Self Implosion: What is Wrong With the Flyers?

Where do I even start? The Flyers started the season with two losses, and two shootout losses. Not everything was in disarray, it was still the beginning of the season and all of the games were decided by one goal (the Jersey game was 5-4 until an empty netter sealed it). The Flyers managed to then win 7 of their next 10 games and looked to have things under control. Little did anyone realize things were about to crumble. Is this the real Flyers team? Or is this a team that has talent, but is lacking in effort, motivation, and discipline?

Lack of Talent? Hardly.

Claude Giroux (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Claude Giroux (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

You hear it a lot in Philadelphia nowadays, the Flyers just simply lack the talent to compete, and are destined to be a bottom tier team. But is that really the case? The Flyers have shown throughout this season that they can compete with some of the best teams in the NHL. The played the Bruins, Canadiens, and Ducks to a one goal game, they played a great game against the Kings to win in overtime, and they’ve beaten two of the best in the East in the Red Wings and Penguins, so is this team really lacking talent? No, I don’t buy that excuse for one second.

Let’s take a look at the defense, because of all things, that is where most of the blame usually falls. The defense isn’t anything great, but it’s also not absolutely killing the Flyers. Take a look at turnovers, because a common point fans love to make is that the defense is always turning the puck over, and it’s killing the Flyers. That’s not really the case.

The Flyers as a team are tied for 13th in the NHL in giveaways (107), so they are middle of the pack. If you want to compare that to other teams, two of the NHL’s best teams, the Kings and Canadiens, are 2nd and 5th, respectively, in giveaways this season. The Kings have turned the puck over a whopping 181 times, and the Canadiens have turned the puck over 150 times, that is significantly more than the Flyers have. Using each teams top 7 defensemen in games played, the Flyers have had 55% of their turnovers come from defenseman, the Kings have had 55% come from defenseman, and the Canadiens have had a surprising 78% of their turnovers come from defenseman. Both Los Angeles and Montreal are in the bottom third of the league in goals allowed per game. The Flyers are 8th in goals allowed per game. Translation? Defensive turnovers are not always indicative of how the defense plays. So what is the problem?

Look no further than the Fenwick percentage. Fenwick is an advanced stat that takes into account the total number of shots a team attempts at even strength, whether

(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
RJ Umberger has been a huge disappointment this season.(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

they miss the net or not (the only thing it excludes is blocked shots). If the Flyers take 20 shots on goal in a period and fired another 10 that missed the net, and another 5 that got blocked, their Fenwick For (FF) number would be 30. Fenwick against (FA) is just those numbers for the opposing team. Fenwick percentage is solved by taking FF and dividing that by FF plus FA. This number gives us a very accurate representation of how the much time the team as a whole spends in the offensive zone versus the defensive zone (If you still aren’t understanding it, take a look at this article about the Buffalo Sabres from a few years ago). These stats have been proven to be very closely related to how teams fare in the playoffs, and even which teams win the cup. So how does this relate to the Flyers?

The Flyers are near dead last in the NHL in Fenwick percentage. They are 26th in the NHL at 46.9%. Aside from the Buffalo Sabres who are by far and away in last place at 36.9%, the Flyers are pretty close to the 29th ranked team which is Colorado who is at 45.0%. To show you just how useful this stat is, and how important puck possession is, in 2010, when the Flyers went to the Stanley Cup Finals, despite having an average (some would say subpar) season, the Flyers still were top 10 in Fenwick percentage at 51.6%. The leader that year was Chicago, at 57.8%.

It’s something that you can directly relate to what you are seeing on the ice. Watch any Flyers game over the past few, and you will see the Flyers pinned down in their defensive zone, not being able to clear the puck, and a lot of times that leads to scoring opportunities for the opposing team. What’s even more important, is that despite the Flyers having a relatively average turnover rate for defenseman, the Fenwick percentage is still near last in the league. What does that tell you? Well for starters, you could take a look at the forwards in the defensive zone.

Jakub Voracek is among the NHL leader in points. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)
Jakub Voracek is among the NHL leader in points. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s been a reoccurring problem for the Flyers all year. I chronicled it earlier in the season, the Flyers forwards are not very good positionally, and they fail to get the puck out of the zone a lot. If the problem were confined to just the defensemen, then you would see the turnover numbers for them be higher. Even if you look at Montreal, who’s defensive turnover’s are among the highest in the league, they’re Fenwick percentage is still on par with the NHL average, showing me that their forwards can sustain pressure and get the puck out of the zone.

So what does that have to do with talent? Well we’ve already seen that the Flyers defense is good enough to give the team a chance to win even against some of the top scoring teams in the league. We’ve already seen that Steve Mason will stand on his head for this team. And we’ve already seen that Claude Giroux, Brayden Schenn, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds can look absolutely dominate when they are on the ice at times, so where does the problem lie?

The Systems Just Aren’t Working.

It’s common practice in the NHL nowadays to just kind of kick the role of the coach to the side, but that shouldn’t be the case. In fact this year, more than ever, you can really start to see the role coaches can play in how good or bad a team plays. Peter Laviolette has transformed a Nashville team that didn’t even make the playoffs last year into the best team in the Central division, with nearly the same roster. 

If you want to look at bad teams in the NHL, teams that lack talent, look at the Buffalo Sabres. They are a team that is in a rebuilding period, they are bad.

If you want to look at a team that makes the most out of the talent they have look at teams like the Nashville Predators or the Calgary Flames. Now ask yourself, if you looked at The Flyers, Flames, and Predators on paper, would you really think that the Flames and Predators would be two of the best teams in the West, and that the Flyers would be one of the worst in the NHL? I don’t think so.

flyers 2
The Flyers lack of position on the penalty kill is digging them into a hole, but it is fixable.

I’ll start with the penalty kill, since the Flyers are the worst in the NHL. I chronicled this before when I did my quarterly observations for the Flyers, teams are exploiting the Flyers cross-ice with ease. They are fully aware that the Flyers chase the puck on the kill, rather than play a box and clog passing lanes, in fact, the New York Rangers have it down to a science at this point. They first exploited it in the playoffs last season, and have been doing it ever since. Now that other teams have caught on, it’s like the dominoes have started to fall. But the biggest question in all of this should be, Why hasn’t it changed?

It isn’t a matter of speed or individual talent, it’s just a matter of players leaving their assignments when they shouldn’t be. Doesn’t that responsibility fall on the coach? Isn’t that why coaches watch film? The problem arose last year, we’re now more than a quarter of the way into this season, why hasn’t it changed, at all?

Speaking of penalties, where has the system of accountability gone? Craig Berube preached so much about not taking retaliatory penalties, and penalties that will hurt the team. It worked for the beginning of the season, but it seems to have been long gone. Friday’s game against the Rangers was a perfect example. Just 5 minutes into the game, Zac Rinaldo got into a bit of a shoving match with Dominic Moore, the play went up ice, and instead of just letting it go, Rinaldo had to give Moore one last shot to the head. 2 minutes for roughing. The Rangers scored on the ensuing powerplay. Why wasn’t Rinaldo benched after that? The 2nd period comes along, Rinaldo again takes a totally unnecessary interference penalty, yet STILL wasn’t sat down.

No accountability. What’s to say frustrations don’t get to Rinaldo again and he takes another bad penalty? Nothing.

[photo: Misha Vaksman]
Zac Rinaldo [photo: Misha Vaksman]
Accountability isn’t even the biggest issue facing this team. Where is the fire?

You’d have to imagine that after losing 5 of their last 6, that the Flyers would come out fired up and ready to play on national TV against a division rival, but there was nothing. They were flat, there was no heart, they didn’t throw the body around, and they got walked all over in their own arena. Who can you place that blame on? A lot of it falls on the players themselves, but isn’t there a point where you have to look toward the guy behind the bench. The Flyers came out against the Rangers on Friday and literally played the exact same game that they played just 9 days ago in Madison Square Garden. Maybe the only noticeable difference was the fact that the Rangers scored one more goal (which came off of a shorthanded 3 on 1, mind you). It’s all the same, nothing is changing. The coach’s messages aren’t getting through to the players in the least bit, and it is showing on the ice.

There’s a difference between giving it your all and coming out with no emotion. The Flyers are suffering from the latter. We know the Flyers can play like a very good team. As I said before, just go look at the games against Pittsburgh or Los Angeles. They were well played hockey games. Where did that team go? And let me reiterate. How can you come out 9 days after you got shutout against the Rangers and play the exact same game as before? It’s not like the Flyers fired a bunch of shots or had sustained offensive pressure. They came out and got shelled. Dominated. Especially on special teams. And from a coaching standpoint that is unacceptable.

Is There Anything the Flyers Can Do?

This almost has the eerie feel to it that everyone saw right before John Stevens got fired in 2009. People started to point fingers at player personnel, the team had no fire on the ice. They were a team that was a year removed from a first round playoff exit and they had lost 5 of 6 right around the beginning of December, when John Stevens was given the boot. Peter Laviolette came in and by late December, he had the team completely turned around.

Should the Flyers get rid of their coach? Right now, it sure doesn’t look like he is in touch with his players. The Flyers have players that can perform on the ice, and a

Steve Mason (Heather Barry/ THW)
Steve Mason (Heather Barry/ THW)

defense that despite being rocky at times, can keep them in close games. It’s a juncture where the Flyers have to decide what to do. This team is composed mostly of the same guys who put up 94 points last season, and had one of the best records in the NHL from December through April, beating some of the best teams in the NHL while they were at it. Keep in mind, they did that with Giroux and Voracek producing less than they are right now. Was that just a fluke? I don’t think so.

There are a multitude of things wrong with this team right now, and the talent, despite what you may think, is not at the top of that list.

The Flyers may need a change in personnel behind the bench, and very soon, if they want to salvage this season.