When the 2013 season came to a close, many focused on the defense and goaltending as the primary cause of the Flyers poor performance. With a forward-heavy depth chart, this is somewhat expected – right?
The thing is, when the going got tough, the team struggled in pretty much all aspects of play; and if the defense was bad, the offense was atrocious.
They fell out of contention when they posted a 5-6-2 record in the month of March with stretch of lackluster play that was brought on for a number of reasons, but it’s the offensive statistics were particularly damning. A quick trip to behindthenet.ca tells you more.
The Flyers finished the season in the middle of the pack when it comes to shots at even strength, averaging 28 shots per game (a game being 60 minutes of even strength play, adjusted to ignore special teams play) which was good for 16th. In the month of March, they could only muster 25.7 shots per game, which would have been third worst in the NHL last year.
When the shot totals fall, the goal totals are likely to fall as well. Over that same span, the team managed just 1.5 even strength goals per game, worst in the league by a significant margin. They only managed more than two even strength goals on just one occasion – my birthday, a March 31st tilt versus the Washington Capitals (happy birthday to me!). The output was simply nonexistent when this offensively-dominated roster needed to turn it around the most, and it showed as they lingered in the basement of the Eastern Conference.
So how can they generate more shots on goal and increase their offensive output next season? It seems the organization has already made one move in an effort to light the lamp, and I think it is a great place to start.
In last week’s column, I talked about how offensive production from the blueline is on the rise. While I was looking at this from a defensive standpoint for the Flyers, this is also one of the first things they can do to increase their own offensive production on the other side of the ice. The team seems to be making an attempt to do just that with the signing of offensive defenseman Mark Streit.
Even in somewhat of a down year, the former Islanders captain would have led the Flyers defenders in a lot of categories last year. He finished with 83 shots and a shooting percentage of 7.2, good for six goals and 27 points, all near the top of the charts amongst the team’s defenders last season.
With him in the fold, the Flyers suddenly have another formidable offensive threat besides Kimmo Timonen that opposing forwards need to respect at all times on defense. This can open up some space for the forwards in the middle of the zone around the upper-half of the circles, because the opposing winger can’t stray too far from his assignment. If he chooses to attack the winger, all he needs to do to is drop the puck to the now-open point. This game of cat-and-mouse forces the opposing defensemen to put pressure on the Flyers forwards, thus opening up space in the high-scoring areas directly around the net. With the opposition so spread out, the Flyers dynamic forwards can pick them apart as they please.
In a similar sense, another way to increase the offense is to simply crash the net. On many occasions last season, the Flyers opted to stick to the perimeter and rely on their skill instead of using their bodies to disrupt the vision of the goalie. Many times, it resulted in too many indecisive moves with the puck and passes that were easily broken up and sent out of the zone.
To me, crashing the net does five main things. First and foremost, it disrupts the goalie’s sight lines. Going hard to the crease draws opposing defenders into the slot and the paint, causing chaos for the goaltender as play goes on around him. It also brings the forwards closer to the net for rebound opportunities if a shot does find its way on net. If the goalie can’t see it cleanly, the odds of a rebound increase dramatically. With the forwards in close proximity, passes can also become shorter. Finally, it gives the defenseman on the point an opportunity to find time and space with the puck – assuming they have the skill to handle it. When you combine all these factors, it is easy to see how the teams that have found success this year have done so from clogging the front of the net.
There are probably more things that can be added to that list of benefits, but in this age of elite goaltending I believe making their job as difficult as possible is another great way to increase the offense. The Flyers have a few bulky wingers capable of doing this, but with the Bobby Ryan rumor rumbling yet again the team might be on their way to adding another big body that can find the back of the net from the front of the net in bunches with the right approach.
Regardless of how they do it, one thing is definitely clear – the issues the Flyers need to address before next season are much deeper than the personnel on defense and goaltending.