Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Unlike Thursday, Flyers were sounded outplayed this time
Philadelphia may not have played the most enjoyable game on Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens, but it’s impossible to argue that it wasn’t effective. Not only did the Flyers come away with a 3-1 victory, they led in all of the key 5-on-5 play-driving statistics despite keeping overall shots on goal to a minimum on both sides. It was a New Jersey Devils win circa 2012, filled with tight checking, constant disruption and little in the way of quality chances on either side.
Yesterday, the Flyers looked more like the Devils circa 2016. Again, they played a low-event game, with just 45 combined shots in over 60 minutes of hockey. But versus the Kings, Philadelphia could not impose their will as their did against Montreal. After a fairly even first 25 minutes of hockey, the Kings took over in the second period, permitting the Flyers just six shots on goal the rest the way while possessing the puck seemingly at will. In the end, Philadelphia finished with a putrid 38.83% score-adjusted Corsi, and an even-worse 34.97% xG%. They did squeeze a point out of the game, but that was primarily due to the heroics of Michal Neuvirth, who made numerous stellar saves in order to get this game to overtime.
This outcome really shouldn’t be that surprising, after taking a deeper look at the Montreal game. While the Flyers did carry play on the whole, they lost the neutral zone battle by a wide margin, trailing both in raw offensive zone entries (60-58) and in controlled entries (32-21). That makes a 45.68% Neutral Zone Score, and basically all of Philadelphia’s play-driving edge at 5v5 came from better than expected shot suppression in the defensive zone. When you dress a defense that includes Mark Streit, Andrew MacDonald, Brandon Manning and Nick Schultz, you probably shouldn’t expect the team to be able to replicate that shot suppression performance. It’s certainly a far-from-elite blueline corps. Instead, the Flyers tried to succeed using the same style as Thursday, and got burned.
#2: Scratch offensively-gifted players, struggle on offense
The Flyers’ biggest issue yesterday was a complete inability to create anything offensively, with the exception of when the top line of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Michael Raffl were on the ice. In fact, this has been an issue for the past two games, as that top line has accounted for over 40% of the Flyers’ shot attempts and their shots on goal since Thursday. It’s obvious that when that trio is off the ice, offensive creativity is at a bare minimum, with the other lines playing almost exclusively north/south hockey and praying for good bounces.
It doesn’t take a hockey expert to think that might be linked to the fact that Shayne Gostisbehere and Travis Konecny have been up in the press box during that period rather than in their usual place on the ice. When Konecny has played this year, the Flyers have averaged 64.11 shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5v5 — a team-high. And Ghost isn’t far behind at 63.33 (he ranks third, behind Konecny and Sean Couturier). It’s clear by both the stats and the eye test that both players facilitate offense when they are on the ice. And while both have their defensive issues — Konecny in terms of shot suppression, Ghost in chance suppression — removing them from the lineup intuitively makes it harder for their teammates to generate shots (and in turn, goals) in their absence.
That’s just the tangible impact. It’s easy to read into the situation and assume the message that scratching two offense-producers sends the players still in the lineup. Incentives drive every workplace, as in the end, people want to satisfy their employers to keep their jobs. By sitting Konecny and Gostisbehere, that tells the rest of the already-limited lineup that safe, conservative play is preferable to high-event, higher-risk hockey. In turn, it’s totally understandable why defensemen would be less likely to activate deep in the offensive zone, or look to cut off an oncoming forward in the neutral zone rather than just keeping him to the outside. They want to play. Unfortunately, the way in which they are doing so is both thoroughly unwatchable, and ultimately not that effective in terms of winning hockey games.
#3: What is driving the conservative style of play?
It’s no secret that the Flyers’ offense struggled this past week. In three games, they scored three non-empty net goals, and the team averaged 19 shots on goal per game in that timespan as well. For a squad that is in the top third of the league in 5v5 pace, that’s a dramatic shift in outcomes.
The question isn’t whether the Flyers’ offense has been especially anemic recently — it obviously has. The question is why. And as usual, there are surely a number of different factors at play. Competition has been part of it — LA and Carolina are very good shot suppression teams, and Montreal isn’t bad either. Then, there’s the simple fact that high-octane players like Gostisbehere and Konecny aren’t playing, which makes the team less dangerous offensively by default. But in my estimation, the issues go beyond that.
During the past two games, the Flyers’ defensemen have not activated in the offensive zone like they’ve done through four months of the season. Some of that is not having Ghost, sure. But even defensemen like Provorov, Gudas and Manning, all of whom have been aggressive in pinching down the half boards on the offensive zone forecheck in the past, are mostly staying up at the point and even sometimes backing into the neutral zone when a 50/50 puck battle begins. That’s not befitting the 2-1-2 forecheck that has been a staple of Hakstol’s team from the start of his tenure.
Multiple players were asked after the game if there has been an intentional tactical shift on the part of the coaches to be less aggressive in keeping cycles going and sending defensemen deep on the attack. To a man, the players denied that such a major shift occurred. However, both Mark Streit and Sean Couturier used the word “safe” in describing some of the recent on-ice decisions. When asked about coverages, Streit explained, “You have to be careful, when you’re not sure, you pull back or you play it safe because, especially against a team like that, they’ve got a lot of experience.” Couturier echoed that sentiment, stating, “The 50/50 battles where you’re kind of hesitant, you might be better off backing off and playing it safe.” To be sure, Couturier also stated he disagreed the team was playing more conservative on the whole, but the “safe” reference struck me in both interviews.
Personally, I doubt the Flyers have made wholesale system changes. All of the players seemed to bristle at that suggestion when asked. But I do believe there’s been a clear mentality shift recently, probably brought on by the disastrous game in Carolina. The defensemen seem intent on keeping the play in front of them at all times, rather than pinching regularly and depending upon the high forward to cover for their aggressiveness. That mentality change could also be a contributing factor as to why Konecny and Gostisbehere remain out — not only are they both very aggressive players, I’m not sure they can be successful without being so aggressive in extending offensive zone time, since they can suffer lapses in coverage at times. But what this Kings game highlighted is that it can’t become a permanent adjustment. Considering their personnel (which should include Konecny and Ghost), the Flyers need to be aggressive in order to create their offense. They simply don’t possess the raw sniping talent, the defensive soundness, or even the goaltending (this year) to expect to win a bunch of 2-1, low-event games.
#4: The defense really wasn’t especially strong
The narrative after the game was that the Flyers delivered their second straight strong defensive performance, holding the Kings to just one goal and 28 shots. And to be sure, Philadelphia did disrupt quite a number of potential LA chances, especially when the Kings were cycling in the offensive zone. Positionally, the Flyers were strong without the puck, and they made it very difficult for Los Angeles to set up chances in the low slot, an area that the Kings were clearly trying to attack. However, I don’t agree that Philadelphia was anywhere close to dominant defensively — their mistakes were simply erased by fantastic goaltending, something that has happened not nearly often enough this year.
Three turnovers in particular could have turned this game into a laugher. In the first period, Sean Couturier sent a blind pass into the slot, handing the Kings a golden opportunity that they could not finish. Then, in the second, Jakub Voracek made the same error, requiring Neuvirth to bail out the star winger with a massive save on Dustin Brown. Finally, in the third period, Brandon Manning mishandled a pass at the point which led to a breakaway opportunity for Tyler Toffoli. That play was mostly disrupted by backchecking skaters, but the other two were in no way, shape or form examples of “strong defense.” In many other games this year, the Flyers didn’t make tons of mistakes — it was just that the ones they did make seemed to invariably end up in the back of the net. Yesterday, those mistakes happened to stay out.
#5: Neuvirth the main reason for overtime
The primary reason why this game can be viewed in retrospect as a “strong defense effort” and not a 3-0 loss due to bad one-off breakdowns was the play of Michal Neuvirth, who was stellar for the second straight contest. The Kings didn’t rack up a ton of shots, but they created more than a few high-quality chances. In fact, they finished with an Expected Goals total of 2.32 on the game — not overwhelming, but certainly above the total that they tallied. That’s because on more than a few occasions, Neuvirth was able to deliver highlight-reel saves. His stop on Dustin Brown was probably his best, but the late third period denial of Tanner Pearson was nearly as good. Neuvirth’s play was outstanding.
Most likely, this recent stretch will give Neuvirth the temporary leg up on Steve Mason for the “starter’s” job. It’s not unwarranted, even if Mason did have two strong games immediately before the all-star break, before that awful game in Carolina that saw every single skater deliver a dud of a performance. But as we saw last year, Michal Neuvirth has the ability to get on stellar runs of play, and I wouldn’t blame Hakstol for giving the goalie a extended opportunity to prove that this is one of them.
#6: Power play was a mess
Whether the Flyers are intentionally playing a conservative style in recent games, or if it’s just a matter of offensive execution being a bit lacking, the result has been the same — a toothless attack at even strength. It’s times like these when the Flyers have to rely upon their usually-strong power play to generate shots and quality chances, but against Los Angeles, they could not create much of anything. In two (actually more like one and a half) PP opportunities, Philadelphia generated just one shot from the top unit and zero from the second unit.
This is where the scratchings of Gostisbehere and Konecny especially hurt the team. Placing Ghost with Streit on the top unit not only makes less dynamic, it also allows the high man on the penalty kill more flexibility to directly attack Giroux or Voracek on the half boards, because he no longer has to shadow Gostisbehere to be in position to block his still-lethal shot. In addition, moving Streit off the second unit is another downgrade, especially with Michael Del Zotto out due to injury. The Flyers are instead using Brandon Manning there, which has predictably been a debacle. The absence of Konecny also makes the unit less dangerous. Essentially, the team is putting all of its eggs in the basket of the top unit, since PP2 can’t be expected to do much of anything with the current personnel. Yesterday, they came up short.
#7: Top line continues strong play
In the third period, it felt like the Flyers were employing their overtime strategy of “tread water until the Giroux line hits the ice” a bit early. The team only looked threatening when the trio of Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Michael Raffl hit the ice, and even though they were unable to score a goal, the three forwards were the only Flyers players to finish with Corsi For percentages above 50% on the day. The top line also drove play on Thursday, so this performance didn’t come out of nowhere. Unlike the other three lines, which seem to be adhering to a very north/south, uncomplicated attacking style, the Giroux line has been the only unit to actually flash some east/west creativity over the past two contests. Whether that is due to direct coaching instruction or just the simple fact that the most skilled line on the team is also clicking better than any other trio is unclear, but what is undeniable is that the top line is back to playing like a top line again.
#8: Bellemare line was regularly pinned
At the start of the game, the fourth line centered by Pierre-Edouard Bellemare delivered a few solid shifts marked by their usual tenacious forechecking. They didn’t create much offense, but with the rest of the lines struggling to generate anything positive, it wasn’t a shocker to see Hakstol hand the trio more shifts than usual the rest of the way as a result. Unfortunately, even though each of Bellemare, Chris VandeVelde and Roman Lyubimov received over nine minutes of 5v5 ice time, they were unable to continue winning their shifts. All three finished with score-adjusted Corsi rates below 22 percent, by far the worst on the team.
In recent weeks, the Bellemare line hasn’t received a ton of ice time and has been used as a true fourth line, a far cry from their usage back in December. But it’s totally justifiable to increase their minutes in games where they are especially effective. Yesterday was not one of those occasions, however, which is why the increase in ice time was a bit frustrating to watch.
#9: Schultz used like MacDonald should be used
A quick look at the ice time for the Flyers’ six defensemen tells an interesting story about usage. The team’s top five leaders in terms of 5v5 minutes were all blueliners — MacDonald, Provorov, Gudas, Manning and Streit, in that order. Further down the list is Nick Schultz, who received 14:00 minutes and was clearly used as the sixth defenseman. In addition, he spent just under four minutes facing off against the Kings’ top two lines, instead receiving most of his shifts versus their bottom six. That’s clear, sheltered usage, befitting a #6 blueliner. And it’s the right move, as Schultz is certainly a limited defenseman at this stage of his career.
However, watching the Flyers limit Schultz’s minutes makes you wonder why Andrew MacDonald — who possesses a similar “try and keep things to the outside, allow controlled entries at will” style in the neutral zone — doesn’t get anywhere near the same treatment. Instead, he’s used like a top-four defenseman, and recently it’s been more like top pair usage. The example of Schultz shows that the Flyers are willing to create a #6 defenseman role from a usage standpoint, they just clearly don’t see MacDonald as a fit for that job.
#10: Are we all overreacting here?
It’s clear that the fanbase is becoming restless with the Flyers right now. A combination of underwhelming results since the conclusion of the ten-game winning streak, controversial lineup decisions, and an increasingly conservative style of play has turned a once-optimistic fanbase into one in a state of constant frustration. To be sure, there’s good reason for concern surrounding the team. Two players expected to play a key role in the future of the organization are sitting in the press box, and the Flyers have not taken a measurable step forward from last year despite being a better team on paper this season versus 2015-16.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that things aren’t quite as dire as the mood of the fanbase seems to hint they are. Philadelphia remains in a playoff spot. There’s been no sign from the front office that the organization has any interest in “giving up on” players like Gostisbehere and Konecny and shopping them to the highest bidder. They’re 4-1-1 in their last six games. Even the team’s advanced metrics since the turn of the calendar year (9th in score-adjusted Corsi, 10th in Expected Goals) have been decent. That’s not to say that the criticism directed the team’s way is unjustified — it surely isn’t. But this isn’t the profile of a team in freefall.