The Philadelphia Flyers will look to reform their franchise identity this season after consecutive disastrous seasons in 2020-21 and 2021-22. The penalty-killing unit will be one major focus of their intended improvement. They finished 26th in the NHL with a success rate of 75.7% in 2021-22. Their collective rate over the past two seasons is 74.6%, the worst of any NHL team.
The Flyers also finished 20th or worse in the league on the penalty kill (PK) for five consecutive seasons from 2014-15 through 2018-19, and one solid season in 2019-20 fell by the wayside quickly along with most elements of continuity within the organization. Newly-hired head coach John Tortorella will set out to change the team’s game from the ground up, but how much of a turnaround can they achieve in 2022-23?
Tortorella and Shaw
Tortorella will attempt to implement structure to a team that limped down the stretch without it last season. The Flyers played with no attention to detail in their game, and sloppy mistakes frequently turned into backbreaking goals that came to feel like the norm. They struggled to break the puck out of their own zone and play a passable transition game on their way to a last-place finish in the Metropolitan Division.
The new coaching staff intends to establish a more suitable level of accountability regardless of the talent level on the roster. Killing penalties has never been an element of the game that requires tremendous skill. It’s more about willingness to take on tough minutes, block shots, close passing lanes in the defensive zone, and defend the blue paint.
Assistant coach Brad Shaw will oversee the defensemen and the penalty kill after occupying the same responsibilities for five of Tortorella’s six seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets from 2015-16 through 2020-21. During Shaw’s tenure, the Blue Jackets ranked 12th in the NHL on the penalty kill with an 80.9% kill rate. The St. Louis Blues had the league’s second-best penalty kill during his tenure as an assistant coach from 2006-2016. The New York Rangers owned the best penalty killing rate in the NHL at 85.5% over the span of Tortorella’s tenure from 2008-2013.
“The familiarity in working closely with Brad in the past and knowing his approach to the game will be a big benefit to our club. Brad’s experience both as a former defenseman and the many years in the coaching ranks has allowed him to implement a style which makes his teams hard to play against while allowing players to thrive in their role,” Tortorella said about the hire.
The moving parts of the coaching staff did not benefit the Flyers last season. They began the season with Mike Yeo in charge of the PK, but his promotion to interim head coach shuffled the deck amidst collective chaos in Philadelphia. Nick Schultz took over the unit in December when the Flyers fired Alain Vigneault, but Darryl Williams then took the responsibilities in February.
Ivan Provorov led the team in shorthanded minutes per game in 2021-22, closely followed by his regular partner Justin Braun. While Provorov’s durability to log big minutes in all situations is a strength of his game, he will need to buy into Tortorella’s system and take accountability for shortcomings in his game if he wants to be a part of the solution in Philadelphia.
Braun provides a stable veteran presence on the back end. His teammates and the coaching staff consistently lauded his willingness to sacrifice his body to block shots and energize the bench last season before the Flyers dealt him to the Rangers in March. While the 35-year-old still has a place in the NHL, the decision to bring him back in free agency indicates a comfort level that shouldn’t exist within the organization after the failure of the past two seasons.
Keith Yandle played 77 games for the Flyers in 2021-22, and the coaching staff never felt comfortable using him in shorthanded situations. Cam York will likely begin the season in Yandle’s vacated spot on the left side of the third pair. He showed promise in 30 games last season, and he will look to progress and earn the trust of the coaching staff to play key minutes on the PK throughout the season. Travis Sanheim and Rasmus Ristolainen will likely make up the defensive pair on the second unit, and newcomer Tony DeAngelo won’t make a major impact on the PK.
Tortorella and Shaw will need to find the right mix of forwards to play the PK. Sean Couturier led Flyers forwards in shorthanded ice time per game in his 29 contests in 2021-22. He hopes to return fully healthy and regain the form he showed as the Selke Trophy winner in 2019-20. Cam Atkinson and Scott Laughton were the most consistent penalty killers among the forwards last season, and they will likely take on significant shorthanded minutes to start the season.
The 2019-20 Flyers season was their most successful of the past decade, and it’s no coincidence that a healthy Kevin Hayes in his first season of a seven-year contract helped the PK unit improve drastically the same year. The 6-foot-5 center used his big frame to stall plays and maintain puck control on the PK regularly, and his knack for timely shorthanded goals (SHGs) helped him solidify his status within the team’s leadership group.
A combination of underperformance, injuries, and unfortunate circumstances off the ice stunted him in 2020-21 and 2021-22. However, the presence of Tortorella could jumpstart Hayes back to the sparkplug player he looked like three seasons ago. His performance on the PK will be the most crucial of any Flyers skater.
Free-agent signing Nicolas Deslauriers might take on shorthanded minutes in 2022-23. The Flyers handed him to a four-year deal worth $7 million, and he will need to play a role as more than an enforcer to justify the investment. Rookie Noah Cates brings a skill set tailor-made for penalty killing. With an active stick and a defensively responsible game, he could win the favor of the coaching staff quickly.
Flyers by the Numbers
The Flyers allowed 8.02 expected goals against per 60 minutes (xGA/60) when facing a 5-on-4 disadvantage in 2021-22. Despite surrendering a rate 11% above the league average, the mark landed them 21st in the NHL ahead of three Western Conference playoff teams in the Nashville Predators, Los Angeles Kings, and Edmonton Oilers. The stat suggests that consistent goaltending on the PK in 2022-23 could help even out the disparity between expected goals against and actual goals against.
The Flyers scored six SHGs in 2021-22 after only scoring one in 2020-21, which came late in the season after the team had fallen out of playoff contention. Atkinson sits second in the NHL over the past decade in SHG behind only Brad Marchand. He flourished under Shaw in Columbus during the prime years of his career. He has the traits of the type of heart and soul player that can help set a new standard in Philadelphia for how to handle tough minutes on the PK. He led the team with three SHGs last season.
The Flyers prioritized improving intangible elements of their organization above improving their talent level during the 2022 offseason. Members of the organization have emphasized a new standard and a level of accountability. Tortorella appropriately tagged these “cool summertime words” because they have no meaning unless the players can put them into action when the season begins.
Hockey clichés fit references to the penalty kill more so than most other circumstances in the sport. The idea of the willingness to sacrifice the body to make tough plays that help the team becomes more prevalent in shorthanded situations. The continuity of a team that can enact these subjective ideas improves based on energy and pride. The benefits of grit and intensity align with the type of attitude Tortorella is supposed to instill, in theory. If the Flyers can bring that kind of effort to an improved PK unit, they will take a major step in the direction of reshaping the organization after the embarrassment of the past two seasons.
Colin Newby is a freelance journalist from Delaware County, PA covering the Philadelphia Flyers for The Hockey Writers. He is an encyclopedia of useless sports knowledge with an uncanny ability to rattle off Flyers goaltending stats from 2004 and every Stanley Cup winner during his lifetime. The depths of his knowledge stem from spending his entire life following the Flyers and the NHL, from fan favorites like the “Legion of Doom” and Claude Giroux to forgotten journeymen like Andy Delmore and Branko Radivojevič. He joined the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association (PHWA) in 2022.
Colin also covers the Philadelphia Eagles and works for 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia.