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The Flyers’ depth will be tested and should pass

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With three regulars out Philadelphia should be able to keep rolling.

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Los Angeles Kings Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Although they lost on Tuesday, the Philadelphia Flyers just enjoyed a nine-game winning streak taking down some of the tougher teams in the league looking flawless in the process. Without a lot of overall team weaknesses one of the ways the Flyers’ season could be derailed would be injuries up and down the lineup. Over the last few games the team has seen three regulars go down, but will their absences be the team’s undoing?

The Flyers have been dealing with injuries all season, most notably the absence of two of their better young forwards. Oskar Lindblom was setting himself up to be a force in the team’s top six for the entire campaign until he was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, while Nolan Patrick has missed the entire 2019-20 season with migraine disorder. This is on top of the fact the Orange and Black had to endure nine straight games without their starting goalie Carter Hart due to an abdominal strain and went five straight games without the service of (at the time) two of the regulars on the blue line in Justin Braun and Shayne Gostisbehere. Throw in the fact Scott Laughton and Michael Raffl have each missed double-digit games while Travis Konecny missed a trio of contests back in December due to a concussion and it’s safe to say the Flyers have had to deal with some injury adversity this season.

Despite these injuries Philly has worked itself into the conversation for winning the Metro Division and have been firing on all cylinders recently with the disclaimer of ‘if everybody stays healthy this team should be trouble in the postseason.’ Unfortunately, in three of the last four games a regular in each of the top six, bottom six, and top four on defense have suffered injuries that will keep them out for the foreseeable future. James van Riemsdyk is out four-to-six weeks after he broke a finger blocking a Jonas Siegenthaler shot in the first period of last week’s 5-2 road win over the Washington Capitals and Phil Myers will miss about four weeks after he fractured the patella on his right knee Saturday blocking a shot against the Buffalo Sabres. This was before yesterday’s announcement that newly acquired fourth-line center Nate Thompson will miss a minimum of two weeks with a knee sprain.

Going through any stretch of games without these three will sting, but all things considered the injury situation for the Flyers could be more dire. JVR has been producing well in his role in the middle six and the team will miss his production in that role, but he had recently dropped off the top power-play unit and there are a few other forwards in the lineup the team would have a harder time replacing their value if they went down. Myers has been a top-four blue liner on the team for a long stretch now, but at the moment he is the fourth-most important d-man among the team’s top four and he doesn’t see the ice during special teams. The role of fourth-line center on this team might be the most inconsequential position on the club, as Raffl and Nicolas Aube-Kubel have carried either of Thompson or Connor Bunnaman at 5-on-5 and a case can be made the other five forwards in the bottom six are playing better or are more skilled than either Thompson or Bunnaman.

Even if that is an oversimplification of the situation these three injuries will test the Flyers’ depth and will help us see how well the team can play when dealing with multiple regulars missing games. With JVR out of the lineup the clear replacement is Joel Farabee, who had been up with the big club for the majority of the season before he was recently assigned to Lehigh Valley on February 24th and called back up March 5th. Before JVR’s injury he had been playing on the third line with Derek Grant and Pitlick while Laughton played on the second line with Kevin Hayes and Konecny.

JVR and Farabee since February 11th

Player Lines Games Time on ice Shot attempt % Expected goals-for % Goals-for %
Player Lines Games Time on ice Shot attempt % Expected goals-for % Goals-for %
James van Riemsdyk JVR-Laughton-Pitlick 60.49 43.69 46.08 42.86 (3 for, 4 against)
JVR-Grant-Pitlick Four 28.28 44.64 50.27 100 (1 for, 0 against)
Joel Farabee Farabee-Hayes-Konecny Nine 94.3 48.1 51.32 60 (3 for, 2 against)

In terms of recent play Farabee has been doing just fine when compared to JVR’s possession numbers. Granted Farabee has been given some better linemates, but he’s also had to play against top-six competition over that time. JVR had been showing some chemistry with Laughton over this stretch of time while managing to post similar results with both Laughton and Grant between him and Pitlick.

JVR and Farabee at 5-on-5 this season

Player Games Ice Time Goals Assists Points Points per 60 Shot attempt % Expected goals-for %
Player Games Ice Time Goals Assists Points Points per 60 Shot attempt % Expected goals-for %
James van Riemsdyk 66 791.34 15 15 30 2.27 52.95 55.6
Joel Farabee 52 623.4 6 12 18 1.73 49.11 46.86

Looking at the individual numbers JVR has the advantage in all production totals of playing 14 more games than Farabee, but it’s worth pointing out the difference in the points-per-60 rates and Expected goals-for percentage (determining the quality of chances rather than quantity). Not only does JVR lead Philadelphia’s forwards in Expected goals-for percentage, his 2.27 points-per-60 at 5-on-5 is tied for the 41st-best rate out of 212 forwards who have played 750 minutes or more this season. Combine that with his ability to set up teammates at evens (his 11 primary assists at 5-on-5 is the most he’s had in a regular season since his 13 with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2014-15) and adding in some production on the second power-play unit and it’s easy to see how the Orange and Black could be hurting with the absence of the power forward. However Farabee has played at the level of an NHLer all season while showing an ability to drive to the net for scoring chances, flashes of creative playmaking, and physicality to show he can be more than just a serviceable top-six skater. It also doesn’t hurt that he’ll be the player with the least amount of expectations on that line and will benefit from the opportunities that Hayes and Konecny will provide.

On the blue line the absence of Phil Myers hurts, but there are a few reasons to believe the defense might be able to survive his injury. A lot of the ‘might be able to’ depends on Travis Sanheim and Shayne Gostisbehere. Even with Myers on his pair Sanheim was the one leading that tandem and now one way or another he’s going to have to carry a blue liner who has spent a good chunk of time this season on the third pair.

Sanheim without Myers

Saheim's partner Time on ice Shot attempts for-per-60 Shot attempts against-per-60 Shot attempt % Expected goals-for-per-60 Expected goals-against-per-60 Expected goals-for % Goals-for %
Saheim's partner Time on ice Shot attempts for-per-60 Shot attempts against-per-60 Shot attempt % Expected goals-for-per-60 Expected goals-against-per-60 Expected goals-for % Goals-for %
Justin Braun 357.51 62.04 47.45 56.66 2.35 2.11 52.74 52.78 (19 for, 17 against)
Robert Hagg 39.31 50.11 74.4 40.24 2.07 4.09 33.58 33.33 (2 for, 4 against)
Shayne Gostisbehere 38.49 54.1 54.1 50 2.64 3.39 43.73 14.29 (1 for, 5 against)

Based on how much Sanheim has played with the other three blue liners and how well he has played with each it makes a lot of sense that Braun played in the top four on Tuesday against Boston. Sanheim and Braun was the team’s second pair for a while and is Philly’s third-most used pair this season behind Ivan Provorov-Matt Niskanen and Sanheim-Myers, as they have shown this season they can limit opponents’ shots against. According to Money Puck, Sanheim-Braun’s 46.04 shot attempts against-per-60 is fifth out of 74 defensive pairs that have skated 350 minutes or more at 5-on-5 in 2019-20. On top of their ability to suppress opponents’ shot attempts, the combo of Sanheim and Braun makes the most sense out of the options available due to handedness. Sanheim is an option to play on the right side, but Hagg has filled in fine on the third pair over the last month or so and it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to put Sanheim on the opposite side of where he’s played all season to put Gostisbehere in the top four based on how he’s looked all season.

Speaking of Gostisbehere, his play once the season resumes will be crucial to the team’s success as well. The recently oft-used bottom pair of Hagg and Braun had trouble getting the puck up ice and spent some nights living in the defensive zone, but they did manage to not break and avoided being on the ice for costly goals against. The same can’t be said of Gostisbehere’s play all year, as he’s visibly struggled and made huge glaring mistakes throughout. Fortunately he passed the eye test on Tuesday night in his first game since the forgettable 5-0 defeat to the New Jersey Devils on February 6th and he’ll be playing alongside Hagg, who has been playing some of his best hockey recently. If he is able to minimize the amount of time he’ll spend in the defensive zone while at least showing flashes of the way he played before all his recent knee problems the blue line should be fine without Myers.

Last but not least of the three recent Flyers’ injuries is Thompson, who accrued one assist with five shots on goal and nine penalty minutes in seven contests with Philly before being labeled out. He was skating on the fourth line with Raffl and NAK before his injury, a pair of forwards that Bunnaman centered before his demotion once Thompson was acquired. Raffl and NAK have been the wingers on the bottom line over the last 18 games splitting time between both Thompson and Bunnaman.

Bunnaman vs. Thompson

Player Games Time Shot attempts-for-per-60 Shot attempts-against-per-60 Shot attempt % Expected goals-for-per-60 Expected goals-against-per-60 Expected goals-for % Goals-for %
Player Games Time Shot attempts-for-per-60 Shot attempts-against-per-60 Shot attempt % Expected goals-for-per-60 Expected goals-against-per-60 Expected goals-for % Goals-for %
Connor Bunnaman 11 74.07 59.91 47.76 55.64 2.08 1.47 58.58 100 (4 for, 0 against)
Nate Thompson 7 56 42.86 52.5 44.94 1.74 1.6 52.03 50 (1 for, 1 against)

Bunnaman not only has spent more time on the fourth line with Raffl and NAK than Thompson, but he’s helped the line drive play as well. Even though it’s unlikely they end up on the right side of every goal they’re on the ice for, Raffl-Bunnaman-NAK has been better at creating chances both in quantity and quality while limiting opponents’ offensive abilities better than Raffl-Thompson-NAK. The pair with Thompson in the middle has posted fine underlying numbers in most of the contests they’ve played together so far, but Bunnaman has been able to get more done with the tandem.

The loss of Thompson will hurt the team to an extent, as he was brought in to serve as a gritty bottom-six forward who will block shots and kill penalties. It’s also worth noting that Thompson (won 29 of 54 faceoffs for a 53.7 faceoff percentage) has been better at the dot than Bunnaman (36 of 96 for a 37.5 faceoff percentage). The idea behind general manager Chuck Fletcher adding Thompson at the trade deadline makes sense, as he can serve as an extra body to do the dirty work in the postseason and/or possibly be thrown out there to win a big draw if the situation arises, but he may end up being the 13th forward come playoff time one way or another. Since he’ll be back before the end of the regular season, we’ve seen what he can do in the role he’ll be playing with the team, and the club might ultimately be better with Bunnaman replacing him the loss of Thompson hurts but it could be an injury the Flyers can work through with little adversity.

One of the strengths of this year’s team is their depth. The league’s suspension of play will limit or erase all the expected timelines of these injuries, but we could still get a glimpse of the Flyers’ depth with a top-six forward, a bottom-six forward, and a top-four defenseman on the shelf when the games return. Luckily the injuries aren’t to the team’s most vital skaters and the club shouldn’t stop rolling because of it.

*Stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Money Puck, and NHL.com