August 30 2012 08:24AM
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.