Flyers’ Special Teams: Can They Fix Their Biggest Flaw?

NHL: DEC 19 Predators at Flyers
PHILADELPHIA, PA – DECEMBER 19: Nashville Predators Defenceman Mattias Ekholm (14) is tangled up with Philadelphia Flyers Winger Travis Konecny (11) during a National Hockey League game between the Nashville Predators and the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center Philadelphia, PA, Predators won in a shoot out 2-1.(Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire)

The Philadelphia Flyers have lived by their 5v5 performance and died by their special team’s metrics in 2020-2021.

It is misleading to believe a hockey team that thrives during even-strength scenarios will be successful. Those scenarios do not paint the full picture. Stealing extra possessions in the faceoff circle while having competent forward depth are only a few ingredients in a recipe of success. Discipline, as we’ve witnessed through 22 total games this season, matters in winning. The Philadelphia Flyers have not been able to take advantage of the opposition when they’ve committed penalties.

Currently, the Flyers have fallen out of a playoff position. Coupling with the inability to take advantage of opponent mistakes on the powerplay is the incompetence to kill penalties. Both aspects of special teams are below the league average. The architecture of the player personnel in 2019-2020 could excel on special teams. In 2020-2021, Chuck Fletcher didn’t make the correct adjustments.

Flyers’ 5v5 Performance

Offensively, Philadelphia is playing well. Their shooting percentage is above the league average, along with the total goals scored. They give themselves quality scoring chances through Alain Vigneault’s system, which accentuates high percentage shooting. To date, the Flyers remain one of the most efficient offensive teams in the league during even-strength hockey.

Adversely, every defensive metric is slightly below the league average. Corsi percentage provides a detailed insight into puck possession. Philadelphia holds a Corsi percentage of 47.1%, which means they aren’t winning possession battles at large.

Broadly put, the Flyers forwards can score. The deeper issue is team defense. At optimum, half of the starting forwards have strong defensive instincts. Throughout the actual defensive unit, there is not a full pairing of defensive defensemen. An unstable defense trickles down to a lackluster performance from otherwise great goaltenders.

Man-Advantage Performance

Through twenty-two games in 2020-2021, the Flyers have performed as well or better than their opponent on the powerplay thirteen times. Philadelphia’s record in those thirteen games of powerplay prowess is 9-3-1. Their best powerplay performance in terms of percentage was during this past series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Flyers won that game, 4-3.

Still, the powerplay team is not working as efficiently as it should. Fletcher spent $3mil on Erik Gustafsson as a rotating seventh defenseman. Gustafsson, for any reason, was meant to be a powerplay specialist in Philadelphia. Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov represent the blue-liners on the powerplay unit. Effectively, signing Gustafsson is a moot point if he isn’t specifically a powerplay blue-liner.

Penalty Kill Performance

Man-down situations are where not surrounding yourself with the correct personnel hurts. Certainly, defensemen who already have a tough time in even-strength scenarios will not have it easier on the penalty kill. Consider that the case with Provorov and Justin Braun on the top penalty kill unit. Of all defensemen who’s played more than twenty games for the Flyers, Provorov has it the worst. He routinely plays the most minutes of any Philadelphia defenseman through every hockey scenario.

Consistency is lacking within the Flyers’ defensive identity. Chemistry goes a long way in creating a formidable special team foundation. In nine games this season, opponents outmuscled Philadelphia’s penalty kill overall. In those games, the Flyers are 3-4-2. By cleaning up this one aspect of hockey, Philadelphia would single-handedly be a playoff team.

Tightening The Defense

Flyers need to make changes

In a gist, personnel changes are necessary on defense. That includes but is not limited to the penalty kill. Notably, playing with offensive defensemen or two-way defensemen on the penalty kill is not exactly ideal. The Flyers lack a defensive defenseman who can stay at home. On the top penalty kill unit, perhaps giving Provorov a break and allowing Philippe Myers to fill in could help.

Vigneault would have to make decisions with his third pair. Against teams like Pittsburgh, the Washington Capitals, New York Islanders, and Boston Bruins, the personnel philosophy should shift defensively. Take priority in playing Robert Hagg. He has been able to clear the puck on the penalty kill the most. If at all, he has been one of the few bright spots in Philadelphia’s penalty kill unit.

When the philosophy does not include prioritizing the defense and penalty kill, Vigneault would be right to play Gustafsson. If Gustafsson is to play, he should be a priority on the powerplay. Doubling up with blue-liners worked against the New York Rangers with Gustafsson and Gostisbehere. The Flyers must be smarter with their personnel. Otherwise, a trade for a franchise defenseman like Mattias Ekholm is imminent.

Photo Credit: Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire