FLYERS IMPROVEMENTS NEED TO START AT EVEN STRENGTH
If the Flyers are to remain a playoff team in 2014-15, it is imperative that they continue to improve their play at even strength. Power plays and penalty kills run hot and run cold over the course of the season, even for the best clubs in these categories. In the meantime, strong two-way play at five-on-five is the backbone of sustained success.
When pundits talk about the keys to success in hockey, much of the focus is inevitably placed on goaltending and special teams. That's especially true in the playoffs. While these are important areas for a hockey club, teamwide five-on-five play is a better predictor of how far a team is likely to go in the postseason presuming it receives reasonably solid goaltending.
Take a look at the NHL's five-on-five goal ratio
rankings from the 2013-14 regular season. This is what you will see:
1) Of the 16 teams that reached the 2014 postseason, 15 of them ranked in the top 16 NHL clubs in five-on-five goal ratio. Only the Flyers (17th overall at five-on-five) are not represented. Phoenix, ranked 15th, missed the playoffs.
2) A goal will always be intrinsically worth more than a mere shot attempt, especially when a game is still up for grabs. Team goal differentials at even strength had a somewhat higher correlation than Fenwick Close
statistics as to which clubs would made the playoffs. While the two categories are related, there were more outliers when it came to puck possession than the bottom line of actual goal differential at five-on-five.
It is true that the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings ranked first in Fenwick Close but were a relatively low-scoring team in the regular season before coming alive offensively in the playoffs. The powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks ranked second and the Eastern Conference champion Rangers ranked sixth.
However, while 5-on-5 goal differential was a 15-out-16 predictor of the eventual playoff teams, Fenwick Close was a 12-for-16 predictor. Although the Kings scored just 2.42 goals per game (in all manpower situations) during the regular season, they gave up a mere 2.05 per game. Just as important, LA scored 1.28 even strength goals for every one they yielded; the 3rd-best ratio in the NHL last season.
Having a puck possession advantage is important, of course, especially at even strength. No one can dispute that. Nevertheless, the bottom line will always be what a club actually does with (and without) the disc.
Puck possession wasn't the problem for the New Jersey Devils last season. The Devils ranked fifth in Fenwick Close. The issue was that New Jersey struggled to actually put the puck in net enough to make it matter. The Devils were 20th in even strength goal differential.
The Canucks ranked eighth in Fenwick Close but were one spot behind New Jersey in five-on-five goal differential. Likewise 12th-ranked Ottawa Senators and 14th-ranked Nashville Predators also missed the playoffs despite finishing in the top half of the league from a Fenwick Close standpoint. Ottawa was 19th in even-strength goal differential. The Preds were 25th.
On the flip side, eventual Stanley Cup semifinalist Montreal ranked 16th in goal differential but 22nd in Fenwick Close. The Flyers ranked 23rd in Fenwick Close, while Western Conference playoff team Colorado ranked 27th. The Avs were ninth last season in goal differential at five-on-five.
Strong puck possession numbers and favorable zone entries are a good starting place for five-on-five success but they are not the destination. The Flyers have plenty of room for improvement in all of these areas.
3) Among the eight teams that went on to advance to the second round of the playoffs, seven of the eight ranked higher than their first-round opponent in even-strength goal differential during the regular season. The one outlier was Montreal (ranked 16th) sweeping Tampa Bay (ranked 7th).
4) Within the actual eight first-round playoff series themselves, six saw team with a superior five-on-five goal ratio
prevail in the series. One series (Los Angeles vs. San Jose) ended up with an equal number of even-strength goals scored in the series. Only Anaheim advanced despite being very slightly outscored by Dallas at even strength in the series.
Consistency starts at even strength
Teams that over-rely on their special teams to lift them tend to be the clubs that are more prone to inconsistency and the much-cited "lack of 60-minute performance." The Flyers are a good case in point.
Look at what happened to the Flyers during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. The team had the highest combined special teams success ratio of any club in the NHL. Nevertheless, Philly missed the playoffs by a significant margin.
Why did that happen? Poor five-on-five play.
The Flyers ranked 25th of the NHL's 30 teams in goal differential at even strength in 2012-13. That doomed them to miss the postseason despite their impressive special teams rankings.
Now take a look at the 2013-14 season. The Flyers' 17th-place ranking at even strength was a nice step up from the previous year and the club actually improved at five-on-five as the year progressed. Philly ranked near the bottom the NHL early on and pulled themselves up near the middle of the pack by the end. It was a step in the right direction.
However, in the first round of the playoffs, Philly once again ran into even strength problems against a Rangers' team that ranked 10th in the NHL in five-on-five goal ratio during the regular season.
Of the eight series played in the first round of the playoffs, only the Boston Bruins fared better on the power play and penalty kill than Philly. What's more, the Flyers received stellar goaltending from Steve Mason in Games Four, Six and Seven against the New York Rangers after getting solid play from Ray Emery in Games One and Two.
Nevertheless, the Flyers lost the series in seven games. Why? It all started with even-strength play, where the Flyers had the worst five-on-five goals for/against ratio of any of the eight teams in the first round of the playoffs.
Even the very best power plays and penalty kills (to a slightly lesser extent) tend to run hot and run cold over the course of any given season or playoffs. With the Flyers at such a steep five-on-five disadvantage in the majority of their series with the Rangers, they had to rely on their power play to offset that disadvantage while also being virtually flawless on the penalty kill, especially as the more heavily penalized team.
In the games where the Flyers' power play clicked (Games Two, Four and Six), they won. In the games in which Philly's power play was frustrated (Games Three, Five and Seven), they lost.
Game One was almost entirely played at five-on-five until Jason Akeson's fateful high sticking double-minor in the third period. New York wore the Flyers down at five-on-five. The score remained tied at 1-1 until the Rangers' power play cashed in on both ends of the Akeson penalty.
Thereafter, the Flyers gave in to frustration and took a slew of penalties late in the game as New York ended up with a 6-to-1 advantage in power plays. Carl Hagelin added an extra insurance goal at even strength to create a 4-1 final.
New York scored on three of its first eight power plays in the series. Thereafter, the Flyers killed off each of the next 21 Blueshirt advantages. That went a long way toward enabling the Flyers to be able to take the Rangers to the full seven games.
In the end, Philly's superior special teams and goaltending play brought them to the brink of knocking off New York. The Flyers just couldn't get enough five-on-five push to take them over the top and win the series.
Despite all the media focus on power plays, the Rangers won the series because they were the better even strength team. That is far more often than not how it goes in hockey.
Three keys to continued five-on-five improvement
I have said this before and will say it again: Five-on-five success can be achieved in many different ways. It's about team play and puck support and most certainly about players keeping their feet moving (even if they lack blazing speed).
Today's NHL places a premium on big players who can also skate well. That is not to say that a player cannot compensate in other ways if he lacks one attribute or the other, but it is ideal to have both brawn and speed.
Inevitably, when people focus on the Flyers' skating, it is the defense corps that gets scrutinized. I would argue that it is easier to compensate for lack of blueline speed than it is for average-to-below-average speed in the forward corps. With defensemen, it's more important to make a good first pass and to be positionally sound than it is to skate like the wind.
The final trait is certainly nice to have, too. However, a fast defensemen who constantly gets outmuscled is just as much of a trade-off as a big and strong defender who lacks speed and is in trouble if he can't get an angle on an attacker. Ultimately, successful teams need a blend of puck movers and reliable stay-at-home defenders.
As Flyers club president Paul Holmgren said whenever he was asked about the club's team speed, the puck moves faster than any player can skate. That is why Craig Berube constantly harps on the need for the players to think faster, react quicker and keeping their feet moving.
With that said, there is only so much a team can do if it is has average to below average speed on a teamwide basis. The Flyers constantly insist they are not a "slow" team. The truth of the matter is that they have some plus skaters and some savvy skaters but plenty of average ones and two somewhat below average ones on defense. Last season, when the club executed Berube's system effectively, they stayed in motion and fared OK.
Nevertheless, the Rangers and many other clubs had a superior individual collection of skaters and tended to be more consistent in the skating department on a teamwide basis as well.
Therein lies the root cause of Philly's inconsistency in five-on-five play; they have to work MUCH harder on a teamwide level to compensate because there aren't many Flyers players who can just turn on the afterburners. After a relatively quiet postseason -- with the major exception of the swapping of Scott Hartnell for R.J. Umberger and the signing of Michael Del Zotto after the diagnosis of Kimmo Timonen's health issues -- it is tough to argue that the Flyers "got faster" as a team. Most of the personnel is the same. As such, they will have to compensate through improved conditioning and dedication to staying on-system.
Over the course of last season, the Flyers displayed above-average scoring depth up front and got over 30 goals from the defense as well. The latter carried over to the postseason, as Philly got four goals from defensemen; two at five-on-five, one at four-on-four and one on a delayed penalty that created a six-on-five attack. Unfortunately, the forwards really didn't hold up their end of the bargain.
In light of Timonen's career-threatening issues with blood clots that could keep him out of most or all of the 2014-15 season, it is truly going to take a teamwide effort for the Flyers to trend upward in five-on-five goal differential. They will have to be greater than the sum of their parts, especially on the defensive side of the puck.
QUICK HITS: SEPTEMBER 10
* The staff at NHL.com compiled a list of the top 60 prospects
around the league. The panel consisted of three NHL scouts and NHL.com staff writers Adam Kimelman, Corey Masisak and Mike Morreale. Three Flyers prospects made the list: Scott Laughton (30th), Robert Hägg (55th) and Shayne Gostisbehere (58th). Samuel Morin received enough votes for an honorable mention but did not make their top 60. Travis Sanheim did not receive any votes.
* NHL.com's Masisak, Arpon Basu, Brian Compton and Dan Rosen polled themselves as the panelists for a preseason ranking of the top 14 NHL goaltenders
. Flyers goaltender Steve Mason did not receive a top 14 vote from any of the panelists. The same panel also ranked the top 14 centers
(Hart Trophy finalist Claude Giroux finished ninth), the top 14 right wingers
(Jakub Voracek ranked 9th, Wayne Simmonds did not place but was ranked 14th on Compton's list), left wingers (no Flyers), and defensemen (no Flyers).
* Flyers Alum birthday: Chris Joseph, who served as the Flyers' seldom-used seventh defenseman during the 1997-98 season and a brief portion of the 1998-99 campaign, turns 45 today. The Flyers signed Joseph as an unrestricted free agent on Sept. 1, 1997.
Joseph made the team out of camp and due to injuries in the lineup, started each of the first five games of the season. His best game came on Oct. 9, 1997, when he skated 21:09 and scored the game-winning goal midway through the third period of a 3-1 home win against the Pittsburgh Penguins (Joseph's former team). Thereafter, Joseph was a healthy scratch in 44 of the next 45 games.
In total, Joseph dressed in 17 regular season games and one playoff match for the Flyers in 1997-98. He appeared in two NHL games for the Flyers during the first half of the next season but spent the majority of the 1998-99 campaign in the AHL with the Phantoms as well as a stint with the International Hockey League's Cincinnati Cyclones.
* Today in Flyers History: On Sept. 10, 1992, the Flyers signed defenseman Dmitri Yushkevich to his first NHL contract. The Russian rookie went on have a very promising first season in the NHL, posting five goals, 32 points, 71 penalty minutes and a plus-12 rating for a 1992-93 Flyers club that missed the playoffs.
* The regular season is about to get underway in the CHL leagues and much of Europe this week. The KHL regular season started last week. On Monday, Flyers prospect Valeri Vasiliev skated 13:21 of ice time and was credited with three hits in an 8-5 win for Avangard Omsk against Vityaz Chekhov. He was plus one. Former Flyers defenseman Erik Gustafsson scored his first KHL goal in the game and notched a pair of assists.
* During the NHL Players' media tour, Flyers forwards Wayne Simmonds and Claude Giroux could not resist commenting on the hairstyle and wardrobe that Jakub Voracek sports. Simmonds joked that Voracek looks like "he combs his hair with a pork chop."
Video from NHL.com