A season ago, the Flyers were arguably the worst special teams squad in the NHL.
The penalty kill was historically awful before having a good finish to earn a very small modicum of respectability. The power play was incredibly disappointing, especially with a cast of characters with a history of being beasts with the man advantage. It was something that absolutely had to get better if the Flyers were going to improve.
Well, through two games, that’s exactly what we have. Vast improvement.
The Flyers scored two power play goals and killed off five penalties – including a full two-minute, two-man shorthanded situation – en route to beating the New Jersey Devils 4-0.
Carter Hart made 25 saves to record his first NHL shutout, becoming the youngest Flyers goalie to ever blank an opponent (the old record was held by Dominic Roussel).
Head Coach Alain Vigneault made a point to say that specialty teams would be a focus of his teams practices as they often swing outcomes of games.
So far, it’s working.
Let’s break it down:
The most impressive thing about the power play is the success of the second unit.
So far the second power play group has scored a goal in each game. Travis Konecny has one in the Chicago game. Against the Devils it was Ivan Provorov:
— Philadelphia Flyers (@NHLFlyers) October 10, 2019
I’d have to watch a replay of every power play goal from last season to give you an actual breakdown, but at first glance, the second unit last year had only nine goals for the entire year (Konecny 4, Travis Sanheim 2, Oskar Lindblom 2, Nolan Patrick 1).
It’s possible that a couple of those came with the top unit just like it’s possible that a couple of the other power play goals from guys like James van Riemsdyk or Wayne Simmonds came while playing on the second unit.
So, for arguments sake, let’s say nine was the total for the second unit for the season.
That’s a terrible number. It’s so terrible that the team getting two in two games to start the season is considered noteworthy.
But it’s interesting to see what the Flyers are doing with these units. They are uniquely different.
The top unit, which got a goal from Kevin Hayes against New Jersey, consists of Hayes, Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, van Riemsdyk and Shayne Gostisbehere. This group has changed it’s approach. Instead of having Giroux operate on the half wall on the left wing, the flyers are now deploying him on the right half wall, giving him more net to shoot at.
Van Riemsdyk is still the net-front presence. Hayes positions himself in the slot. Ghost is on the point and Voracek is on his strong side, giving him more passing options. Having Giroux play on his offhand side forces the opposing penalty kill to have to make choices. With his skill, defensive players have to really make a choice whether to take away a passing lane or try and get in the way of a potential shot. It wasn’t as much of a decision when he was on his stronger wing as it was less stressful on a goalie to get into proper position to make a save. Now, goalies are on a swivel as they try to stop Giroux, who the power play still runs through.
This opens up space for his teammates and creates a real advantage for the Flyers.
As for the second unit, Sean Couturier, Travis Konecny and Oskar Lindblom are staying together as a line, and the Flyers are giving them two defensemen – Provorov and Matt Niskanen. While I’d still like to see Sanheim get more of a power play role, Provorov and Niskanen work nicely from the blue line to the top of the circles. They alternate as to who stays on the point and who steps up into a more offensive position. Against the Devils it was Provorov.
Konecny has the speed to create space. Couturier is good from the slot in. Lindblom isn’t afraid to go to the net. It;s a different style and they aren’t being forced to try and do the same thing the top unit is doing. That’s a key.
Your best penalty killer is, was and always will be your goalie. Having Hart play like he played against the Devils will always make everyone else look good. I mean, this save alone is worth watching on repeat 1,000 times:
— Philadelphia Flyers (@NHLFlyers) October 10, 2019
But the first thing that I’ve noticed about the PK so far this season is the willingness to do whatever it takes to keep the puck out of the net.
In other words, the players on that PK are being held accountable to one another. It’s no longer just one or two guys who are willing to go all out to stop the puck – whether that means blocking a shot, or giving max effort to break up a pass – its the entire team.
There is a real “I got your back” mentality that’s showing with this group. If one guy gives max effort, so are the other three or four guys on the ice. They are playing for one another, something that seemed to be lacking at times in the last two seasons.
It’s really noticeable You can hear it in the locker room. You can see it on the ice. It’s definitely different. And here’s the reason I believe that to be so:
The Assistant Coaches
I’ll admit, I was the among the first to scratch my head over the decisions to bring in Michel Therrien and Mike Yeo as assistant coaches.
Therrien was always viewed upon negatively by players when he was a head coach, whether it was at the NHL or AHL level. I used to hear horror stories from players that go back nearly two decades. And Yeo failed as a head coach in the NHL twice, and in both cases his special teams weren’t very good – why would he suddenly be a reliable voice?
But what I didn’t take into account was the alternate factors with both coaches – the intangibles that made them good coaching candidates to begin with.
Vigneault told Russ and I on the Snow the Goalie podcast that Therrien was looking forward to the opportunity to be in a role where he didn’t have to be the bad guy anymore. That’s understandable. Head coaches often have a tough time figuring out where that demarcation line is between being a players coach and being a demanding coach. Many times, coaches either are too lenient with players (a la John Stevens) or push things too far – as Therrien did in multiple stops.
Here, he doesn’t have to worry about that. That’s Vigneault’s job. Therrien can just focus on what he does well – creating a good, sound, hockey strategy. And as the guy in charge of the power play, he is tasked with finding ways to make it work that fit the talents of the players on the roster, not forcing them to play a system that won’t showcase those talents.
So far so good.
As for Yeo, he was once one of those hot assistant coaches who many thought would be a great head coaching candidate. He earned that reputation for the work he did as an assistant in Pittsburgh, where he really turned around a mediocre-at-best penalty kill for what would be an eventual Stanley Cup champion.
Not having to worry about being “the guy” and getting back to his roots as a top-flight assistant, Yeo too can narrow his focus and contribute to the team’s success.
Two games does not a season make. Baseball fans will remember the Phillies looked like World Series contenders after four games in April, and six months later they are making wholesale changes after a disappointing season. But, it’s worth noting that there is a tangible structure in place for the Flyers right now and they are being rewarded early for it.
That bodes well for them moving forward.
For more Flyers coverage, check out Snow The Goalie Radio Mondays from 5-6PM on 610 ESPN Philadelphia and subscribe to Snow The Goalie: A Flyers Podcast, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, GooglePlay, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and wherever else you get your podcasts. Also be sure to tune into The Press Row Show as Anthony and Russ live stream during pregame and the first and second intermission breaks of every Flyers home game live from press row of the Wells Fargo Center via the Crossing Broad Facebook page and Twitter.