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Devils 1, Flyers 0: 10 things we learned from a game where the outcome was of no consequence

The Flyers lost last night to the Devils, but the biggest news was the performance of two rookies.

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Philadelphia Flyers v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.

#1: Morin impresses in first NHL game

It’s been almost four years since the Flyers selected Samuel Morin with the 11th overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. Since then, the team has went from having one of the weakest sets of blueliner prospects in hockey to maybe the best, and Morin shifted from the Flyers’ great hope on defense to merely one of many youngsters with high-end potential. The consensus from the start was that Morin would take time to reach the NHL, but four years stretched even reasonable projections. In a weak 2013 draft year, 28 of the 30 first round picks reached the NHL before Morin, and it was fair to wonder if the 21-year old would ever make an impact for the big club.

Morin finally got his shot last night, and he did all he could to quiet the skeptics. Yes, he didn’t score any points (to be fair, no Flyers player did on the night), but that’s not really Morin’s game, especially at the NHL level. The best case scenario for Morin is that he becomes basically a combination of prime-years Braydon Coburn and Radko Gudas — a big, mobile defenseman with high-end straight-line speed, a willingness to break up offensive zone entry attempts in the neutral zone, and a certain nastiness that makes opponents think twice before going into the corners with him. That’s exactly what fans saw last night against the Devils. The skating ability (despite his massive frame) is obvious, and was best showcased when Morin chased down Taylor Hall on a breakaway opportunity. His neutral zone instincts were also encouraging, as he wasn’t afraid to directly challenge opposing forwards when in one-on-one rush coverage, using his reach and size to engulf them upon attempted entry in the Flyers’ end. And even at age-21, Morin certainly won his fair share of physical puck battles against NHLers, helping to push the direction of play forward for the Flyers.

Morin wasn’t perfect, of course. His passing remains a work in progress, as he dealt with a few misfires that turned into icings and resorted to uncontrolled chip out defensive zone exits on a few occasions. But his play without the puck was somewhere between good and great. The advanced metrics liked his game — Morin finished with a 68.09% score-adjusted Corsi (+25.76% relative to his teammates) and a 60.16% xG. On this night, his shortcomings in puck handling ability did not damage the effectiveness of his overall game. And that very well may not happen at all. Radko Gudas is far from a “puck-mover,” yet his advanced metrics are the best on the Flyers’ defense. It’s too early to tell how Morin will grade out over the long-term, but players with his skillset have been play-drivers at 5v5 in the past, and at least on his first night, he looked far more like a future Gudas than a Grossmann.

#2: Vecchione had his moments

While Morin received a whopping 14:04 minutes at 5v5 and 17:46 on the whole, the other rookie for the Flyers — Mike Vecchione — was unsurprisingly used less. That’s partially because defensemen are almost always going to receive more minutes (there are fewer of them), but also because Vecchione was primarily given a fourth line role during his NHL debut. In those 8:15 minutes of ice time (7:51 at 5v5), the Union College product can be best described as “fine.” He had an early scoring opportunity in the slot due to a Colin McDonald rush, but Vecchione whiffed on the shot. The rest of the way, his line mostly dealt with tight-checking, fairly uneventful shifts on the whole. Vecchione’s decent 51.62% score-adjusted Corsi speaks to the unspectacular nature of his first NHL game.

On a couple of occasions, though, you saw flashes of what made Mike Vecchione so effective in college. His straight-line speed is much better than I personally expected it to be, as he seemed to explode into open ice on the few times when things opened up for him. In addition, he looked comfortable in the defensive zone, both in physical battles and in becoming an outlet low in the zone for passes from his defensemen. It will take some time to fully evaluate Vecchione’s long-term upside, and I can’t imagine there will be anything close to a consensus even if he plays in the final two games of the Flyers’ season. But in limited opportunities, he showcased some nice skills. We’ll soon see how they translate. Report & Highlights | Corsica.Hockey Game Recap Page | Recap | NaturalStatTrick Recap | | BSH Recap | Meltzer’s Musings

#3: Game was barely watchable

Devils games are almost always a chore to watch. But when a Devils game involves two teams officially eliminated from playoff contention who care more about the development of young talent getting their feet wet at the NHL level, you end up with last night’s game, which might as well have been a preseason contest for all the intensity that was on the ice. Some were concerned that the ugliness of last Saturday’s game would carry over to Tuesday. Instead, the fans simply received a normal Devils game, just absent any stakes whatsoever.

In over 41 minutes at 5v5, the Flyers managed just 34 shot attempts and the Devils 29, for 63 shots directed at the two goalies on the night. For reference, Philadelphia have eight games this season where they were able to generate 63 attempts at 5v5 by themselves. Sure, watching Morin and Vecchione was fun, but aside from the rookie factor, this was the worst kind of snoozer.

#4: Konecny sees minutes cut dramatically

Travis Konecny was in Dave Hakstol’s doghouse basically from the start of this game. While Konecny began the night on the first line with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, the rookie took a tripping penalty 42 seconds into the contest and it clearly raised the ire of his coach. Aside from a brief 30 second shift right after leaving the box, Konecny did not see his next action until 4:26 was left in the first period. He then received just three shifts total in the second period, before Hakstol finally allowed him back on the ice with a bit more regularity in the third.

I do understand to a degree what Hakstol was trying to do here. With Morin and Vecchione making their NHL debuts, my guess is that the discipline was meant as much for them as it was for Konecny. It sends an immediate message to green rookies that foolish penalties won’t be tolerated if a high-skilled player like Konecny gets buried as a result of one. And it was a bad penalty, that can’t be denied — he essentially was beat on the cycle at a point in the game where fatigue can’t be blamed and resorted to taking down his opponent in response. This wasn’t a case of Konecny taking an offensive zone risk and getting punished solely because it didn’t work out. Ideally, you want Konecny to be de-incentivized from taking lazy penalties. And if you’re going to “send a message” to a young player, a meaningless game is probably the best time to do it, since things like win probability no longer matter to the team.

However, the coach needs to be sure that this is the right way to get through to Konecny, who has recently spent extended time with Bellemare and VandeVelde on line four and has been unceremoniously dropped from the PP2. To an outside observer, it does feel like Konecny has become Hakstol’s whipping boy in the second half of the season, replacing Shayne Gostisbehere. I hope Konecny isn’t actually feeling that way, because it blunts the effectiveness of the message.

#5: Gostisbehere was the best skater on the ice

The only reason why I’m hesitant to get extremely excited about Sam Morin’s successful debut, is that I’m unsure how much of it was due to the fact that he was paired with an extremely effective Shayne Gostisbehere. Over the past few weeks, Ghost hasn’t really had bad games, as his scale has ranged from passable to awesome. Last night was on the far end of the “awesome” spectrum, as the full arsenal of Gostisbehere was on display from the start. Somehow, he wasn’t rewarded with a goal, but it wasn’t for lack of trying — Ghost led all Flyers with 11 shot attempts, eight shots on goal, and 0.40 individual Expected Goals. He also posted a team-high 74.00% score-adjusted Corsi.

As the “veteran” on his pairing with Morin, it was on Gostisbehere to make sure the rookie was comfortable in his new surroundings. Morin praised his teammate after the game, noting that the communication between the two on the ice was stellar. It’s always been a pairing that made sense in theory — Morin hits people, clears the crease and breaks up entries, Ghost does most of the work with the puck — but theory will only get you so far. At some point, the players actually have to justify the excitement with on-ice play, and Ghost certainly led the charge in that regard last night.

#6: Nick Schultz is finished

There weren’t a ton of standout performers in this game on either side — for the Flyers, the list basically starts with Gostisbehere and ends with Morin — but there was one particular player for the orange and black who stood out in a negative way. That was Nick Schultz, who stayed in the lineup because Brandon Manning remains day-to-day with an injury and Radko Gudas is likely dealing with a concussion due to the Dalton Prout hit on Saturday. Schultz was paired with Michael Del Zotto against the Devils, and it seemed like each shift was an adventure.

The hard truth is that Schultz doesn’t appear capable of keeping up with the NHL pace anymore. At age 34, his passing ability is basically gone, and his skating looks measurably worse than it did even two years ago with the Flyers. New Jersey forwards (and they’re not exactly stacked with high-end talent) seemed to be blasting by him every time they were in the offensive zone against him. The advanced metrics back up the eyes — Schultz’s 39.03% score-adjusted Corsi was a team-low, as was his 21.15% xG. The veteran defenseman had a long career, but in my opinion, it’s about to come to a end. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent in July, and I’d be surprised if any team makes a serious push to sign him.

#7: Mason continues stellar late-season push

The Flyers may have outshot New Jersey 35-27, but the Devils certainly had their far share of quality chances. He may have been eventually outdueled by Keith Kinkaid (who was also fantastic) but Steve Mason was a big reason why this game made it to overtime. On 27 shots and 2.15 expected goals, the Devils could only beat Mason on a two-on-one overtime rush. Aside from that essentially unstoppable shot, the Flyers starter was perfect, finishing with a 0.963 save percentage on the night. Due to his recent run of six straight games with a SV% over 90%, Mason’s full-season mark is now up to 0.908 — still not fantastic, but probably the closest to respectable that it’s been since December. My guess that Mason has little to no chance of re-signing with the Flyers, but this run might serve to convince another squad that he’s worthy of at least being in a 1A/1B timeshare next season and beyond.

#8: Like the line change reloading

On a number of occasions last night, the Flyers utilized a tactic that I’d love to see them use more often next season. Essentially, they were refusing to resort to the easy “dump-and-change” strategy after extended shifts in the defensive zone. With a line change obviously forthcoming, the puck carrier (often Valtteri Filppula) would move through the neutral zone with control, before circling back into the now vacated defensive zone and pass the puck to a fresh player. The dump-and-change, while safer, invariably cedes puck possession to the other team. The reload, on the other hand, allows for the changing team to retain possession while getting fresh legs on the ice, a minor but measurable advantage.

This can’t be used on every line change, of course. Controlled exits (a necessary aspect of the reload) are difficult to execute following an extended cycle. But whenever possible, the Flyers should look to hold onto possession of the puck rather than mindlessly give it away. It was encouraging to see them do just that on a few occasions last night.

#9: Bellemare still playing up in the lineup

On the trade deadline special of BSH Radio, I noted there seemed to exist a myth that Pierre-Edouard Bellemare could play “up in the lineup,” likely because he does have good straight line speed and isn’t bad at creating shots on goal for his teammates. However, the issue with that concept is that simple fact that Bellemare has been one of the worst scoring forwards at even strength in the NHL since joining the Flyers, as his 0.65 Points/60 rate over the past three years is anemically low.

Philadelphia continues to treat him as if those poor scoring rates don’t exist, though. Yesterday, Bellemare was bumped up to the Filppula line to start, after Jordan Weal was deemed unavailable for the game due to illness. Then, by the end of the game, Bellemare was receiving regular shifts with Giroux and Voracek. To be sure, this was a meaningless game, and experimentation is exactly what the coaching staff should be doing over these last three contests. But it’s just hard for me to imagine that Bellemare is going to magically unlock his scoring potential after three years of evidence that it just doesn’t exist at the NHL level.

#10: So about that last regulation shift...

It’s hard to be too critical of in-game decisions during meaningless games. If anything, losses probably help the Flyers at this stage, so any objectively bad decisions could be optimistically viewed as a stealth tank anyway. But sometimes, there are decisions so nonsensical that they warrant further analysis, even if the games no longer matter. The unit chosen for the final shift of regulation last night certainly qualifies as one such decision.

In a tie game with overtime looming, Hakstol sent out the following five-man unit: Bellemare, Chris VandeVelde, Colin McDonald, Andrew MacDonald, and Nick Schultz. That’s the two worst play-driving defensemen on the Flyers, two PK specialist fourth liners, and a player who before Saturday was an AHL regular. There’s a very strong case to be made that these were the five worst players that the Flyers dressed last night, and they all were out on the ice to try and lock down at least one point from the contest in the final minute of regulation. The end result was predictable — the unit spent most of its shift chasing the puck around the defensive zone and only a miracle “save” by Mason prevented the Devils from winning the game right then and there. Again, the outcome didn’t matter, but unless this was intended to be a stealth tank maneuver, I’m concerned that Hakstol truly thought that using a five-man lineup with almost no offensive potential was the best way to close out a game. A team should be pushing to win, rather than praying they won’t lose, and this was absolutely an example of the latter.