Let me get the formalities out of the way first, because I have a feeling that what I’m about to write isn’t going to be popular.
- The Flyers have a three-game winning streak for the first time this season. The Flyers swept the Western Canada road trip, something that’s not easy to do.
- Michael Raffl is on fire, having scored in each game. He now has five goals and two assists in his last eight.
- Jake Voracek leads the NHL in assists, which is pretty impressive, especially since he has now been shifted away from the top line and yet is still producing.
- The power play scored twice in a game for the first time in almost two months.
- The penalty kill has not allowed a goal in the last four games and has killed off 12 straight opposition power plays over the past five games.
- Dave Hakstol finally conceded his system wasn’t working, balanced the lineup better, changed to a more defensive approach – which is helping the team once it gets a lead – and is producing winning results.
- Brian Elliott continues to provide top tier goaltending. He’s started 12 of the last 14 games, and even came in relief in one of the non-starts, and has been the Flyers best player most nights.
- The Flyers continue to lead the NHL in fewest goals allowed at 5-on-5.
So, what could I possibly have to say that wouldn’t be a popular opinion?
How about that this is all a facade and really is unsustainable?
I know, rain on the parade, “old man yelling at clouds,” and all of those typical tropes that are spouted when a minority opinion is presented, are headed my way.
And yet, I can’t help but sit here and tell you that what you have seen on this three-game winning streak, that has my colleagues writing about turnarounds and possible playoff appearances, is no more than fool’s gold, a false flag, a mirage.
And here’s why:
As many of you know, I’ve always been Switzerland in the great argument about how much value to put into statistical analytics in hockey.
In short, my argument has always been that that analytics have always existed in hockey, just not as we know them today. Coaches used to measure Corsi back in the day with their own system of determining scoring chances. All Corsi did was standardize the measurement.
And analytics have taken off from there with some interesting findings but many limitations.
There are those who are slaves to these numbers – and they are misguided. There are also those old school curmudgeons who refuse to accept them at all – and they too are misguided.
The actual positive use of these analytics falls somewhere in between. How to best utilize the information to improve a team’s success?
With every team using analytics in some capacity, that’s the only way to separate winning organizations from losing organizations, with all things being equal.
And there is a lot of equality in hockey these days. Sure, there are bottom feeders, and there are your annual Cup contenders, but on a given night, in a given game, odds of winning and losing don’t sway much more than, say, an average Corsi chart where the better teams are posting a 5-on-5 CF% of 55 and the worst teams are posting a CF% of 45.
Actually, when you look at the list for the season, the best Corsi team, the Carolina Hurricanes, are 54.76% and the worst Corsi team, the Anaheim Ducks are 45.45%.
And those numbers may surprise you. Carolina is last place in the Metropolitan Division, yes, even behind the Flyers – although they have two games in hand on and are only one point back – while the Ducks are only two points out of the final Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.
But, again, there is more to looking at a team than just their Corsi.
For example, Carolina’s power play is awful. It ranks 28th in the NHL at 15.73%. And their penalty kill is even worse at 75%, ranking 29th in the League.
So, as good a puck possession team as the Hurricanes are, they lose games because they don’t have good special teams – and special teams, in hockey, are the difference between winning and losing.
It’s why a team like the New Jersey Devils, struggling to drive the play 5-on-5 and ranking 29th in the NHL in CF% at 46.55, can find themselves sitting in first place in the Metropolitan Division – because both of their power play and penalty kill rank in the top 10.
But one thing is certain, you can’t be bad at all three and expect to be a playoff contender. Even if you are winning games – like the Flyers have this week.
See, the Flyers can tout the fact that they have allowed the fewest goals at 5-on-5 and think that’s indicative of good team play, but it’s not.
What it is indicative of is that the goaltending has been better than expected. It is also indicative of players being forced to block a lot of shots. What it fails to tell you is the Flyers are being seriously outplayed 5-on-5 most nights, which is where Corsi is an excellent measurement.
Lets look at all three scenarios just mentioned.
First, the goaltending
Elliott has pretty much cemented himself as the Flyers No. 1 goalie. His overall numbers won’t wow you, and in the rankings he’s pretty low. His 2.79 goals against average (GAA) ranks 20th in the NHL among goalies with at least 15 appearances. His save percentage (SvPct) of .912 ranks 15th among that same group.
Based on those standard numbers alone, Elliott would be considered a middle of the road guy.
But his team isn’t helping him.
Considering the Flyers are not a good puck possession team (we’ll get to this more in a minute, but they rank 21st in the NHL), Elliott is facing more shots than most goalies. In fact, he ranks sixth in the NHL in most shots faced at 5-on-5 with 562 and of the five goalies in front of him, four have played in more games than Elliott.
In fact, only Frederik Andersen in Toronto (27.96) and Andrei Vasilevskiy in Tampa Bay (27.00) are averaging more even strength shots faced per start than Elliott (26.76).
And at even strength, Elliott is better than his overall numbers with a SvPct of .925.
Not to mention, since Nov. 9, Elliott has had a GAA of 2.57 and an all situations SvPct. of .925.
In short, he’s been carrying the Flyers.
And the reality of the situation is, they can’t expect him to do this every game or over the course of many games. Sure, they can give him the Ric Flair robe like they did after beating Vancouver last night, but Elliott is going to regress back to his mean at some point.
It won’t be an incredible regression, but his career SvPct. is .913, and he’s only sustained a .925 SvPct. or better twice in his career – and in both instances he was a part-time goalie and not the de facto No. 1 guy.
Second, the shot blocking
Again, I’m not someone who has a problem with guys who block shots. It’s an admirable, team-oriented, selfless approach to help win hockey games. Guys should be lauded for it and not criticized, as is the Flyers Twitter trend.
So, when you see Ivan Provorov tied for fifth in the NHL with 66 blocks or Andrew MacDonald eigth in the league in blocked shots per game played (2.42) or guys like Robert Hagg (42) and Brandon Manning (30) averaging more than a blocked shot per game, don’t criticize them for their efforts.
Instead, be concerned that the Flyers don’t have the puck enough.
The Flyers are 7th in the NHL with 439 blocked shots. That means they are blocking 15.14 shots per game.
Think about that for a second.
That’s five shots per period. That’s one every four minutes of ice time.
That’s a lot.
(And to think there are six teams who are doing it more is mind-boggling).
But all this indicates the Flyers spend way too much time without the puck and that, even worse, they aren’t forcing teams to give up the puck.
The Flyers have just 158 takeaways this season. That ranks 29th in the NHL. That means they are too passive when the other team has the puck. They aren’t actively trying to separate puck carriers from the puck.
That’s not me shouting from the press box, “Hit somebody,” but that guy does occasionally have a point.
The Flyers aren’t physical enough, plain and simple.
This isn’t a call for action to return the game to the goon-it-up style that permeated the sport for many years. Not at all. But, there has to be some physicality in hockey. You have to hunt the puck. You have to want it more than the other team.
And when you are only forcing 5.45 takeaways per game, you aren’t doing it enough.
Conversely, the Flyers have 291 giveaways this season (12th in the NHL), or 10.04 per game – almost double what they’re taking back.
Third, puck possession
We don’t really need to dwell on this long, because we’ve made the point already, but the Flyers 5-on-5 CF% for the season is 48.55, which ranks 21st in the NHL.
So, don’t let the whole “fewest goals allowed at 5-on-5” fool you. They aren’t playing great hockey 5-on-5.
And if you want to buy into what they’ve done the last three games. I give you the Game flow charts (courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com) for the last three games – all of which were wins.
The Edmonton game wasn’t terrible, but the other two were. I’m telling you, you can’t win consistently when playing like this. Sorry.
Finally, special teams
We talked about how special teams make such a huge difference in hockey. It can make a good puck possession team (Carolina) mediocre and it can make a bad puck possession team (New Jersey) look like a Cup contender.
So, what are the Flyers?
We already pointed out they are a bad puck possession team. So, to be a successful team in conjunction with that, they need to be better on special teams right?
Los Angeles Kings coach John Stevens looks at special teams like baseball stat geeks look at OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage).
In baseball, that combination, when added together, should be .800 or higher for a truly impactful player.
In hockey, Stevens likes to call it STP (specialty teams percentage).
He told me that when adding your power play percentage together, 110 or higher was the ultimate goal, but anything between 105-110 would mean you are a really good hockey team. 100-105 is acceptable, but you should try and be better.
“Anything under 100 is really not good at all,” he told me. “You very likely aren’t making the playoffs if it’s under 100.”
The Flyers STP currently is 96.41.
Yeah. Not good at all.
The power play is mediocre, sitting smack dab in the middle of the league rankings at 16th with a 19.19% success rate.
The penalty kill is terrible. Even with it’s recent run of 12 straight kills and no goals allowed in four straight games after allowing at least one goal in seven straight, the penalty kill still ranks 25th in the league at 77.22%.
This combination is not a positive harbinger of things to come.
Instead, it is indicative of a mediocre – at best – hockey team. One that is prone to inconsistency. One that, no matter what you read or hear elsewhere, is not rebounding from their 10-game losing streak to suddenly become a playoff contender again.
I hate to be a Debbie Downer on the day following their longest winning streak of the season, but it’s a reality.
These numbers don’t lie.