The Habs and Bruins played an incredible game Thursday night to kick off Round 2, but rather than revel in the excitement, I'm afflicted by a gut-wrenching disappointment. Only eight teams can survive the first round of the playoffs, and my Philadelphia Flyers have once again fallen short. To put it bluntly, THIS SUCKS and every fan, in every sport knows the feeling. Fans in San Jose, Colorado, Dallas, Detroit, Columbus, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay are sharing in my pain this week. Before I can move on from another season lost, I'm compelled to ask what happened, why, and examine both the good and bad about my hometown team.
An Abysmal Start
The Flyers spent the lockout shortened 2012-2013 season flirting with the basement of the NHL standings and ultimately missed out on the playoffs, a rare occurrence in the last two decades of competitive hockey in Philly. Head coach Peter Laviolette was widely reported to be on the hot seat, and sure enough a 0-3 start saw Lavy jettisoned in favor of assistant coach Craig Berube. Despite the quick change, the Flyers continued to flounder for the first two months of the season. The tumultuous start had a clear affect on the team's possession metrics and their ability to score.
It took until late November for the team to finally stabilize their play at even strength. The Flyers still weren't great at even strength, but they were no longer a complete and utter disaster on the ice. Special teams play remained a major strength and a strong power play was keeping the Flyers afloat in the standings. Stars like Giroux and Jake Voracek started producing at a respectable pace, thanks largely to a deadly first unit PP.
Post Olympic Surge
Once the Flyers returned from the Olympic break, they went on an impressive run against some of the leagues elite teams like Chicago, St. Lious, and Pittsburgh. They solidified a playoff position and saw legitimate improvements in an ability to possess the puck and win the scoring chance battle. Per Travis Yost of NHLNumbers.com, the Flyers Score Adjusted Fenwick rating jumped from a mediocre 49.08% to a respectable 51.00%. A leap that earned them the distinction of being the most improved team down the stretch. Suddenly, the Flyers were holding their own at 5v5 and even outplaying really tough competition. For the first time in almost 2 years, it looked like the Flyers could compete in the playoffs and maybe even win a round. Fantastic stretch performances by Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Kimmo Timonen, and Mark Streit pushed the Flyers into the 3rd seed in the Metropolitan and a 1st round match up with the New York Rangers.
Reviewing Regular Season Player Performance
This season, I personally tracked scoring chances for the Flyers for all 82 games in attempt to measure which personnel were driving positive results on the ice, and conversely, which players were a negative influence on the the team. A scoring chance is simply a play directed at the net from a high percentage area, loosely defined as the home plate shape you see to the right.
Looking at the raw data can be a bit overwhelming, so I've tried to simplify everything down to a single metric dubbed Chance Differential/60. What you need to know is that players who post a high chance differential are driving net positive results on the ice. No two players achieve their chance differentials the same way. Some players are net positive influences on the ice because they suppress chances against, others because they generate a tremendous volume of offense, and some through a combination of both talents.
As you can see, the Flyers were paced by a very strong season from the first line centered by Hart Trophy nominee Claude Giroux, a surprising rookie season from Michael Raffl, and an astoundingly effective season from aging blue liner Kimmo Timonen. Despite his age and declining skating ability, Timonen carried an otherwise flawed Flyers blue line. But would the Flyers strengths on the 1st line and 1st d-pair be enough to go far in the playoffs?
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
For the Flyers to have a chance a beating an underrated Rangers team in the first round, they needed their star players to replicate strong regular season performances. It ended up being a back and forth series, with the Flyers relying on special teams to stay in games. At even strength, the Rangers were flat out dominant. Goaltenders Steve Mason and Ray Emery were asked to stand on their heads in the face of a barrage of shots and chances. On the right you can see how scoring chances stacked up for the series, and they tell a convincing story.
We can again look at individual performances to determine where the Flyers faltered in the post-season. (This time per 20 minutes to reflect the smaller sample size of games. )
Right away you'll notice some dramatic differences between post-season and regular season results. Kimmo Timonen and Coburn were much less effective in a top-pair role against the Rangers. This led to an over-reliance on a desperately mediocre Andrew MacDonald by the coaching staff. In fact, MacDonald led the team in 5v5 ice time in the series and was a massive liability in such an expanded role. And the Flyers shut-down line centered by Sean Couturier was demolished by the Nash line in territorial play and scoring chances. There was a broader, team-wide failure to develop and sustain offensive pressure. You can't win games, or expect to go far in the playoffs if 3/4ths of your team is barely registering a handful chances per game. Credit the Rangers defense and neutral zone speed for smothering the Flyers attack. With the Flyers scoring depth ineffective and the defense falling apart at the seams, the Flyers were exposed at 5v5. It fell on Steve Mason, Giroux, and the power-play to drag the ailing Flyers to a game 7 at MSG where the Flyers would ultimately end their season.
A number of the Flyers weaknesses in the series were exacerbated by some puzzling line-up decisions. Erik Gustafsson, one of the Flyer's better skating blue liners and a positive play driver, was left on the bench until Game 6. This made the over-reliance on Andrew MacDonald all the more unforgivable. Similarly, the coaching staff couldn't decide where to spot promising young forward Michael Raffl and declining veteran Vinny Lecavalier. Vinny had a legitimately disappointing regular season and was demoted to the 4th line towards the end of the year. Yet, the coaching staff reversed this decision a few games into the playoffs and moved Lecavalier up to the 2nd line. Lecavalier failed to provide a significant offensive boost to the Top-6 and was a notable defensive liability. Conversely, when Michael Raffl finally settled on the top line, he provided much needed speed and a defensive boost to Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek's game. The Flyers best available line-up wasn't dressed until late in the series, and by then it was too little too late.
Searching for Answers
Viewing the season in its entirety reveals some obvious truths about the 2013-2014 Flyers.
- The team relies far too much on stellar special teams to mask their glaring flaws at even strength.
- Another impact defender is desperately needed to help aging pieces in Kimmo Timonen and Mark Streit and solidify the team's depth on the blue line.
- An infusion of speed and skill into the Top-6 forward unit would take pressure off of Giroux and Voracek as the only reliable puck possession forwards at 5v5 and give the team a legitimate two-line attack.
Unfortunately, a number of ill-advised front office decisions have plagued the team this year and are going to hamper any efforts to address the real problems plaguing the Orange and Black.
Front Office Miscues
- The Lecavalier Signing - Vinny Lecavalier was undeniably an offensive stud in his prime nearly a decade ago, but the 33-year-old has quickly declined into ineffectiveness and his lack of defensive competence makes him an instant liability in a Top-6 role. Berube and his coaching staff ultimately recognized this and chose to shelter Vinny on the 4th line post-Olympics. Lecavalier was a prized off-season acquisition that was supposed to help the Flyers solidify the 2C position after the buyout of Danny Briere. Signed to a 5 year, 4.5 million AAV deal, Vinny is being paid like a Top-6 producer. A large contract paired with such mediocre results is a recipe for disaster. If Vinny remains ineffective, the Flyers will struggle to move him and free up that cap-space for better, younger alternatives.
- Andrew MacDonalds's Extension - Yet another player being paid top dollar for mediocre results, MacDonald has been nothing short of a massive disappointment since his addition to the roster at the trade deadline. Making matters worse, he was recently extended to a long term contract worth 30 million dollars and an annual cap hit of $5 million. We wrote about the troubling data on MacDonald in mid-April. And those negative trends continued into the playoffs. MacDonald has been a defensive liability, and a stunning -55 in scoring chances in only 26 games in a Flyer uniform. If he continues to see substantial minutes on the blue line, the Flyers even strength woes could get even worse next season.
Although I'm critical of these front office decisions, its clear the Paul Holmgren and his staff have been aggressively trying to address the Flyer's weakness up front and on the back end. The issue thus far has been the quality of the personnel chosen to fill those roles and a penchant for handing out large, long term contracts to high risk assets like MacDonald and Lecavalier. On the positive side, Michael Raffl has been signed to a modest, low risk extension that could turn into a huge bargain for Holmgren and the Flyers. Mark Streit looks to be earning his contract so far as a 2nd pairing puck mover and hopefully the 35-year-old defender won't decline dramatically with age. A more reserved and analytical approach to free agency could go a long way towards saving the Flyer's from cap hell. Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future, the Flyers must work around the Lecavalier and MacDonald contracts.
Taking a step forward next season is going to require some courageous personnel decisions from the coaching staff and some savvy, cost effective acquisitions by the front office. As we discussed above, the Flyers have some major needs across the line-up. Depending on the potential retirement of Kimmo Timonen, the blue line may need a major overhaul to stay competitive. I think the following options could greatly improve the outlook for the team heading into 2014-2015 season.
- Unleash Erik Gustafsson and Michael Raffl - One of the more frustrating aspects of this season and playoff run has been the reluctance of the coaching staff to trust young players like Gustafsson and Raffl with ice time. Almost all of the data we have on these two points to an obvious ability to drive positive results on the ice. With both players still on cost-controlled contracts, it is worth the risk to take both of them off the leash. Let's see what Gus can do in a Top-4 on the blue line. He's been arguably the team's 2nd or 3rd best blue-liner despite his small stature and would surely boost the Flyer's scoring presence at 5v5. Michael Raffl found his way onto the top line for games 6 and 7 against the Rangers, and he deserves to stay. The virtually unknown Austrian forward was plucked from free agency by Holmgren and impressively posted the 2nd best scoring chance differential on the entire roster. Berube believes Raffl can be a scorer in the NHL, and the early evidence points to "Waffles" being the proverbial diamond in the rough.
- Shelter Lecavalier and MacDonald - For reasons we've already discussed at length, these two should get minimal ice time at 5v5 and need to be aggressively sheltered from the other team's top offensive threats. If they can't be moved along to other team, Berube needs to do his up most to minimize their defensive exposure.
- Rely on the Farm - The Flyers have some intriguing prospects in Scott Laughton, Jason Akeson, and Tye McGinn. In very limited looks, they've impressed enough to warrant a shot on the Flyer's bottom-6. Improving the depth and skill across the line-up is far more valuable than wasting ice time on enforcers and agitators like Jay Rosehill and Zac Rinaldo. The Flyers 4th line doesn't need to be a liability at 5v5.
- Be Aggressive in the Trade Market - Moving large contracts and freeing up cap space would give the Flyer's the flexibility to address long term roster needs. Any possibility of moving players like Lecavalier or MacDonald, even for peanuts, would immediately improve the team's outlook. But Holmgren should also be listening to offers on Nick Grossmann, the Schenn brothers, and even Scott Hartnell if the price is right.
If the right steps are taken to shore up the defense and complement an already elite 1st line centered by Claude Giroux, the Flyers could continue their ascent back into relevancy. Flyers fans should remain optimistic about the future despite an early playoff exit. We'll be taking a closer look at free agency options for the Flyers and other teams after the playoffs conclude.
If you enjoy the statistical perspective, and want to take a deeper look at my scoring chance data for the Flyers, you can find full summaries at the following links.
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Andrew Devitt is an avid stat nerd and dedicated Flyers fan living in Horsham, PA. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewski89