Through 4 games, the 2015-16 Philadelphia Flyers season has certainly had its ups and downs. Down? Losing in Florida to a good-but-not-great Panthers squad 7-1. Up? Taking 3 out of a possible 4 points from last year’s Stanley Cup finalists, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks. Now in the midst of a 5-day break from games, rookie NHL coach Dave Hakstol has to keep his guys focused and on their toes so they don’t come out flat versus a dangerous Dallas Stars team on Tuesday. Speaking of Hakstol, let’s take this time to analyze his system so far and pinpoint its effect on the Flyers.
Before analyzing Coach Hakstol’s system, it’s important to know what the Flyers had with their previous 2 coaches, Peter Laviolette and Craig Berube. Under Lavy’s guidance, the Flyers became an aggressive offensive team, scoring amongst the league’s best but also giving up way too many goals in the process due to their suspect defense. Knowing this, his replacement, Craig Berube, installed a more conservative system, an offense of dump-and-chase and a greater emphasis on defense. But due to the Flyers’ lack of defensive stalwarts, this system didn’t work either. So then the Flyers struck gold on their current coach, Dave Hakstol. The third time really is the charm I suppose, because Hakstol’s system is the best fit for both the current and future Philadelphia Flyers.
4 games isn’t exactly a large sample size, but in those 4 games, we have learned quite a bit about what this team’s identity on the ice will be. One detriment of Laviolette and Berube’s systems was their lack of a strong neutral zone; under Hakstol the neutral zone has become the priority. Most of the hockey game is played in the neutral zone, and your play in said zone often determines your offensive success. Will you be able to bob and weave your way through middle ice, carrying the puck in and creating scoring chances yourself, or will you resort to dumping and chasing your way to your scoring chances? Under Hakstol, the Flyers fall somewhere in the middle. His speedy, skilled players like Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, and Michael Del Zotto are primarily carrying the puck, while his bigger, burlier players like Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier, and R.J. Umberger are dumping and chasing.
But the neutral zone also dictates your defensive zone play. If you aren’t alert in the middle of the ice, the opposition will find it quite easy to enter your zone and generate chances. Guys like Nick Grossmann and Andrew MacDonald sported some of the most atrocious possession statistics ever seen by mankind in 2014-15 due to their inability to control the middle of the ice. This in turn led to a ridiculous amount of shot attempts in Philadelphia’s own end, and ultimately more goals against.
Luckily, the Flyers tried hard to change this. Just the eye test alone will tell you that the Flyers have been better in the neutral zone this year. They are seemingly forcing more turnovers and just keeping up with the opposition better. This is due in part to some key lineup changes. Neutral zone duds like Grossmann, MacDonald, Luke Schenn and Vinny Lecavalier have been traded or benched this year. In their place are quicker skaters like Scott Laughton, Sam Gagner, Brandon Manning, and Evgeny Medvedev. Even R.J. Umberger has looked like his 25-year-old self after hip surgery.
These lineup changes, along with Hakstol’s emphasis on neutral zone play, have turned the Flyers into a stronger defensive team. This is evidenced by the Flyers’ SAT (Shot Attempts Total). Much like how the academic SAT determines a student’s success, hockey SAT scores determine a hockey team’s success. The Flyers’ SAT from last year was -102, meaning they were outshot by the opposition by 102 attempts (“Attempts” count any shot fired, not necessarily just those on goal). This year, that figure is down to -3, which averages to about -61 over 82 games. Let’s face it, the Flyers will always be a negative SAT team with their defense, so cutting down their figure by 41 is a huge improvement.
This is backed up by the Flyers’ individual shot attempts and their defensive shots allowed. This year, the Flyers are actually taking about the same amount of shots this year as last year (around 40 attempts). But the big difference has been on defense. Last year, Philly allowed about 44 shot attempts per game. This year, the number is down to 40.25. This difference is a big one. 40.25 shot attempts per game averages to 382 less than last year, which means about 32 less goals allowed on the year (taking into account an average save percentage of .915). This could be the difference between making the Flyers a playoff team, a bubble team, and a non-playoff squad.
Concluding, Coach Hakstol’s impact isn’t going to be seen on offense, but rather in his team’s defensive and neutral zone play, and that is where the Flyers need to improve the most. Substituting better players into the lineup certainly helps, but Hakstol’s system is what is going to keep the Flyers competitive. Whatever he is instructing the Flyers to do to limit these shots is obviously working, and if it continues at this rate, could turn them into a playoff team.