mason.
#4: Manning-Gudas pair struggled against high quality lines
It’s always going to be difficult to effectively line match against an opponent who has the edge in both high-end and overall depth of talent. The result is that there will always be a few regular matchups that look ugly on paper for the team coming in at a disadvantage. However, it’s especially odd when a team seemingly chases that very disadvantage. Hakstol’s usage of Brandon Manning fell into that bucket, as he was paired with Radko Gudas to make a duo that essentially became the Flyers’ first pairing last night.
The pair actually did a solid job driving play from a volume standpoint, as Gudas led the Flyers with a 62.21% score-adjusted Corsi and Manning was right behind at 57.64%. But their xG told a different tale, as the duo was the worst pair on the team by that metric. It shouldn’t have been a major surprise — after all, they received only about four minutes of 5v5 ice time against Washington’s bottom-six. Instead, Gudas-Manning mostly faced off versus the Backstrom and Kuznetsov lines, with the result being three goals against and two especially poor plays by Manning specifically. His defensive zone turnover directly led to Backstrom’s first period tally, and then he was torched on the rush in the third by Ovechkin, leading to Oshie’s goal. You can argue that asking Manning to cover Alexander Ovechkin one-on-one is a bit unfair, but that’s sort of the point — he shouldn’t be a player who is matched up against the league’s best. Gudas can handle it, but if he’ll be used in that capacity, he needs a more capable partner than Brandon Manning.
#5: Flyers frustrated, not despondent
In talking with the players after the game, it’s obvious that this is an angry team right now. Not angry at each other or the coach, but the cruel hand that they believe they’ve been dealt this season. Dale Weise was especially honest after the game when asked if he felt snakebitten right now, stating, “That’s a good way to put it. Look at that one there. Touch the goalie, goal disallowed. [Provorov] hits the cross bar. We had a couple other chances in tight. Snake bitten, I don’t even know if there’s a word for how I feel right now.” Players like Giroux and Provorov also echoed the sentiment.
What’s clear is that the team feels like they are playing good hockey, which is why they are at a loss to explain after games why their skid has lasted this long. And while there are reasons for the slide that the team may not be admitting publicly — consistently poor shot selection, lack of execution on rushes, awful goaltending — the fact does remain that Philadelphia currently holds a 97.12 PDO (shooting percentage + save percentage) at 5v5 this season, which would be the fifth-lowest of any NHL team over the past 10 seasons. This team is no world-beater, but so much of their issues would be resolved if the goalies were stopping pucks at just a league average rate (19 less goals allowed) and scoring like that as well (20 more goals scored). They’ve seen these same goalies play far better (just last season!) and they scored at just below 5v5 league-average in their first year in Hakstol’s system (7.07% versus an NHL-average 7.50%), so I totally understand why it’s difficult for players to accept that the same process just isn’t working this time around.
#6: Giroux was all over the ice
The Flyers may not have even come close to winning this game on the scoreboard, but as noted previously, it certainly wasn’t for lack of effort. Captain Claude Giroux led the way on that front, as it’s tough to remember a more high-energy, start-to-finish game that he’s played all season long. In perfect Flyers fashion, Giroux could not score a point despite all of that hard work, but he was noticeable on every shift in a positive way — generating zone entries, winning puck battles, backchecking aggressively, and setting up linemates for quality chances. His 53.76% score-adjusted Corsi also led all Philadelphia forwards. On a more fortunate night, Giroux would have finished with two or three points, instead of the goose egg (though he was a +1!) that he ended up posting.
One of the biggest concerns regarding the Flyers’ future is the status of Giroux, and whether his age-related decline is coming on far faster than anyone would have hoped. The guy who showed up last night, however, sure didn’t look like one in the process of slowing down. It will be interesting to see if that high-level of play was just a brief turning back of the clock, or if Giroux can sustain this through the remainder of the season. If he were to do so, that would certainly quiet the skeptics, as replication of last night’s performance would eventually have the goals and assists coming in bunches.
#7: Curious usage of Michael Raffl
Over the past few games, the ice time of Michael Raffl has dramatically declined. Used as a top-six forward at 5v5 for the majority of the season, Raffl was recently moved to the third line with Nick Cousins and Matt Read, and his ice time has dipped accordingly. It wouldn’t be a major issue if Raffl simply fell to seventh or eighth on the forward ice time sheet, as that would fit his new role. However, in last night’s game, no Flyers player received less 5v5 ice time than Raffl (8:06), and since the Austrian doesn’t play on special teams, that meant he was barely on the ice at all.
This isn’t a one-game issue, either. Against Vancouver, Raffl was given just 10:01 minutes at 5v5, good for eighth among PHI forwards, and versus the Oilers, he ranked 10th at 11:33. Raffl is an undeniably useful player, far better than teammates like Dale Weise on the whole, and he really shouldn’t be losing minutes to them, even in the short-term. Like every single forward on the team, Raffl is struggling to score at 5v5, but his play-driving (+3.95% Corsi Rel, +3.1% CF%RelTM) remains top-notch. If he’s receiving the least minutes among your forwards in a game, there’s an issue.
#8: Top PP unit experiment might be over
Recently, the Flyers tested out a new look on their top power play unit, dropping Jakub Voracek to PP2 and moving Ivan Provorov up. The drawback of the shift was that it had the team running a 3F/2D personnel structure, which has been criticized in the past. The positive, however, was that it allowed Shayne Gostisbehere to move into Voracek’s spot on the right half boards, giving him far better lanes to shoot in comparison to when he plays up top. The new look worked quite well against the Canucks, as Ghost’s shot from the right side resulted in a rebound that Wayne Simmonds slammed home for the first goal of the game. It was early, but you wondered if the Flyers might commit to the change.
Last night’s game halted that speculation. While Provorov was out with Giroux and company for the team’s first PP opportunity in the second period, Hakstol reverted back to the usual look in the third. And even though the Flyers failed to score a power play goal, they did generate more shot attempts with Voracek back up on the top unit than with Provorov. It’s clear that Hakstol and his coaching staff wasn’t wedded to this adjustment, and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if it’s jettisoned entirely for the Stadium Series game this weekend.
#9: Flyers struggle against Caps’ fourth line again
One surprise during the playoff series last series between Washington and Philadelphia was the strong performance of the Capitals’ fourth line, which appeared to be a weakness entering the series. Instead, the trio of Jay Beagle, Daniel Winnik and Tom Wilson posted score-adjusted Corsi For percentages in the 55% range and xG rates around 70%, making them one of Washington’s most effective lines in the series. History repeated itself last night, as the trio led their team in SA-Corsi (74%) and were right near the top in xG as well.
That was despite facing off against the otherwise-effective Giroux line, who posted a 30.64% score-adjusted Corsi in seven minutes against Beagle and then a 69.30% rate against Beagle’s far more talented teammates. It’s been obvious that the Flyers have struggled in containing that fourth line’s forecheck in matchups over the past year, but this is still a line with Tom Wilson and Jay Beagle on it. There’s no reason why the Flyers shouldn’t be able to outskill them. The struggles are especially damaging against a team like the Caps that has so much firepower up front. Their fourth line is supposed to be a brief respite from the talent of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Kuznetsov, not something to be feared.
#10: Voracek double-shifting with Bellemare and VandeVelde
File this under “Flyers in-game decisions that probably don’t matter all that much but remain annoying,” which is a cabinet that is overflowing in 2016-17. When Philadelphia is down in the third period, Hakstol has correctly recognized that the team probably needs to roll their star players a bit more, as most coaches would do in similar situations. His go-to double-shifting strategy (especially recently) has been to place Jakub Voracek on the right wing with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde. The problem with that is that the trio doesn’t really work — it didn’t back in November of 2016 when Hakstol tried it during a Voracek slump, and it doesn’t now.
In 36:22 minutes alongside Bellemare this year, Voracek has posted a 43.86% Corsi, and remember that a large portion of those minutes have come with the Flyers trailing, when you’d expect the team to carry play. Giving Voracek more shifts when chasing the game is smart, but you’d think the team would get more out of him if those extra shifts were taken with linemates who can actually score goals, not with two players who have 5v5 Points/60 rates below 1.00 over the past three seasons. It just feels like a waste of Voracek’s energy, and his talent.