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The Flyers third pair is bending but not breaking

Robert Hagg and Justin Braun are spending a lot of time in the defensive zone, but they aren’t giving up goals.

Detroit Red Wings v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

This is a hockey blog, but since I am in Sports I feel comfortable dropping a football reference on here. When a defense for a football team allows a ton of yards yet consistently finds ways to keep opponents from reaching the end zone they are labelled as a squad that will ‘bend, but don’t break.’ Looking at the Philadelphia Flyers’ current third pair it’s a pretty good description of how Robert Hagg and Justin Braun have been playing.

At this point in his career, we know what to expect out of Hagg. He’s a blue liner that brings value to his team for his work in the defensive zone even if his offensive upside is low, he lacks mobility, and the Flyers usually spend more time in their own zone than on the attack when he’s on the ice. As he suited up for all 82 games during the 2018-19 regular season, Hagg’s ability to hit opponents and block shots was the explanation for why he couldn’t be scratched. It didn’t matter if those hits weren’t separating players from the puck or if routinely blocking shots is an indication that the other team consistently has possession when you’re on the ice, Hagg was a mainstay in the lineup.

With the additions of Matt Niskanen and Braun over the summer Hagg’s role on the blue line went from being planted on the third pair to becoming the club’s seventh d-man. Thanks to Shayne Gostisbehere’s below-average season, Phil Myers’ issues with consistency early on, and multiple injuries among Philly’s rearguards the Swedish defender has managed to work his way into 41 contests in 2019-20. In a lesser role with lowered expectations, Hagg’s underlying numbers at 5-on-5 still aren’t wonderful, but they have improved from last season. His play-driving numbers on the offensive side of the puck have somehow gotten worse, but his shot and chance suppression numbers (the reason he’s on the team) look better than last year’s numbers. His 57.68 shot attempts (shots on goal, missed shots, and shots that were blocked) per 60, 43 unblocked shot attempts per 60, 31.92 shots against per 60, 2.4 Expected goals against per 60, and 1.64 goals against per 60 are all the lowest rates of the three NHL seasons where he’s played more than a game.

These totals, with the exception of goals against per 60, are the worst among the seven d-men who have played 40 or more games for the Orange and Black this year. Again, we know what Hagg is at this point in his career, but his season totals don’t highlight how he has helped the team over the last month or so. He’s taken part in 17 of the Flyers’ last 18 games and has worked with Mark Friedman and Braun on the third pair. Hagg played with Friedman last night and for five straight games in mid-January, while he’s been paired with the former Shark in the other 11 tilts.

Hagg with Braun and Friedman at 5-on-5 since mid-January

Pair Games Time on ice Corsi for percentage Expected goals-for percentage Goals for Goals against
Pair Games Time on ice Corsi for percentage Expected goals-for percentage Goals for Goals against
Hagg-Braun 11 142 43.28 46.27 9 1
Hagg-Friedman 6 73.13 37.01 38.43 2 2

Hagg’s numbers with either d-man have been terrible, except for one: goals totals. I know a bunch of people just screamed at their screen ‘SO THE STAT THAT MATTERS??’ Yes, he’s been seeing more pucks go in for Philly than their opponents, but the question is how much longer can Hagg and company keep living in the d zone for most of their ice time and expect to give up almost no goals against?

In his defense, it’s known Hagg shouldn’t be the one leading a defensive pair and the two players he’s been working with over the last month probably aren’t his ideal partners. Friedman is the next in line for young Flyers’ prospects on the blue line to step up into the NHL, but he isn’t there yet while it’s clear he’s still getting acclimated to the big league’s speed and physicality. Braun is similar to Hagg in that his bread and butter is his physicality and positioning in the defensive zone while lacking mobility, so the pair is often hemmed in their own zone for chunks of time and they usually struggle to exit the zone with possession. Neither of these tandems are pairings that Alain Vigneault or Flyers’ fans would pencil in as their dream bottom pair, but the top pair of Ivan Provorov and Matt Niskanen (deservedly) aren’t seeing less 5-on-5 ice time anytime soon while Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers are forming a dynamic second pair even if they still find themselves working out some issues in their own zone which doesn’t leave a lot of options for the final pair.

Even if the pair he is a part of isn’t ideal Hagg has had his positive moments during this stretch. He’s scored a pair of goals by crashing the net at the right times and had big games against the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders recently. He’s also done his fair share to stop cycles against even if he and Braun still get caught in their own zone often. With that said the Orange and Black are doing a whole lot of bending without breaking while Hagg and Braun are on the ice while also somehow coming out on the right side of the scoreboard as well.

Hagg and Braun at 5-on-5

Game Time on ice Shot attempts for Shot attempts against Shots for Shots against Expected goals-for percentage Goals for Goals against
Game Time on ice Shot attempts for Shot attempts against Shots for Shots against Expected goals-for percentage Goals for Goals against
LAK on 1/18 15:01 6 26 4 12 13.6 0 0
PIT on 1/21 15:03 11 20 6 9 26.35 0 0
PIT on 1/31 13:01 9 7 6 2 68.98 1 0
COL on 2/1 11:45 8 10 4 8 36.23 0 0
DET on 2/3 13:40 13 8 7 5 67.09 1 0
WSH on 2/8 13:28 9 5 5 2 78.47 2 0
FLA on 2/10 10:19 9 10 5 5 31.54 1 0
NYI on 2/11 12:42 10 11 3 4 39.18 1 0
FLA on 2/13 11:49 12 10 8 5 82.68 2 0
TB on 2/15 9:58 8 14 6 8 40.99 0 1
CBJ on 2/18 15:12 8 14 1 11 31.16 1 0

Despite losing both quantity and quality battles for over half of these 11 games, Hagg and Braun have managed to only allow one goal against while being on the ice for nine Flyers’ goals. With the style of play expected out of this tandem there should be some expectation they’ll spend a lot of time in their own zone and could even lose the possession battle but still play sound defense to an extent, but it’s not a path to likely success. For comparison’s sake, look at how well the other two pairs have done in terms of tilting the ice and their results.

Flyers’ defense at 5-on-5 since January 18th

Pair Time on ice Corsi for per 60 Corsi against per 60 Shots for per 60 Shots against per 60 Expected goals for per 60 Expected goals against per 60 Goals for Goals against
Pair Time on ice Corsi for per 60 Corsi against per 60 Shots for per 60 Shots against per 60 Expected goals for per 60 Expected goals against per 60 Goals for Goals against
Provorov-Niskanen 196.52 53.03 42.06 30.78 21.64 1.83 1.7 9 10
Sanheim-Myers 182.58 62.63 45.58 32.46 24.26 2.44 1.42 8 5
Hagg-Braun 142 43.52 57.04 23.24 30 1.8 2.1 9 1

The third pair is often spending a lot of time defending more attempts and chances than creating while seeing more Philly goals go in despite being the least threatening offensive tandem of the trio. Each player in the top four have had their lapses defensively in this time while the second pair has also hurt their goal totals with decision-making in the offensive zone leading to transition chances against explaining the higher goal totals against, but there aren’t questions about the team producing while these units are on the ice. The same can’t really be said about Hagg and Braun. The two could continue to keep the puck out of their own net at this rate even though it’s unlikely, but games like the win over the Los Angeles Kings on January 18th and Tuesday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets where they were dominated at 5-on-5 while coming out on top aren’t something to bank on.

How long the current third pair can keep living in the defensive zone without allowing a handful of goals is a question we’ll have to wait for the answer. With the Flyers currently in the thick of battling for playoff positioning, however, nobody is complaining about Hagg’s stretch of playing above his expectations and luck. He has the ceiling of a third-pair d-man and at the moment he’s playing as advertised with favorable results, two trends Philly hopes continues to help them reach the postseason.