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Built for penalties, built to lose

The least intimidating hockey players are those sitting in time-out.

New York Islanders v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

It was a special moment last week when Jim Jackson highlighted Nic Deslauriers’ milestone achievement—the veteran held the “triple crown,” leading the league in fights, hits, and penalty minutes. The camera panned over Deslauriers’ intense, focused gaze while, somewhere in the arena, Chuck Fletcher sniffled and regained composure after shedding a single tear of pride and joy.

There’s no need to rehash the folly of Fletcher’s roster strategy, which has been the butt of jokes for over a year: “tough to play against.”

Are the Flyers “tough to play against?” Your gut reaction might be “no,” but I disagree. A hockey player is indeed “tough to play against” when he’s not playing at all. This season, perhaps no one was tougher to play against than Ryan Ellis who, in fact, no one has played against.

As of the date of this article, the Philadelphia Flyers average the fifth-most penalty minutes per game in the NHL (11.6). Who takes the top four spots? Minnesota, Montreal, Arizona, and Anaheim. Not exactly great company, and it get’s even worse. Of those five teams, the Flyers have the second-worst penalty kill percentage (behind only Anaheim who is worst in the league).

Who incurs all of those penalties? Well, one of the habitual rule breakers has already been named—Nic Deslauriers. The next top three are Travis Konecny (who gets an easy pass because he has 12 goals and 14 assists through 26 games), Zack MacEwen, and Tony DeAngelo. To his credit, Rasmus Ristolainen has only 16 penalty minutes this year, but he seems to be the exception. The Flyers’ rough and rowdy playing style is leading to increased penalty minutes and, in turn, decreased playing time for the team’s most “intimidating” players.

When Fletcher said he wanted a team that was “tough to play against” I don’t think he intended to create a roster of players who invariably watch a percentage of the game from the penalty box. This season, Nic Deslauriers has accumulated 62 penalty minutes in addition to his 331 minutes on ice. Zack MacEwen has accumulated 38 penalty minutes this season with 390 total minutes on ice. Deslauriers and MacEwen each average a penalty minute or two per game, and those minutes start to take a toll when you consider other interspersed penalties from Nick Seeler and company.

To be clear, this critique of the Flyers’ playing style is not a general aspersion on hits, fights, and other physicality. Fights have their place in hockey, and they can be a useful tool. But it’s undeniable that physicality leads to penalties, penalties take players off the ice, and no one is intimidated by a player on a bench. Physical players might be “tough to play against” but toughness becomes irrelevant when those players aren’t actually playing.

So, is there any validity to Fletcher’s strategy? Haven’t other teams found success with physical, gritty playing styles? A couple of examples that come to mind are the 2019-20 and 2020-21 New York Islanders teams. Putting the shortness of the seasons aside, those teams were incredibly successful and incredibly annoying to play against. But those teams averaged an 82% penalty-kill percentage, and they had something that the Flyers don’t: playmakers.

The Flyers don’t have Mathew Barzal, Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson, or Jordan Eberle. Travis Konecny has been extremely productive along with Kevin Hayes, but they’re the only ones within spitting distance of a point-per-game average.

This isn’t an article about the need for playmakers. That horse is well-beaten and long-dead, and Fletcher would undoubtedly make excuses (e.g. injuries, cap space, the occasional bad day). However, unless the purpose of the season is to accumulate as many penalty minutes as possible, it’s simply silly to think that this team can have success with a roster that is centered around toughness alone.

To state the obvious, penalties are a bad thing. They make the game more difficult. They reduce your chance of winning. Physicality may have its advantages, but when almost 20% of each game is spent in the penalty box, it’s hard to imagine how the pros of the Flyers’ game plan can ever outweigh the overwhelming cons.

If you’ve read this far, congratulations. Please enjoy this video of the Zack MacEwen fighting Matt Martin. After all, fights can at least be fun to watch.

(And yes, I am aware that the Flyers defied all odds to win this game.)