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2016-17 Flyers season review: Jakub Voracek’s down year raises concerns

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A quick glance at the counting stats would have you believe this was just a normal, albeit somewhat down year for Voracek. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Kate Frese Photography

After a disappointing season, the harsh spotlight always shines brightest on a team’s highly-paid veterans. And to be sure, the 2016-17 campaign for the Philadelphia Flyers qualified as disappointing, as the club added two talented rookies to a mix that had made the playoffs the previous year, yet regressed and failed to repeat that outcome.

Still, Jakub Voracek seemed to avoid the heaviest criticism, which was primarily directed at captain Claude Giroux. It wasn’t totally unjustified — Giroux’s on-ice play (particularly at even strength) has been in steady decline, and as a former superstar and the captain of the team, he makes for the perfect lightning rod. On the other hand, Voracek never really matched Giroux in terms of league-wide profile, and his counting statistics in 2016-17 (61 points in 82 games) really weren’t all that far off from his performance during his 2013-14 campaign. To many, this past season just felt like a down scoring year in the acceptable range for an up-and-down scorer.

But even though 2013-14 and 2016-17 seemed like similar seasons at first glance for Voracek, the underlying metrics tell a far different tale. While Voracek’s performance four seasons ago may have seemed disappointing coming after his near-point-per-game breakout in the lockout-shortened year, it was accompanied by elite play-driving metrics at 5v5 and perfectly acceptable scoring rates for a first-line winger. This past season, however, saw Voracek’s entire statistical profile take a dip, with little to explain why.

Jakub Voracek

Category Status
Category Status
Position RW
Age 27
Contract Status Signed Through 2023-24 for $8,250,000 per year

Basic Stats

Games Played Goals Assists Points PIM Shots on Goal Shooting Percentage
Games Played Goals Assists Points PIM Shots on Goal Shooting Percentage
82 20 41 61 56 253 7.9%

5v5 Individual Stats

Points/60 Primary Points/60 Shots on Goal/60 Shot Attempts/60 Penalty Differential
Points/60 Primary Points/60 Shots on Goal/60 Shot Attempts/60 Penalty Differential
1.33 0.97 7.30 13.89 +9

5v5 On-Ice Stats

Score-Adjusted Corsi For % SA-Corsi Relative Corsi For % RelTM Expected Goals For % Expected Goals Relative Goals For % PDO
Score-Adjusted Corsi For % SA-Corsi Relative Corsi For % RelTM Expected Goals For % Expected Goals Relative Goals For % PDO
50.43% -0.86% -0.90% 47.66% -2.66% 36.73% 96.2

5v5 Manually-Tracked Metrics

Timeframe Entries/60 Controlled Entry % Primary Shot Contributions/60 Exits/60 Controlled Exit % Turnover % Neutral Zone Score Offensive Zone Score Defensive Zone Score
Timeframe Entries/60 Controlled Entry % Primary Shot Contributions/60 Exits/60 Controlled Exit % Turnover % Neutral Zone Score Offensive Zone Score Defensive Zone Score
First 30 Games 26.08 (1st among forwards) 64.32% (1st) 26.37 (2nd) 19.03 (2nd) 54.84% (4th) 12.90% (2rd) 52.15% (6th) -4.93% (13th) 4.64% (4th)
Final 38 Games 26.42 (1st) 59.57% (5th) 25.39 (3rd) 19.18 (2nd) 54.73% (5th) 16.92% (8th) 52.91% (2nd) -10.52% (12th) 2.71% (8th)
All 68 Games in Dataset 26.27 (1st) 61.69% (2nd) 25.83 (2nd) 19.12 (1st) 54.78% (6th) 15.17% (2nd) 52.57% (4th) -8.01% (14th) 3.58% (5th)

The good parts

Before diving into the disappointing aspects of Jakub Voracek’s 2016-17 season, it’s important to note that it wasn’t all bad. After all, a player doesn’t just luck into scoring 61 points in the best hockey league in the world.

To start, he finished with a +9 penalty differential at 5v5, his best since the 2013-14 season when he finished +15. His all-situations Points/60 of 2.26 led the Flyers, and ranked 87th in the NHL (low-end first line caliber) among forwards with at least 500 minutes played. He also topped all Flyers forwards in overall Shots on Goal/60 (18.30) and Primary Assists/60 (1.00).

Columbus Blue Jackets v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Much of that production came from a situation where many fans of the team still believe he struggles: the power play. While his 21 points and 4.60 Points/60 rate at 5v4 were the lowest among the Flyers’ top unit, he still ranked a perfectly acceptable 82nd among the 268 players with at least 100 minutes in the situation last year. In addition, no player on the Flyers drove more entries into the offensive zone on the PP (124, with 104 controlled) than Voracek, and his 83.9% Controlled Entry rate at 5v4 trailed only Giroux. Even without a plus shot (3.85% shooting percentage at 5v4 over the past two seasons), Jakub Voracek is a very effective power play contributor.

In addition, his manually-tracked individual metrics at 5v5 remained strong, as always. Voracek graded out well relative to his teammates in all three zones. On the attack, no Flyers forward averaged more Primary Shot Contributions (unblocked shots + passes than directly led to unblocked shots) per 60 than Voracek, who finished the season at 26.90.

His play in the neutral zone also stood out both from a raw volume and efficiency standpoint. His Controlled Entry rate of 62.89% was second only to Valtteri Filppula, and no Philadelphia player generated more total entries than Voracek and his 26.38 per every 60 minutes of play.

That efficiency extended to Voracek’s play with the puck in the defensive zone, as well. When Voracek attempted to engineer a zone exit, he succeeded 85.26% of the time (3rd among PHI forwards) and did so while retaining possession on 56.69 of his opportunities (also 3rd). He even did so while avoiding failed exits and turnovers, posting (again) the third-lowest Failed Exit percentage out of Flyers forwards.

Considering Voracek’s strong performance in the types of actions that lead to play moving in the right direction, it would be logical to assume that his underlying on-ice metrics would be their usual strong selves. But strangely enough, that was not the case at all.

5v5 results fell off a cliff

Through Giroux certainly got the bulk of the criticism from the “hot take” contingent this past season, a common critique thrown Voracek’s way was that he was never worth the contract that the Flyers gave him, and that the team essentially overpaid based on his 81-points-in-82 games season.

Now, it’s a fair point that the Flyers may have “bought high” in that they signed him to an extension after a career year in terms of scoring. But what that analysis misses is that for years, Jakub Voracek has been one of the league’s best forwards in driving positive outcomes at even strength. That’s what made him an elite player, not the 60-80 point per season scoring range where he has lived.

Voracek 5v5 Play-Driving

Season Corsi For% Rel CF%RelTM xG% Rel
Season Corsi For% Rel CF%RelTM xG% Rel
2015-16 +2.63% +1.7% +4.95%
2014-15 +5.95% +5.8% +8.09%
2013-14 +7.74% +8.0% +8.10%
2012-13 +7.71% +7.4% N/A

Prior to the 2015-16 season (during which Voracek was merely very good, and also played on a broken foot for the final month of the season), these are flat out elite metrics.

For example, Voracek finished with a +8.0% CF%RelTM mark in the 2013-14 season, meaning that his teammates performed (on average) about eight percentage points better in terms of play-driving at 5v5 alongside Voracek versus away from him. In the past three seasons, there have been only ten instances of a player surpassing an +8.0% CF%RelTM mark, and three of those belong to the Corsi god Patrice Bergeron. Voracek wasn’t just a good play-driver — he was at the absolute top of the charts.

That’s what makes this year so bizarre. Yes, his relative metrics dipped a bit in 2015-16, but that can be mostly attributed to two things: the foot injury that killed his Corsi at the end of the year (-4.11% Corsi Rel after returning) and the fact that Sean Couturier’s rise into high-end play-driver himself dragged up the performance of the rest of the roster. But Voracek was still perfectly fine on the whole, posting a +2.63% Corsi Rel and an even-better +4.95% Expected Goals Relative as well, showing that it wasn’t empty shots driving his metrics.

Then, 2016-17 happened.

Voracek went from being part of the unquestioned elite four seasons ago, to being an actual drag on his teammates last season. Nor was he scoring at 5v5 to counterbalance the dip — his 1.33 Points/60 mark ranked him 227th among forwards with at least 500 minutes in the situation. And while he’s certainly gotten older, this was just his age-27 season. Per the work of Eric Tulsky, play-driving and scoring doesn’t really begin to drop off until the late 20s, and even then, it’s usually more a gradual drop, not a complete cratering.

His on-ice goal differentials were even worse. In fact, no regular Flyers forward — not Bellemare, Lyubimov, or even Chris VandeVelde — had a lower on-ice Goals For percentage at 5v5 than Voracek’s 36.73%. Granted, goal differential is primarily driven by high-variance factors like on-ice shooting percentage and save percentage, and Voracek’s performance in the latter (90.07%) was lower than any regular Flyers player last year. That almost certainly won’t recur. But it’s not like Voracek’s shot differentials were incredible. This was a case of a player having a mediocre year by the underlying numbers combined with some poor puck luck, and the result was a forward thought by some to be the best on the roster posting the team’s worst on-ice results at 5v5.

That’s not an problem that a team can survive and remain a contender.

What was the primary issue last year?

We know that Voracek’s advanced metrics in 2016-17 were uncharacteristically poor. But that only tells part of the story. In order to dive deeper, it helps to break down play-driving into its components.

Just like point totals have two components — goals and assists — a play-driving metric consists of two parts: on-ice shot generation and on-ice shot suppression. Two players may grade out similarly in the final metric, but got to that place in totally different ways. For example, Vladimir Tarasenko and Gabriel Landeskog finished with close-to-identical Corsi ratings last year (52.6% Corsi For and +3.5% CF%RelTM for the former, 51.4% Corsi For and +3.5% CF%RelTM for the latter), but Tarasenko got there primarily by driving shot generation, while Landeskog did it via shot suppression. Same end result, just different methods.

Breaking down the play of Voracek into components helps in understanding his season because we can zero in on what area of his results tailed off in comparison to how he performed in previous years. We’ll use two statistics for this exercise — CorsiFor%RelTM, which looks at Voracek’s performance in raw shot attempts relative to his teammates, and xG Relative, which essentially does the same, except it also accounts for the quality of the shots.

When looking at Voracek’s Corsi shot suppression and creation metrics relative to his teammates, we don’t get much of an answer. After years of beating out his teammates handily in both metrics, Voracek was a drag both offensively and defensively last year.

Note: When measuring shot creation by this metric, positive is good. For shot suppression, however, being in the negative is good.

Voracek Corsi Components

Season On-Ice Shot Creation Relative to Teammates On-Ice Shot Suppression Relative to Teammates
Season On-Ice Shot Creation Relative to Teammates On-Ice Shot Suppression Relative to Teammates
2016-17 -0.67 +1.42
2015-16 +2.24 -1.56
2014-15 +8.40 -4.81
2013-14 +11.66 -6.97

The suppression is a little bit worse than the creation, but Voracek’s shot creation metrics have always been a bit better (even though in the past both have been great). Does xG tell a different tale?

Voracek xG Components

Season On-Ice Shot Creation Relative to Teammates On-Ice Shot Suppression Relative to Teammates
Season On-Ice Shot Creation Relative to Teammates On-Ice Shot Suppression Relative to Teammates
2016-17 +0.11 +0.38
2015-16 +0.41 -0.07
2014-15 +0.63 -0.11
2013-14 +0.43 -0.33

Now we may have something here. Voracek still outperformed his teammates in relative xG shot creation last season, but flopped when it came to on-ice scoring chance prevention. The visualizations from Micah Blake McCurdy evaluating shot volume and quality against with Voracek on the ice in 2015-16 vs. 2016-17 showcase the latter perfectly.

In 2015-16, the slot and netfront is mostly blue, meaning that the Flyers averaged less shots allowed in that area than league-average with Voracek on the ice — the ideal outcome. Last season is a totally different story. Suddenly, the most dangerous area of the ice is almost entirely in the red, meaning the Flyers were bleeding high-danger chances with Voracek out there.

So case closed, right? Voracek’s biggest issue was on the defensive side of the puck, and that’s what he needs to work on.

Not so fast.

Via the hard work of Corey Sznajder and the data scraping of Muneeb Alam, we have 68 games worth of on-ice manually-tracked metrics from the 2016-17 season. From this, we can derive Offensive Zone Score and Defensive Zone Score, which essentially determine whether the team generated and allowed more or less shots with a player on the ice than would be expected considering how many entries they were witness to.

In those 68 games, Voracek’s Offensive Zone Score was a horrific -8.01%. Considering the amount of times the Flyers entered the offensive zone with him on the ice, the team was “expected” to generate about 736 unblocked shot attempts. In reality, however, they created just 677 — a 59 shot swing. Interestingly enough, his Defensive Zone Score was actually solid at 3.58%.

So, Voracek did a poor job in helping prevent quality chances in the defensive zone, and also seemingly struggled to help his team create unblocked shots period in the offensive zone. That’s certainly a recipe for a poor season.

Making sense of what happened

Now we have a better handle on what went wrong, but we’re no closer to discovering why Voracek struggled in these areas at age-27 after dominating in them for years. Truthfully, there really isn’t a clear-cut explanation. Voracek still looked like his usual self in terms of speed, in comparison to Giroux who certainly has slowed in recent years. And by the microstats like individual entry generation, exit generation, and raw shot contributions, Voracek still graded out extremely well. The easy answers just don’t apply here.

That leaves us in the realm of theory. I’ve been able to conjure up three that make sense to me as plausible explanations, but none come with indisputable evidence. Still, I feel they are worth exploring.

The first is essentially the Murphy’s Law theory. Basically, it holds that Voracek is fine, and just dealt with extreme bad luck in terms of on-ice goals and on-ice shots. Previously, I referenced Voracek’s Offensive and Defensive Zone Scores. What needs to be noted there is that those metrics have been found to show very low repeatability, meaning that if a player posts a poor Offensive Zone Score in one season (as Voracek did), it means little in determining whether his OZS will also be poor the following season. It’s highly subject to random variance.

On the other hand, Neutral Zone Score (basically, did the Flyers win the zone entry battle with Voracek on the ice) does show repeatability, and Voracek graded out perfectly fine in that metric. Out of Flyers players with at least 200 minutes at 5v5 last year, only Jordan Weal, Matt Read and Claude Giroux had a better NZS than Voracek and his 52.57 percent.

I’ve never viewed Voracek as an especially strong defensive winger, despite the fact that he has always produced stellar shot and chance suppression results. Instead, I’ve personally evaluated him as a player who suppresses shots mostly because the team usually has the puck in the offensive zone when he plays — basically a living embodiment of “the best defense is a good offense” truism.

Except this year, the Flyers struggled to retain possession and create shots in the offensive zone with Voracek on the ice, as shown by the awful OZS that he posted. That meant more time spent defending, which maybe was always a secret semi-weakness of his game that was never noticed due to the ever-present puck possession edge. Combine that with the fact that he spent 374 minutes with Travis Konecny in 2016-17 (who is clearly still learning off-puck defensive zone positioning at the NHL level), and you get poor shot suppression results.

2017 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series - Philadelphia Flyers v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

The best part about this theory is that it implies a bounce back is inevitable. Offensive Zone Score isn’t a repeatable stat, so Voracek should extract more value out of his entries next season, allowing him to spend less time on defense. Then, Voracek goes back to his usual play-driving self and everyone is happy.

Theory No. 2 also absolves Voracek, though it reassigns blame away from the hockey gods and towards another figure in the Flyers’ organization: Dave Hakstol. In Voracek’s two seasons under the former University of North Dakota head coach, his play-driving metrics and his 5v5 scoring have fallen off a cliff. Even before his foot injury in 2015-16, Voracek’s Corsi and xG were lagging in comparison to past years, so that can’t even be used as the entire explanation for the dropoff.

Under Hakstol, the Flyers play a less-rush oriented game versus how they operated under Craig Berube and Peter Laviolette, and have also leaned on the low-to-high offensive zone method to create a large portion of their shots. Neither of these changes seem to fit the with creative, play-making Voracek, who has long been the team’s best controlled entry player in the neutral zone and loves to thread picture-perfect passes into the slot area.

This is a theory that I believe Ron Hextall has to take seriously and evaluate further this season, especially because Giroux has also struggled at 5v5 under this coach. If Dave Hakstol is incapable of extracting full value out of the organization’s two highest-paid assets... well, let’s just say it’s a lot easier to fire a coach than it is to trade two $8 million a year players.

The third theory is the most concerning one for Flyers fans: Voracek is simply exiting his prime and for some reason, the decline is unusually rapid and surprisingly steep. His non-power play metrics have been in gradual decline since his peak years of 2012-13 and 2013-14, and it’s not difficult to slap an aging curve over that year-by-year play-driving chart. Maybe various ailments and injuries have sapped something from Voracek’s game, and it’s just not coming back. That possibility can’t be ruled out just because it’s difficult to accept and would be a disaster for the Flyers.

I would not be comfortable in claiming that any of these theories are definitely the explanation for Jakub Voracek’s struggles in 2016-17. But supporting evidence exists for each, and I could legitimately see any of them being the answer.

What should the Flyers do about Voracek?

Despite his team-leading 61 points, it’s difficult for me to call Voracek’s season anything but a total disappointment. After roaring out of the gate with 10 points in his first 10 games and 35 points in the 38 contests played in 2016, Voracek’s scoring touch dried up over the season’s final three months. His 26 points in 44 games pace in the 2017 calendar year was more befitting a solid second-line winger than the franchise cornerstone that Voracek is.

Even more concerning was the collapse in his underlying metrics. Long one of the league’s best play-drivers, Voracek actually underperformed relative to his own teammates in 2016-17. In addition, no Flyers forward had a worse Goals For percentage at 5v5, a shameful standing for a player of Voracek’s caliber, even accounting for the fact that GF% is highly subject to forces outside of the player’s control. You still don’t want your best winger getting regularly clobbered in terms of goal differential, PDO or not.

The Flyers are in a strange position, in that their prospect pipeline is stacked and young talent is beginning to flood the roster, just as legitimate questions arise regarding the career trajectories of their two biggest veteran stars. Giroux’s situation is actually the more straightforward case, in that he’s either aging poorly and will continue to decline, or has been playing through injury for the past two years and will bounce back. Voracek, on the other hand, is more difficult to evaluate, and he has seven years left on his massive deal while Giroux has just five.

If Theory #3 is actually correct, shopping Voracek would be the best move. Unlike Giroux, he doesn’t have a no-movement or no-trade clause, so Hextall has flexibility in dangling Voracek around the league if he chose to do so. The idea of Voracek having an even worse year next season with six more years at $8.25 million per to come is a frightening thought.

But I’m not convinced that Voracek is actually in rapid decline. Also unlike Giroux, Voracek still looks like Jake Voracek, nor have microstats like Controlled Entry rate taken a dip for him like they have in Giroux’s case. The Voracek from three years ago wasn’t merely good — he was legitimately one of the best all-around forwards in hockey, and it would be painful to give that up due to an overreaction to a Murphy’s Law season.

At this point, the Flyers are probably best served taking a “wait and see” approach to Voracek moving into 2017-18. If the numbers bounce back, then a panic move was avoided and he remains a key piece moving forward. But if they don’t, Hextall needs to take an honest look at the situation and determine if it’s the player or the coach who is more to blame, then act accordingly.

All statistics courtesy of NaturalStatTrick, Stats.Hockeyanalysis, Corsica.Hockey, or manually-tracked by Corey Sznajder.