Take a look at the Mass Mutual Eastern Division standings. In the playoffs are the Washington Capitals, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Boston Bruins. Nearing the halfway point of the season, the Philadelphia Flyers are in danger. High expectations are without proper execution. The Flyers were once contenders, but they’re turning out to be pretenders.
At the beginning of February, I countered the shot-differential argument in Philadelphia. Through the first ten games of the season, the Flyers outshot their opponent once but were 7-2-1. Philadelphia ranked fourth in total goals scored. Now, ranking sixteenth, the Flyers have outshot their opponents in nine of their last ten games. Recently, they’re 5-5-0, after players began returning from COVID protocol.
Quality has regressed throughout the team. Shooting more, but scoring less, isn’t a mistake with shot quality sacrificed. Along the way, the team is not executing Alain Vigneault‘s system. It isn’t just the forwards. Defensively, Philadelphia has been a liability.
To nausea, disciplined hockey would have corrected the Flyers’ errors. Remember when they didn’t allow a goal against the Buffalo Sabres over a weekend? Defensively, Philadelphia was locked in. Brian Elliott and Carter Hart were focused. After that weekend, against high-powered offenses, the Flyers were rattled by the Penguins and Capitals.
Underperformances against quality teams place Philadelphia under the same scrutiny from 2019-2020. Last season, the Flyers couldn’t solve the New York Islanders or Tampa Bay Lightning. One eliminated Philadelphia from the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs, while the other won the 2020 Stanley Cup. The Flyers have the forward depth and goaltending to be a credible NHL franchise. Defensively, 2020-2021 is a miscue.
Discipline means more than restricting the powerplay chances another team has. It also means playing carefully with the puck. Defensively, the team with the best discipline is Pittsburgh. As a team, they take away the puck with a +31 efficiency, which is lightyears ahead of the second-most efficient team (the Colorado Avalanche at +9.)
Philadelphia ranks 21st in the NHL with a -48 turnover rate. They’re only better than Washington in the Eastern Division. This season, Philadelphia is 1-3-0 versus the Capitals.
Three defensemen (Provorov, Gostisbehere, Sanheim) average more than twenty minutes a game on the Flyers this season. Of them all, Ivan Provorov struggles mightily with turning the puck over. Provorov has forced two takeaways while giving away the puck twenty-five times. Keep in mind, Provorov plays in all hockey scenarios. Travis Sanheim is the only defenseman of those three to force more takeaways than turnovers.
Now, for the other side of the discipline coin. On special teams, Philadelphia is ranked 20th on the powerplay and 27th on the penalty kill. They live in the bottom-third of the NHL, which is an integral reason for their underachieving season.
Special teams make up for two-thirds of general hockey scenarios. Through most of the season, the Flyers have been in control during even-strength hockey. Chuck Fletcher signed Erik Gustafsson, in theory, to make the powerplay a powerhouse from the blue-line. His inconsistency as a defenseman didn’t help him remain in the lineup. Now, Philadelphia relies more on Shayne Gostisbehere, making the addition of Gustafsson moot.
Though the Flyers lost were swept by Washington last week, the powerplay is beginning to find a groove. In the recent three games, Philadelphia scored on the powerplay. Gostisbehere’s fingerprints are on all of those powerplay goals, including two of his own. As the powerplay improves, even-strength hockey deteriorated.
Overall, the Flyers do not take many penalties. The only team to serve fewer minutes than Philadelphia are the Sabres. Unfortunately, a small sample size of penalty minutes can skew the percentage to seem more extreme. The Los Angeles Kings and Vegas Golden Knights only serve five to ten more penalty minutes than the Flyers. They rank 6th and 7th in the NHL.
Five times this season, Philadelphia has allowed more than one powerplay goal in a single game. Of those five games, the Flyers lost two by one goal. Right now, a win on the Bruins or Penguins would be so helpful in the Eastern Division standings. If the penalty kill wasn’t as leaky as they were, those two wins could’ve been.
Correcting the Mistakes
In some ways, Philadelphia has been here before with Vigneault. Through as many games last season, the picture of success didn’t look too different. What drastically needs to improve is the penalty kill. Clearing that one area of hockey will help the Flyers limit the goals-against-average.
Vigneault will have you know his team is trending in the right direction. Slow starts have left Philadelphia stumbling, but in the third period of their last three games, they’ve shown life. Now, the team needs to play complete hockey games. Dictating shots and possession is a start, but defensive mistakes bury any compliments. At the halfway point of the season, the discipline has to arrive.
Photo Credit: Alex McIntyre