Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Hagg’s debut undeniably impressive
Just as Samuel Morin was given a one-game NHL audition (or reward, depending on how you want to view it), Robert Hagg also received a chance to play for the Flyers once before the conclusion of the 2016-17 season. And just like his fellow 2013 draftee, Hagg’s debut can be fairly called a success. His underlying numbers were decent — 54.00% score-adjusted Corsi, 40.86% xG — but he certainly passed the eye test with flying colors. Two things were obviously apparent in his game: his physical strength and his willingness to join in the attack. Hagg had little problem in puck battles and in front of the net, despite being a 22-year old in his first NHL game. But we knew that — Hagg has been “physically ready” for the NHL for quite a while. The offensive instincts were more unexpected. On a number of occasions, Hagg intuitively joined the rush in transition plays and showcased a willingness to be active in the offensive zone as well. His nine shot attempts actually led the team on the night.
But it were the little maneuvers that impressed me the most. On one early shift, Hagg knocked Canes rookie Sebastian Aho to the ice as the forward tried to get to the front of the net, and just seconds later, a Carolina player passed the puck to exactly where Aho wanted to be. It was the type of borderline-illegal but undeniably effective play that you see out of veteran NHL defensemen, not rookies in their first games. And Hagg was making those types of heady plays all game long. He’s an interesting player to watch in person because all of his actions look so effortless, it’s easy to see how some coaches have mistaken it for a lack of effort. But that’s the wrong way to view Hagg’s style — he’s clearly a sharp hockey player who slows the game down with the puck on his stick. Hagg wasn’t perfect, of course; his zone exits lacked creativity at times, as he might be overcompensating for the issues that he dealt with in that area of his game last season. But he sure looked like a legitimate NHL defenseman on the whole.
#2: Truly felt like a preseason game
I always am amused when I hear pundits argue that a team “wasn’t giving it their all” in a key game. Disregarding for a second that these are professional athletes who are unlikely to collectively take a game off, there’s a huge difference between poor effort and poor execution, the latter being almost always the true reason for an underwhelming game. But if you ever do want to watch an NHL regular season game that legitimately had a lackadaisical feel on both sides, pop this Flyers-Hurricanes matchup on your television and give it a watch.
With both clubs long eliminated from playoff contention and just one game away from the offseason, it was clear from the start that intensity would be at a minimum. This was most obvious in the checking (or lack thereof) — there was just so much space available for both teams to make plays with the puck in the neutral and offensive zones. The fact that only one goal was scored in the first period was more a testament to players trying to make too many passes due to having extra time and space rather than anything that the defensemen were doing right. Things did get a bit more competitive in the late stages of the game, but for the most part, this meaningless Game 82 certainly felt like just that.
#3: Fourth line rebounded from early mistake
Carolina’s first goal of the game was a direct result of a Travis Konecny turnover on a breakout attempt — his blind redirect pass off the boards intended for Mike Vecchione missed its mark and quickly resulted in Brock McGinn’s goal. It was a nightmare start for the new-look fourth line of Konecny, Vecchione and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and one that even had some joking that the 20-year old rookie might be scratched for the 2017-18 opener as a result of his error. But while the trio would all finish with that minus on the night, it doesn’t accurately describe their overall play. The line consistently had the puck in the offensive zone, and actually was one of the team’s better lines from a territorial standpoint, with Konecny finishing at 62.17% in score-adjusted Corsi and both of his linemates comfortably above 50 percent.
Hakstol’s willingness to move Bellemare to the wing to accommodate Vecchione (a natural center) bodes well for next season. Bellemare’s speed and tenacious forechecking ability always made me suspect he’d be a better fit on the wing, a position that he played often in Europe prior to moving to the NHL. And while Travis Konecny obviously shouldn’t become a fourth line mainstay, it’s actually encouraging in a sense that he was placed there to close out the year, because it shows that Hakstol is willing to include scoring threats on a line that has been a black hole of offensive production over the past two years. Vecchione remains the question mark — just how good is he? — but a Bellemare-Vecchione-(winger with some scoring ability) fourth line sure seems like a dramatic improvement over this year’s main version. Let’s hope that truly is the plan for 2017-18.
#4: Basically everyone had a bad scoring season
Now that the 2016-17 season is over, we can take a quick look at how each player who was on the team last season performed this year from the most basic of scoring stats — points per game. Unsurprisingly, the numbers aren’t pretty.
Out of returning regulars, only four defensemen (Gudas, Streit, Manning and Del Zotto) saw greater than 0.050 increases in their point per game rates. The forwards, on the other hand, either stagnated or suffered sizable losses. It’s tough to find many wins in a chart where Chris VandeVelde is the only forward whose PPG rates improved from 2015-16 to 2016-17.
#5: Cousins had a solid game, but where does he fit?
In his first game since March 15th against Pittsburgh, Nick Cousins was one of the more effective Flyers forwards. It shouldn’t be a huge surprise — he was placed with Giroux and Voracek on the top line, and he was one of the few players (along with Robert Hagg and Mike Vecchione) who had legitimate motivation to deliver a high-effort game, considering the length of his lineup absence. In fact, only Giroux had a better score-adjusted Corsi or xG% than Cousins on the night.
Cousins clearly has positive elements to his game. He draws penalties at a high rate, and is a simple yet accurate passer, a skill which shows itself both in his zone exit metrics and his primary shot contribution totals in the offensive zone. But for Cousins, I’m not sure if any of that will matter. It seems obvious that Cousins’ days at center for this organization are over, with Valtteri Filppula and Mike Vecchione being added to the 2017-18 lineup to serve just that purpose. And on the undersized but skilled middle-six winger list, Jordan Weal surged past Cousins with his stellar close to the year. Even Dale Weise finished the season strong, making it unlikely Cousins is ahead of him on the depth chart either. It becomes harder and harder to see where Cousins fits on this team moving forward. I’m not sure he has the track record to be of serious interest to Vegas, but at this point, he’s looking like a 13th or 14th forward on this squad unless the forward corps undergoes a shake-up.
#6: Couturier-Simmonds used as top PK pair
It took until Game 82 for the duo of Sean Couturier and Wayne Simmonds to be used as the team’s top penalty killing forward pair. With Chris VandeVelde scratched for the first time all season, Ian Laperriere and Dave Hakstol were clearly more comfortable with the 14/17 tandem than a new Bellemare-Filppula duo to take the all-important first PK shift in the defensive zone against Carolina’s top unit. They weren’t perfect on the night — an extended shift in the third period saw the duo unable to get a clear and eventually resulted in an Aho goal — but their full-season track record speaks for itself. Even adjusting for usage, Couturier and Simmonds were two of the most effective shot and chance suppression PK forwards in the NHL.
With VandeVelde unlikely to be re-signed, changes are coming to the penalty kill personnel in 2017-18. To me, the obvious adjustment is to bump Couturier up the depth chart to the #1 slot. He’s been effective at 4v5 basically since Day 1 in the NHL, and using him third in average PK TOI per game seems a waste of his talents in that area. If the concern is giving him too much ice time, I doubt the second PP unit would miss much if he was removed. As for Simmonds, he is maybe the most important piece of that top power play, so I would understand keeping him on PK duo #2 in order to manage his minutes. But the idea of using that duo as the true top option is certainly tempting.
#7: Nick Schultz had a strong final game as a Flyer
There’s a very good chance that Nick Schultz just played his final NHL game. At age-34, Schultz essentially slid into a #7 defenseman role on a team with a very thin blueline corps, so the writing appears to be on the wall with regards to his effectiveness at this level. Truthfully, the advanced metrics never liked Schultz’s play very much, as even in his first season with the Flyers, his Corsi Relative at 5v5 was -2.67% and his xG Rel was -1.67%. Nevertheless, he was given a two-year extension and then watched his play-driving metrics drop from the realm of passable third pair NHL defenseman territory to Andrew MacDonald levels. Last year, his awful -5.03% Corsi Rel was redeemed a bit by a passable -0.06% xG Rel, but this year the xG dropped off to match his poor Corsi ratings. Watching him play, it’s obvious that while he remains sound positionally in the defensive zone, he brings almost nothing to the table offensively, which craters his overall value.
Still, Schultz had a perfectly solid game last night, a nice sendoff if he truly is moving into retirement. His score-adjusted Corsi was 55.67%, +4.68% relative to his teammates, and he showcased his typically smart defensive zone play on a number of occasions. It’s clear that Schultz is very popular in the Flyers’ locker room, and Claude Giroux even noted after the game that he felt Schultz would make for a great coach if he decides to go that route. At the same time, replacing Schultz in the lineup with a rookie is a pretty obvious upgrade for 2017-18. He was basically Andrew MacDonald with less puck moving ability but far less prone to glaring mistakes, and in terms of on-ice value, he won’t be missed.
#8: Stolarz another solid NHL game
Anthony Stolarz may have took the loss last night, but yet again, he looked like a perfectly competent NHL goaltender. Facing 35 shots, he made 32 saves despite dealing with uncharacteristically-passive defensive zone coverage in front of him. In seven appearances with the Flyers this season, Stolarz posted a 0.928 save percentage, by far the best of the three goalies that Philadelphia used in 2016-17. But it remains difficult to reconcile his consistently impressive performances in Philly with his just-decent 0.911 save percentage in 28 AHL games this year. Neither are especially large samples, so maybe the only takeaway is that there remains a great of uncertainty regarding Stolarz’s ultimate potential.
The Flyers are in a strange spot when it comes to Stolarz. He’s 23 years old, and hasn’t looked out of place at the NHL level, so he’s seemingly ripe for a backup role. But with Michal Neuvirth — who is not only injury-prone but also coming off a terrible season — the only other NHL goaltender under contract, it’s a definite risk to use Stolarz in a tandem that may require him to shoulder a heavy load. My guess, if I had to make one, is that the Flyers will sign a goalie in free agency and give Stolarz another year in the AHL, even though he very well might be NHL-ready now. It just feels like a safer route than to pin so much hope on a goalie who, while impressive, still comes with a number of question marks.
#9: Who is the real Dale Weise?
After posting a two-goal night in the season finale, Dale Weise concluded his first season with the Philadelphia Flyers on a definite high note. His 15 points in 64 games won’t turn any heads, but 10 points in his final 14 contests is a bit more eye-catching. The line of Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn and Weise was a revelation in the final stages of the season, and was the main reason why Weise’s raw point totals look anything close to acceptable.
But was this just a case of Weise hitching his ride to a hot teammate (Couturier) more than Weise doing anything special on his own? It’s fair to note that Weise did drive play well this year, finishing with a +2.5% CF%RelTM, so it can be argued that the points were going to come at some point. Still, Weise’s offensive zone presence was nonexistent for so long that I don’t think the low point totals can just be chalked up to bad luck. I don’t see this as a Lecavalier situation — Weise is clearly an NHL-caliber player, and wasn’t a liability this year simply due to the territorial advantage that he helped to create. But he still looks like a fourth liner to me, or at least a bottom-sixer. I’m fine with giving him a chance to carry over the success with Couturier and Schenn into early next season, but I believe his ultimate place with the Flyers will be as a useful cog on a fourth line.
#10: A brief look back
In the end, the Flyers finished the 2016-17 season with a 39-33-10 record, good for 88 points. Last year, they managed to win two more games and eight more total points, just enough to sneak into the playoffs. The Flyers definitely took a step back, but it wasn’t a massive one. Poor goaltending through the season’s first half and a scoring slump in early 2017 were the two things that truly buried this team. The goaltending issues couldn’t have been predicted, but the scoring problems were at least partially due to poor shot selection, an issue that was addressed in the late stages of the year, but by then it was too late to save the team.
There are a number of elements that the Flyers will need to evaluate in the offseason. Some really aren’t issues at all (the top power play unit) while others (the penalty kill, addressing the goalie position, scoring dropoffs from key forwards) are essential to the team rebounding in 2017-18. However, I do believe that the Flyers have the pieces and the cap space necessary to make a return trip to the postseason next year. It will just come down to whether the front office makes shrewd moves in the offseason, and whether the coaching staff is truly on board with an optimization of the lineup and their overall tactical strategies.