Flyers, Tortorella, and “Trash” Analytics

“I have certain analytics that I think are good, and I think most of them are trash because I believe in the eye test.”

John Tortorella doesn’t mince words, and he is gaining traction in Philadelphia. The perception of an old-school, grizzled veteran coach whipping a group of underachievers into shape appeals to a fan base that hasn’t had much to celebrate for the past decade. The Flyers have started the 2022-23 season with a solid 7-3-2 record considering their underwhelming offensive firepower, their early schedule filled with teams coming off playoff appearances, and their vicious cycle of injury problems.

Related: Flyers News & Rumors: 3 Losses, Atkinson, York, Giroux

However, public analytics paint a grim picture of Philadelphia’s inability to drive play at 5-on-5. Numbers used to measure a team’s ability to maintain their goal differential simply don’t point to a sustainable formula for success. If the numbers don’t improve, can the Flyers maintain their knack for winning hockey and remain in playoff contention deep into the season?

Tortorella’s Use of Analytics

Tortorella never wrote off analytical stats as a useless notion. He downplayed the public models in favor of his own preferences, which is not uncommon for coaches. After his bold statement to the Philadelphia media, the two-time Jack Adams winner skimmed the surface about his use of analytics in addition to the eye test.

“We have our numbers, our scoring chance for and against, and a lot of different things. We go in five-game segments and 10-game segments. I think that gives us a little bit of an overview of each individual player because it’s an individual stat, and then we also have a team stat. So I’m always looking at that… I think scoring chances for and against tells the story, if you’re looking at them correctly,” he said on Oct. 28.

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

The organization recently expanded its analytics department to include five full-time employees. Ian Anderson, director of hockey analytics, spoke in March about the growth of the department and how it’s used by the Flyers. He emphasized the need to take the input and the preferences of the decision-makers in the hockey operations department and communicate the necessary information for them to put into action.

If the new head coach concentrates heavily on scoring chances, the analytics department will concentrate heavily on scoring chances. Public models that have no reason to individualize their content based on Tortorella’s specific vision of the game will differ significantly from an organization’s internal data.

Flyers Struggling to Drive Play

The Flyers rank 30th in the NHL in expected goals for percentage (xGF%) at 5-on-5 and dead last in Corsi For percentage (CF%) at 40.04. They have surrendered 35.8 shots per game, third highest in the NHL. They have lost the expected goal share in all 12 of their games in 2022-23. Their victory against the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday was their most complete effort of the season, and they still earned just a 44.49% share. Their narrow victory in CF% was their first positive share of the season.

The tracking of scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances is the most subjective stat of the public models. The criteria for a scoring chance and the extremity of that scoring chance can differ from person to person, which is a large part of the rationale behind Tortorella’s gripe with public analytics (from The Athletic, The Philadelphia Flyers are becoming John Tortorella’s team in more ways than one, 11/2/22). Public models, however, also show the Flyers with a glaring disparity in scoring chances. They rank last in percentage share of scoring chances and third from the bottom in percentage share of high-danger scoring chances.

Carter Hart Saving Flyers

How can analytics conflict so drastically with the record of a team that has come out of the gates admirably at 7-3-2 despite a new system and long-term injuries to several core players? An NHL goaltender holds the potential to be the ultimate equalizer at the most consequential position in team sports. The Flyers have enjoyed good results despite a bad process early in the 2022-23 season because of Carter Hart.

Carter Hart Philadelphia Flyers
Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The numbers paint a much better picture of Hart than of the skaters in front of him. He leads the NHL with 15.9 goals saved above expected (GSAx) in just eight games, according to Money Puck. He holds a substantial lead on Connor Hellebuyck (10.5) and Jake Oettinger (10.1), and his total is more than double any other goaltender in the league. Backup goalie Felix Sandström had struggled statistically in his first three starts before stopping 27 of 28 St. Louis shots in his first NHL victory.

Outlook for 2022 Flyers

Tortorella isn’t ignoring data and overestimating the strength of a team with a good record through 12 games. He recognizes the lack of top-end offensive talent on the roster, and he doesn’t expect the development of some of his young players to suddenly turn the team into a play-driving powerhouse that can stick with a Stanley Cup contender at even strength for 60 minutes.

“We’re not going to have many nights, I think, with great numbers. The analytics stuff that’s spit out there after each game, I just don’t think we’re going to be a great analytic team. And we’ve talked about that. We’ve just got to try to find a way.”

-John Tortorella

The construction of the Flyers came under the assumption that Sean Couturier would be the rock down the middle on the top line, and his status for the remainder of the 2022-23 season is in question. During his Selke Trophy season in 2019-20, Couturier ranked in the 92nd percentile in xGF% and the 96th percentile of CF% among skaters with over 400 minutes of ice time. Over his past three seasons, he ranks in the 98th percentile of qualified skaters in CF% despite playing significant stretches at less than 100% health. Any team missing a two-way center like Couturier will struggle to drive play, and the Flyers can’t hold their breath for his indefinite injury timeline to end.

The Flyers have shown intangible strength with resiliency that simply didn’t exist in 2021-22 under Alain Vigneault or Mike Yeo. Their goal to “stabilize” in a new system and evaluate young players is on the right track, and the team is winning on the back of a 24-year-old goaltender with a bright and lengthy future as a franchise cornerstone. They have a lot to be proud of during the 12-game stretch under their new bench boss Tortorella, but their advanced stats are still trash.

All advanced stats apply to 5-on-5 play, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick (unless otherwise noted).