Strong performances in special teams usually leads to high placement in the standings. Looking back at previous Stanley Cup Champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning had the 9th best power play and 4th best penalty kill in 2020-21 and the 5th best power play and 14th best penalty kill in 2019-20, the St Louis Blues had the 10th best power play and the 9th best penalty kill, and the Washington Capitals had the 7th best power play and 15th best penalty kill. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Flyers have struggled to put together top 15 performances in either category since 2016-17.
It’s no surprise that their last 10+ years have been so inconsistent, considering how they’ve done on the man advantage or penalty killing situations. Joe Mullen was the longtime power play coach for the Flyers from 2007-08 to 2016-17. In that time, the Flyers only had one bottom 15 finish on the man advantage (ironically it was one of their best seasons in 2010-11). They finished in top 3 four times and had a top 10 power play 7 times. It was no surprise they qualified for the playoffs in 7 of those 10 seasons.
Believe it or not, the Flyers had great penalty killing units and seasons from 2007-08 to 2013-14. They had a top 10 penalty kill 4 times and finished no lower than 17th, which isn’t all that bad considering their last 7 seasons. From 2014-15 to 2020-21, the Flyers have had only one season where they didn’t finish below the top 20. Some very low finishes included when they were second last in 2020-21, 29th in 2017-18, and 27th in 2014-15, and 26th in 2018-19. Once again, no surprises that they’ve been struggling to make the playoffs with such putrid numbers.
In the last 4 years, since Joe Mullen left, the Flyers power play has finished 15th, 23rd, 14th, and 18th, respectively. The penalty kill in that same span has finished 29th, 26th, 11th, and 30th, respectively. It’s been a frustrating era of Flyers hockey and the special teams has played a much bigger role than people realize.
The Philadelphia Flyers enter the 2021-22 season with generally high expectations after the flurry of moves they executed. An underlying facet to most of the moves that were made, was the fact that it had heavy implications on their special teams. Their special teams have been horrendous for awhile and it doesn’t just stop at the power play and penalty killing numbers.
Shorthanded goals allowed has been a sore spot for this team, for whatever reason, for a very long time. In terms of shorthanded goals against, the Flyers have been one of the worst teams since 2016-17. In the last 5 seasons, they’ve allowed the 3rd most, 5th most, 5th most, 15th most, and 7th most shorthanded goals in the league, respectively. The one outlier was 2019-20 when they actually had a pretty successful season.
A very underrated, yet bizarre stat, from the last decade has been Claude Giroux’s power play efficiency. No player has more than Claude Giroux’s 300 power play points, he finished in the top 10 in power play points in 7 straight seasons from 2011-12 to 2017-18, and the power play goes as Giroux goes. Last three seasons has been a different story for the captain, having finishes in 35th position, 39th position, and 87th position amongst his peers. Flyers power play in that same time span finished 23rd, 14th, and 18th, respectively, a clear indication that the power play hinges on Giroux’s productivity.
The Flyers power play was always one very strong top unit and then a very middling second unit. The first unit generally played close to a minute and a half, giving the second unit the scraps. Most of that stems from the fact that the Flyers offense has never really been balanced or deep. The end of the Paul Holmgren era and the entirety of Ron Hextall’s tenure was rough because outside of a few players, the offense wasn’t great.
Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, and Shayne Gostisbehere were the motors that made that power play churn. The triangle between Giroux, Voracek, and Gostisbehere was extremely lethal, which is why they finished in and around the top 10 in power play efficiency every year under Joe Mullen. After finishing with the 11th best unit in the NHL in 2015-16, they haven’t come close to breaking into the top 10 and it has become a very big problem in terms of their success in the standings.
To combat these issues, the Flyers have a lot of new weapons they can utilize and because of it, they can deploy 2 very good units at any given moment. Adding onto Giroux, Sean Couturier, Travis Konecny, James van Riemsdyk, Kevin Hayes, and Joel Farabee are Cam Atkinson, Ryan Ellis, Keith Yandle, and Rasmus Ristolainen.
They might’ve lost one of their top producers in Jakub Voracek but the additions make up for his loss and then some. A true power play quarterback was needed because Shayne Gostisbehere was under utilized and Ivan Provorov looked very bad in 2020-21. Even with his regression in play, Gostisbehere was still an efficient power play producer whenever given the chance. However, last few seasons it was on the second unit with Matt Niskanen or Travis Sanheim.
Gostisbehere at his apex was an amazing quarterback with a lethal slap shot and he had a knack for keeping the puck in the zone. Provorov, for whatever reason, regressed from his 2019-20 season where he scored 7 power play goals. He scored none in 2020-21, always lost the puck one way or another, had issues with keeping the puck in the zone, and had costly turnovers that led to odd man rushes shorthanded.
Now they have several options who could potentially take that position away from him. Keith Yandle is currently the most obvious replacement, if they go that route. He’s one of the best power play quarterbacks and point producers in the league. He has the most points on the man advantage since 2010-11 with 243 amongst defensemen. Since joining the Florida Panthers in 2016-17, he’s fourth amongst defensemen with 114 points, trailing only Victor Hedman, John Carlson, and Torey Krug.
Other options could include Ryan Ellis and Rasmus Ristolainen, who both have featured on the top units for their teams. They’re not as productive as Keith Yandle but it’s obvious not many players have been better over the last 10 years. Ristolainen is ranked 13th amongst defensemen in power play points since 2016-17. Ryan Ellis has only notched 4 less points than Provorov since 2016-17, in 90 less games to boot.
Cam Atkinson is a shoot first type of player that the Flyers desperately need in all facets of their game, none more than their man advantage. Over the years, with pass first players in Giroux, Voracek, Gostisbehere, and Provorov among others, the Flyers power play wasted a lot of time and opportunities. Cam Atkinson is a top 30 producer on the man advantage since 2016-17 with 127 goals, only 1 less than van Riemsdyk in 24 less games.
How the units get formed or deployed is all up to Michel Therrien who has been in charge of the power play since 2019-20. He has made some suspect changes and moves since being appointed, like getting rid of the one time options along the walls with Giroux and Voracek, which was something that not only worked for the Flyers, but the NHL as a whole. On top of that, it was an interesting call to split up the trio of Giroux, Voracek, and Couturier from the top unit.
He’ll have options aplenty and at this point, considering how much talent he has at his disposal, he can’t really go wrong. The power play units from 2009-10 when they advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals were very balanced and dispersed. That is something that we could see in 2021-22. There won’t be one unit that sticks out more than the other, however the unit that Giroux and Couturier occupy, is most likely going to be the “first” unit.
As for the penalty kill, Mike Yeo is just as lucky as Therrien, in terms of the abundance of riches he has at his disposal this year compared to last year. From 2014-15 to the present, the Flyers have had one of the worst penalty killing units in the NHL. They’ve finished 27th, 20th, 22nd, 29th, 26th, 11th, and 30th, respectively in that time frame. 2019-20 seems to be the outlier year for almost every statistical category of late.
It’s no surprise that the penalty kill dropped dramatically once we hit the Ron Hextall era. Before his arrival, the Flyers had 4 top 10 finishes and finished no worse than 17th from 2007-08 to 2013-14. Considering where they’ve placed of late, 17th place would be a god send, especially after their second last finish this past season (73.05%).
The Flyers had horrid defensemen and offensive depth in general from 2014-15 onwards. Seasons with players like Andrew MacDonald, Brandon Manning, Radko Gudas, Michael Del Zotto, Nick Schultz, and Luke Schenn among others, protecting the crease that was being patrolled by either Michal Neuvirth, Brian Elliott, or Alex Lyon for the most part was not pretty and explains why they had such terrible numbers.
Their strategy hasn’t been great either. They aren’t aggressive on the puck carrier, allowing them to hold onto the puck for as long as they want, setting up lethal one timers, or just letting them walk in the slot. Surprisingly they haven’t figured out that being aggressive has worked out for them, a big reason why they were successful in 2019-20.
Up front Sean Couturier, Scott Laughton, Oskar Lindblom, and to a lesser degree Claude Giroux are going to get much needed help from Cam Atkinson, who has 8 shorthanded goals in the last 3 seasons. However, it’s the defense and the goaltenders that get the most help. Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, Justin Braun, and Carter Hart are going to be aided by the additions of Ryan Ellis and Rasmus Ristolainen. They play all situations, eat up a lot of minutes, and are as good on the penalty kill as they are on the power play; maybe even better.
The new additions should help tremendously in all facets of their game, whether it’s even strength or on the special teams. The Flyers desperately need to fix their special teams if they want to become a successful team once again. It’s no coincidence that all the successful teams in the NHL either have a top tier special team unit or a combination of the two.
Mike Yeo and Michel Therrien have a lot more talent and depth to work with on their units and they have no excuses anymore for sub par performances and efficiency. At one point in time, we were used to successful special teams, however for whatever reason, they’ve lost grip of that reality and have faltered into oblivion; especially the penalty kill.
The 2021-22 season is just around the corner and expectations are beginning to increase. If special teams falter again, it shouldn’t shock anyone to see the Flyers miss the playoffs again and the assistant coaches being on the hot seat. It’s very hard to overcome faltering special team units to make the playoffs, unless the rest of the foundations are rock solid. In saying that, Chuck Fletcher did everything he could to add players who can play in all facets of the game and in different situations, which should help tremendously in the long run.
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