Yesterday afternoon the Philadelphia Flyers announced that they had relieved Dave Hakstol of his duties as head coach and that Scott Gordon has been named interim head coach. Gordon, who had been in the midst of his fourth season behind the Lehigh Valley bench, currently has the team sitting fourth in the Atlantic Division with a 15-9-2 record.
The former New York Islanders’ bench boss is back in the NHL for the first time since he was an assistant coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2013-14 season, and we have some thoughts about it. So, Maddie and I (Brad) sat down and had a one-on-one discussion about what Scott Gordon has done in Lehigh Valley, and what we think he’ll eventually bring to Philadelphia. Just don’t expect any drastic changes in his first game, as he hasn’t even ran his first practice with the team yet as of this writing.
In this piece (mini podcast on paper, as I like to call it) we’ll discuss how he incorporates his defensemen into offensive rushes, potential changes to player usage, and, of course, some Phantoms stats.
Brad: So Scott Gordon is the Flyers’ interim head coach. That’s a thing!
Maddie: Indeed it is! And I’ve got to say, I’m kind of into it.
B: I mean, they needed to make a change and Gordon did make the most sense at this point! So, how do we think this is going to go? What can he bring to the Flyers? That’s the question at hand.
M: I feel like what we’ve talked a lot about so far this season, at least amongst ourselves, is that the Phantoms are kind of doing a lot of what the Flyers are doing, just better. Like one thing we liked about Hakstol’s system is that he did let his defensemen activate on the rush. But the Phantoms just do it a whole lot more. And you’ve got to think that’s at least in part the coach giving them the freedom to do that.
B: Yeah probably the most noticeable thing when you watch a Phantoms game is the active defense. I mean at times you’ll look at who’s leading the offensive rush and it’s both defensemen! That’s not a consistent thing by any means, but the fact that it happens at all makes it clear that the message is “go.”
M: Absolutely. And that should suit the Flyers well. I mean, we’ve seen how well Travis Sanheim’s done recently since jumping in on the rush more. Imagine what it could look like if he, and the rest of the defense, have even more space to work with.
B: To get even more specific, think about what this might do for Shayne Gostisbehere. He’s had a down year, but maybe this could be the beginning of something magical. If there’s ever a defenseman you want to see leading a rush, it’d be him, and maybe, just maybe, Gordon will get him back to playing at the level he did last year.
M: Speaking of defensemen getting space to work with… Gordon also has gotten a little creative with his usage… really lets them do offense… do you get where I’m going with this….
B: Oh boy.
M: That’s right folks, Ghost on the wing!
B: It’s not gonna happen! Just because he did it with T.J. Brennan for a game doesn’t mean that’s gonna be a thing!
M: OK, OK, fine. Just trying to keep it light around here. But anyway, I kind of don’t blame Gordon for trying that out, since we’ve brought it up. When you’ve got a forward serving a five-minute fighting major in a game where you’re already rolling eleven forwards & seven defensemen? Why not get a little creative instead of running your ten forwards into the ground, right?
B: I don’t blame him either, and I liked to see him try something out of the box. And, while it didn’t work — the Greg Carey, Connor Bunnaman, and Brennan line bled shot attempts in their time together — it shows that he’s willing to try anything; within reason of course.
M: Exactly. And since we’re getting serious in talking about usage now, let’s dive a little deeper into that. Because I think that’s something we’ve been pretty frustrated with, particularly of late.
B: Of late, also known as the last three years of our lives.
M: OK, yeah, you got me. But anyway, If there’s one thing I think we can reasonably expect with this coaching change, it’s that some of the players who have been marginalized this season, if you will, will be getting a more substantial role, going forward.
B: Ahem, Travis Sanheim.
M: Travis Sanheim indeed! And Oskar Lindblom. And Jordan Weal. I imagine we see them coming off the fourth line and out of the press box.
B: Certainly a possibility. Weal’s an especially interesting case to bring up to me, because we know there’s history there where the Phantoms’ staff — at the very least, Riley Cote — felt he was screwed by politics, so you have to wonder if Gordon felt the same way at the time and whether Weal will see an increased role moving forward.
M: For sure. I can’t imagine that he didn’t feel at least a bit the same. But I think the trust factor is going to be a big piece working in his favor. The same goes for Lindblom, and maybe even a little bit more, across the board. Gordon trusted him in all situations last season, and saw him do well pretty much wherever he dropped him. At the very least, I think that earns him a promotion in the lineup. And maybe even *gasp* some penalty kill time, if he has a bit of say in personnel choices there?
B: Yeah, Lindblom’s ever decreasing ice time under the previous bench boss was puzzling to say the least, and, as you stated, he was an all situations AHL player under Gordon.
M: Super weird. But also, if he does get to weigh in on special teams things… put Sanheim on the power play, please and thank you.
B: Please, Scott, do the thing if you can. Swapping him and Ivan Provorov feels like an obvious move to either make yourself or gently nudge Kris Knoblauch to do. However, it’s also of note that in Lehigh Valley the second power play unit has almost always been run with two defensemen on it, so maybe both Provorov and Sanheim wind up working together on that unit? Again that’s if he even has a say in the special teams of course.
M: Yeah, that’s true. But we can dream.
We’ll get back to special teams and talk about the penalty kill in a bit, but we have one more personnel question to touch on. The goalies!
B: He didn’t have the easiest job being forced to juggle three goaltenders, that’s for sure.
M: Totally. I feel like someone might want to make the point that he didn’t manage his goalies well when he had three to juggle, because Anthony Stolarz was sitting a lot, but I don’t know that I’d agree. Because, at the time, he was making sure that the two players that the organization as a whole was ostensibly higher on were getting consistent reps. The more games for them, the better. So I get the thought process there. I think he’s done well, on the whole, of managing his goalies. Which I don’t know if we can say about the previous regime, if you will.
B: Are you telling me that starting a goalie coming off two knee surgeries for nine straight games is a bad idea?
M: I’m no expert but it seems Not Good.
B: I know that, while Stolarz might not have got into many games, he’s said that their goaltending development coach Brady Robinson has kept him game ready; so it’s not as if he was just sitting there doing nothing. And I get that practice is far different than a game setting, but he still got reps in. From the outside I know it can look a bit cruel to only give Alex Lyon and Carter Hart the starts for that stretch of games there, and maybe it was, but it’s not as bad as it looks.
M: Right, it all sort of balances out.
B: Plus, not to go too conspiracy theorist here, but how much of that was a Gordon decision and how much of that was Flyers management? You have to wonder if they viewed the situation from the perspective of wanting to see Hart get as many starts as possible, and in a three goalie rotation it’d be hard to have one goalie play the vast majority of the games.
M: That’s definitely fair.
I think what we’ve seen from Gordon so far is him doing well at balancing the workload (that is, not running one guy into the ground, as we said), but also evaluating matchups. And that, plus the familiarity factor, eases some of my worry about Hart making his NHL debut so soon. I trust that Gordon’s going to handle this as well as he can.
B: Yeah, I’m glad Hart is making his debut under Gordon. We’ll just leave it at that.
Since we’re already talking about goaltenders, something that stands out to me is how early Gordon has pulled the goalie when the Phantoms have been down in the third period.
M: Yes! He’s super aggressive with the early goalie pulls. And I know that it’s a little easier to be aggressive with that in the AHL, but then again, is it really? Either way, I really love this. He’s gotten good results from the willingness to be bold in this.
B: It probably is easier, but only because you have less eyes on you. Just earlier this season he pulled Lyon with 6:54 left in the game. In that specific instance it didn’t work, and they got scored on, but I love the move. Earlier goalie pulls have been discussed a fair amount within the analytics community and Gordon is seemingly a numbers guy. He’ll talk about high danger chances and shot attempts at times, so there’s that.
M: Scott Gordon: Computer Boy. Tell your friends.
B: Speaking of statistics, I guess this is where we dive into their 5-on-5 play a bit, yeah? I don’t want to say they’ve been bad, but they haven’t exactly been good. And they’ve certainly not been at the level they were last season.
M: I feel like the fact that they were good last season is worth noting. Can we blame this year’s dip on personnel? Maybe. Who knows. But go on.
B: I’m sure that’s a contributing a factor, yeah. So at 5-on-5 they own just 45.37% of the shot share, and 46.28% of the scoring chances. It’s quite a dip compared to last season (50.37% CF, 51.88% SCF) and that’s a bit worrisome. And, not to diminish how big of an impact Lindblom, Danick Martel, and Corban Knight, among others, made last season, but I don’t think it’s a problem that can be chalked up solely to their absences.
M: Yeah, you wonder how much of it is a product of missing volume shooters versus the defense getting caved in a bit more often this season.
B: The defense has kind of been a mess if we’re being honest. I think outside of Mark Friedman and Philip Samuelsson they’ve been … inconsistent? On the defensive side of things at least. I would say Brennan has been better defensively overall, but not as much lately. Maybe it’s just recency bias keeping him off that list for me, he could probably go there too.
Also, the team hasn’t been trending in the right direction in terms of even strength play of late.
M: But, to be fair, everyone’s hurt.
B: You’re not wrong.
M: But, to sort of reel things back in, I think this is all just to say that Gordon’s teams can drive play reasonably well, if all the pieces are working harmoniously. Like he doesn’t run a system that has the team giving up a ton of chances and somehow still getting wins as its objective. There are some confounding factors to the dip off we’re seeing so far this season.
B: I think that’s fair. But, on the other hand, were they as good as they were last season because of how good the roster was? Now that’s a question that we can’t really answer now, but that’d be the worry. I don’t think that’s the case, but it could be.
Now, something that has had good results this season is the Phantoms’ penalty kill, which he ran as of, well, yesterday morning.
M: Oh baby has it been good. Third in the AHL this season with an 86.4 PK%. Not too shabby.
B: 87/95 over their last 23 games (H/T Bob Rotruck), two separate streaks of 25+ successful kills in the last two months, yeah, that’ll do the job. It’s been talked about a lot already, but his system is super aggressive and it’s quite honestly a delight to watch after having to watch Flyers’ skaters stand around and passively wave their sticks at the puck while allowing goal after goal.
M: A delight is absolutely the right phrase for it. And, like we said earlier, we don’t know how much input he’ll have in special teams with the Flyers, but we can feel pretty confident that, if he does get to make some changes, that they’ll be for the better.
B: Well, we know one thing: the current penalty kill isn’t getting it done.
M: And I think I have one last thing that’s really stuck out to me about Gordon. We talk a lot about “character guys” when it comes to bringing new players into the locker room/organization, but rarely, I feel, with coaches. But I think this applies with Gordon too.
I remember in Game 2 of the Charlotte series of last year’s playoffs, in his first game back from injury, there was a sequence that saw Samuel Morin get burned pretty badly on a two-on-one on the penalty kill. And someone asked Gordon about this after the game, and instead of dodging, or throwing out some vague statement about needing to execute better, he took the blame. He was clear, said that it was on him, because he didn’t clearly explain what the expectation was on that sort of play. So it wasn’t Morin’s fault. He owned it. And that really spoke volumes, to me, at least.
B: Oh yeah! That was a neat moment that I had forgotten about. You know, looking back on things, it’s clear that he really does stick up for his players. I can’t remember a time that he’s singled someone out.
Whether this ends up being a short term or long term move, the Flyers could be in much worse hands. Gordon was the best in-house option to be named interim head coach, and we’re all looking forward to seeing how he does in his second opportunity to be a head coach in the NHL.