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Looking at the Flyers’ improvement up and down the lineup

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A quick look shows just how much deeper this team is this year.

NHL: FEB 20 Flyers at Blue Jackets
All of these guys have either improved this year or have been better than the guys they replaced.
Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Flyers are good.

If you’ve been watching, you know this. If you haven’t, and are just tuning in now, you also probably know this! They just absolutely tore through the month of February, dunked multiple times on pretty much every team that they began the month fighting with over a playoff spot, and have seen the conversation around them move from “are they going to make the playoffs?” to “can they win the Metro?”. They’re sixth in the NHL in points, fifth in goal differential, and have won six games in a row.

They are good. That point is no longer a question of if, but to what degree.

You may also remember that, last year, the Flyers were not good! Unlike in the previous paragraph, this is not a point that I feel a need to go into detail on here, but the Flyers already — with 17 games left — have more points than they did last season, and are currently tracking to finish with about 20 points than they did last season.

So, when you go from “not good” to “good”, the first question naturally tends to be “what’s different”? Let’s try and go through that, quickly and cleanly.

To do this, we’ll use a statistic known as Game Score. Coined by Dom Luszczyszyn, currently of The Athletic, it’s a number that uses a variety of different statistics to basically determine how well a player played on a given night. You can read more about it here, and the formula for it as it pertains to skaters is as follows:

Player Game Score = (0.75 * G) + (0.7 * A1) + (0.55 * A2) + (0.075 * SOG) + (0.05 * BLK) + (0.15 * PD) – (0.15 * PT) + (0.01 * FOW) – (0.01 * FOL) + (0.05 * CF) – (0.05 * CA) + (0.15 * GF) – (0.15* GA)

It’s not a measure without its flaws, but at a high-level, the numbers you’ll see below tend to track fairly well with what most would probably consider to be conventional wisdom. For the rest of this piece, any references to Game Score are a player’s average per game, and all numbers courtesy of Moneypuck.com’s raw data which it generously makes available to the public.

So with that, there are a few ways to look at this.

The holdovers are playing better

There are 14 skaters — nine forwards and five defensemen — who have had at least somewhat meaning roles for parts of both the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons for the Flyers. Of those players, 12 of them have seen an improvement in average game score when comparing this current season to the previous one.

At a year-over-year level:

And just looking at the improvement/change:

Your biggest risers and fallers here probably do not come as much of a surprise. On defense, Ivan Provorov has rebounded from his brutal 2018-19 campaign with a return to the form many expected from him, and Phil Myers’ ascension into a top-4 option is evident; in the other direction, Shayne Gostisbehere’s unfortunate step back continues to be obvious when compared to his contemporaries.

Up front, Travis Konecny’s ascension from “good top-6 winger” to “best scorer on the Flyers” can be seen in his big year-over-year jump. Other young depth pieces (Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Scott Laughton, and, before his diagnosis, Oskar Lindblom) have trended in the right direction as well. Among the team’s veteran forwards, only Claude Giroux seems to have taken a “step back”, largely due to decreasing point totals compared to last season.

But again: of the 14 players shown above, 12 of them are more productive on a game-to-game basis than they were last season. That’s a good starting point, but it’s not everything.

The new guys are better than the old guys

Then there’s the matter of the personnel that’s actually changed. If we take a look only at players who have only played for the Flyers in one of these past two seasons — either 2018-19 or 2019-20, but not both — the picture grows even clearer.

On defense, that Matt Niskanen for Radko Gudas swap has worked out pretty much as well as Chuck Fletcher could have anticipated, as the Flyers took a player playing in and performing at a good third-pairing defenseman’s role and replaced him with a guy who’s currently playing well in a top-pair role. Meanwhile, Justin Braun has slid in nicely to Gudas’ spot as a sturdy third-pair right-handed blueliner, and the Flyers are greatly benefitting from not giving any meaningful minutes to replacement-level guys like Andrew MacDonald and Christian Folin.

In the forward ranks, the headliner here is obviously Kevin Hayes, who has been exactly what the Flyers have needed from a second-line center. Elsewhere, guys like Joel Farabee, Morgan Frost, and Tyler Pitlick have filled in for or even bested the contributions of guys who were around last year, such as Jordan Weal and Wayne Simmonds. (Also, let’s hope we can get Nolan Patrick off of this chart soon.)

Filling out the lineup

So we can see that, in general, most Flyers are doing better than they were last year, and most new Flyers are doing better than old Flyers were. How does that translate to the lineup as a whole?

To answer that, we’ll take the average game score of forwards 1 through 12 in the lineup each night, and defensemen 1 through 6 (all ranking based on ice time), and compare the production the Flyers are getting from those spots this year to what they got last year.

At a year-vs.-year level:

And just looking at improvements from 2018-19 to 2019-20:

We can see here, in plain terms, the biggest differences between last year’s Flyers and this year’s. The “top line” (the team’s top three forwards by ice time — generally Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux, and usually Jakub Voracek) has not changed much from what it was doing last year (which is to say, it’s been very good), but it’s the middle of the lineup that is showing a significant, obvious improvement from what it was. The guys who have made up those spots four through eight — some combination of Konecny, Hayes, Lindblom, James van Riemsdyk, Scott Laughton, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, and others on a given night — have stepped it up in a big way. And, defensively, the big improvements are seen at the top of the lineup (Provorov’s return) and towards the bottom of it (Myers’ emergence), but there are modest improvements elsewhere on the back end.

In short: The Flyers have gone from a team with one really good line and a lot of untapped potential elsewhere to a team that’s deep throughout its lineup. (They’ve also received steadier goaltending and have been better-coached, which is a conversation we can have elsewhere.) That’s how they’ve been maybe the most improved team in the NHL this season, and why they suddenly look like a team that’s going to be real tough to get rid of come playoff time.