The Philadelphia Flyers’ team defense, in a word, has been appalling. That includes the forwards, but the play of their defensemen has been extremely distressing. What’s even more concerning is that it doesn’t seem to be getting any better with time, only worse.
We’ve said that the Flyers have done a good job at recognizing problems recently, specifically ever since the Ron Hextall era came to a close. But most of this idea falls on what Chuck Fletcher did before Alain Vigneault was hired — the Dale Weise trade, the Andrew MacDonald buyout, firing Dave Hakstol, etc. But under the current coaching staff, these “corrections” have been few and far between, mainly because there just weren’t many problems to fix.
At least not until now.
To this point, the only corrections made have been Chris Stewart not becoming a regular, recognizing Samuel Morin is not ready to play forward at the NHL level, and Robert Hagg no longer being an every-game fixture this season. All sound decisions backed up by the eye test and underlying numbers, but also one more key stat: goal differential.
Now, I’m not going to just say “the Flyers only use plus-minus, how dumb!” because it’s just not true. No NHL team is going to operate that way. However, what is interesting is that these good decisions coincided with the players’ goal-based metrics falling off, or in some cases never taking off.
Stewart was a -7 in the seven games before his ice time dipped to six minutes or fewer a game and he was eventually waived, Morin was dinged for two goals against in just four games at forward this season, and Hagg has no longer been benefiting from a PDO of 106.
(PDO is a player’s on-ice shooting percentage plus their on-ice save percentage. In general, it can be expected that a player’s PDO will move closer to 100 over a large sample size. Above 100 is lucky, below is unlucky. It’s not a perfect stat, but 106 is very lucky.)
So, why is this even remotely interesting exactly? The question has become whether or not the Flyers continue to make these corrections when necessary, or if the goal-based numbers had just fallen in the right way for those conclusions to be made. Maybe more importantly, what happens when they don’t?
Recently, the wheel of healthy scratches has landed on Shayne Gostisbehere. It’s not that surprising, given his history with previous coaching staffs, and Vigneault’s history with offensive defensemen; this was a combination that seemed doomed from the start. By the eye test, I have him as the highest-rated defenseman on the Flyers this season by game average, albeit not by much, and trending down recently. But, as we know, one person’s eye test is unreliable; so let’s dive into the numbers.
When asked about the scratchings, Vigneault has said that Gostisbehere hasn’t been as solid by both their internal metrics and the ones in the public sphere as he was a bit earlier in the year. This is true. By the numbers, Gostisbehere had been trending in the wrong direction following the two-week Covid pause. Per Natural Stat Trick, in his 13 games since the team returned he has a 49.79 Corsi-For percentage (CF%) and a 48.24 Expected Goals-For percentage (xGF%) at 5-on-5. Good for seventh, and sixth on the team’s defense, worthy of his current status of not an every-game player.
However, let’s rewind. Vigneault had soured on Gostisbehere’s play before the healthy scratch and gave him a chance to “redeem himself” before deciding to sit him out of games. It can be assumed that that chance for redemption came in his two most recent outings, alongside Prosser. To say the pair was horrible would be an understatement. In the two games, Gostisbehere had a -5 goal differential and a dreadful 19.09 xGF% at 5-on-5. But prior to that, Gostisbehere had the fourth-best xGF% among Flyers defenders following the Covid pause, not to mention he was shooting again (more than any other defenseman) and finally scoring again with five goals in his last 11 games.
Now, I’m not an NHL coach, and maybe there is some semblance of solid reasoning behind it, but it’s extremely hard to think that there was any outcome other than “bad” from the moment Gostisbehere and Prosser played their first game together. This was not a position to succeed, nor a position to redeem oneself for issues that were no worse than what the rest of the defense had been exhibiting, without the added offense that Gostisbehere had been bringing.
What, exactly, was he supposed to do to stay in the lineup? Get more saves from his goalies while he was on the ice? Because by the eye test it’s not as if his defensive play stood out worse than many others over that stretch, at least not until those last two games when he was basically already on the outs.
But these concerns go beyond Gostisbehere, it’s not just about him. Selective accountability has become a frustrating segment of the Vigneault coaching experience, with Gostisbehere only serving as the most recent example.
Earlier in the season when the team’s underlying numbers were in the sewer, Vigneault scratched leading scorer Travis Konecny for a game, essentially to send a message to the team. At the same time, Scott Laughton, who at the time was playing some of his worst hockey in a Flyers uniform, continued to dress every game. Konecny, who had been a point-per-game player, immediately went on a scoring drought after returning the lineup.
Phil Myers’ inconsistent play on the blue line led to him sitting out a game, and truthfully, it was deserved. He wasn’t playing well and the team’s defense was struggling overall. What doesn’t make sense is that, similar to Laughton, Justin Braun was struggling to push play in the right direction earlier in the season but avoided the ire of his coach.
These selective scratchings don’t seem to be doing much at all. In fact, if anything, their individual play worsened after the scratch. On the whole, an overwhelming majority of Flyers players have taken a step back this year, which is maybe the most concerning thing to come from this season. Now, that’s not to say it’s solely the coaching staff’s fault that the team isn’t playing well; the players, the coaches, and management all share the blame. But when it’s almost everybody, and the attempts to right the ship clearly haven’t worked, they have to shoulder a good chunk of the blame. Unless there’s a turnaround in the next week, we’ll be talking about the 2021-2022 season in short order.
In just year two of his five-year contract, and coming off of last season’s success, it won’t be Vigneault on the hot seat should that turnaround not arrive. However, if the on-ice product continues to disappoint next season, his time in Philadelphia might just be a short one.