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The Flyers’ bottom six let them down in the playoffs

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They might not win you a series, but they sure can help get you there.

New York Islanders v Philadelphia Flyers - Game Seven Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

There’s been a lot of talk about how the Flyers’ best forwards weren’t good enough in the playoffs, and how they could have been better. And they certainly could have been, but the team’s top two lines were the only lines getting anything done.

Last week, Kurt dug into what happened to the team’s depth, as heading into the playoffs it was considered a team strength. One day later, Flyers General Manager Chuck Fletcher brought up his team’s depth lines when asked about the team’s biggest needs moving forward, and his comments made me want to take a closer look at which lines the Flyers’ scorers were playing on for each goal scored at five-on-five.

“... what became clear to me in the playoffs, we didn’t get a lot of production out of our bottom six. That’s an area. I think we had two goals from our bottom six in thirteen playoff games. One by Raffl and one by Pitlick ... when they were dressed as bottom six forwards, they scored two goals in thirteen games.”

Considering that two players who are largely viewed as middle/bottom-sixers — Scott Laughton and Michael Raffl — sit atop the team leaderboard in playoff goals, his answer was both surprising, and eye-opening. It is also important to acknowledge the separation of the round robin games from what we’ll call the “real” playoffs. Just because the NHL decided to count them as playoff games, doesn’t mean we have to as well.

By the numbers

In round one against the Montreal Canadiens, the Flyers scored seven goals at five-on-five. One of two centers were on the ice for each goal; Sean Couturier, or Kevin Hayes. The goalscorers were two defensemen, and four forwards skating in the top six; Raffl, Hayes, Joel Farabee, and Jakub Voracek. Further, with either of the bottom two lines on the ice, the Flyers were out-scored 4-0. There’s no question what worked, and what didn’t, in round one.

The bottom-six forwards weren’t shutout against the New York Islanders, but still left more to be desired. Here we have the two goals Fletcher referenced in his press conference, plus a third that could also be called a bottom-six goal; that being James van Riemsdyk’s in Game 5. What makes this goal less clear cut is that the Flyers lost Couturier in the game, and both the second and third lines saw similar ice time. The third line was either van Riemsdyk, Laughton, and Travis Konecny, or Farabee, Hayes, and Tyler Pitlick. Since at the time it was looked at as a promotion for Pitlick, and that Hayes is the clear-cut second line center, we’ll give the van Riemsdyk goal to the bottom-sixers for the sake of this exercise.

That leaves us with 17 goals scored by a forward at 5-on-5 in the 13 games:

  • First-liners: 9
  • Second-liners: 5
  • Third-liners: 2
  • Fourth-liners: 1

Three — maybe two — goals in 13 games. Now, nobody is expecting the third and fourth lines to win a series, or even contribute close to the same amount as the top lines. However you can accept that reality, and at the same time still be disappointed in their play during the post-season. It only looks worse when you take into account which lines were on the ice for the goals scored by Flyers defensemen. With that, 19 out of a total of 22 goals were scored either by a top-six forward, or with one of the two lines on the ice.

The underlying numbers only support the notion that the Flyers’ depth lines couldn’t hold their own in the real playoffs, not that it wasn’t already clear by which lines were consistently found stuck in the defensive zone. Farabee, van Riemsdyk, Pitlick, Derek Grant, and Nate Thompson all finished with a Corsi-For percentage (CF%) below 45, and an Expected Goals-For percentage (xGF%) below 38. On the flip side, Voracek, Couturier, and Claude Giroux all finished with a CF% north of 57.

Fletcher also touched on the top line’s play during his media availability.

“... I look at the top line and they didn’t produce [in the playoffs] but again I can just tell you from what I guess we call it the eye test, from watching the games, I thought they had a lot of zone time and generated a lot of chances. I know their shot share and expected goal numbers were really quite good. I think we did a lot of good things, we had a lot of zone time when they were on the ice, but for whatever reason, the goals didn’t go in. I think they were even at five-on-five despite controlling the play by a lot of different metrics ...”

Could the stars have done more, and carried them to the next round? Absolutely — it’s not as if they were at their best. Some individuals had disappointing stat lines, and they as a collective could have performed a lot better on the power play. But just getting a little bit more from the bottom-six would have likely been enough to get past the Islanders. All four teams that made it to their respective Conference Final received more offensive contributions from their third and fourth lines than the Flyers had.

A problem that fixes itself?

On the plus side, this looks to be a problem that can be solved internally, and as soon as next season. Oskar Lindblom’s return will bolster the team’s middle-six, Farabee is only getting stronger as he enters his second professional season, and Nicolas Aube-Kubel has shown that he’s a full-time NHLer. Even Connor Bunnaman showcased the ability to handle fourth line duties just before the trade deadline hit. Add in a potential Nolan Patrick return, or Morgan Frost proving that he belongs, and the bottom-six looks much more capable than it did in the post-season, especially down the middle.

Help is coming, and that should spell the end of some soon-to-be unrestricted free agents’ time in Philadelphia. If not, we’ll probably be having this same conversation again soon. Only next time it’ll be in the middle of a season, and not at the end.

Data referenced via Natural Stat Trick.