Flyers Left Behind in NHL Scoring Surge

Scoring continues to surge throughout the NHL, and the Philadelphia Flyers continue to lag behind the curve. NHL teams averaged 3.14 goals per game in 2021-22. It was the highest output of the salary cap era beginning in the 2005-06 season (from The Athletic, LeBrun: The NHL’s scoring boom has gone supersonic, with wacky scores and no safe leads, 12/8/22). The numbers keep rising in 2022-23. Teams have scored 3.18 goals per game this season, and the average save percentage (SV%) has dropped nearly a full percentage point since 2015-16.

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The Flyers lag behind with 2.40 goals per game in 2022-23, good for 31st in the NHL. The majority of their opponents simply outmatch them by raw offensive talent alone. Given their lack of first-line scoring, no defensive structure implemented by John Tortorella or stellar efforts by Carter Hart between the pipes will drag this team into contention.

NHL Showcasing Skill

Eight NHL players scored over 100 points during the 2021-22 season, the most since 1995-96. Alexander Ovechkin gradually convinced a world’s worth of hockey fans that he will ultimately retire as the top goal-scorer of all time. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl both averaged two points per game during the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Trevor Zegras showcased puck skills that would’ve seemed unthinkable in previous eras.

John Tortorella Philadelphia Flyers
Philadelphia Flyers Head Coach John Tortorella (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The 2022-23 season has remarkably ramped up the pace and continued the transition of the league toward younger and more skilled forwards and high-octane offensive play. Tage Thompson scored five goals for the Buffalo Sabres in a little over one period of action on Dec. 7 in a game that ended with 13 total goals. It fell well short of the highest-scoring NHL game of the season with 17 goals.

Steve Yzerman spoke on TNT about the offensive explosion in the modern NHL. He credited the heavy focus on puck possession as a major factor in the increased scoring. The Detroit Red Wings general manager (GM) also pointed to expansion saturating the goaltending market and affecting the collective SV%.

Even the fourth-liners have gotten in on the action. Elliotte Friedman spoke on The Jeff Marek Show about the growing need for depth scoring in an increasingly offensive game.

“I just think in this league now, you have to be deep. You have to be deep. You used to be able to get away with your fourth line not doing a ton for you just as long as they didn’t get caved in. Fourth lines have to score now. You have to produce,” Friedman said.

Flyers Falling Behind

The Flyers finished 31st in the NHL with just 2.56 goals per game in 2021-22 above only the lowly Arizona Coyotes. Their leading scorer Travis Konecny finished tied for 115th in the league with 52 points. They dealt their long-time captain Claude Giroux, who sits second in franchise history with 900 points, to the Florida Panthers ahead of the trade deadline.

When they flew out of Philadelphia on Dec. 8 for their current four-game road trip, they occupied the 32nd spot in scoring for the 2022-23 season. Their offensive output in three consecutive losses to start the trip has brought them out of the basement but far from a competitive level.

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“We just struggle generating offense. It’s a problem here. Some is confidence. Some is, we just struggle offensively,” Tortorella said on Dec. 7 after a 4-1 loss against the Washington Capitals. He reverted back to root of the problem minutes later. “We just don’t make enough plays. Plain and simple,” he said.

The Flyers rank 28th in the NHL on the power play, which has not traditionally been a strength of Tortorella’s teams. The New York Rangers finished 28th in the league with the man advantage during his five-year tenure from 2008-09 through 2012-13. The Vancouver Canucks finished 26th in his lone season behind the bench in 2013-14, and the Columbus Blue Jackets finished 29th in the league during his six-year tenure from 2015-16 through 2020-21.

Kevin Hayes downplayed his own power-play goal after the loss against Ovechkin and the Capitals with a perspective on the big picture of the 2022-23 season. “It (the power-play performance) couldn’t have gotten worse, to be honest.”

The 3-on-3 overtime period and the shootout also expose the lack of skill on the roster. The Flyers have the most losses in the NHL after regulation with seven, and only one other team hasn’t earned a single win after regulation. Tortorella most commonly uses one forward and two defensemen during the 3-on-3 overtime, which almost certainly wouldn’t happen on a team with more threatening offensive firepower up front.

Fletcher Builds Expensive, Underwhelming Roster 

General manager (GM) Chuck Fletcher inherited a bad situation in Philadelphia because the overhyped prospect pool of his predecessor Rox Hextall never delivered. However, Fletcher walked into favorable circumstances with the salary cap when he began in December 2018 and quickly ate it away with nothing to show for it. Most teams with salary cap concerns face the problem because they have star players on their top lines eating large chunks of the salary cap. The Flyers, by Fletcher’s own admission, don’t boast enough “top-end” talent. They still have no financial flexibility.

The Flyers missed a golden opportunity during the 2022 offseason to acquire the type of skill player they’ve been missing. South Jersey native Johnny Gaudreau wanted a homecoming to the Philadelphia area, but Fletcher passed on acquiring a player whose point total comfortably doubled the total of any Flyer in 2021-22. He reportedly balked on moving the contract of James van Riemsdyk to clear the necessary cap space because a deal would’ve involved significant draft capital.

Johnny Gaudreau Columbus Blue Jackets
Johnny Gaudreau, Columbus Blue Jackets (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

A major hole exists in the rationale. Fletcher has instead invested long-term money and significant draft capital at many points in the past on other players without acquiring players fit for an NHL first line. He sent a massive haul to the Sabres for Rasmus Ristolainen in 2021 and signed the 6-foot-4 defenseman to a five-year extension in March 2022. After passing on Gaudreau, he outbid an “aggressive market” for free agent Nicolas Deslauriers. The enforcer signed with the Flyers on a four-year deal worth $7 million.

Ristolainen and Deslauriers are respectable professional hockey players who bring value to NHL rosters. However, Fletcher’s decision to prioritize their toughness and physicality over acquiring skilled forwards to play on the top line demonstrates his overall mismanagement of a roster that simply isn’t fit to compete with NHL teams in playoff contention.

Flyers Looking to the Future

Confidence in Tortorella’s coaching style has become the most significant reason for optimism in a bleak situation in Philadelphia. The two-time Jack Adams Award winner readily admits that his team doesn’t have the offensive talent to compete with some of their opponents, and he also controls his demeanor after losses with a sense of reality in mind. He has spoken positively about his team’s development on the defensive side after 30 games this season.

The right attitude, the right coach, and the right defensive structure will play a role if the Flyers can ultimately reestablish themselves in the conversation as a historically proud NHL franchise. However, if they can’t see their biggest problem, they’re not looking very hard. No amount of toughness and grit will cover for the lack of top-end offensive skill in the modern NHL.

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