I like to think that one of the things I’ve grown better at over the years when talking about sports is keeping things in perspective. Not necessarily in a broader sense — insofar as we spend all of this time obsessing over a particular group of 23 adults trying to put a little chunk of rubber into a net better than other groups of 23 adults — but in the sense that I try not to let what happens on a game-to-game, even week-to-week basis get to me and shake the beliefs I already hold about a player or team too much.
At times, this can lead to me being something of an optimist. Truly, it’s one of my worst qualities.
So most of the time, when I see the Flyers do something like, I don’t know, lose six of their first 10 games to start the season, I’d probably point out the fact that hey, hockey’s a weird game and basically every team in the league will probably have multiple stretches this year where they lose six out of 10 games. Or that, chances are, things are going to get better once the team’s two best defensemen inevitably regress back to the high level of play that they’re capable of, or that the power play unit that’s been successful for six years probably didn’t just forget how it worked overnight, or that a team that actually has played pretty solid team defense at 5-on-5 for most of Dave Hakstol’s tenure will likely end up doing so over the remaining 72 games on the schedule. Or that, shit, the schedule’s been hard so far — eight of these first 10 games have been against returning playoff teams, after all; that obviously won’t continue forever!
I mean, I could do that. I could point those things out. It’s what an optimist would do.
But you know what? I’m not really feeling that today. Instead, I think we should address a few things. Not that this is what I want to talk about, but there are some objective, unarguable truths about this team that we need to run through. (Figures in the below bullet points all courtesy of NHL dot com or corsica dot hockey.)
- All but one of the Flyers’ six losses so far have come by at least three goals, or by at least two goals if you don’t count empty-netters. (The one that didn’t fit that bill was a 1-0 shutout loss at home. They’ve been shut out twice so far.) They have more losses by three or more goals than they have wins.
- Their goal differential of minus-9 is tied for the third-worst in the NHL with the Rangers, a team that is not really trying. The only two teams lower than the Flyers in this rank are the Red Wings, who are also not really trying, and the Kings, who may be the oldest team in NHL history (don’t fact-check me on that).
- Offensively, they are 20th in the league in goal-scoring per game. That is below-average, even if not overwhelmingly so.
- Defensively, they are tied for 29th in the league in goals allowed per game. That is below-average, and overwhelmingly so.
- Their goalies are 29th in the NHL in total save percentage, and 31st in 5-on-5 save percentage.
- In the goalies’ defense, the Flyers’ “expected save percentage” (a figure that, courtesy of Corsica Hockey, roughly attempts to measure what an average goalie would expect to stop based on the types and locations of shots allowed by his team) is 30th in the league at 5-on-5 and 31st overall. In other words, no team has done a better job making life difficult for its goalies than the Flyers have.
- The penalty kill, which had been somewhere between below-average and bad for four years entering this one and which was not addressed in any meaningful way over the offseason by way of personnel or coaching changes, is 30th in the NHL.
- The power play is 23rd in the NHL, and has scored just one time in the team’s last six games. So far this year, they have (for the second straight season, I may add) been outscored on the power play when the Claude Giroux-led top unit is not on the ice.
- They are 21st in adjusted 5-on-5 shot attempt share. When you weight those shots for quality, by way of 5-on-5 Expected Goals as tracked by Corsica, they drop to 26th.
So, to recap: The Flyers don’t do a great job of scoring goals. They don’t do a good job of preventing goals. Their team defense is porous, and the goalies behind them don’t really do anything to pick up the slack. Both of their special-teams units are currently bottom-rung, one of them very predictably so. Their opponents tend to be better than them at controlling the puck. And all in all, when they lose, they’re downright non-competitive. In sum, this team is failing basically any sort of high-level evaluation you can examine it by.
But other than that, things are cool, right?
The point of coming to the defense of a team that loses six out of 10 games is “well, sometimes these things just happen”. Sometimes you can see, hey, a bounce here, a puck there, a break over here, and maybe we’re 7-3 instead of 4-6. Usually, things are not as bad as they seem, and there’s something to point to in order to say “it’s probably going to be fine”. This was how a lot of folks felt during, say, last season’s 10-game losing streak, even if it’s hard to actually express that and say it out lout as we kept watching loss after loss.
This is not like that. This is not one of those instances. This isn’t something that “just happens”.
This is a case where you look at what’s happened and have to think that the Flyers are probably fortunate to be only 4-6. There is currently nothing in their profile as a team that you can count on to be solid, let alone a positive. While individual players here and there have performed well in this stretch, there is not an aspect of the Flyers’ game right now wherein they are reliably above-average, and that’s what makes it so hard to say that this tailspin they’re currently in is one that they’ll find their way out of without some major changes.
And what makes it even more frustrating is that this kind of a dropoff, this sudden of a dropoff, is beyond comprehension. Even the most aggressive cynics that follow this team would acknowledge that last year’s version of the Flyers was, by all accounts, a genuinely average NHL squad. And right now the Flyers are effectively icing the same roster that that team had! Sure, there are some differences, but the losses of Brandon Manning, Valtteri Filppula, and Matt Read from last year’s Game 82 lineup are surely not the catalysts behind the cratering that we’ve seen take place over the last three weeks.
The opening weeks of every NHL season tend to be pretty hectic. Teams have new rosters, they’re trying out different things and getting a feel for the guys around them, and it can lead to some hockey that’s a combination of fun and sloppy. The Flyers’ roster is one that’s carried over so many of the same guys from last year, one that has so much continuity (note that, with the recent scratches of Mikhail Vorobyev, they don’t have any first-year NHL players currently in the lineup unless you count technically-a-rookie Oskar Lindblom, who played in playoff games last year), that you’d think they would be a team that’s able to take advantage of this chaotic period, and can win games against teams that are still figuring things out.
Instead they’ve moved in the opposite direction. They’ve done worse. They’ve become worse. Across the board. It’s such a jarring shift from what this team was a few months ago, what it’s pretty steadily been over the past few seasons, that questions about whether or not something fundamentally wrong is happening have to be asked.
I said a number of times last year, half-jokingly, that this was a team that was sure to win when we least expected it and sure to lose the second we got our hopes up too high. Partly because that’s the inherent equilibrium of Philadelphia sports, but also because that’s what average teams do — both win and lose in confounding ways. Heck, I said on Monday night that they were likely to win last night’s game in Boston for that very reason. But they didn’t, because this isn’t an average team right now. It is clearly, measurably, objectively less than that.
Am I taking a glass-half-empty approach on a lot of what I’ve said here? Sure am. But you know what? This team’s lost six out of its first 10 games, and it’s below-average by essentially every team-level measure you can use to evaluate it by. By definition, the glass is not half-full.
I’m not here to point out about how everyone’s been so patient (really, we haven’t been; we’re all a bunch of whiners all the time) and deserves better than this four-plus years into Ron Hextall’s tenure. I’m not here to say that calling up a bunch of kids or making some kind of massive trade is going to fix all of this (it probably won’t).
My guess (a fully unsourced and speculative one, I should acknowledge) is that the powers-that-be within the Flyers are probably willing to stay the course throughout this, and think that what we’re seeing now is a bump in the road rather than a tire-ruining pothole. They’ve seen this group succeed before, and they probably think that it’s just a matter of time before they succeed again, and that no real action is required here to fix this team that is currently below-average in basically any category that you can use to evaluate a team.
I’m just here to ask: are they sure that’s a good idea?