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Has the Flyers’ defense really improved?

The Flyers want to base their identity off of defensive play, but the results and numbers suggest they haven’t gotten there yet.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the regular season, a lot was made of Head Coach John Tortorella’s ability to tighten up even the worst defensive units, give them at least some structure, and lead them to success regardless of the team’s talent level.

The Flyers definitely fell into the category of needing a new defensive identity, and “Torts” made it known that he was dedicated to making the team at least try harder on the defensive end. When the Flyers started hot with a 5-3-2 record in their first ten games, it seemed like Tortorella’s plan was starting to come to fruition. Much of the credit for this hot start was given to the Flyers’ supposed defensive improvements, and as recently as this week, even the Flyers themselves have seemingly started to believe that they have improved significantly in this area:

But when you look at the raw numbers, they paint a much different picture.

Through the first ten games of the season, the Flyers did look like an improved defensive unit; they had allowed just 17 goals against to that point, good for third in the league at the time. This would lead you to believe that there was a reduction in high danger chances allowed, right? In actuality, the Flyers were 26th in the league in expected goals against through that same period of time. They were still allowing plenty of good opportunities, but thankfully for the Orange and Black, their worst kept secret was simply unbeatable.

Carter Hart was unbelievable early on the season, in his first seven starts he faced 79 high danger chances, and saved 77 of them. The only goaltender to face more high danger chances in that same time frame was John Gibson of the last place Anaheim Ducks. He maintained a .943 save percentage, and was in net for each of the Flyers’ first six wins; including a 48 save performance against the Panthers, and a 36 save night against the Lightning.

Basically, the Flyers weren’t limiting quality chances early on, they weren’t even good at preventing shots in general; they were just buoyed by the spectacular play of their 24 year old goaltender. And once his play started to regress to the mean, it was evident.

Over the last 15 games, the Flyers expected goals against actually improved slightly compared to the rest of the league, from 26th to 23rd in that timeframe. Still pretty poor, but it shouldn’t lead to as big of a drop off as it has: a 2-8-5 record, and another painful, yet strangely familiar, 10 game losing streak.

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Vegas Golden Knights Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The one stark difference that sticks out is Hart’s High Danger Save Percentage that dropped off from that scorching .975% to start the year, to a more tepid .767%. That was expected from Hart—it was impossible to keep his early season play up forever—and if you really saw how the Flyers were winning games early on in the year—blocking shots, killing penalties, and trying to hold down the fort after scoring early—it was obvious that their record would be unsustainable, and over the past month it has caught up to them.

Players look tired at times, as Tortorella himself admitted as much after Tony DeAngelo was healthy scratched against the Golden Knights last week; Hart doesn’t look as sharp and unbeatable as he did before, and the record has spiraled into a freefall.

This isn’t to say that Tortorella’s methods are getting results; the effort on a night-to-night basis has definitely improved, and particularly the defensive buy-in from the forward group has looked more committed than it has in past seasons. However, that is not to say that the problems have been solved. The truth is, the Flyers simply do not have the stalwarts on the back end to truly become an elite defensive team just yet. With young players coming up through the ranks such as Cam York or Egor Zamula, maybe they will sometime soon, but right now, there just is not enough evidence to suggest that the Flyers have improved their defensive play. Will sticking to Tortorella’s system be enough to get this team’s defense where it needs to be? Probably not. At the end of the day, right now, they just don’t have the horses to make that style of play enough to make them a winning team.

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