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Philadelphia Flyers: Five Reasons for Hope in 2022-23?

After the 2021-22 NHL regular season ended, there were a spate of articles ranking the attractiveness of the NHL head coaching vacancies in the 2022 offseason with the Philadelphia Flyers consistently coming in at or near the very bottom (see, for example, Ranking the NHL coaching openings – and the best fits for each - Daily Faceoff). None-the-less, the Flyers ended up with one of the top coaching candidates. This begs the question: How bad are things really with the Flyers? Can the Flyers results next year really be expected to improve? Along these lines, there have been some more recent articles each detailing five reasons why the Flyers can be expected to improve this season- One by Sam Carchidi for PhillyHockeyNow (5 Reasons Why Flyers Will Be Improved This Season (phillyhockeynow.com)) and the other by Gustav Elvin for the Philadelphia Inquirer (Flyers need buy-in under John Tortorella, a healthy Sean Couturier and more to rebound in 2022-23 (inquirer.com)). Those analyses relied mostly on projecting improvements next season due to some sort of growth within the team or players. While having some overlaps with Carchidi and Elvin, the analysis presented here focuses on areas where improvements over last season can reasonably be expected just by virtue of the unlikelihood of the causal factors recurring. That is, this analysis will focus less on the more dubious hopes for things like "Owen Tippett will have a breakout season" (Carchidi) or "Ivan Provorov will return to the trajectory he appeared to be on several years ago" (Elvin). Rather, this analysis will focus on areas where improvements are highly likely either due to near certain external factors or otherwise due to the high likelihood of fixes being put into place relatively easily.

The Facts

· The Flyers finished the 2021-22 season with the fourth worst record in the NHL.

· The Flyers record was significantly worse later in the season and, just as during that period, the 2022-23 season will take place with the best player from the 2021-22 Flyers, Claude Giroux, not on the team roster anymore.

· Looking a little deeper into the team statistics, net goal differential jumps out as it is an amazingly good predictor of playoff participation. This past season, for example, there were 8 teams in the Eastern Conference who finished with a positive net goal differential on the season and 8 teams that finished with a negative differential. All 8 who had a positive differential made the playoffs, all 8 who had a negative differential missed the playoffs. The results in the Western Conference were close to that with 7 of the 9 Western teams with positive goal differentials making the playoffs and 6 of the 7 with negative differentials missing the playoffs. In 2021-22, the Flyers finished at -87 which was 30th in the NHL and indicates that the Flyers would need to improve by a bit more than one net goal per game in the 2022-23 season just to get to the level of "playoff contention". That is a lot.

Summary of Analysis

The facts point to headwinds that will be encountered when trying to improve next season. However, there are five specific factors that point to a major potential turnaround from the 2021-22 season that are either quickly fixable with the right coach in place or can otherwise very reasonably be expected to occur:

1 & 2. Special Teams (Power Play & Penalty Kill)

3. Keith Yandle

4. Injuries

5. Bungled Coaching Change

Summary:

Overall Special Teams results are almost 100% sure to improve for the Flyers in the coming season. Coupled with the retirement of Keith Yandle, the unlikelihood of the entire slate of centers to miss a significant portion of the season simultaneously, and a stable and competent NHL coaching staff, the Flyers are extremely likely to cut deeply into their negative overall goal differential this season. It is unlikely, though, that these effects will be enough to get the Flyers to "playoff contention" level without some other favorable factors going the Flyers way – major improvements from a variety of young players, avoiding injuries at critical positions (especially to Carter Hart), etc.

Details of Analysis

1 & 2. Special Teams (Power Play & Penalty Kill)

The Flyers special teams in 2021-22 were downright awful. The Power Play was dead last in NHL with a 12.55% conversion rate at a time when the league average was 20.61%. The penalty kill was 26th in NHL at 75.74% vs. a 79.39% league average. Combine the PP% and PK% and the Flyers overall Special Teams rate was 88.3% - worst in the NHL. There are teams that finished ahead of the Flyers in these categories who clearly do not have better personnel, so the issue is not just the players.

1. Power Play: Obviously, it is impossible to finish worse than dead last, so Flyers Power Play improvement relative to the rest of the league is likely. While losing long-time Power Play ace Claude Giroux presents a large hurdle to overcome, the Flyers have acquired a player to replace his role as the main puck distributor on the first Power Play unit in Tony DeAngelo. They have Rocky Thompson coming in as a new Power Play coach and still have the availability of two proven PP goal scorers in JVR and Cam Atkinson. So, there are pieces in place and some level of improvement is very likely.

2. Penalty Kill: Here, some projection is necessary but it is extremely likely that the Flyers PK will improve significantly in 2022-23 under John Tortorella. The Flyers have a very good set of forwards who can support the PK under each of the main defensive strategies: Speed or Positioning. For a PK set up to rely on the speed and quickness of the forwards to cut off passing lanes, disrupt zone entries, etc., the Flyers have players such as Cam Atkinson, Morgan Frost, and Travis Konechny who possess those skills and have extensive PK experience (though for both Frost and TK that experience primarily goes back to pre-NHL leagues). For a PK set up to rely on zone positioning to disrupt opponents, the Flyers have Sean Couturier and Kevin Hayes – two large-framed forwards who are perfectly suited for that role. With this talent, plus the excellent history of Penalty Killing under Tortorella coached teams, a substantial improvement in the PK is very likely.

So, with even slight improvement on the PP and likely significant improvement on the PK, the Flyers should reasonably be expected to regress towards the mean in overall Special Teams performance in 2022-23. Just getting to league average overall on Special Teams rate would directly result in a gain of 25-30 net goals over the course of the season, getting just halfway to the middle would be a net gain of 10-15 net goals. Indirectly, those figures would likely also be boosted higher as an effective PK would lead opponents to play more cautiously at even strength if the Flyers PP was even somewhat effective, for example.

3. Keith Yandle

Keith Yandle is known to be a terrific individual who had a tremendous NHL career, but for the Flyers in 2021-22 his on-ice performance was an anchor that pulled the entire team down.

Brought in primarily as a power play specialist, the Flyers PP was historically bad in 2021-22. So, Yandle obviously didn’t do much to help there. According to Hockey Reference (2021-22 NHL Skater Miscellaneous Statistics | Hockey-Reference.com), Yandle finished dead last in Defensive Point Shares out of the over 1,100 skaters to play in the NHL. He also finished dead last in plus-minus. Worse yet, looking at his 5v5 numbers reveals an even more ominous picture: Without Yandle on-ice, the Flyers were -3 overall in 5v5 play in 2021-22. With Yandle on-ice, they were -27 even though the team played roughly 4 times more minutes without Yandle when on 5v5 and Yandle was extremely sheltered when he did skate 5v5. In 2021-22, Yandle saw the highest percentage of 5v5 offensive zone starts of any Flyers defenseman (Player Season Totals - Natural Stat Trick). Additionally, the quality of competition Yandle faced was clearly lesser than the tough matchups the Provorov and Sanheim parings routinely faced.

Finally, one frequently used sports maxim is that the great players make their teammates better when they play together. Looking at the WOWY figures ("With Or Without You") of the 12 defensemen to skate for the Flyers this season (Line Stats - Natural Stat Trick), only 3 had better 5v5 +/- with Yandle vs. without him…and two of those 3 were better by only 1 net goal and had relatively little on-ice time with Yandle. It is likely that with more "Yandle ice time", each of those two would have seen negative effects as well. This is remarkable. Ivan Provorov was the lone outlier, almost surely explained through Provy’s high usage against top competition in the most high-leverage situations which, not coincidentally, are the exact situations that Yandle was routinely sheltered from.

The obvious conclusion is that Keith Yandle’s play made the Flyers significantly worse when he was on the ice. He pulled down the performance of his linemates. He was the single biggest defensive liability in the NHL according to the Defensive Point Share as well as the plus-minus metrics and surely a plethora of other statistics as well. Replacing his roster spot with a player whose NHL performance is just "rather poor" would actually represent a significant improvement to the team. Teasing out the exact number to expect is difficult, but it is surely at least in the range of 10-15 net goals across a season and probably more.

4. Injuries

Team officials, the press, and the players themselves consistently preach that "injuries aren’t an excuse" when on ice results are poor. That absolutely is the correct mindset for the players on the ice to have, but injuries clearly played a major role in the Flyers poor record when critically analyzing the season. The biggest issue wasn’t even caused by the extraordinarily high number of player games missed during the season, but rather by a combination of where these injuries occurred and the poor decisions for certain players to try to "play through" the injuries they had.

Specifically, going into the 2021-22 season one of the strengths of the Flyers appeared to be depth at center. Towards the end of training camp, the Flyers depth chart at center looked like this: 1C – Sean Couturier, 2C – Kevin Hayes, 3C - Derrick Brassard, 4C - Nate Thompson with Morgan Frost waiting in the wings and Scott Laughton and Claude Giroux playing wing but able to shift to center if needed. When concerns arose about the health of Kevin Hayes at the end of camp, the Flyers went out and picked up Patrick Brown off waivers to serve as a de facto 5C. Not only did every one of the top 4 centers miss significant time, but both Couturier and Hayes tried to play through injuries when they were obviously laboring and the result drug down the play of the entire team.

No team could succeed that way, but this is also very unlikely to recur in 2022-23. Even if some combination of the Couturier and Hayes injuries turn out to carry over into this season, the likelihood of all the Flyers top 4 centers being sidelined or relegated to ineffectiveness for an extended period is slim. While it is impossible to come to an exact number of net goals this represents, a very conservative number would be in the 10-15 goal range based on the expected production of a slate of correctly slotted NHL caliber centers.

5. Bungled Coaching Change

Arguments can be made that the mid-season firing of Alain Vigneault was a strategic step backward for the organization, but so too can arguments be made that it represented the correct course of action strategically. What is extraordinarily difficult to argue, though, is that the firing itself was carried out in any manner not synonymous with "bungled". The general public may never know whether there were behind the scenes issues that precipitated the timing and method of letting both AV and Michael Therrien go, but the aftermath was a situation that absolutely doomed the team to fail. Mike Yeo was instituted as the interim head coach. In-and-if-itself, Yeo is a debatable choice for an NHL head coaching position but he is at least a legitimate NHL-caliber head coaching candidate. What isn’t questionable relates to him being given a horrible assistant coaching staff under the circumstances. Initially, clearly in a desperation move with no other contingencies in place, Ian Laperriere was temporarily utilized behind the bench as an assistant coach for a game. The two main assistant coaching positions next settled on Darryl Williams for the defense and Nick Schultz for the offense. While both Williams and Schultz are "good hockey people", neither had extensive coaching experience behind a bench. Williams has a better coaching resume with a number of years as an assistant, but virtually all of those were as a video coordinator with some "eye in the sky" game day experience as well. Schultz had no high-level coaching experience whatsoever but had an extensive NHL career as a defensive minded defenseman. This is not the typical description of an effective assistant NHL coach in charge of the offense. While both Williams and Schultz clearly have the capacity to grow into successful assistant coaches, dropping them into these brand new roles for them mid-season on a team that was clearly falling apart is unquestionably a recipe for disaster. Sure enough, disaster is what followed.

In any event, it wasn’t until six weeks later, in late January, that highly experienced John Torchetta was hired as the offensive assistant and Schultz’s role was changed. In a sport where the assistant coaching roles are constantly becoming more important, the timing for getting a competent staff was majorly delayed (at best) or, in all likelihood, never actually completed. Six weeks represents a full quarter of an NHL season. To fire AV and Therrien with no apparent plan for how to fill out the assistant coaching staff borders on dereliction of General Manager duties and has to be a major factor in how poorly the team performed after the firings. With a much worse record after the firings, the results were clearly poor…even when factoring in the other multitude of issues the team faced. In this manner, just not facing a mid-season coaching change to bungle represents a definite advantage the Flyers will have in the 2022-23 season compared to 2021-22.

Disentangling the direct impacts of these coaching issues from the other issues the Flyers encountered in 2021-22, particularly injuries, is impossible but just based on the "before and after AV’s firing" goal differentials, an improvement of 5-10 net goals can reasonably be expected in 2022-23 assuming that the odds of John Tortorella and his staff making it through the season are tremendously high.

Detailed Summary

With highly probable improvements in special teams, the elimination of Keith Yandle’s detrimental effects on play, the unlikelihood of a spate of injuries wiping out significant portions of the season for every starting center, and a lack of opportunity for bungled in-season coaching changes, the overall impact is an expected gain of at least 35-60 net goals on the season. That level is enough to move the Flyers closer to playoff contention but, coming off a -87 season, it is not enough in-and-of-itself to put the Flyers into actual playoff contention. Accomplishing that will require some improvements to come the Flyers way other than simply not repeating these "quick fixes" that are likely to come in 2022-23.

This item was written by a member of this community and is not necessarily endorsed by <em>Broad Street Hockey</em>.