2012-13 Philadelphia Flyers Preview: No Longer With Pronger

Eric T.
August 30 2012 08:24AM

Bryzgalov
Bryzgalov spent the off-season working on his camouflage so he can hide from the Philadelphia media
photo by Andrey Godyaykin (www.for-wikimedia.bolshoisport.ru), via Wikimedia Commons

The Flyers have an amazing ability to lead the league in both long contracts and roster turnover.

Even after trading away Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, and James van Riemsdyk; even after failing to add Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, or Shea Weber on offered 10+ year contracts, the Flyers still have more players signed through 2015-16 than any other team (they have nine; Montreal and Carolina are next with seven).

And yet the Flyers are still not long on roster stability, as they have continually turned over the roster in recent years -- the longest-tenured Flyer is Braydon Coburn, and the longest-tenured player who they drafted is Claude Giroux.

Depite the turnover, the Flyers have been extremely successful. Over the last five years, their worst season was either 88 points and a Wales Trophy in '09-10 or 99 points and a first-round playoff loss in '08-09. Can that continue this year?

Forwards

Last year the Flyers were second in the league in scoring, but there are a lot of reasons to expect a decline. They lost two offensive threats in Jaromir Jagr and James van Riemsdyk. In addition, Claude Giroux (unsustainable power play assists), Scott Hartnell (spike in power play shots), Matt Read (very high shooting percentage), and Max Talbot (sh% nearly double previous career rate) all show reasons to think we might expect a bit of a drop-off.

Where can they make up for that? Their lone addition -- Ruslan Fedotenko -- certainly isn't expected to provide much offense. Some are hoping for a rebound from Daniel Briere, but a list of recent comparables isn't encouraging.

Whoever moves up to the top-line spot that Jagr vacated -- most likely Jakub Voracek -- should see increased output from both the added ice time and the benefits of playing with a top passer. But given their age and performance in juniors, we might expect the largest increases in output to come from Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn (although Schenn's improvement might be limited because he won't draw opponents as soft as last year's).

Still, Schenn and Couturier would have to average roughly 60 points to make up for the offense Jagr and van Riemsdyk provided last year -- and even then we might expect a bit of regression. Even with an optimistic view of their talent, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Flyers' offense will slip back a bit; they'll still be very good, but we shouldn't expect them to finish second in goals scored again.

To put it in a less individual-centric perspective, part of why the Flyers scored so many goals is that they had an extremely high shooting percentage, third-highest in the league. We know that shooting percentages are variable and that we shouldn't expect them to get those results again. So unless they become an elite puck possession team -- and in the last five years they haven't been better than ninth in Fenwick close (shot differential in situations where score effects are small) -- it's unreasonable to expect them to have an elite offense again.

Defense

While a bit of regression might be expected at the offensive end, it's the defense that really concerns me with Chris Pronger and Andrej Meszaros hurt and Matt Carle gone.

Meszaros went down with an injury two days after the trade deadline. For most of the rest of the season, the Flyers' lineup looked much like it will this year, with two changes: Fedotenko replaces Jagr, and Luke Schenn replaces Carle.

From the trade deadline on, their Score-adjusted Fenwick (shot differential after accounting for score effects) was 49.6%, 19th in the league. Unless Luke Schenn is going to markedly outplay Carle, this is not a good sign for the coming season.

Many fans are excited about Luke Schenn, a defenseman who lays big hits and blocks a lot of shots. But while those things are easy for a fan to see, they don't necessarily have a strong correlation to winning. There's no doubt that he has physical tools and potential, but he's had a decidedly rocky start to his career. He was on the third pairing for Toronto -- one of the worst defensive teams in the league last year -- so expecting him to be a solid top-four defenseman for a contender seems optimistic.

The player he replaces is almost the exact opposite. A smaller, more positional player, Carle pushes play forward through plays that look routine and often escape fans' attention. As a puck-mover, he commits turnovers that people notice and get frustrated by, and makes subtle decisions that get overlooked but lead to the Flyers having to dump the puck into the offensive zone less with him on the ice than with any other defenseman. The fans may not see it, but the coaches do -- he led the Flyers in ice time last year, and we should expect to see a drop-off with him gone.

It's hard to see this as an upgrade. With Kimmo Timonen getting a year older and Schenn replacing Carle, the Flyers' top four is taking a clear step back this year -- and they lack the depth to compensate if one of their top four gets injured.

It's hard to blame Paul Holmgren for the position the team is now in; he did everything he could to acquire Suter or Weber, and instead lost Meszaros. After years of being up against the cap and needing to shed players, the Flyers now find themselves in the unusual position of having a clear need and cap space to spend, but nobody to spend it on. A deadline acquisition may be in their future, but until/unless they add a solid defenseman, the defense should be quite a bit weaker than it was the last few years.

Goaltending

The Flyers had horrible goaltending last year, right? Ah, the power of durable narrative.

Last year, the league average save percentage at even strength was about .921, and the Flyers were at .919 (.921 from Ilya Bryzgalov, .916 from Sergei Bobrovsky). It's certainly not fantastic, but "average" seems like a closer descriptor than "horrible". They had some terrible stretches and some great stretches, and the narrative coalesced around the terrible ones, because "same old Flyers goalies" is such an easy story to write.

In fairness, the overall save percentage was a bit worse than the even strength save percentage. Part of that is out of the goalies' control; the Flyers were shorthanded more than any other team in the league, forcing the goalies to face more high-percentage power play shots. But the goalies did legitimately struggle on the penalty kill -- the Flyers allowed the third-fewest shots at 4-on-5, but finished only average in penalty kill success because they ranked 29th in 4-on-5 save percentage.

Still, penalty kill save percentages bounce around significantly from year to year, so it's reasonable to expect them to come back up next year. Bryzgalov was above average in penalty kill save percentage in recent years in Phoenix, so I think you have to believe either a) the Flyers' system gives up high-percentage PK shots (which wouldn't be Bryzgalov's fault), b) the Philadelphia media and being on 24/7 didn't bother Bryzgalov too much at even strength but really distracted him on the penalty kill, or c) they got unlucky on the penalty kill's small sample and should bounce back.

It seems reasonable to expect decent goaltending next year -- nothing worth $5.7M, of course, but decent nonetheless. As long as Bryzgalov stays healthy, the drop-off from replacing Bobrovsky with Michael Leighton should be balanced by a rise in PK save percentage, and the numbers should end up roughly average again.

Overall

The Flyers have never been a dominant possession team; they've ranked 11th, 12th, and 9th in Fenwick close the last three years. They've outperformed their shot differential the last two years by having high shooting percentages, but between regression and personnel losses, their offense is likely to slip a bit.  Their defense has been thinned out considerably by age (Timonen), departure (Carle), and injury (Meszaros), and is now relying heavily on players like Schenn and Nicklas Grossmann who didn't have particularly good years last year.

If everything comes together for them, their strength at forward will allow them to compete with anyone. But more likely, a few things will go poorly -- a top-four defenseman will struggle, a young forward will have a long scoring drought, a 20+ goal scorer won't match last year's high shooting percentage -- and the team will slide back a bit. Their lineup isn't any better now than the one that was 19th in Score-adjusted Fenwick down the stretch last year, so even if we expect them to be somewhat above average in shooting and goaltending, they still look like a second-tier team that makes the playoffs but with under 100 points.

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Eric T. writes for NHL Numbers and Broad Street Hockey. His work generally focuses on analytical investigations and covers all phases of the game. You can find him on Twitter as @BSH_EricT.
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#1 Anders
August 30 2012, 12:02PM
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Your end is very pessimistic, you make it sound more likely that players will regress than player will progress and I dont think thats fair consider the players we are expecting to improve (Schenns and Couturier) are all very young players. Also isnt the Flyers offense sh% carried by there large amount of PP time?

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#3 Anders
August 30 2012, 12:34PM
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Maybe im just optimistic by nature, but I dont think Read, Hartnell and Giroux will regress more than 5-10 points combined and I think Briere will bounce back with around 10 points. I think Talbot will regress, but I think Wellwood will improve.

The only real players there have to be replaced are Jagr and JVR, but I think that will be covered mostly by Schenn, Voracek and Couturier.

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#4 Brett Mitchell
August 30 2012, 12:59PM
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@Anders

Read, Hartnell, Giroux COMBINED won't regress more than 5-10 points? I'd bet heavy money that Hartnell regresses >10 points alone.

He shot 5.2% over his career average last season (it was 10.7% before the season started) and almost duplicated his powerplay goal total from the previous 3 seasons combined (16 last year, 18 in the 3 years preceding).

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#6 PP's
August 30 2012, 05:22PM
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Also interesting to note is PP opportunities. The Flyers had more PP opp's than any other NHL team last yr. PP opp's have dropped every yr (overall) since the lockout. Flyers were one of a few teams who had more PP opps than the previous yr. It won't happen next yr, which means players point totals drop due to decreased PP time. It's unsustainable to think a team will get that large amount of PP opps' every yr - it's unsustainable. It fluctuates every yr.

Flyers are an interesting team. Really fun to watch cause they're a talented team who doesn't take s#$% from anyone. The East is much weaker than the west, so they have that as an advantage. But with that backend and mediocre goaltending, they're struggling next yr.

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#8 PP's
August 31 2012, 08:41PM
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Eric T. wrote:

Agreed, although they were also shorthanded more than any other team. The differential wasn't that large.

And that's been fairly consistent for them in recent years. They were 6th, 12th, and 1st in PP opportunities the last three years, and 3rd, 6th, and 1st in times shorthanded. They players they let go weren't particularly good at drawing penalties (below average among Flyer forwards), so I'd expect that once again next year they'll have a lot of PP opportunities and be shorthanded a lot. The differential might turn against them a bit more, but even if it moves by as much as 20, that's only 3-4 goals on their goal differential, a difference of about one point.

Yes, but a decrease in PP opportunities leads to fewer goals for. It has nothing to do with time shorthanded as the purpose of PKs is not to score goals as much as keep them out of your own net.

They have 335 Pp opps in 11-12 (18 more than the next highest team). And 295 in 10-11. That's 40 more PP opp's than yr before - 1 more PP opp every 2 games. That extremely substancial and unsustainable considering PP opps have decreased every yr. Teams in the 10 of PP opps every yr vary every year. Players who draw penalties on teams difer every year. There's no continuity. Meaning, they dot 335 Pp opps last yr, but are likely to get at least 40 less next yr to take them to their average. That's a difference of a minimum of 8 goals for just becuse of decreased PP opps.

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#9 FlyersfaninGa
September 01 2012, 02:14PM
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I think your analysis is good, but I don't know how you can include JVR as a huge contributor last year. He was injured for the majority of the year and when he wasn't injured he was a marginal contributor. Yeah, he has a lot of potential, but the production last year wasn't the greatest. That being said, I do believe that they definitely have to replace Jagr, and hopefully Vorecek can. Remember, he's only 23 and started to bloom last year. I expect regressions from Talbot, Hartnell, and possibly Read(we'll see). Also, you could possibly include Simmonds in that list. That being said, I think you'll see a pretty big increase in production from Couts and Schenn offensively. Briere I think will be a little more productive from last year assuming he isn't injured as much as he was last year. Defensively is definitely a worry, but I also don't think you could say Schenn has had a bad start to his career. He had a terrible year last year, but he's had pretty productive years as well. I think the key to the team though will obviously be Bryz and as much regression offensively I think they'll have as much improvement in that area. We'll see though.

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#12 FlyersfaninGa
September 02 2012, 04:39PM
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@Eric T.

I was referring to the older Schenn when saying he had decent years previous.

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#14 Jammer
September 02 2012, 11:32PM
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Eric t is always a bummer. And he always defends being a downer with more numbers and downers

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