To summarize the Philadelphia Hockey Flyers’ season through the mid-way point in one sentence, they have assuredly taken a step forward.
Through the first 41 games, the Flyers found themselves with 22 wins, 14 losses, and 5 overtime “loser point” losses. This left them with 49 points, good for 5th in the Metropolitan Division and 7th in the entire Eastern Conference. The team as a whole had scored more (131 goals compared to 116 at this point last season) and been less leaky defensively (123 goals against vs 148 allowed in 2018-19). These simple statistics alone highlight the stark difference between this year’s iteration of the Flyers and the 15-20-6 team at the halfway mark of 2018-19.
With such a sharp uptick in performance, we should be left feeling optimistic and excited for how this team can perform in the second half of the season. After all, Alain Vigneault has had this team running like a well-oiled steam engine and his tactics and choices have, for the most part, been successful. Yes, the primary sentiment of this analysis will be far from pessimistic, but it won’t be overly positive, either. While their play overall has been a net-plus, various issues, both within the organization’s control and outside of their control, have hurt the team. But, despite this, there is more reason to be excited about the Flyers in 2020 than there is to be negative.
The injury bug hit the Flyers hard in the first half
The injuries mounted up for the Flyers early on this year. We wish Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom speedy recoveries from their illnesses, and their health is absolutely more important than hockey. Yet, the fact of the matter is that the Flyers are playing without two of their skilled, young players, and as such, the club has had to make adjustments. Obviously, Nolan Patrick at 3C would be far more useful than Michael Raffl or Mikhail Vorobyev playing the position in the bottom six, and Lindblom was enjoying a thrilling start playing with Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny.
Additionally, Scott Laughton, Travis Konecny, Michael Raffl, and now Justin Braun have missed time with injuries. This has resulted in call-ups for young prospects such as Nicolas Aube-Kubel, David Kase, and Mikhail Vorobyev, and while Aube-Kubel has played fairly well (53.73% 5-on-5 Corsi-for in 10 games), other call-ups have fared worse.
This is all to say that the injuries have hurt the Flyers’ ability to win games, though in fairness, this is out of the team’s control and they fought well to battle through the adversity.
Veteran performance from top forwards has been roughly what we expected
While there are no Flyers currently scoring at a point-per-game level (I’ll get into why shortly in the next segment), this doesn’t mean that the veteran forwards on this team haven’t done their fare share of heavy lifting. Sean Couturier continues to be the elite 1C this team has expected him to be, and is among the team’s leaders in goals with 12 (35 points total). Long-time teammates Jake Voracek (34 points) and Claude Giroux (31 points) aren’t far behind Couturier.
New man Kevin Hayes, though his point totals aren’t as high as those three (24 points), has been very impressive with his work rate and ability to disrupt opposition play in both ends. Hayes may very well be the signing of the season, and he’s proven to be quite good in the clutch. I mean, did you see his overtime winner against the Ducks?!
In terms of possession metrics, once again the usual suspects have performed at an okay-to-spectacular level. Among those in the ‘spectacular’ category, once again, is Sean Couturier, with a 55.57 CF% at 5-on-5. You see that “Sean Couturier for Selke” button? Yeah go ahead and hit that.
Following closely behind Couturier is, yet again, Claude Giroux (53.87 CF% 5-on-5), and surprisingly, James Van Riemsdyk is the next veteran forward up (52.85 CF% 5-on-5), however I’m more inclined to cite this as a side effect of his usage, as his top two line mates during the second quarter of the season have been Kevin Hayes and Travis Konecny, who leads the team in Corsi-for (more on this later as well).
Overall, guys like Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier have been exactly who we expected them to be from an underlying perspective, if not slightly better. Additionally, for me at least, the eye test 100% backs this up, though please please please use Giroux more on the left side in the power play.
The Flyers have been very streaky
This isn’t necessarily an empirical, quantitative observation, but boy do the Flyers go hot and cold.
They’ve had three stretches on four-plus game win streaks, as well as multiple four-plus game losing streaks. On the surface, that may seem like not a large enough total to merit a trend, but it tends to be for the Flyers that in these winning streaks, nothing can stop them, and during the losing streaks, they lose so poorly that the goaltender needs to be pulled and the line-up shaken.
I guess this should not come as a surprise, as the Flyers have been more or less a streaky team for the last decade or so. We all remember the ten game win streak in a season they missed the playoffs, as well as the ten game losing streak where they miraculously made the playoffs. This seems to just be the identity of the team now, though I don’t think it’s necessarily a byproduct of the way they are coached or even the players.
Good teams that make the playoffs, yet don’t in any way dominate their division, tend to be streaky as they look to build an identity. Sure, it seems as if the Flyers have been this way for as long as we can remember, but certainly with a new head coach and a rookie (first full season) goaltender, I can give the Flyers a bit of slack for being streaky. Though, albeit if they want to build further on their existing successes of this season, they will have to become more consistent.
Travis Konecny. That’s it. That’s the headline.
Honestly do I even need to say more? The man is an all-star!
Why, perhaps, has Claude Giroux not scored at the point-per-game plus pace he has before? Well, as I said in an earlier article, it’s because of the man on his wing, Konecny. Instead of Giroux scoring “all the points”, the top end production has been more spread out due to the breakout of young players such as Konecny.
Konecny’s 37 points leads the team and his 13 leaves him tied with Claude Giroux for the team lead. From the perspective of simply watching him play, Konecny has taken leaps and bounds. He’s always been a player who makes you jump out of your seat, but my word the plays he’s been able to make this year have been insane, like this behind the back pass to set up Giroux against the Hurricanes.
Believe it or not, I haven’t even gotten to the most surprising aspect of Konecny’s play. Folks, he leads Flyer forwards in Corsi-for (except for Aube-Kubel for a short while, but, sample size). His 56.12 CF% at 5-on-5 is simply astounding, and serves as a counterpoint to the idea that Konecny can’t carry a line. Sure, one could make the argument that Konecny has had elite play-drivers which inflate his numbers, and yes he has played a lot of time with Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux.
However, Konecny also played a lot of minutes with Couturier last season, and his possession statistics have completely eclipsed last season up to this point. I think this just serves as a residual effect of how strongly Konecny has improved his game at both ends of the ice, and how much of a step forward he has taken. It also makes the Flyers look very, very smart for signing him to a long term deal over the last offseason (six years, $33 million total).
Numbers don’t tell the whole story for goaltending
In his first full NHL season taking the starting job, Carter Hart has played just about as well as you can expect a 21 year old to play. He’s compiled a 0.905% save percentage and has won 13 games. On the surface, this wouldn’t be spectacular goaltending, but again, he’s just 21, and was bound to have rough games, and he has had both rough outings and moments where he looks like Dominic Hasek in net. We all obviously remember his save on Taylor Hall.
While we have high expectations for Hart in the future, right now in the current moment we simply need him to look like an NHL goaltender, and he certainly has done that. As for Brian Elliott, he has filled in well as the back-up, and his meager 0.896% save percentage would once again tell you otherwise.
There were stretches where Brian Elliott was red hot, and so as such, he was started. At this stage in his career, Elliott can only play consecutively for so long before he starts to tire, so naturally at the end of his hot streak, it was going to look rough (which it did). However, once he was back to being a back-up, he’s been perfectly fine in that role.
A hot and cold defense
In the past, given the metric ton of minutes he played, Ivan Provorov never really looked like a legitimate #1 on the blueline. However, he definitely has this year. Provorov is the 5th highest scoring skater on the team with 24 points, and his Fenwick-for (Corsi minus blocked shots) is third among defensemen (51.21 FF% 5-on-5), trailing only Justin Braun and Shayne Gostisbehere, as is to be expected given Ghost’s tendencies to shoot from the point.
Provorov’s Corsi is only 4th highest among defensemen at 51.66% at 5-on-5, yet it is important to remember Provorov plays by far the most minutes of any Flyers’ skater, which obviously makes it more difficult to consistently torch opponents in possession. Provorov’s awareness and how he reads the ice skating both back into the defensive zone and up to the neutral zone has improved drastically, and its led to fantastic plays like his potential goal of the year candidate in Montreal.
Speaking of Braun, he and Niskanen have worked out very well eh? The pair have been solid additions for the Flyers. Niskanen has really helped Provorov on the top pair, and has looked solid on the second power play unit, and Braun’s contributions on the penalty kill have been immense. Additionally, not to forget him, Travis Sanheim has been solid playing alongside Braun on the second pair, being the perfect more offensive counter to Braun’s defensive tendencies.
However, as for Shayne Gostisbehere and Phil Myers, they’ve played fairly well during stretches, but at times have been poor. With Myers that is to be expected, as he is only 22 years old. He is bound to make mistakes, and sometimes they have been poor ones that need to be ironed out. He is at the stage where when he is playing well he can be a key difference maker, but his mistakes are more noticeable than his successes due to the nature of when they happen (i.e. his own end). His 48.73% Corsi-for at 5-on-5 is a good indicator of where he is at in the moment, which is to say he has room to improve.
Gostisbehere’s play, however, has seen calls for the 26 year old to be traded. As the BSH radio crew have said before, the Flyers likely don’t win any Ghost trade they would make, and I don’t think he has been poor enough to be traded. If anything, he’s been a solid third pair player. However, I think most of the disappointment arises with the expectation that Gostisbehere set for himself during his exciting initial call-up. I think he was expected to be a more impactful player overall than he has turned out to be, and he certainly isn’t having the best year from an eye test perspective, but this doesn’t mean he is a bad player. His Corsi-for is solid at 51.82%, especially given the matchups he gets with his ice time. At this point, we can only realistically expect him to be a third pair player, which again is fine, but disappointing for sure.
Robert Hagg, on the other hand, has been terrible. He continues to make poor reads in his own end both without and with the puck, and at this point, the back of his jersey should read “up and out via the glass”. His Corsi-for metric of 47.44% should tell you all you need to know. He’s been a liability, and as he approaches his 25th birthday, it’s unlikely he’ll improve any further .
The year of the rookie, for better or for worse
The Flyers have seen some pretty great young talent shine on the roster this season.
All of Morgan Frost, Joel Farabee, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, David Kase, Mikhail Vorobyev, and Carsen Twarynski scored their first NHL goals during the first 41 games of the season. In particular, Farabee and Frost (though Frost is now in the AHL) got off to an excellent starts, and had performed solidly in the stretch for what we expected from them. Farabee sits at a 0.363 point per game pace, which would leave him at around 30 points in an 82 game season, and possession wise, he sits just below breaking even at 49.86 CF% at 5-on-5. Of course, we’ve seen stretches where Farabee becomes very disruptive in the offensive and neutral zones, and where he effectively drives play, and being close to breaking even from a possession perspective as a 19 year old is no small feat. That being said, there is definite room for improvement going forward.
As for Frost, his 7 points in 18 games leaves him on pace for 32 points in an 82 game season. As we all know, Frost was loaned to the Phantoms (where he was named an AHL all star!), likely due to perceived struggles in his play. At a glance, this could be because Frost plays a more “playmaker” type role compared to Farabee who is more of a “two way winger”, and it’s clear the Flyers therefore then expect something more from Frost. In my opinion, Frost like any other rookie was going to have triumphs and struggles, and I’m sure he would’ve found his form again having stayed with the Flyers. His 5-on-5 Corsi-for percentage of 51.85% suggests he would have, though to play devil’s advocate, he did play on the top line for a while, which generally does good things for boosting one’s numbers.
Frost and Farabee have been the two most notable young players this season (along with the obvious Carter Hart) but the Flyers (in an interesting change of pace) have given ice time to a number of players this year either due to merit alone or injury call-up. Some of these have worked out, like Nicolas Aube-Kubel, who has driven play in his bottom six role and has looked like a solid NHL winger. Others...have not been as fortunate. I’m fairly convinced at this point that the likes of Connor Bunnaman, Carsen Twarynski, and Mikhail Vorobyev aren’t NHL players. Especially with Vorobyev, who’s had multiple chances to make a claim to NHL time, I think he’s just not cut out for the NHL. At least Vorobyev is only playing a fourth line role at the moment.
TL:DR, the youth have played well, but also have played poorly, and regardless we’re all along for the ride.
Great penalty kill, not so great power play
At 19.3%, the Flyers power play is 16th in the league, but this doesn’t tell the whole story.
Additionally, the penalty kill is 12th at 81.1%, and this also doesn’t tell the whole story.
For the power play, they just go through stretches where creativity is either not there or is stymied by strange personnel choices (GIROUX ON THE RIGHT. MAKE IT STOP). Like the team as a whole, the power play is simply very streaky, and that’s hopefully something the Flyers can change by a simple personnel rotation. If it were up to me, Couturier would be on PP1 for sure. Sure, he helped the second unit get off to a hot start at the beginning of the season, but boy he would help on the first unit.
As for the penalty kill, they’ve really stepped up this year...well...really anything is better than dead last. Under Mike Yeo, the Flyers have been far more aggressive in pressuring the puck carrier on the penalty kill, and this is certainly helped by the steady presence of Carter Hart in net, knowing the unbelievable saves he can make due to his excellent puck tracking skills.
Bringing in Kevin Hayes and Justin Braun has also helped the penalty kill immensely. Braun is great at defending in front of the net and reading plays to prevent the opposition from creating easy set ups on the power play. Hayes, conversely, has been that Mike Richards-like penalty killer that the Flyers haven’t had since...well...Mike Richards. He pressures the defensemen with the puck constantly, and is able to eat up time on the clock or even score short handed. He’s simply been electric.
In theory, with the positive flashes the Flyers have shown, they could be doing better, yes. Yet, it would be unfair to heighten or lower the burden of expectation too vastly. We expected the Flyers to be a playoff team this year that can maybe win a round, and that’s what they look like at the moment. Sure they may frustrate us at times, but they are a team with both improving young talent and existing veterans who we can expect to be able to carry the team for the next few seasons. While we may expect more from them now, injuries have certainly hindered them, and regardless, the promise shown now should have everyone excited to see how the second half of the season plays out.
Stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick