Even in winning seven games across two playoff series before bowing out to the New York Islanders last Saturday, things never quite felt right for the Flyers in this postseason. They were chasing the play far more often than the “top seed” should have been (and even if you figure that they were probably only the third- or fourth-best team in the East during the regular season, they still had significant edges on paper over the two teams they faced), they were relying on Carter Hart quite a bit, and rarely did it feel like they were clicking at the rate they were around January when the team started to reach another level.
One of the Flyers’ calling cards this season was their depth. There were rarely any true weak spots in the lineup, and if a line was having a bad night, another one was probably there to pick it up. But when the team came back from the pause, headed up to Toronto, and began the playoffs against Montreal, there were far too many bad nights, and not nearly enough guys around to pick it up when those bad outings happened.
To look at this, let’s take a game-by-game look at the Flyers’ top-6 and their bottom-6 at 5-on-5, looking at how much they played, how their underlying performance looked (in terms of Expected Goals, or xG, differential), and whether they outscored or were outscored by the opposition. (We’ll define “top-6” minutes as any ice time where either Sean Couturier or Kevin Hayes was on the ice, and “bottom-6” minutes as any time where neither of them was.)
(Some more notes on the above chart, which you can enlarge by clicking on it: The size of each box corresponds to the amount of ice time to each group — this is why the “Bottom-6” group looks larger in Game 6 against the Islanders, due to Couturier’s absence — while the color corresponds to the group’s Expected Goals differential. Blue means the Flyers outperformed their opponent by xG during that time, red means the opposite. All numbers are at 5-on-5 and courtesy of Evolving-Hockey; no adjustments were made to this data.)
In not one of the Flyers’ 13 games did they get a positive play-driving performance from both the top and bottom half of their forward lineup. Every game has some red, it’s just a question of how much. And rarely was the showing from the better-performing group enough to make up for the shortcomings of the worse-performing group; in only three of their 13 games (Game 3 against Montreal, and Games 4 and 5 against the Islanders) did the Flyers come out ahead in 5-on-5 Expected Goals. And just as the top-6 started to right the ship at 5-on-5 about midway through that Isles series, the guys at the bottom of the lineup struggled to make inroads even more than they already had been.
Now, while there’s more red looking at the rows for the bottom-6 than there is in the rows looking at the top-6, the point here isn’t simply to bury those guys and tell you that Actually, The Flyers’ Best Players Were Good. For one, as BSH Radio’s Charlie O’Connor pointed out in his in-depth review of Alain Vigneault’s playoff coaching job over at The Athletic, the Flyers gave the bottom part of their lineup a decent amount of ice time in tough matchups against the other teams’ best players; it’s not surprising that their numbers are worse than the top-6 group’s given that. In addition, this is only looking at 5-on-5; no story of the Flyers’ playoff shortcomings is complete without talking about their disastrously bad power play, and those are failures that will mostly fall on the guys at the top of the lineup.
The point here is that, in a season where the Flyers’ lineup depth was possibly its biggest strength, that depth totally abandoned the team in its two playoff series. One part of the lineup was pretty much always off its game, and rarely was the other part good enough to pick them up. At no point during these playoffs was the whole lineup ever really ticking along, and the result is a team that basically never looked like it was playing “its game” at 5-on-5. Pair that with some poor special teams performance, and the end result is a team that needed its 22-year old goalie to haul it to the finish line time and time again.
What was the driving force behind this drop off? Was it a personnel selection issue? A product of less-than-optimal coaching decisions? Did certain guys just play not up to their potential, or maybe were playing over their heads in the regular season before crashing down to earth in August and September? Was this just bad luck? Was it a really weird month of hockey in a very unusual setting? Or were these just two truly bad matchups for the Flyers? Figuring out the answer there, and acting accordingly, is one of the main things the Flyers will have to do this offseason.