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Checking in: Three things that have gone according to plan

The Flyers are one-third of the way through the season. Against all odds, things are actually going well. What’s gone right for them so far?

Philadelphia Flyers v Buffalo Sabres
Quite possibly the Flyers’ two most pleasant surprises this year, just as we all expected.
Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

Yes, we’re already one-third of the way through this season. Time flies when you’re watching the Flyers, huh? (Well, technically, the Flyers will be at the one-third mark of their regular season when they reach the second intermission in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night. But I imagine you will have better things to do during that time than read articles like this.)

It’s been an eventful first 18 games for the Flyers. More wins than losses, nonetheless some fairly excruciating losses, some turmoil from various sources (injuries, some bad performances, a COVID-forced stoppage), and yet, through all of it, they enter today actually leading the [sponsor name redacted because, hey, they ain’t paying me] East Division in points percentage. Some things have gone according to plan, which help explain why the Flyers are where they are, while some others have not.

So we’ll talk a bit about these things over the next few days, with three points in each of the following categories:

  1. What has gone according to plan?
  2. What has not?
  3. What are the biggest unknowns and question marks the rest of the way?

We’ll start today with the first one, because there are, in fact, good things to talk about. Enjoy! (Statistics cited below are, unless noted otherwise, courtesy of Evolving-Hockey and through Sunday’s games.)

1. The top guys are still setting the tone

The Flyers have been dealing with something for most of this season, be it a rash of injuries or a group of COVID-induced absences, between basically the opening weekend of the season and last week. It can be an excuse to point to injuries — everyone has them, and weird absences are going to be (and frankly already have been) the norm this season — but the Flyers feel like they’ve been hit hard in terms of both volume and importance in this category.

All of which is a preface to this basic reality: sometimes it really is just as simple as “things go better when you have your best players available”.

The Flyers have played in five games this season where both Sean Couturier (who was injured early in the second game of the season and missed about three weeks) and Claude Giroux (who tested positive for COVID and missed two games even after the team was forced to take over a week away from the ice) started and finished the game on the ice/bench. Let’s take a quick look at how those five games went, and how the other 13 did while we’re at it.

Flyers Team-Level Performance, With/Without Couturier or Giroux

Measure With 14 + 28 Without Either
Measure With 14 + 28 Without Either
Record (Points %) 5-0-0 (100%) 6-4-3 (57.8%)
Total Goal Differential (Non-SO) 13 (23-10) -4 (38-42)
5-on-5 Goal Differential 12 (18-6) -4 (25-29)
All-Situations xG % 58.5% 47.4%
5-on-5 xG% 58.0% 44.1%

Give the Flyers some credit here: against all odds, they managed to stay afloat in the time they had to spend without one of their two best forwards. There are a lot of underlying numbers that suggest they probably should not have won as many of those games as they did, and that they probably would not have done so if they had to play many more, but if these two guys are back to stay (fingers crossed), that really does not matter at all. That stretch could have sank them, and the fact that it didn’t means that this team with its best two players can legitimately contend to win the East division.

We could list Couturier and Giroux’s individual numbers during their time this season to further make my point, but anyone who has actually watched this team since Couturier came back should not need that. Giroux looks as good as he has since his should-have-been-at-least-a-Hart-finalist season in 2017-18, and Couturier has pretty much been himself. They’ve both been excellent, and their play at their respective spots in the lineup has made things easier for everyone else. Any pessimistic conclusions that can be drawn from the first third of the season, at the absolute least, need the caveat that the team was short-handed during part of that time and appears to be a pretty significantly different team at full health.

Having good players around is good, and the Flyers’ good players have remained good. Pass it on.

2. Further breakthroughs up front

The Flyers’ vaunted forward depth has not quite been present to the extent we were hoping it would this season. We’ll talk a bit more about that tomorrow. Nevertheless, when you looked at the sheer length of the list of talented forwards this team has had, you nonetheless figured that for them to really take the next step forward, a couple of those guys were going to really need to pop beyond what anyone was realistically hoping for.

That’s happened, as the top of the team’s scoring ranks brings up two names in particular — the youngest player in the lineup, and one of the oldest. (That the two of them have played with one another a lot lately is perhaps not a coincidence.)

Some development for Joel Farabee felt inevitable after a first season in which he seemed to find himself in the right place a lot of the time, but he’s managed to take his play to another level so far this season. Yet for whatever other comments you can make about his play, the thing that seems to stick out with Farabee is that he’s the one dude on this team who has consistently been willing to shoot the god damn puck. That’s been a struggle for a lot of the team this year, and his ability to break through there has helped push this team through some frustrating stretches.

van Riemsdyk, meanwhile, is coming off of a pretty weird season, in which he excelled in somewhat limited minutes at 5-on-5 but struggled to put the puck in the net on the power play. This year has been something of a role reversal, as his 5-on-5 numbers are just OK but he’s at the same time been more or less single-handedly keeping the power play from being the worst in the league. He has more goals on the man-advantage than everyone else on the Flyers combined, and his touch in front of the net has been impeccable.

Now, it needs to be acknowledged that these two are most likely not going to score at their current rates forever. JVR’s shooting percentage is nearly double that of his career average around 12 percent, and while Farabee hasn’t played long enough to have a realistic baseline expectation in terms of shooting talent, he’s not going to shoot 17 percent going forward either. And we know that goal-scorers are streaky, so it should not be shocking if (when?) either or both of these guys go seven or eight games with a goose egg under the “G” column of the box score.

But we’re judging right now on what has happened, not on what might or might not happen going forward. Very few people would’ve pegged these two guys as the Flyers’ leading producers on offense coming into this season, and here they are. If they slow down a bit but continue making an impact, maybe they can be the breakthrough players that this group needed.

3. The ... backup goaltender?

It is really, really weird that this team has 11 wins in 18 games despite serious injury concerns and yet when trying to spell out a list of things that have gone unconditionally well, the third one is “the backup goaltender”. Profoundly strange season we’ve lived through so far.

Yet, it’s true: while so many successes that this team has had come with qualifiers, Brian Elliott’s do not. The Flyers have won five of Elliott’s six starts, and even in the one loss he only let in two goals. His .930 save percentage is pretty well reflective of his great play so far, and his Goals Saved Above Expectation of 4.41 is the 10th-best mark in the league. He’s been excellent.

In an ideal timeline, the backup goalie being very good is just a footnote. But given that Carter Hart has had a bit of a rough go of things for much of this season, Elliott’s excellence has been needed. The Flyers are 12th in the NHL in team save percentage, despite their starter having an outright bad go of things so far. That’s entirely thanks to Elliott’s good work — this team very easily could have coughed up two or three of his wins if he wasn’t on top of his game.

Does this mean that Elliott should get more time going forward? No, probably not. The Flyers have three seasons’ worth of evidence suggesting that bad things happen when they try to make Elliott more than a 1B goalie. But sometimes you need your 1B to be awesome. The Flyers have this year — and he has. That’s worth commending.