When the Philadelphia Flyers acquired Nate Thompson at the trade deadline it was thought that he’d be a good depth addition for an already deep forward group. Along with Derek Grant, the two defensive-minded centers brought some playoff experience and a veteran presence to the team. With the Flyers already playing well, having two more forwards as insurance options certainly couldn’t hurt.
Well, that’s what we thought at least.
Now, five games into the first round of the playoffs, Thompson has been much more than an insurance option and he is hurting the team.
By no means is Thompson the reason that the Flyers are only up 3-2 in this series, nor is he the reason that the Flyers can’t seem to score at even strength (or on the power play until Game 5). However, every player matters in the playoffs and Thompson isn’t one of the Flyers’ 12 best forwards right now.
Despite Alain Vigneault juggling the lines and mixing in multiple forwards in the bottom six, Thompson has been immune from that. A big reason for that is likely due to the fact that he is strong on faceoffs and primarily a center. With Claude Giroux and Scott Laughton playing on the wing, the Flyers are left with Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes, Grant, and Thompson at center. Connor Bunnaman played center during the regular season, but he’s only played on the wing in the playoffs.
However, Thompson being one of the best faceoff men in the league isn’t a reason to keep him in the lineup. He has won 52 of 80 faceoffs (65%) through eight games, but the Flyers have other options as well. Giroux (66 of 112, 58.93%) and Couturier (69 of 118, 58.47%) are both winning faceoffs at a high rate, with Grant (31 of 58, 53.45%), and Laughton (7 of 11, 63.64%) as options as well. Hell, even Kevin Hayes has won half of his faceoffs (47 of 93).
Thompson is also touted as a good penalty killer. But once again, the Flyers are already pretty deep in that department. Couturier, Grant, Hayes, Laughton, and Pitlick have each played more on the penalty kill than him with similar (or better) results.
It’s not fair to compare the Flyers’ penalty kill to the Canadiens’ in the regular season, but the Flyers had six forwards (the previous five plus Giroux) with great penalty killing numbers while Thompson struggled in Montreal. The Flyers’ forwards allowed 80 (or less) shot attempts against per 60 minutes, while Thompson allowed 110 CA/60 with Montreal. Relative to his teammates on the Canadiens, Thompson was on the ice for 16 more shot attempts against per 60 minutes, 6.22 more shots against per 60 minutes, and 1.82 more expected goals against per 60 minutes (0.93 actual goals). Simply put, it’s not good.
Through eight postseason games – three round-robin games and five against the Canadiens –, Thompson has been the Flyers’ worst forward. His goal against the Boston Bruins to open the round robin may just be the high point of the postseason for the forward, though he has had a key blocked shot or two against the Canadiens.
All stats via Natural Stat Trick and at 5-on-5 play unless otherwise stated.
In 82 minutes and 22 seconds of ice time, Thompson has been the Flyers’ worst skater in nearly every shot-share category. He is last in Corsi-For Percentage (31.94%), Fenwick-For Percentage (35.39%), Expected Goals-For Percentage (36.34%), and Scoring Chances-For Percentage (32.84%). He is third-worst (behind linemate Bunnaman and Matt Niskanen, who has also had a bad postseason so far) in Shots-For Percentage (41.67%).
He has also been on the ice for three of the seven goals against in the postseason, which is tied with Joel Farabee as the most among Flyers forwards. Only Justin Braun (five goals against) has been on the ice for more.
Not only has Thompson been the worst forward on the Flyers, it’s quite possible that he’s been the worst forward – stats wise at least – in the entire league. Out of 340 skaters that have played at least 50 minutes at 5-on-5 play (does not include Canucks-Blues Game 5), Thompson ranks near the bottom in most of those categories.
Thompson postseason stats
|NHL rank out of 340 (50+ TOI)||340th||337th||290th||321st||336th|
Yet, somehow, Thompson has been a mainstay in the Flyers lineup.
Not only has Thompson remained in the lineup, but he’s centering one of Vigneault’s go-to lines against the Canadiens.
Thompson has started each of the last three games – and every period in Games 3 and 4 – for the Flyers and the Canadiens have been able to attack right from the opening puck drop. That was evident on Wednesday night when the Canadiens got a shot on goal just eight seconds into the game and nearly 45 seconds in the offensive zone to start the game.
I’m not going to go into a full Film Study piece, but let’s look at a few key moments in the game, starting with the opening shift.
Thompson lost the faceoff, then with Ivan Provorov already pinching up, decided to try to pinch up himself. That allowed Brendan Gallagher to speed in down the wing and get a shot off on an odd-man rush.
After Gallagher cross-checked Provorov, who sent the puck out of danger, Thompson chopped the puck up the wall to a waiting Canadien and proceeded to lose multiple puck battles before Montreal got the puck back in deep.
Provorov once again put the puck to open space, but the Flyers were unable to get there first with Thompson chasing his man to the neutral zone, which put him a step behind the play.
Thompson got off the ice with no damage done, but it was a bad opening shift that gave the Canadiens some confidence to start an elimination game.
After the Flyers scored two power-play goals to take the lead, the Canadiens started to push back. With a chance to get the puck in deep, Thompson instead tried to pass it to the center of the ice to Pitlick. That pass was intercepted and the Canadiens went down the other ice and scored less than 10 seconds after the puck left Thompson’s stick.
The fourth line’s job is to play a checking game and try to chip in offense when they can. Thompson should have tried to get the puck in deep instead of passing to Pitlick, resulting in a momentum-changing goal to tie the game.
Vigneault may have noticed that, because Thompson’s ice time took a hit after that. He played just three more shifts in the period – a 61-second shift, a three-second shift, and a 14-second shift. Thompson’s line also didn’t start the third period, with the first line starting instead.
I will give credit when it’s due. After winning a defensive-zone faceoff (on his third try), he helped get the puck in deep and tried to get a cycle going in the offensive zone, but Montreal was able to exit.
Then, at the end of that shift, Thompson was unable to tie up anyone in front and couldn’t find the puck as Hart was forced to cover up.
The most egregious thing involving Thompson in Game 5 was the shift after the Flyers’ game-tying goal in the third period. Farabee scored on the power play to tie things up at three, and Vigneault decided to put the fourth line and third pairing on the ice.
I get it, the top power-play unit has members of the top three lines since Giroux is on the third line now, but that still leaves Raffl, Hayes, Konecny, Grant, and Laughton as options. Hayes was on the ice to draw the penalty, but that was prior to a commercial break and he was surely rested by that point.
Putting the fourth line and third pair on the ice following the goal is probably one of Vigneault’s most controversial decisions in his Flyers tenure to this point given the situation.
The thing is that the goal against wasn’t really Thompson’s fault, with the blame falling more on the shoulders of Robert Hagg and Justin Braun.
Thompson won the faceoff and the Flyers got the puck in deep. The Canadiens took possession, but Thompson backchecked hard and made a good defensive play against Joel Armia. He then slid the puck behind the net to where Hagg should have been, but Jonathan Drouin picked it up and made a great pass through where Braun should have been, and Nick Suzuki did the rest.
It was a deflating goal that the Flyers didn’t recover from.
Thompson only played two shifts after that – one on the penalty kill and one after the empty-net goal – as Kurt pointed out, so Vigneault may have realized his mistake.
so I'll say this for AV, at least this season: when something has clearly just not worked for a few straight games, he tends to notice. and Thompson only played one shift (on the PK) between Montreal's go-ahead and empty-net goals. https://t.co/jFCMMl5ACD— Kurt (@Kurt_BSH) August 20, 2020
That’s all for the video on Thompson from Game 5, so let’s get back to the stats.
Overall, the Flyers didn’t control most of the possession game in Game 5.
They had a disadvantage in shot attempts (36-41), shots on goal (15-22), scoring chances (18-21), high-danger chances (6-8), expected goals (1.15-1.7), and of course goals (0-2) at 5-on-5 play. However, without Thompson on the ice, they actually had more shot attempts (34-32), scoring chances (17-15), high-danger chances (6-5), and expected goals (1.11-1.01) than the Canadiens.
That has been a trend throughout the playoffs. Per 60 minutes, the Flyers take 23.67 less shot attempts and allow 11.39 more shot attempts with Thompson on the ice than without him. They allow 1.55 less shots on goal per 60 minutes with Thompson on the ice, but also take 14.96 less shots on goal.
Here are the totals, with the Flyers looking much better without Thompson on the ice.
|Flyers 5v5 totals||346.38||302||362||45.48%||230||258||47.13%||160||154||50.96%||13||7||65.00%||10.55||12.33||46.11%||135||163||45.30%||48||58||45.28%|
|Flyers w/o Thompson||264.02||256||264||49.23%||194||192||50.26%||135||119||53.15%||12||4||75.00%||8.73||9.14||48.85%||113||118||48.92%||38||44||46.34%|
The Flyers almost look like two different teams with and without Thompson on the ice. OK, maybe I shouldn’t go that far given the low-event nature of this series, but it’s rare to find the fourth line creating pressure in the offensive zone. Even when they do get in the offensive zone they hardly ever create a scoring chance.
The fourth line had a chance to start a cycle here, but instead Thompson threw a no-look pass into the slot and the Canadiens easily cleared the zone.
Thompson has turned into a bit of a scapegoat for Flyers fans, but there are valid reasons behind that feeling. He is the worst forward statistically on the team, and one of the worst in the league. He doesn’t bring a lot to the table that the Flyers don’t already have (faceoffs, penalty killing), and is blocking a more skilled player from entering the lineup in James van Riemsdyk. JVR hasn’t been great either, but he’s been better than Thompson.
Going into Game 6, I would expect a few changes to the lines and possibly the pairings for the Flyers. Thompson needs to be taken out of the lineup, which will shake things up down the middle. On the defensive side of things, one of the third-pairing defensemen may take a seat in favor of Shayne Gostisbehere.
Here are the lines I would go with – mixed a bit with what I expect – for Game 6.
Giroux - Couturier - Voracek
Farabee - Hayes - Konecny
JVR - Laughton - NAK
Raffl - Grant - Pitlick
If Aube-Kubel is unable to play, Bunnaman moves to the fourth line and Pitlick moves up.
The top line needs to get going and Voracek could be a driving force for them. The second line is clicking a bit more now with Farabee on the left wing. The bottom six could go a few different ways, but sticking Laughton back at center moves Grant to the fourth line, which is where he should be.
Having Thompson on the fourth line while swapping JVR and Farabee in and out is only a minor nuisance when the Flyers are winning. But when Thompson has the numbers he does and the Flyers need more from their forwards, it’s a different story.
The only thing I’m certain of is that I’m ready for the Nate Thompson experience to end.
The Flyers need to regroup and try to put away the Canadiens in Game 6 on Friday night. If not, there’s going to be a lot of pressure heading into Game 7.