Flyers’ Lack of “Top-End Talent” Shows on Struggling Power Play

The Philadelphia Flyers officially fell out of playoff contention with a loss to the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday. Their struggling power-play unit, currently ranked dead last in the NHL with a 13.4% success rate, has hindered one of the weakest offensive attacks in the league this season. The unimpressive performance with the man advantage was a major factor in the slump that ultimately led to the decision to fire coaches Alain Vigneault and Michel Therrien in December, and it hasn’t improved since.

General manager Chuck Fletcher will scrutinize the factors that ruined the 2021-22 season for the Philadelphia Flyers during a long upcoming summer. Making improvements to the power-play unit should sit high on his long list of priorities. 

Flyers on the Power Play in Past Seasons

Public address announcer Lou Nolan’s iconic “PECO Power Play” call hasn’t brought out the same excitement from the crowd at the Wells Fargo Center in recent seasons. The Philadelphia power play will finish outside the NHL’s top 10 in 2021-22 for the seventh consecutive season. They will almost certainly finish with their worst conversion rate and league ranking during that time span.

Former power-play coach Joe Mullen helped the unit gain strong chemistry for a long stretch of his tenure from 2007 to 2017. They finished sixth in the NHL in 2011-12, third in 2012-13, eighth in 2013-14, and third in 2014-15. Dynamic players like Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, and Shayne Gostisbehere could capitalize on the top unit even during an era when the bottom half of the roster wasn’t deep enough to sustain long playoff runs.

Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher
Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher (Jose F. Morena/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

Their strategy grew somewhat stale and predictable when the same players occupied the same positions for too long. The unit slipped toward the middle of the pack with 11th and 14th place finishes the next two seasons, and the Flyers moved on from Mullen in 2017. They haven’t finished higher than 14th in the league in any season since.

Therrien coached the Flyers’ power play from the beginning of the 2019-20 season until December 2021. During his tenure, stretches of ineffective power-play time stunted the team’s momentum. The Flyers entered the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs in the Toronto bubble as serious contenders, but their horrific work with the man advantage drastically hurt their chances of advancing. They finished with a 7.89% rate (4/52) during the postseason. 

Related: Panthers Acquire Claude Giroux from Flyers

By the end of the Eastern Conference Semifinal against the New York Islanders, sarcastic jokes about declining power-play opportunities ran through Philadelphia. The Flyers didn’t score a power-play goal (PPG) in 13 opportunities during the series. Their inability to generate pressure in the offensive zone with the man advantage frequently turned the momentum in favor of the Islanders.

Flyers on the Power Play in 2021-22

The same problem reared its ugly head during their long losing streak in November and early December. Entering the 2021-22 season, Vigneault and Therrien emphasized the importance of generating pressure on the power play even on opportunities when they didn’t score. The unit did quite the opposite. Their inept entries into the offensive zone prevented them from gaining any rhythm, and the lack of confidence crept into other areas of the game. 

The Flyers scored just three power-play goals (PPG) in the final 13 games with Vigneault and Therrien on the staff. The team hit an eight-game losing skid, and Fletcher let both coaches go. The team has never fully recovered from its slump under interim head coach Mike Yeo and interim power-play coach John Torchetti.

Keith Yandle, Philadelphia Flyers
Keith Yandle, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The addition of Keith Yandle was supposed to bring new life to the power play. He came to Philadelphia in July as one of the most experienced power-play quarterbacks in the NHL. He led the league in ice time on the power play in 2020-21, and his 244 career power-play assists highlighted an impressive resume.

It would’ve been difficult to imagine the addition going any worse than it has. Yandle hasn’t played the role as a distributor at the blue line with the man advantage to a satisfactory level, and he has been directly responsible for the majority of the eight shorthanded goals allowed by the Flyers this season. He has been a defensive liability at even strength.

The play of Ivan Provorov hasn’t been much of an upgrade. His decisions at the point haven’t been quick enough to beat high-caliber penalty-killing units and goaltenders. An extensive list of injuries has also held the power-play unit back in 2021-22. Veterans Sean Couturier and Ryan Ellis have played very little, and Kevin Hayes and Joel Farabee have missed significant stretches of time. Giroux had been Philadelphia’s best offensive player, but they’re now forced to manage without him after Fletcher moved him to the Florida Panthers.

Fletcher Eyeing Top-End Talent

In November, Fletcher discussed the team’s struggles on the power play while they were reeling in the final days of Vigneault’s tenure. The former Minnesota executive acknowledged the recent history of declining success with the man advantage in Philadelphia, calling their strategy an “everyday question” since he began with the organization in 2018. He pointed out his team’s inability to enter the zone and set up the intended structure cleanly as the most immediate and glaring issue.

He candidly identified personnel as the crux of the problem and made some statements that could potentially foreshadow his offseason plans. 

“There’s no question. The most successful power plays in the league are teams that shoot the puck well from the flank. We don’t have a lot of natural scorers from that area, nor have we for a long time.”

-Chuck Fletcher

The statement about weakness with the man advantage correlates with Fletcher’s well-publicized remarks in January about the lack of “top-end talent” on the roster. Both statements came before he moved Giroux, the franchise’s all-time leader in power-play points. The former captain occupied the flank position at the top of the left circle on the power play for the majority of the past decade.

The top power plays in the NHL feature top-end talent, and each of the league’s 10 best teams on the power play currently occupies a playoff spot. The Toronto Maple Leafs boast the league’s best unit. Auston Matthews brings a lot with the man advantage, yes, but the Leafs also benefit from other top-end skill players like William Nylander and Mitch Marner who can switch almost interchangeably and play from the flank position at times. 

The second-ranked New York Rangers feature Mika Zibanejad, whose cannon of a one-timer provides a legitimate threat. The Flyers have seen the potency of the third-ranked Edmonton Oilers and the fourth-ranked St. Louis Blues in the past month. Top-end snipers Leon Draisaitl and Vladimir Tarasenko both scored power-play goals against the Orange and Black in March. The fifth-ranked Colorado Avalanche feature world-class stars Cale Makar and Nathan MacKinnon, but they actually feed shooter Mikko Rantanen as an effective shooter with the man advantage.

Future of Flyers’ Power Play

The self-admitted need for top-end talent will drive Fletcher’s attempt to “aggressively retool” the roster this summer. Following his comments about the lack of “natural goal scorers from the flank,” he pointed to his attempts to address the issue in recent drafts. Tyson Foerster is one of the top prospects in the system, and the Flyers hope their first-round pick from 2020 can develop into the type of power-play sniper they’ve lacked for too long.

Owen Tippett Philadelphia Flyers
Owen Tippett, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Fletcher spoke last week about the valuable attributes of the newly-acquired Owen Tippett. He hopes that the lone player brought back in the Giroux deal can develop his shot from the flank area, where he has already spent some power-play time during his first six games with the Flyers. The 6-foot-1 righty is part of a recent infusion of youth onto the power-play units. Defenseman Cam York’s role is steadily increasing while Yandle hasn’t played with the man advantage for three consecutive games. Morgan Frost scored the first power-play goal of his career against the Wild on Tuesday.

The development of younger players for the remainder of the 2021-22 season might help the Flyers take small steps toward their long-term goals. However, if they plan to execute the aggressive retool successfully, they will need to find a way to add players with top-end talent who can play to the caliber of the stars who will lead high-powered attacks in the Stanley Cup Playoffs next month.

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