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How to fix the Flyers’ top power play unit

The last time the Flyers finished a season with a bottom-ten ranked power play John Stevens had just taken over head coaching duties from Ken Hitchcock.

Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Long a positive for the Philadelphia Flyers, the power play has been on a downward trend since the 2015-2016 season, but this season they’ve reached a new low. Currently, the Flyers’ power play sits 23rd in the league with a 17% success rate, ninth-worst in the league. Should that hold, that would be the team’s worst success rate since their 2006-2007 campaign. It’s clear that if the Flyers are going to get back to the playoffs next season, their power play’s current trend cannot continue.

For the majority of last season, the Flyers’ top unit included Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier, and Shayne Gostisbehere. With Nolan Patrick seeing time on the unit towards the end of last season, and the addition of James van Riemsdyk over the Summer, there have been a lot of moving parts this season and it’s hard to pinpoint a true “top” unit. So to assign goals to each unit, we’ll be using what I like too call the Giroux plus-one determining factor. Essentially, if a goal is scored while Giroux is on the ice with either of his most common linemates at 5-on-4, Voracek or Gostisbehere, then the goal will count towards the top unit’s total.

This tells us that the top unit has been responsible for 24 of the team’s 31 goals, or 77.4%, which is down from the 94.4% that they accounted for last season. Yes, the second unit scored three of their 54 power play markers, that’s a real stat. As a whole unit it’s more like one, but that’s not important. Now, that percent being down can be, and should be, looked at as a good thing; it’s good to have a second unit that isn’t simply just wasting everybody’s time and can actually score here and there. But it does also show that the unit that was able to strike 51 times last season has only been able to do so on 24 occasions through the first 61 games of the season. That’s a major drop off, one that causes concern.

The underlying numbers

In Joe Mullen’s final season as an assistant coach in Philadelphia, the Flyers’ power play ranked 14th league wide, three spots down from a season ago, and eleven spots down from two years prior. So, despite being one of the best power plays in terms of shot and scoring chance creation, they decided to look elsewhere. Enter Kris Knoblauch.

Knoblauch’s first season in Philadelphia saw the power play drop another two ranks in success rate, finishing 16th, and they were also no longer among the best in generating shots and scoring chances. They ranked ninth in shot attempts for per 60 minutes, 14th in scoring chances for per 60, and 12th in high danger scoring chances per 60. Certainly not bad, but they were nowhere near the best of the best as they had been in the previous season. However, despite the poor results this season, they are back at the top of the charts.

Back on January 28th Chuck Fletcher called the Flyers’ power play historically unlucky, and he has a legitimate case. At 5-on-4 the Flyers currently rank fourth in shot attempts per 60, 13th in scoring chances per 60, and second in high danger chances per 60. Only the Toronto Maple Leafs, who boast a ridiculous 36.27 HDCF/60, have been able to generate more high danger chances per 60 minutes than the Flyers’ rate of 25.64. What has hurt the Flyers is their inability to finish, as they own the third lowest shooting percentage at 9.97%.

When you look at the names on the first unit, it’s hard to chalk up their low shooting percentage to having a lack of talent. At 5-on-4, Simmonds, Giroux, Couturier, Voracek, and Gostisbehere combined for 36 goals last season. Through 61 games this season? Just 17. And sure, some of that was to be expected with the arrival of van Riemsdyk, but even he has only scored six 5-on-4 goals so far. These are players that are historically good on the power play that just haven’t been able to get it done. And they didn’t all just magically lose their ability to score on the man advantage overnight, so yes, luck is at play here. I mean Giroux is shooting at 4.55% on the power play and has two goals this season — that’s ridiculous — however there is one thing that they’ve done with the top unit of late that seems to be hurting more than it’s helping.

The Giroux and Voracek swap

After trying out a five-forward unit, they began to look back at the unit’s original personnel, only this time having them play in different spots on the ice. For good reason, there has not been much change to the unit’s set-up over the past few seasons. Giroux’s stayed on the left boards, Voracek on the right, Simmonds in front of the net, a left-shot forward played the “bumper” role in the middle of the ice, and of course the defenseman at the point.

This set-up gives the Flyers seven main options to execute a one-timer, with Giroux being responsible for creating three of them.

It’s pretty straightforward, get Giroux the puck and let him distribute. You’re giving your best passer three distinct options to create a one-timer, plus a safety net in Simmonds, who can create a scoring chance himself if all three options are blocked. On top of that, you give Gostisbehere two options to create a one-timer, with either Voracek or Giroux taking the shot, and you also give Voracek two options in Giroux or Simmonds. However, once you swap Voracek and Giroux, you’re not only eliminating their own quick releases, you’re cutting down the entire unit’s creativity.

Under the new set-up, Giroux only has one player to target that is in position to take a one-timer, Simmonds, in the middle of the ice. Sure, Voracek and Gostisbehere remain passing options, but neither can take a shot immediately following the pass, giving the goaltender time to get into position. And no, one-timers aren’t everything, but this needlessly takes away what the power play has thrived on for years. Plus, it’s not only one-timers that this switch has a negative effect on.

Using Giroux, a right-handed shooter, as an example, it’s much easier for him to take a shot from a dangerous area when he’s on the left boards compared to the right boards due to body positioning.

To take a shot from the same spot on the ice, Giroux needs to skate further into the middle of the ice when playing the right side, which not only takes more time, but also places him closer to the penalty killers. These two things give defenders a better chance to either block his shooting lane, or tie him up and deny him a quality look at the net. On the left side, Giroux can release the puck from the same spot on the ice faster, and keep a larger distance between himself and the defenders.

Last weekend, the problems with this formation were perfectly captured in their game against the Detroit Red Wings. The Flyers spend the first 30 seconds of their first power play opportunity of the game cycling the puck on the outside, unable to generate even a shot attempt, let alone a quality chance.

Credit Detroit for defending well, but even if the cross-ice pass Giroux attempts to make midway through the video gets through, Voracek isn’t in a position where he can get much velocity on a one-timer. His two options would be a slower, low shot that Jimmy Howard likely gets a pad on, or hold onto the puck longer and look to either make a perfect shot to beat a goaltender that now had time to get set, or make another pass.

The problems would continue last night, as the power play would come up empty on all three of their attempts against the Montreal Canadiens.

The above clip begins with Giroux taking a low shot on Price with the hope that one of van Riemsdyk, Simmonds, or Voracek are able to hop on the rebound. It’s not a dangerous shot, but from the right boards this is likely Giroux’s best play when the passing lanes to both Simmonds and Gostisbehere are blocked. Once the Canadiens gain control and fail to clear, Giroux receives the puck once again, only this time he tries to force a pass to Simmonds in the middle of the ice. Knowing he’s tightly marked, Simmonds attempts to bump the puck back to Giroux, but the Canadiens are able to intercept the pass and send the puck down the length of the ice. Maybe a pass to van Reimsdyk was the better decision in this situation, but it’s no guarantee that said hypothetical pass would even get through with Jordie Benn standing between the two.

Furthermore, there’s a familiarity factor at play here. By all accounts Giroux is clearly more comfortable setting up plays from the left side of the ice on the power play. Which, of course it not at all surprising given how many seasons he’s played that exact spot. Beyond Giroux, this formation also moves Simmonds away from the net-front role that he’s been one of the best, if not the best, in the league at scoring from. Really, this formation only suits van Riemsdyk and Gostisbehere; the other three members are in roles that they’re not only not familiar with, but ones where they’re unlikely to find future success at based on their strengths and handedness.

But wait, hasn’t the power play had good results recently?

It’s true that the power play has been scoring more of late, but using the same Giroux-plus one determining factor from before, we can see that, despite a recent surge in overall percentage thanks to a 12-for-27 — 44.4% — run, the once potent top power play unit was responsible for just half of those power play goals across that eight game stretch. An unexpected surge from the second unit is what led to the team’s strong performance through the first two weeks-plus of February, not the first unit.

In the end, it’s understandable that they’d try something different, but you’re no longer playing to your strengths when Giroux is playing the right side of the ice and Simmonds isn’t parked in front of the net. It might feel silly to suggest going back to a set-up that wasn’t scoring earlier in the year, but the best bet to fix the power play is just that. Before they made this swap the power play was the unluckiest in a long time, but now they haven’t even been able to generate the chances that they had previously been just missing on. It’s time to revert the power play to its original form.

All data courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.