It truly was astounding, from a statistical perspective, what Alain Vigneault and his coaching staff were able to do with this Flyers roster.
Though they had some growing pains, the Flyers were winning games, and had COVID-19 not cut the season short, the team likely would’ve competed for the Metropolitan Division title. Not only were the Flyers winning games, but the process by which they were winning games was impressive, and there were many instances where they simply routed their opponents with little to no opposition. It was abundantly clear that the implementation of Vigneault’s system (or at least his newest version of it) and instruction from his coaches (if you take away the power-play) were positively impacting Flyers hockey.
This was no more apparent than with the Flyers’ markedly noticeable improvements in regards to possession metrics. Last season, the Flyers were within the top ten in the NHL for team Corsi-For at 5-on-5, improving from a rank of 21st in 2018-19. This was easily backed up by the eye test, as the Flyers were far more effective in breakouts, and were dominating on the cycle and forecheck when they were established in the offensive zone.
In 2020-21, however, the Flyers are dead last in the NHL in team Corsi-For and Fenwick-For at 5-on-5. The Kings and the Red Wings, of all teams, are besting them through the early stages of this season.
So, what’s happened?
Well, quite simply, the execution of plays have been poorer to start the season. This was likely to be the case for many teams, given the shortened pre-season and training camps. However for the Flyers, this appears to be an exacerbated issue. Turnovers in the defensive zone, failing to clear the puck out of the zone, lapses in coverage (especially around the crease; Hagg, Braun, and Gustafsson are guilty parties), and failures in carrying the puck through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone are key issues which have plagued the Flyers through their first ten games. That is an issue of execution, and hopefully this should improve as the season continues so Flyer wins will not continue to come at the expense of process.
However, as this thread explains, one can argue the Flyers have adopted a different strategy which has seem them playing closer to the style that they did in the 2019-20 playoffs against the Canadiens and Islanders. They are chipping and chasing the puck more, giving the fourth line more and more minutes (which, in fairness, they have earned since they are playing exceptionally well), and are adopting a “bend don’t break” approach which has seen the Flyers get heavily outshot but still win. This last point seems to almost be a hallmark of Vigneault’s strategy — though they weren’t getting outshot like this before and no team wants to face such a heavy shot deficit. Perhaps Vigneault sees just how good Carter Hart is and can simply rely on that, but that is hardly an advisable strategy.
So far, the only Flyers (who have regularly been in the lineup) to break even or better in terms of Corsi-For at 5-on-5 are Phil Myers and Claude Giroux at 50.96% and 50.00% respectively. It’s quite inexplicable and surprising for every other skater to be below even, but with how heavily the Flyers are being outshot, and individual failures to execute on plays, there is indeed a reason for this.
So, how do the Flyers get out of this trend and start to drive play?
Well for a start, last game was a step in the right direction. They were outshot by the Islanders 36-29, though at 5-on-5, shots were even at 20-20. This was due to the abundance of power-plays the Islanders received (in what was in all honesty a poorly refereed game). Especially in the second and third periods, the Flyers controlled the flow of play, and both Islander goals were against the run of play, with their last goal the product of a particularly horrendous breakdown, but a breakdown that wasn’t indicative of the game as whole.
In the last two periods, the Flyers held a 15 to 12 shot advantage, but if we take into account Corsi-tracked events, this advantage increases from 30 to 20. The Flyers were able to get the puck to high danger areas in this game at 5-on-5, illustrated in the heat-map seen below, and along with that, they were able (and more importantly, willing) to shoot the puck on net.
Though the heat-map does not track blocked shots and missed shots, which count towards a player or team’s Corsi measure, watching the game it was evident by the end that the Flyers were able to generate these chances better and had discreetly and importantly made a change to enable themselves to do so.
Now, this is only one game, but it is regardless a step in the right direction, and hopefully is the beginning of brighter and greater things for the Flyers’ defensive efforts. Perhaps soon enough we will talk of their struggles no more.
Stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick