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Should the Flyers be leaning on their top forwards a little more?

So far in the playoffs, the Flyers have evened out their ice time more than they did in the regular season. We’re not sure it’s working.

Montreal Canadiens v Philadelphia Flyers - Game Five
Here’s a picture of Jakub Voracek celebrating a goal. We had to pick this because there AREN’T ANY PICTURES OF OTHER PLAYERS SCORING GOALS.
Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

As the Flyers look to close their series against Montreal tonight, a question that’s been on the mind of many is whether the Flyers are getting enough out of their best players. Particularly up until Game 5, in which Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, and Jakub Voracek finally really put a dent on the scoreboard with seven points between them across the Flyers’ three goals, a lot of the same kinds of questions that have hung over this team’s last three playoff series were hanging over this one. The target has shifted a bit following Game 5 —people have slowly started noticing that the Flyers are generating close to literally nothing without those three guys on the ice and have instead moved their attention towards the meager production of the likes of Travis Konecny and Kevin Hayes — but the question of production from the top of the lineup, however you define that, is going to continue.

Here, we ask a related but different question: Regardless of what you think of their performance, should the Flyers be leaning on their top guys more than they currently are?

Ask five different hockey minds about how you should handle the same lineup in the playoffs, and you may well get five different answers. You can keep doing it the way you’ve been doing it. You can lean on your stars a bit more. You can try to roll lines more evenly than you were before. You can start a series a certain way, in hopes of being able to shift to another way later on if need be. There are a lot of possible ways to approach it, the best way to do it probably depends on the lineup at hand, and it’s hard to say which one specifically is right.

But I do think there’s a case to be made that, at least given what we’ve seen in this series, Alain Vigneault is doing it wrong.

Let’s take a look at how the Flyers are divvying up their ice time to the 12 forwards and six defensemen they’re rolling with each night, comparing the average minutes per game (in regulation time only) played during the regular season to the same figure during this series so far.

(Note: “F1” is the Flyers’ forward leader in ice time in a given game; “F2”, the forward with the second-most ice time, and so on down the line. Shift/TOI data courtesy of Evolving-Hockey. Any references in this post to “Playoffs” numbers do not include anything in the play-in round or the round robin.)

You’ll notice that the coaching staff has diverged in how it’s changed responsibilities for its defense compared to its forwards. On the back end, the Flyers are leaning on the top half of the roster more than ever before; in particular, Ivan Provorov, Matt Niskanen (about that...), and Travis Sanheim are being used more than they were in the regular season, while everyone else is seeing their ice time drop a bit.

The forward corps? They’ve moved in the opposite direction. The biggest gainers in ice time among the forwards have been at the bottom of the lineup — spots nine through 12, in particular — and those gains have come at the expense of small dropoffs from the other forwards. Forward No. 1 (spoiler alert: Sean Couturier) is playing basically his normal ice time, but for nearly everyone else between F2 and F8, you see dropoffs in ice time ranging from about 30 to 60 seconds.

In other words, if your mind is telling you you’re seeing more of the likes of Nate Thompson, Tyler Pitlick, and even Michael Raffl or Derek Grant than you’re used to, you’re not entirely wrong. And your Girouxs, your Voraceks, your Konecnys — they’re getting about a shift less per game, while the guys at the bottom of the linup are getting one or two more.

For a point of comparison, here’s what the Flyers’ opponents this series are doing. Ice time for Montreal forwards 1 through 10 are basically constant with some very slight drops, while forwards 11 and 12 are basically part-timers at this point. Meanwhile, that gap seems to be getting sucked up by Montreal’s top defensemen; their top three on defense are all getting about a minute more per game.

The above chart is a bit skewed because Jesperi Kotkaniemi only played about six minutes before he was booted from Game 5 for boarding Travis Sanheim, and that will lower the numbers for F12 here, but the gap here is big enough that one game alone can’t possibly account for all of it. Montreal’s forwards as a whole are getting less ice time than they were in the regular season (presumably since they’ve been on the penalty kill a fair bit in this series), but that gap is being taken almost entirely by the guys at the bottom of the lineup, which in its own way is Montreal leaning on the top of the lineup a bit more — something the Flyers aren’t doing.

Finally, for comparison’s sake, here’s what every team that’s played in this round of the playoffs has done in divvying up their ice time for their four forward lines and three pairings. Bars above zero mean that a given line/pair is getting more ice time in the playoffs, below zero means less ice time in the playoffs.

Here’s where the Flyers’ reliance on their fourth line stands out a bit. The only other teams that are giving their fourth line more of a role in the way the Flyers are are the Islanders and Stars. (You could include Colorado as well, but given how their ice time is skewed and how that series went, that strikes me as more of a “we blew this team out every game, we may as well give our stars a breather because we can clearly win without them” situation.) Now, those teams are both moving on to the second round of the playoffs, which is to reinforce that there’s no one way to make it work come playoff time. But what the Flyers are doing with their fourth line really isn’t working, which makes the extra emphasis on them even more head-scratching.

And there’s surely some noise involved here, at least when looking big-picture. Hell, we’ve talked about it before here — teams play their good players more when they trail than when they lead, because they want to come back and win and the best way to do that is to play your good players. But outside of Game 2, this series has been close pretty much from start to finish — rarely have the Flyers found themselves in a situation that would lead them to say “it makes sense to give our top guys an extended breather,” y’know?

The Flyers succeeded this year thanks to strong contributions all across, up, and down their forward lineup. But right now, the guys in the bottom and even the middle of the lineup aren’t getting the job done. Maybe it’s time to lean on the guys at the top a little more.

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