If you’ve been paying attention to a lot of the talks around the Flyers this season, you may well be tired of hearing about defense. It’s been a weak spot for the Flyers, to be sure, and it’s an issue that needs to be addressed, but while we are here to add a bit to the defense discourse, we’re (mercifully?) not here to talk NHL.
It’s well known that the Flyers do—and have for years now—have one of the deepest prospect pools in hockey. And while it’s hard to deny that the Flyers’ pool is deepest at forward, they certainly do have a handful of exciting defenseman prospects, even outside of the big names, and that’s something that can get buried in some of the larger prospect discussions.
This season I decided to add on to my normal Phantoms neutral zone tracking some data gathered on the Flyers’ prospects playing in the NCAA. And combining that with the stellar work Brad is doing tracking the Phantoms’ shot rates, as well as the data the SHL is tracking and made available on their players, suddenly, we have a wealth of data, and a pretty good look at how all of these players are doing.
So we’re here to answer a couple of questions: just how are the prospects doing? What’s going on that the eye may not be telling us? And do the Flyers have any sleeper prospects who should be getting a little more recognition?
A note on context
Something we should touch on before we get too deep into this, and it’s something that feels a bit implicit, is that these stats are not all weighed equally. Because we know that no two leagues are the same, and the level of competition varies from league to league to league, and even conference to conference, we can’t place each prospect’s performance by the numbers on an equal playing field (sorry). Looking just at how scoring rates vary between leagues we can make a general note that a player in the SHL is facing more difficult competition than in the AHL, which is still more difficult than the NCHC, Hockey East, and Big Ten, respectively.
How does that affect our data? We can’t really say concretely, as we don’t have the same type of translation factors for shot rates or neutral zone impacts, but it’s something to keep in mind. Context, as always, is key. But now, on to the data!
|Player||League||Games Played||Goals||Assists||Total Points|
|Player||League||Games Played||Goals||Assists||Total Points|
|Cam York||NCAA (Big Ten)||22||3||15||18|
|Ronnie Attard||NCAA (NCHC)||24||8||14||22|
|Jack St. Ivany||NCAA (Hockey East)||15||1||4||5|
|Player||League||Games Tracked*||iCF||CF%||iHDCF||HDCF%||Controlled Entry%||Controlled Exit%|
|Player||League||Games Tracked*||iCF||CF%||iHDCF||HDCF%||Controlled Entry%||Controlled Exit%|
|Cam York||NCAA (Big Ten)||10/20||34||64.39%||8||70.80%||39.44%||76.87%|
|Ronnie Attard||NCAA (NCHC)||7||41||63.30%||12||72.00%||54.76%||78.85%|
|Jack St. Ivany||NCAA (Hockey East)||7||29||61.43%||4||59.32%||40.00%||82.35%|
*Note: We don’t have underlying numbers for every game played by York, Attard, and St. Ivany. For Attard and St. Ivany, it’s seven games worth of both shot and transition data, and for York it’s ten games of shot data and 20 of transition data.
*Another note: The SHL tracks its stats a little differently. Their numbers are at even strength (not necessarily 5-on-5 like those tracked by Brad and I), and we can’t guarantee that their parameters for a high danger chance are the same as ours, that information just isn’t available. Just something to be aware of.
The Phantoms are in an interesting position this season in that they have four rookie defensemen to work into the rotation, far more than they’ve had in recent years. Their situations are all a little different—Hogberg has two seasons in the SHL under his belt, and 27 games in the Allsvenskan earlier this season, while Wylie and Zamula have aged out and graduated from Juniors, and Millman is also coming from Juniors, but benefitting from this season’s rule that underage CHL players can play in the AHL until their CHL team’s season starts—but they’re all working to get adjusted to the AHL level together.
That adjustment, though, hasn’t been a completely smooth one. The offense hasn’t really clicked for any of these four, as Wylie’s leading the pack in points, but he’s tied for ninth on the team, with just four. And the underlying numbers for everybody are something of a mixed bag, and no one has asserted himself with a really well-rounded profile. With each of the four, we could point to their exit numbers and say that they’re fine—they’re below the team average, but still passable—but the shot impacts are weak in one of either the shot attempt differential or the high danger chance differential, no one is solid in both.
Millman’s profile perhaps stands out the most when you consider his age and the fact that he’s doing all of this while really not being strong enough to fully compete at this level, but he’s also been the most sheltered of the group, so that’s worth remembering, as well.
Wylie and Millman have both spent most of their time playing with a veteran in some capacity, and have as such been sheltered a bit, but Zamula and Hogberg have spent the season anchoring each other, and the results have been a bit mixed as well. They’ve shown some flashes of really strong play making, but neither have asserted themselves as particularly strong puck movers, both coming in well below the team average of 64.35 percent in Controlled Exits. They’ve also been a bit turnover prone, as Zamula and Hogberg have come in first and third among all skaters in failed zone exits, with 15 and 12 respectively, accounting for 14.41 percent of the team’s failed exits, and 24.29 percent of the defense corps’s. As such, we’ve seen them hemmed into their own end quite a bit, which explains in part why their on-ice shot impacts have been relatively poor.
It’s still the beginning of each of their first AHL seasons, though, so we want to avoid getting too down on this group. They’re still getting settled in, but there certainly is some work that needs to be done.
The real positive standout of this group, of course, is this trio of college players. In short, the Flyers have three prospects in Cam York, Ronnie Attard, and Jack St. Ivany who are doing little short of dominating at the NCAA level.
York is a particularly interesting case because, just looking at his game, on the surface it doesn’t really scream “guy who is positively dominating at the college level” like, for example, a Quinn Hughes who was at Michigan before him. But a deeper look into the minutiae gives us a picture that’s just about exactly that.
For a player like York, the devil really is in the details—sure, he has strong offensive instincts and skates very well, and that means he can inject a certain level of flash into his game, but there is also truth to the idea that he’s at his best when you’re not noticing him constantly, when he’s taking care of all of the finer points and smaller plays that make his defensive game so effective. York hasn’t stolen the show for this Michigan team on a really overt level, but that’s okay, because he’s done just about everything they could have asked of him otherwise.
He’s second best on the defense corps in Controlled Zone Exit percentage behind just Owen Power, but had a heavier workload (and, as we noted when we talked about Michigan’s transition game a little while back, York’s been even more dependable as a puck mover than the numbers capture, given his particular penchant for making a quick-up pass to a forward who then carries the puck out of the defensive zone, still leaving the team with control). He’s also been very solid across the board in his shot impacts—he’s created quite a bit in the way of individual offense (both chances and goals) and Michigan holds quite a comfortable edge in shot attempts and even more in high danger chances when he’s on the ice. York drives offense well, but his care in regards to his defensive positioning and details ensure that the Wolverines are able to really limit the number of chances they allow when he’s out there. It’s not a recipe that results in a bunch of highlight reel plays every single game, but it’s one that ensures that he and his teammates are dictating play and maintaining possession more often than not.
Attard’s numbers are perhaps even a little flashier (particularly given, again, that they were put up in a more difficult conference). Western Michigan has been a bit inconsistent this season, and Attard really stepped up and became The Guy for this team. Without Attard on the ice, Western Michigan maintained a slight edge in possession, with a 54.6 CF% and 51.38 HDCF%, but with him on the ice, they were up to 63.3 percent and 72 percent, respectively, which is a really remarkable jump. We know, given his history at the junior level, that Attard has the potential to generate offense in droves, and such was certainly the case for him this season as well. He averaged 5.86 individual shot attempts and 1.71 high danger chances at 5-on-5 per game, and his scoring numbers (eight goals and 22 points in 24 games) seem reflective of that strong process.
He was a real force in transition for the Broncos, as well, a bright spot in an area where they struggled a bit throughout the season. Attard was one of Western Michigan’s most consistent generators of controlled exits (putting up close to an even split between carry-outs and passes), averaging a 78.85 Controlled Exit%, a sharp contrast to the team’s 51.48 percent without him. His entry numbers are also solid, which do well to back up what the eye tells us—Attard seemingly loves to make a coast to coast play when the opportunity arises, and he’s strong and just elusive enough to pull it off, not shying away from finding another moment to take over play and dictate it himself.
The finer points of his game have improved significantly as well—his skating is much stronger and less awkward, and while he still falls victim to the tunnel visioning from time to time, he’s gotten much better at striking that balance between making the aggressive play that’s so central to his game, while also mitigating some of the unnecessary risk that can come with that. His game has really matured, and the end result was that there were many, many games this season when we came away feeling that he was one of the, if not the unequivocal, best player on the team.
And not to get lost in all of this is the fact that St. Ivany has had himself a quietly really solid season as well. After the Ivy League cancelled their season, St. Ivany transferred from Yale to Boston College for the spring semester, and was able to get rolling with them in January, and slotted in easily as a key piece to their defense corps. He’s getting big minutes at 5-on-5 and a bit of time on both special teams units as well, and he’s been really steady across the board.
His scoring pace is down from last season, but this season, all of his scoring has come at even strength (he’s getting time on the power play as well, but an interesting quirk in Boston College’s situation this season is that the team is really built to generate chances and score on the rush, whereas the power play obviously forces them to rely less on that and more on cycling, so they’ve been performing relatively poorly as a whole while on the man-advantage, as they’re sitting at ninth in the conference with just a 15.8 conversion rate), so he’s not getting a boost from playing on a productive power play this time around. He’s asserted himself as a very dependable puck mover, often making use of his pretty stellar first pass to spring his teammates on the rush. His shot impact numbers aren’t commanding to the same degree that York and Attard’s are, but they’re both very solid in isolation, and also comfortably above the team’s averages of 56.12 CF% and 53.83 HDCF%. It certainly wasn’t an easy task for him to be able to hit the ground running with a team that was already rolling well, but he did it quite successfully, and this season should almost certainly raise his stock in the eyes of the organization.
The numbers for Andrae and Ginning are pretty similar, and that is, in some ways, a little concerning. Andrae started the season with HV71 of the SHL, played 26 games, struggled some to make the jump to the SHL level, and then was loaned to Västerviks of the Allsvenskan, where he’s spent the last 15 games. All we have for him are the scoring stats and shot impacts, and neither are particularly world beating. The individual offense hasn’t kicked in for Andrae yet, and his team is losing the share of shot attempts and dangerous shots while he’s on the ice (though, it’s worth noting, his CF% is still just about even with the team’s average of 48.25 percent). Now, for him, we can understand why this is the case and hold back from getting too fussed about it just yet. Andrae just turned 19 not even three weeks ago. He only played 10 SHL games last season, spending most of it with HV71’s J20 team. He hasn’t been lights out, to be sure, but he’s still adjusting to playing at this level. If he returns to the SHL and the numbers don’t improve at all, that’s another story, so it’s something worth keeping an eye on, but his position at present isn’t unlike the group of Phantoms rookies we talked about earlier. He showed some flashes at that level, and if nothing else, has set a manageable foundation to build on.
But Ginning putting up underlying numbers lower than both Andrae’s and his team average 47.61 CF% is a bit concerning. After all, he is 21, this is his fourth season where he’s played 20 or more SHL games, he’s no longer just getting settled into this league. The numbers also raise some concerns about how Ginning’s game is translating to the professional level. Now, we know he doesn’t bring a ton in the way of individual offense, so to have that expectation as the competition gets more and more difficult would be unfair. We also know that his rush defense has been a weaker point of his game, but typically he’s made up for it by having stronger coverage within the defensive zone. However, given that the numbers tell us that Färjestad is bleeding a lot in the way of shot attempts and more dangerous chances when he’s on the ice, that suggests that his defensive zone impacts have left something to be desired as well. It just really isn’t clicking for him.
And we don’t want to leave this all doom and gloom, 21 is still young and there’s still a lot of time and space for development, but the fact is that right now, we have some red flags popping up.
The big picture
This is certainly a topic worth revisiting at the close of the AHL season, once that group of players has been able to really settle into their roles, but the early look here based on what we have on this defense group as a whole, if nothing else, should have us excited that perhaps the Flyers’ prospect pipeline at defense is better stocked than they’ve perhaps been given credit for.
The Flyers have a whole crop of players with good upside working well towards getting adjusted to the professional game. They also have a group of college prospects dominating at their level and looking not too far away from being ready to turn pro—Attard can declare free agent status and if he does, must be signed this summer if the Flyers want to retain his rights, York seems ready, and St. Ivany not far behind. It remains that prospects like York and Zamula have the highest upside, but the Flyers have a wealth of defense prospects with, we can quite comfortably say, NHL upside. This doesn’t fix the team in the now, but the potential for adding more home-grown talent to reinforce the NHL defense corps in the near future is a good one.
All stats via the AHL, Elite Prospects, the SHL, PhancyStats, and Madeline Campbell’s (that’s me!) tracking projects.