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Five early observations after five games

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Some story lines to watch unfold in the following weeks...

Vegas Golden Knights v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

Five games and two weeks into another thrilling season of Flyers hockey - feel free to take that sarcastically or not, that’s up to you - and it’s time to look at some early season observations. Keep in mind that it’s early enough that it’s entirely possible that none of the following rings true a week from now, and we’ll certainly be hoping that’s the case for a few of these.

1. Team defense is a mess

Not to be dramatic here, but watching the Flyers play in the defensive zone has been a nightmare. They’ve allowed 20 goals through the first five games, putting them in the bottom-5 of the league in goals against per game, and for once this isn’t due to a problem in net. The Flyers have allowed a higher quality of chances against at both 5-on-5 and overall than any other team thus far, and, if anything, have been kept afloat by their goalies. The Flyers’ 5-on-5 save percentage, which ranks 17th overall, is over two percentage points higher than their league-worst expected save percentage.

They’ve done such a poor job at suppressing chances at 5-on-5, that through the first four games of the season they had posted the second-worst four game stretch of expected goals against per 60 minutes in the past eleven years, dating back to the 2007-2008 season.

If the defense can be remedied without negatively effecting their offensive output, the Flyers could be in a real good place. They showed signs of doing so in Saturday’s loss against Vegas, but there’s still some cleaning up to do.

2. More specifically, the team’s defense is a mess

The most surprising thing to come from the first five games of the season has to be the struggles of the top pair, Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere. So far the duo has a 42.49% Corsi for, a 40.14% expected goals for, and has been on the ice for two goals against and none for. It’s not like the stats are misleading here either, as it’s been clear as day to anyone that’s watched the first five games that they, Provorov especially, aren’t showcasing the best decision making when they have the puck on their stick.

Defensively they’ve been okay, but at times have been stuck in their own zone for an extended amount of time. Of the three most common pairs, (Provorov & Gostisbehere, Sanheim & Gudas, Hagg & MacDonald) they have the worst goal differential, and only the duo of MacDonald and Hagg own a worse expected goal differential.

What’s intriguing about the pair is that in specific situations, like the second game of the season in Colorado, the two actually won the shot share battle against the Avalanche’s top line, but were torched by their depth.

Provorov and Gostisbehere WOWY

Player CF% w/ MacKinnon CF% w/out MacKinnon
Player CF% w/ MacKinnon CF% w/out MacKinnon
Ivan Provorov 52.63% 37.50%
Shayne Gostisbehere 60.00% 40.00%

There’s no reason to believe that the pair won’t regain last season’s form, as it’s hard to imagine that a one of the best pairs in the entire NHL last season, and a young one at that, would have such a sudden fall from grace.

The bright spot? Radko Gudas. You could certainly make a case for Robert Hagg being a bright spot on the defense as well, but Andrew MacDonald’s play to start the season has sunk his on-ice numbers into the “extremely bad” territory. I mean, the pair has an 25.51% expected goals for. Twenty-five percent! Hagg has passed the eye test with flying colors though, and had he seen more time away from a player that seems to make a disastrous mistake every time he steps on the ice this season, his numbers probably don’t look so bad right now.

Assists aside, Gudas has been the most consistent defenseman through the first five games of the season, playing in four of them, and is looking like the his old self again. Heck, I didn’t really think he was that bad last season, but that’s another story. Two seasons ago he and former Flyers’ defenseman Michael Del Zotto acted as the team’s top pair, and performed significantly better than their peers with a +7.66% CF rel and +8.68% xGF rel. If Gudas can reach that level of excellence again, this time in a lesser role alongside Travis Sanheim, the team could have two solid defensive pairs, assuming that the top pair rights their ship.

3. Konecny struggling to finish, but his struggles stop there

With just one assist, and a -4 rating through five games, the score-sheet suggests that Travis Konecny has had a pretty poor start to the season. However, to me the start to his season has been encouraging more than anything for one main reason. For the first time in his young career, Konecny has shown the ability to drive play away from Sean Couturier.

Travis Konecny at 5v5

Season w/ Couturier w/o Couturier
Season w/ Couturier w/o Couturier
16-17 52.96% 48.09%
17-18 54.69% 42.81%
18-19 53.08% 52.33%

We’re talking about an extremely small sample size mind you, but Konecny’s line with Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom gelled really well together prior to Patrick’s upper body injury.

Konecny has been incredibly snakebitten thus far, something that Charlie O’Connor of The Athletic made note of in his post-game observations following the team’s last game, so much so that he’s hit the post three times in five games. While he’s been unable to hit the net, it’s not for a lack of chances. He ranks third on the team in individual shot attempts and is tied for third in individual scoring chances, but has a 95.51 PDO. He’s had no puck luck in this early season. Konecny has a chance to give the Flyers, and head coach Dave Hakstol, a strong second line in the event that they want to keep Jakub Voracek on the top line.

Speaking of the top line...

4. Slow start for the Couturier line

While Voracek’s had an offensive explosion to begin the year, the top line has only gotten worse since they swapped him and Konecny. Despite easier deployment with Voracek on the line than Konecny, that trio currently sits at a measly 27.38% xGF, which of course ties into the poor team defense that we talked about before.

When Couturier is on the ice the Flyers have been out-scored three to four so far, with two of their goals coming from Couturier himself, and haven’t won the shot battle from a quantity or quality standpoint. Considering that Couturier has had three straight seasons with an xGF above 54%, and that one third of the line is Claude Giroux, who is coming off a 102-point season, it’s fair to assume that they’ll turn it around.

It’s something to make note of for sure, but this lackluster performance from the Flyers’ top line is truly at the bottom of the list of things to worry about.

5. The record they have is the one they deserve

Finally, the points that matter the most, standings points. The Flyers enter week three of the season with a 2-3-0 record, one that some may say that they’re lucky to have given their defensive play through the first four games, but on the other hand, a .400 points percentage feels just right. Poor goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury won them their season opener, and an offensive outburst is to blame for the win over Ottawa. You could even argue that they should be 3-2-0 right now given their play in their game against the Golden Knights. But that’s just ifs and buts and their record is probably what it should be.

There’s still a bit more hockey to be played before we see the statistics stabilize, and for now we’re looking at extremes, but things aren’t exactly looking up five games in. However, it’s a long season and there’s 77 games left. There’s no need to panic - yet.

Data courtesy of Corsica.hockey and Natural Stat Trick