Why are the Flyers struggling to drive play at 5-on-5?

Almost every single player’s numbers has gotten worse.

The Philadelphia Flyers are currently third in the MassMutual East Division with a record of 4-2-1 for nine points and beat the New Jersey Devils in their most recent outing. That makes Philly’s season sound better than they have looked to date, as the club has had some embarrassing losses and wins where their goalie has been the star in the midst of abysmal early season puck possession trends. Every phase of the team has had their moments just an eighth of the way through the 2021 season, but what are the biggest reasons behind the Flyers’ inability to control play as much this year?

There’s still somehow major discourse between the eye test crowd and fancy stats crowd, but there’s no getting around the fact the Flyers, anyway you want to cut it, have looked like dookie this season. It’s visible in the way that Carter Hart has had goals pile up against on a nightly basis and nearly all of the tallies against can be pinned on those in front of him, the minute-long cycles against leading to dangerous chances against, and turning the puck over on ordinary plays is just as noticeable in the team’s historically catastrophic play-driving numbers to this point.

The Flyers were dead last with a 43.36 Corsi-For percentage (percentage of the combined total of shots on net, missed shots, and blocked shots a player’s team produced with them on the ice) and 29th with a 43.94 Expected Goals-For percentage (similar to CF % but focused on quality of chances instead of quantity) before the start of Wednesday’s action. Before they posted a 50.84 xGF% in Tuesday’s 5-3 victory over the New Jersey Devils the Orange and Black had a 42.48 xGF%, a percentage that is better than only three teams for the entirety of a season in the #FancyStats era (2007-08 to now): the 2013-14 and 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres, who were tanking for either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel in the 2015 NHL Draft, and the 2016-17 Arizona Coyotes, who were in fact the Arizona Coyotes that year. Although they have slightly boosted their numbers thanks to Tuesday’s win, the team obviously isn’t out of trouble just yet.

The reasons for the severe drop in controlling the puck comes down to a few things. The team was most likely going to struggle early on in the season as they adjusted to the blow of Matt Niskanen’s sudden retirement but before Alain Vigneault got to see possible five-man units roll out the club suffered injuries to Sean Couturier, the best two-way pivot in the league last season, and Phil Myers, who had a 51.85 xGF% with Travis Sanheim while outscoring opponents 26-21 as the second pair for Philly in 2019-20. Niskanen formed a bona fide top tandem with Ivan Provorov last year, as they were one of only four pairs in the league to play 900 or more 5-on-5 together and one of the two pairs from that group that also finished north of 50 xGF% playing 900 minutes or more at 5-on-5 last season (Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon had 57.66 xGF% in 906:46 together for the Minnesota Wild).

The loss of Niskanen, Couturier, and Myers would be a decent enough explanation as to why the team has the puck a lot less at 5-on-5 in 2021. Another reason for the sharp decline could be AV implementing a different forechecking formation other than the one that worked for the majority of last season.

As Twitter user Andy & Rono (@HockeyStatsCZ) does a pretty good explaining, it seems like AV switched from a 1-2-2 formation on the forecheck to a 2-1-2 after a rough game against the Montreal Canadiens in the opening round of the 2020 postseason. The new scheme doesn’t seem to allow the forecheck to create as many turnovers deep and puck retrievals in the defensive end aren’t being recovered and moved as cleanly by Philly’s blue liners. It’s also playing a role in seeing more odd-man rushes against since opposing defenders have more time and less pressure to leave their own zone.

With the injuries and systems out of the way it’s time to figure out who has improved upon or seen a dip in their play from last season as well as how the new guys are filling in. Comparing every returning skaters’ CF% and xGF% between last season and early this season while also comparing the new guys’ numbers with the players they are replacing can give us a pretty good idea of just what’s changed.

Of the 12 forwards who finished with the most 5-on-5 ice time in 2019-20 the Flyers have 10 who are also in their top 12 for ice time in 2020-21. The group of Claude Giroux, Joel Farabee, Kevin Hayes, James van Riemsdyk, Travis Konecny, Michael Raffl, Scott Laughton, Jakub Voracek, Oskar Lindblom, and Nicolas Aube-Kubel make up the 10 attackers AV has leaned on heavily over the last two seasons. Every single skater in this group has seen their CF% drop this season with only two (Giroux and Farabee) above the 50 xGF% mark.

Possession numbers for returning forwards

Player2019-20 CF%2020-21 CF%CF% difference2019-20 xGF%2020-21 xGF%xGF% difference
Claude Giroux54.5251.92-2.653.8960.446.55
Joel Farabee49.1145.71-3.446.8648.131.27
Kevin Hayes49.3544.85-4.549.6149.19-0.42
James van Riemsdyk52.9545.45-7.555.647.67-7.93
Travis Konecny54.7746.67-8.154.5845.9-8.68
Scott Laughton47.336.64-10.6646.6335.01-11.62
Michael Raffl49.2938.3-10.9948.4935.82-12.67
Jakub Voracek53.138.62-14.4852.0139.01-13
Oskar Lindblom54.0241.1-12.9253.5538.13-15.42
Nicolas Aube-Kubel50.4742.5-7.9754.5237.29-17.23

In pretty fitting fashion, Giroux has the biggest bump in xGF% among the returning forwards even though a lot has been made about how flimsy a team that’s won four of seven while down a few key players looks in a shortened season while some have already focused on the fact he hasn’t found the goal column yet. The captain and Farabee are the only two players with a noteworthy positive differential in xGF% thanks in part to the fact the tandem have worked well with Hayes early in 2021 to serve as the club’s only ice-tilting trio at even strength. Of the seven lines that have played 15 5-on-5 minutes or more for the Orange and Black this year Giroux-Hayes-Farabee is the only one winning the quality battle with a staggering 74.24 xGF% and serves as the 11th-best mark out of 156 lines that have hit that amount of ice time this season before Wednesday’s action. On top of that the unit, which has seen the third-most ice time for Philly in 2021 after posting a 2.78 xGF% in less than five minutes together in 2019-20, has lit the lamp twice while only allowing one tally against.

That’s where the fun stops though, as the other six lines to hit 15 minutes of work together make up six of the 35 lines in the NHL with a 36 xGF% or worse. The units of JVR-Giroux-Laughton (36 xGF% in 19 minutes), Raffl-Laughton-NAK (34.48 xGF% in 39 minutes), and Lindblom-Nolan Patrick-Konecny (33.8 xGF% in 27 minutes) are playing poorly enough clicking under 40 xGF%, but at least they aren’t sub-30% like Voracek-Hayes-Farabee (29.41 xGF% in 16 minutes), JVR-Patrick-Voracek (26.04 xGF% in 28 minutes), and Raffl-Connor Bunnaman-NAK (21.36 xGF% in 15 minutes). Regardless of the circumstances it’s obvious a lot of the forwards have underperformed in terms of dictating play this year, but the numbers help paint the picture of just how much the loss of Couturier and a switch in the system has changed the Flyers’ offensive snarl.

A reason why AV hasn’t been able to concoct an assortment of lines that can keep the puck in the offensive zone is the fact Couturier was on four of the top six lines he iced for 100 or more minutes at 5-on-5 last season, all of which were able to work their ways to a 54 xGF% or better. The two changes up front between last season and this one are Couturier and Tyler Pitlick being swapped out for Patrick and Bunnaman. The differentials in ice time make it hard to compare all four players, but comparing Pitlick’s and Patrick’s numbers makes some sense, since both are ranked seventh in ice time among the 12 forwards from their respective campaigns. After Pitlick posted a 46.77 CF% and 47.48 xGF% in 2019-20, Patrick (who missed 87 straight Flyers games and over 20 months of action with a migraine disorder) has a 42.76 CF% and 45.9 xGF% through seven games for drops of -4.01 and -1.58 in each respective category from a middle-six spot. It’s not a significant drop in production, and isn’t overly concerning considering Patrick had some moments on a line with Giroux last night, but up to this point it has helped the drop in overall possession numbers. As for replacing Couturier for Bunnaman it’s obvious the type of blow this will have on Philly’s play-driving numbers when last year’s Selke Trophy winner who led the team’s forwards in 5-on-5 ice time is removed with a chunk of work going to a fringe NHLer currently 359th out of 365 forwards who have seen 30 minutes or more at even strength this season with a 28.26 xGF%.

In fairness to Bunnaman, it seems as though some of his strengths (skating and agility) might be stunted a bit with the possible change in AV’s system as he hasn’t been as consistently deep on the forecheck. Bunnaman isn’t the only bottom-six forward who is Going Through It analytically as a few other attackers on the third and fourth lines have seen significant drops in their stats following a season where they used their straight-line speed and tenacity to create zone time via hard work. This might be hampering blue-collar forwards like Raffl, Laughton, and NAK who are three forwards with horrendous individual numbers this year while posting a 34.48 xGF% along with two goals for and against in 39 minutes as the team’s most utilized line in 2021. Another forward that leans on his forechecking prowess is Lindblom, who (understandably) hasn’t quite hit his level of play from early in 2019-20. It was a tall order for Patrick or Lindblom (who played a total of two games in a little over a year while beating cancer) to come into this season with minimal preseason time to get their bearings, but now they’re also being asked to make up the monumental loss in the team’s puckshare numbers at the same time.

On the blue line the Flyers’ have five players (Provorov, Sanheim, Justin Braun, Myers, and Robert Hagg) who finished in top six among the Flyers’ defensemen in 5-on-5 ice time last year and are currently in the top six this year. Their transition to 2021 has been...terrible.

Possession numbers for returning blue liners

Player2019-20 CF%2020-21 CF%CF% Differential2019-20 xGF%2020-21 xGF%xGF% Differential
Travis Sanheim52.3545.58-6.7751.4950.7-0.79
Phil Myers51.4346.6-4.8350.3448.38-1.96
Robert Hagg44.744.05-0.6545.6337.99-7.64
Ivan Provorov51.7938.18-13.6152.4343.8-8.63
Justin Braun50.7139.78-10.9350.5237.5-13.02

All five returning rearguards have seen a dip in their CF% and their xGF% with Sanheim the only one keeping his head above water in any capacity with a 50.7 xGF%. To go along with Provorov-Niskanen’s dominant possession numbers from last year Philly could also lean on Sanheim-Myers, who were doing well this year (55.56 xGF% in 40 minutes) before Myers suffered a fractured rib meaning the Flyers can’t turn to their two most reliable pairs from last season at the moment.

Provorov was a major part of the team’s success at 5-on-5 last season, but up until now he’s gotten pushed around with the first two defenders to get a crack on the top pair beside him in Braun and Sanheim. Somehow Provorov-Braun outscored their opponents 3-2 in 48 minutes despite holding a 33.34 CF% and 31.08 xGF% (73rd and 71st respectively out of 73 defensive tandems that have played 45 5-on-5 minutes or more this season through Wednesday) while Provorov-Sanheim have one goal for and two against in 52 minutes with a 38.5 CF% and 43.48 xGF% (69th, very nice, and 56th respectively).

Not only does Niskanen’s departure throw the usual pairs out of sorts, but it craters the team’s overall numbers due to Steady Eddie being replaced by Erik Gustafsson. Out goes Niskanen’s 52.2 CF% and 53.93 xGF%, which led Philadelphia’s blue line last season, in 1,105:48 and in comes a 42.5 CF% and 36.18 xGF% for agonizing falls of 9.7 percent and 17.75 percent in each category. Similar to the situation up front with Couturier and Bunnaman, nobody is making the one-to-one comparison as the sole reason behind why the team as a whole has looked depressing, but when the biggest change in personnel is removing a 5-on-5 minute-logging juggernaut and replacing them with lightly-used assets that drag down the club’s possession numbers things may not go as planned.

Provorov isn’t the only returning rearguard flailing out of the gate, as both Braun and Hagg are failing to match last year’s ability to control play in the early going. Braun has managed to go from a tick over 50 percent in both CF% and xGF% last year to 39.78 CF% and 37.5 xGF%, while Hagg turned an already poor 45.63 xGF% in 2019-20 to a 37.99 xGF% early this year. To highlight just how bad Braun’s possession numbers have been this season his 37.5 xGF% is 61st out of 63 defensemen with 110 5-on-5 minutes or more to their credit in 2021.

We knew the loss of Niskanen on the back end was going to sting. Add in the fact the blue line is currently without a positive player at evens while the offense is down an elite two-way player and a few bumps in the road are expected. On top of that a slight tweak in the team’s defensive structure may be allowing opponents to control play more resulting in nearly every Flyer’s numbers trending negatively so far with those who thrived on reaping the benefits of a heavy forecheck and capitalizing on being the aggressor in transition seeing the worst swings statistically. With Shayne Gostisbehere’s return to the lineup and a bit of line shuffling Philly had one of their better games of the season on Tuesday. If they start to routinely win the quantity and quality battle despite Couturier and Myers being out then we could be seeing shades of last year’s Flyers in no time.