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Teams as bad as these Flyers don’t usually turn it around quickly

The Flyers’ “aggressive retool” faces rather long odds.

Nashville Predators v Philadelphia Flyers
“Wait, so they think they’re going to be good next year? Without you?” “I know, right?”
Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

The people that run the Philadelphia Flyers think that they are going to be competitive next year. They have told us this on multiple occasions, famously saying in January that they plan to pull off an “aggressive retool” to quickly propel themselves back into contention rather than perhaps take a step back and fully rebuild.

The Flyers would not be the first team to convince themselves they could turn things around very quickly. But if they think that’s something they can do, it is worth noting how unlikely that is probably going to be given the quality of on-ice play we’ve seen from them this season.

From the 2012-13 season through the end of last season, an NHL team has finished a season with a goal differential of at least minus-60* 22 times. Let’s take a look at those 22 teams, along with their standings points percentage and those same two numbers the following season, and see what kind of improvement was in the cards.

Bad Hockey Teams, 2012-21

Team Season Games Points % Points % Following Year Points % Improvement GD (per 82) GD Next Year GD Improvement Playoffs?
Team Season Games Points % Points % Following Year Points % Improvement GD (per 82) GD Next Year GD Improvement Playoffs?
Florida Panthers 2012-13 48 37.5% 40.2% 2.7% -104 -74 30 No
Colorado Avalanche 2012-13 48 40.6% 68.3% 27.7% -62 29 91 Yes
Buffalo Sabres 2013-14 82 31.7% 32.9% 1.2% -93 -116 -23 No
Florida Panthers 2013-14 82 40.2% 55.5% 15.3% -74 -15 59 No
Edmonton Oilers 2013-14 82 40.9% 37.8% -3.1% -68 -83 -15 No
Buffalo Sabres 2014-15 82 32.9% 49.4% 16.5% -116 -16 100 No
Arizona Coyotes 2014-15 82 34.1% 47.6% 13.5% -102 -36 66 No
Edmonton Oilers 2014-15 82 37.8% 42.7% 4.9% -83 -43 40 No
Colorado Avalanche 2016-17 82 29.3% 57.9% 28.6% -111 19 130 Yes
Arizona Coyotes 2016-17 82 42.7% 42.7% 0.0% -67 -45 22 No
Vancouver Canucks 2016-17 82 42.1% 44.5% 2.4% -63 -41 22 No
New Jersey Devils 2016-17 82 42.7% 59.1% 16.4% -61 3 64 Yes
Buffalo Sabres 2017-18 82 37.8% 46.3% 8.5% -80 -47 33 No
Ottawa Senators 2017-18 82 40.9% 39.0% -1.9% -65 -59 6 No
Los Angeles Kings 2018-19 82 43.3% 45.7% 2.4% -60 -37 23 No
Detroit Red Wings 2019-20 71 27.5% 42.9% 15.4% -142 -63 79 No
Buffalo Sabres 2020-21 56 33.0% 42.4% 9.4% -91 -68 23 No
Anaheim Ducks 2020-21 56 38.4% 48.5% 10.1% -78 -34 44 No
Columbus Blue Jackets 2020-21 56 42.9% 52.3% 9.4% -73 -40 33 No
San Jose Sharks 2020-21 56 43.8% 50.8% 7.0% -73 -39 34 No
New Jersey Devils 2020-21 56 40.2% 39.2% -1.0% -64 -44 20 No
Detroit Red Wings 2020-21 56 42.9% 45.5% 2.6% -63 -81 -18 No

* Goal differential is extrapolated per 82 games, to adjust for seasons that had fewer than 82 games, and does not include goals that were awarded for winning shootouts. “Next Year” numbers for 2020-21 teams are through Sunday; obviously we do not know for certain that these teams will not make the playoffs, but it feels like a fairly safe assumption based on the current standings.

So a few things stick out here. First: Those are some bad teams! Congrats, the 2021-22 Philadelphia Flyers (currently on pace for a minus-72 goal differential), you’re in good company. (If the season ended today, six other teams from the 2021-22 season would also make this list.)

Second: Most of those teams did improve the following year. The average team on this list saw its goal differential improve by about 39 goals and 8.5 percentage points’ worth of points percentage (which works out to about 14 actual points in the standings). The only three that actually fared better than they did the next year were the 2013-14 Buffalo Sabres (who were brazenly tanking for Connor McDavid the following year), the 2013-14 Edmonton Oilers (who got Connor McDavid the following year), and the 2020-21 Detroit Red Wings (who lost 11-2 last night). It’s hard to be this bad for an extended period of time in the NHL, and usually when you are that bad, you manage to at least fall ass-backwards into some form of improvement the following year.

And to be abundantly clear: short of an absolutely catastrophic offseason, the Flyers will probably be better next year, even without Claude Giroux. Something closer to full seasons of Sean Couturier, Ryan Ellis, and Kevin Hayes, as well as a full season of not playing Keith Yandle (with as much respect to the iron man as possible, it is difficult to fathom just how many goals and standings points have been given up by this team this season in the name of keeping that streak alive), will make the Flyers better almost by default, to say nothing of whatever additions may come in the offseason.

And yet “better by default” isn’t necessarily better enough, which leads us to our third and final takeaway: even with improvement, these teams mostly were still not very good. Improving by 39 goals, improving by 14 standings points, only means so much when you’re starting from such a low point. Most of them were still not really in competition for anything meaningful.

Only three of these 22 teams even made it into the playoffs the following year, and they were as follows:

2013-14 Colorado Avalanche: After a terrible lockout-shortened season, the Avs grabbed Nathan MacKinnon in the draft after winning the lottery and he had an outstanding rookie season. And that helped push the Avs all the way to the top of their division — and third in the NHL! — with 112 points in the standings. Except ... that team was probably never as good as its record looked. Its PDO was the highest in the NHL (per Evolving-Hockey), its on-ice metrics at 5-on-5 were poor throughout the season, and it ended up losing in the first round to a Minnesota Wild team that was playing — and this is true — Ilya Bryzgalov in Game 7 of the series. They fell back off the following year and missed the playoffs for a few years in a row. In fact ...

2017-18 Colorado Avalanche: ... in 2016-17 the Avalanche had one of the worst seasons any team in the salary cap era has ever had. 48 points and a minus-111 goal differential, and then they didn’t even end up in the top 3 in the draft lottery. So how did they manage to pull it together the following season? Well, for one, they were due for some regression no matter what — their team in 2016-17 was definitely terrible, but by Expected Goals they should have been giving up around 0.49 goals more than they were scoring per 60 minutes, and instead they gave up 1.34 actual goals per 60. There’s no talent gap that makes that not heavily influenced by luck, and the Avs got some bounceback there. Then, they managed to get an MVP-caliber season from Nathan MacKinnon after he had sort of stalled in the previous few years, and that all pretty much pushed the Avs over the finish line where they’d clinch a playoff spot on the final day of the season. From there, they lost in the first round of the playoffs. (How did they end up staying good? Oh, right, that lottery pick...)

2017-18 New Jersey Devils: Frankly, a very similar story to those Avalanche from that same season. Team had been bad for a few years, got a few more bounces in 2017-18 than they did the year prior, added a good player in the draft (this one being Nico Hischier, who stepped right in and played well), and most importantly had a forward ascend to MVP-caliber play — in this particular case, Taylor Hall, who robbed Claude Giroux of his deserved Hart Trophy won the Hart Trophy. And for all of that, they finished the year with a plus-3 goal differential, grabbed the final wild card spot in the East, and got steamrolled in five games by the Lightning. They haven’t been anywhere near the playoffs since.

So that’s three teams. All of which either were unsustainably unlucky the year they were bad, were unsustainably lucky the year they were good, got some unexpected improvements from new or existing players, or some combination of those.

There is nothing in the Flyers’ current profile that suggests that they are unsustainably unlucky — sure, they’ve had a lot of injuries to deal with, but on the ice, their goals for and against numbers line up pretty well with what would be expected based on their on-ice play based on public models. And getting lucky the following year is simply not something they can count on, of course.

Which all suggests that the Flyers are banking on something unexpected. A player or two taking a huge leap forward. A fairly clean bill of health. Someone new stepping in and immediately changing the outlook.

Could that happen? Theoretically, sure. But what we know about teams that are as bad as the Flyers have been this year suggests that if the Flyers are counting on it happening, they’re counting on being the exception.