Goals are hard to come by in today’s NHL and one team that knows all about this is the Philadelphia Flyers. They’ve had a disappointing year across the board and while their goaltending has been a problem, their inability to finish at even strength has also contributed to them missing the playoffs. They are scoring less than two goals for every sixty minutes of five-on-five play, which currently ranks them 25th in the NHL. What makes this doubly frustrating for Flyers fans is that their team is winning the shot battle, ranking 9th in the league in five-on-five Corsi For Percentage.
When we see something like this, the default answer is usually that a team is getting unlucky and things will normalize next year. This is true in a lot of cases. The Flyers probably aren’t going to shoot at 6.55% at five-on-five over multiple seasons, even if goal-scoring is down across the league. They also received some sub-par goaltending from Steve Mason in Michal Neuvirth. Mason posted his worst save percentage since he was a Columbus Blue Jacket (four whole years ago if you can believe it) and Neuvirth posted the lowest save percentage of his career at .891. If these two had average seasons, the Flyers might be looking at a wild card spot now. That said the goal-scoring is still an issue and it’s one that has been going on for a few years now.
Goal-scoring woes are something that are tough to figure out and they’re also something coaches don’t have a lot of control over. There are not many players who can just fire & score off the rush like they did in the 80’s and there are a lot of goals that happen out of pure coincidence now. With the league averaging a little over 5 goals per game now, they have been limited to small random events and there isn’t a whole lot you can gain by looking at just goals in one season.
That said, the Flyers goal-scoring woes at even strength aren’t new as there has been a trend going on over the last three years.
The Flyers have fallen off a cliff in terms of five-on-five goal-scoring since 2014. It started in Craig Berube’s final year where they were awful offensively across the board and has continued under second-year coach Dave Hakstol. While Hakstol has made some improvements in his two years with the Flyers, they’re playing in the offensive zone more and creating more shots per game than normal. However, the goals haven’t been coming for awhile and they’ve reached a new low this year. Some other stats show that there might be a problem, as Philadelphia currently has a 49.06 Expected Goal percentage on Corsica.Hockey, which takes shot quality into account and 38.5% of their shots come from defensemen.
Again, it’s hard to know how much control a coach has in this instance but we can take a closer look at what the Flyers are doing tactically to see if there’s any impact here. This is something Hockey Graphs writer Ryan Stimson has started doing with tracking passing stats. Through his work in previous seasons, we know that shots that come off a passing sequence have a higher chance of finding the back of the net than ones without. He also expanded on this over the summer by looking at certain passing sequences & found that shots from passes behind the net lead to higher percentage shots and conversely, passes back to the point lead to lower percentage shots.
Intuitively it makes sense, as a pass from behind the net will likely yield a shot from closer to the net, whereas a shot from the point is less accurate and will have to travel through bodies to even get to the net. This type of data is very useful but unfortunately, it’s only available through manual tracking. Ryan has some of the last two seasons tracked through his work & volunteers and I have been tracking this season. I currently have 60 Flyers games tracked for this season and we can use that to look at where the Flyers passes are coming from to get a look at how they are creating their offense.
It’s been awhile since I wrote anything that wasn’t a statpost here, so I’ll clarify my tracking methods. I’ve been using Ryan’s guidelines where the last three passes before a shot attempt are tracked. The three players who made those passes are recorded along with the player who took the shot. The time, game state, opposing goaltender are also recorded but most importantly, the area of the ice where the pass originated from are logged. Certain types of passes are also distinguished in this tracking project (passes from behind the goal line*, passes back to the point & passes that crossed the middle of the slot) so we can get an idea of where each shot is coming from and if teams are making more passes that yield better scoring chances.
*passes that come back to the point from behind the net are not included in this portion
What does this data say about the Flyers?
Flyers 2016-17 Shots & Pass Stats (60 games)
The data from the sample I have tracked shows some similar results to what the Expected Goals says. The Flyers are winning the shot battle and creating more shots off passing plays than their opponents, but they are underwater in terms of scoring chances. The highlighted portion of the passing data shows that their might be something to it, as about one-third of their passes are going back to the point and less than 10% of them are coming from behind the net. To make things worse, almost 11% of the shots they’re giving up are coming off passes from behind the net, which is bad news for a goaltender.
Just from an offensive standpoint, this doesn’t look pretty. How does it look compared to the rest of the league?
Only the San Jose Sharks use the low-to-high offense more than the Flyers, which tells you a lot about where the Flyers shots are coming from. They pass back to the point a lot and it could paint some insight into why they’ve had so much trouble finishing at even strength. The interesting thing is that some of the teams around them haven’t had the same problems when it comes to scoring goals. The Sharks use the points more than any other team and they rank 16th in the league in Goals For% while the Jets, Maple Leafs and Canadiens rank around the top half in the league.
Each team’s personnel has a role in this, though. The Sharks have Brent Burns, the Habs have Shea Weber and the Jets have Dustin Byfuglien & Jacob Trouba. The Flyers blue line isn’t the most threatening in the world, but they do have a couple of talented defensemen in Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov along with the shot-happy Radko Gudas. They also have a strong net-front player in Wayne Simmonds so it would make sense if their plan is to fire away from the point and have their forwards jam for rebounds. How has it been working for them this year?
The final results are interesting because the Flyers are actually shooting higher than the league average on low-to-high plays according to Ryan’s sample of games (4.1%). It seems like they’re going with more of a volume over quality approach because they move the puck back to the point way more often than their opponents. They probably think that if they shoot & have the puck enough that they can overcome this and while they are shooting at a higher percentage on point-shots, it’s still a low percentage overall and the difference works out to something like 4-5 goals. They are also finishing at a lower percentage on passing plays from behind the net than the league average (12.8%), which is a double whammy when you consider that they take so few shots from behind the net to begin with. To add salt to the wound, their own goaltending has gotten lit up in just about every shot category so it’s been a perfect storm of everything going wrong.
If there’s any good news is that some of this will probably rebound and it seems fixable. Philly giving up a goal on 7.1% of the point shots they see suggests the goaltending has been a problem, as those are shots that are generally of lower quality. They should also be finishing on a higher percentage of their behind the net plays. This is where it would help to have more data from previous seasons, because if that has been going on for years then the Flyers have a real problem on their hands.
Other than that, it seems like something that can be fixed with some system or personnel changes. It does beg the question, though: What is more of a problem, the players or the system? I tend to think system issues can be fixed but if you don’t have good enough players to run it then it can fall short. The Flyers are in an interesting spot. Claude Giroux & Jakub Voracek are paid like top-end talents but their forward depth has been a problem and so has their defense.
Is there something they can build off of with what they have?
Flyers Shots & Passes
Here’s a general overview of which Flyers forwards are creating the most offense and how they are doing it. Play-makers or pass-first players are in the right of the graph while shooters are in the top half. Ideally, you want players who can do both, so the top right quadrant of the graph is the place you want players to be. It’s no surprise to see Jakub Voracek here but there are some interesting players here in rookie Travis Konecny, newcomer Jordan Weal and the recently scratched Nick Cousins. He has 16 points in 59 games and his 1.26 Pts/60 ranks 7th out of 15 regular Flyers forwards. Not impressive at all, but does he have more to give? Looking at which types of passes he and the other Flyers forwards are making gives us some more insight into it, though.
Cousins doesn’t look quite as impressive here, as almost half of his shot assists are going back to the point, which are relatively easy plays to make compared to others. You’ll see the forwards here are ranked by how many primary shot assists they’ve created in the “danger zones” of the ice relative to their playing time. Danger Zone assists are ones that come from behind the goal line or ones that cross the middle of the slot. There are a few surprises here, notably Matt Read, who I never thought of as a good play-maker but he does retrieve a lot of pucks behind the goal line, so it makes sense that he would be distributing from there. Brayden Schenn also makes a surprise appearance here, known more for his goal-scoring on the power play. Newcomer Val Filppula also ranks pretty well here, giving the Flyers something they’ve lacked all year as a goal line option.
We can take this analysis a step forward by looking who is on the receiving end of certain passes, which might give us some insight into who is getting to the scoring areas.
The Flyers shooters tell a more interesting story, especially because the top two haven’t been on the team for the entire year. Jordan Weal was only called up a couple months ago and Michael Raffl has missed the last month of the season. Raffl also only has nine goals and this is despite getting to the right areas of the ice. He’s one that can probably blame poor luck for his struggles, both as a shooter and a passer. As for Weal, it’s a shame he spent most of the year in the AHL because has given the Flyers exactly what they needed, someone who can get to the scoring areas. It is also seen Schenn to rank so low here, as he’s a proven scorer on the power play and can probably do more.
What sticks out to me is how low Simmonds ranks and how little he is being used to finish off plays from behind the net. To me, he’s almost the perfect player to use to capitalize on plays like that. He’s proven to be a great net-front player on the power play and maybe they’re trying to use him in the same way at five-on-five by having him act as a screen? It’s seems silly suggest that the Flyers are under-utilizing him, as he scored 30 goals this year, but there looks like some untapped potential there. They seem to be open to doing more with him, placing him on a line with Filppula who is their top passer from behind the goal line, so he has someone to get him the puck from there. Basically the opposite of what they’re doing with Konecny by placing him on the fourth line right now, despite him creating offense in dangerous areas both as a shooter & a passer.
There’s a lot more we can dive into here, like what the Flyers defensemen are doing to contribute and how their neutral zone scheme might be influence their offensive tactics, but this is good as a starting point. The Flyers were very unlucky this year but that doesn’t mean they can’t make some adjustments & improve their roster and the way they play.