Special teams play can win or lose hockey games. There is no doubt that this was the case for the Philadelphia Flyers over the weekend in back-to-back losses at home against Columbus and then in Montreal the next night. Over those two games, the Flyers had been shorthanded 7 times and only successfully killed off one penalty. That’s right, Columbus (3 for 4) and Montreal (3 for 3) combined to go 6 for 7 on the man advantage this weekend. This plummeted the Flyers’ penalty kill percentage from a respectable 80% to a lowly 71.15%, putting them next to last in the category.
Last season, the Flyers penalty kill was one of their strong suits, killing off 84.8% of all penalties, 7th best in the league in that category. Although this season is still relatively young, 16 games is a large enough sample size to try to determine what is wrong with this penalty kill.
Throughout this column, all charts will be showing last year’s statistics in orange, and this years statistics in black.
First, lets start off looking at the Flyers penalty kill percentage over the past two seasons through 16 games.
Last season, the penalty kill percentage only dipped below 70 percent after 3 separate games, game number 2 (72%), game number 6 (78%) and game number 7 (79%). After that it jumped up to 81% and stayed in the 80s throughout the rest of the season.
On the other hand, the penalty kill percentage has only been over 80% after 2 games this year, game number 3 (87%) and game number 4 (90%), though it has been at exactly 80% twice, after game number 2 nd game number 14.
The big thing on the penalty kill is limiting shots from the opposition. To measure this, I looked at the fenwick against per 60 minutes. Fenwick = Shots on Goal + Shots Missed. I used fenwick rather than corsi because fenwick doesn’t include blocked shots, which can be considered a penalty kill skill.
Last season the Flyers were the best team in the league at limiting their opposition’s fenwick, allowing less than 1 per minute (59.9). However, that number has ballooned this season to 82.7, the worst in the league.
Penalty kills are all about goals, so I looked at the scoring rates of the opposition per 60 minutes over these past 2 seasons.
Once again last year the Flyers were spectacular, allowing just 4.94 goals per 60 minutes (5th best in the league). This season, that number has more than doubled to 10.92, which is the worst in the league.
The differences in these numbers are astounding, and these changes obviously didn’t happen overnight. I decided I wanted to dig a bit deeper into the data, and looked at the personnel that the Flyers are using on the penalty kill this year, compared to last years shutdown group.
Last season the top 4 most used forwards on the penalty kill were Sean Couturier, Matt Read, Adam Hall and Michael Raffl. This season, the top 2 remain but the Flyers lost Hall and Raffl and have replaced them with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and RJ Umberger.
To compare this group, I looked at both fenwick against per 60 minutes and goals against per 60 minutes, just like I did with the overall team stats.
Couturier and Read have remained constant as the top pair, but their performance has suffered. Couturier is about on par with what he did last year relative to his teammates numbers this year, but Read for some reason has fallen. Read has performed the worst out of all the forwards, with the team allowing 112 fenwick attempts per 60 minutes while he is on the ice. This is the worst of any player and nearly 30 more attempts per 60 minutes than the team as a whole.
Adam Hall was a face-off and penalty killing machine last season, and the Flyers have been lucky to find French sensation Pierre-Eduoard Bellemare to fill his role as the top guy on the 2nd penalty killing unit. Bellemare is actually doing better in suppressing shot attempts than Hall did, allowing just 60 fenwick attempts per 60 compared to Hall’s 62.
The 4th forward is where we see another big hit. The loss of Michael Raffl to injury has forced the team to use newly acquired RJ Umberger on the penalty kill. This was one of the reasons he was brought here, and he has done about as expected. He is performing only slightly worse than Sean Couturier and a bit better than Matt Read. Overall Umberger has played decently on the penalty kill, which is a lot better than his 5v5 play.
Ouch. Couturier and Read shouldering most of the load at forward on the penalty kill has been a disaster. Couturier and Read are both allowing over 17 goals per 60 minutes. When you consider that the team is allowing just under 11 goals per 60 minutes, the numbers of 17 and 21 goals per minute are quite shocking. Granted this might be due to a small sample size, but it is a bit worrisome. On the other hand, this could show that these two are much better than the numbers show, and the numbers are bound to come down to the average. Regression is key.
Once again Bellemare is a French Prince on the penalty kill. There has only been one goal scored while he was on the ice during the penalty kill, equating to a 2.42 goals per 60 minutes. This is much better than anyone could have expected, though regression might occur here as well. Bellemare has been a pleasant surprise all around, hopefully he keeps it up.
Umberger is only performing slightly worse than his teammates, though it is a far cry away from the way Raffl was performing last season.
Now that the forwards are out of the way, lets get to the big problem; the defense.
There is no hiding the fact that the Flyers have been bitten by the injury bug. Last year’s big four penalty killers were Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen, Nicklas Grossmann and Luke Schenn. The Flyers have lost Timonen indefinitely, and Coburn and Schenn have also missed some time. Grossmann is the only one left, forced to play big minutes on the penalty kill.
This year’s penalty killing defensemen have been Grossmann, Schenn, Nick Schultz and Michael Del Zotto.
Grossmann didn’t perform especially well last year as the number 3 on the penalty kill, and he has done worse this year as the top guy. He is allowing a whopping 106 fenwick against per 60 minutes, 20 more than the number 2 defenseman Schenn (87 fenwick against per 60). This number of 106 is 24 more than the team’s overall of 82 this season.
Luke Schenn was one of the best, if not the best, penalty killers for the Flyers last season. This season he has performed about on par with the rest of the team.
Nick Schultz has been another good surprise for the Flyers. He is attributing in all areas of the game, including being the Flyers best defenseman on the penalty kill, allowing just 62 fenwick attempts per 60 minutes.
Michael Del Zotto has performed well all over the place as well, and he has done a fantastic job playing the penalty kill as an offensive defenseman.
Grossmann has been on the ice for a pretty big number of goals, allowing 15 goals against per 60 minutes of ice time, more than double his number last year. Expect this number to drop as the season moves along.
Schenn has been performing well as the number two, but he certainly isn’t Kimmo Timonen. But then again, who could even try to compare to the Finnish God of Defense?
Schultz and Del Zotto have been fantastic signings as mentioned in last week’s piece. They are each filling in very nicely on the penalty kill with numbers that you would expect from big minute guys, not guys like them.
Overall, injuries can only be used as an excuse for so long for a team before looking at other reasons for lack of success. The Flyers need their penalty killers to perform at their best, and a few of them haven’t done that thus far. Namely Matt Read and Nicklas Grossmann have not been playing their best hockey, with numbers that are completely out of whack. I fully expect these two to regress to the mean, especially as players heal and come back.
The return of Coburn will lift a lot of weight off of Grossmann’s shoulders which will have a domino effect throughout the entire lineup, not just the defensemen. The imminent return of Luke Schenn who was not dressed for the debacle over the weekend will help a bunch as well, as he was the Flyers best penalty killer last year despite low ice time.
It will be interesting to see how Raffl is used upon his return. Brayden Schenn has played great this season and put in 2 goals on the top line on Saturday. If that continues, Raffl could see time on the 2nd or 3rd lines resulting in more penalty killing time. This would also help out a great deal as he is an underrated defensive player.
The Flyers special teams have had their ups and downs this season. Unfortunately I decided to analyze the down first, but don’t fret, the dominant power play will be analyzed shortly. The breakout year of Jakub Voracek and scorching pace of Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds will be examined as well.
Ryan Gilbert is a contributing writer for Flyerdelphia and can be found on Twitter @RiskyBryzness.