Poor Special Teams Play Remains Root Cause of Philadelphia Flyers’ Struggles

Photo by Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images

Photo by Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images

By Charlie O’Connor (@THG_Charlie)

One minute and seventeen seconds.

Twenty-nine seconds.

The former? The length of a two-man advantage for the Philadelphia Flyers in Tuesday night’s contest against the rival New York Rangers, which generated only two shots on net and no goals.

The latter? The amount of time it took the Rangers to capitalize on their one-man advantage only minutes later, extending their lead to two goals, a lead that they would never fully relinquish.

A punchless power play and ineffective penalty kill have been the key reasons for Philadelphia’s disappointing start to the 2013 NHL season. After seven games, the Flyers are 5/35 (14.2%) with the man advantage, which would have placed them 28th in the league during the 2011-12 season.

But their ineptitude while a man up has been dwarfed by their struggles while a man down. So far this season, Philadelphia has killed only 21 of 31 penalties, for a horrific 67.7% PK percentage. For reference, the worst penalty kill percentage since the 2004/05 lockout was 74.7%, posted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2008-09. Even their historically awful performance bests Philadelphia’s current efficiency rating by a full seven percentage points.

What may surprise frustrated fans is that, according to shot metrics, Philadelphia has actually been a solid team at even strength thus far. Philadelphia has outshot their opponents 29.43 – 26.16 per sixty minutes of even strength ice time.

The effects of trailing by large deficits are not driving Philadelphia’s shot advantage, either, as the Flyers have generated 52.66% of the overall shots directed at the net while they have been either tied with or within one goal of their opponent.

It is on the power play and penalty kill where Philadelphia’s opponents are pressing their advantage.

After taking a 2-1 lead against Buffalo on January 20th, the Flyers allowed two straight shorthanded goals, giving the Sabres the lead and eventually the game. A zero for six power play effort against the Devils led to a shutout loss on January 22nd. And finally, Tuesday night’s 5-on-3 failure followed by an unsuccessful penalty kill proved to be too much for Philadelphia to overcome.

To a certain extent, the Flyers’ special teams efficiency statistics should improve, particularly their 67.7% penalty kill, simply because there is no historical basis for any shorthanded unit performing at that low of a level.

Philadelphia returns every key member of their middle-of-the-pack (17th ranked) penalty kill from last season. Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Sean Couturier, and Maxime Talbot have been supplemented by new additions such as Ruslan Fedotenko and Luke Schenn.

Expecting an improvement may have been optimistic, but a significant penalty killing regression from 2011-12 still seems unlikely.

However, the loss of key personnel is clearly having a negative effect on Philadelphia’s power play.

Scott Hartnell’s recent foot injury has been difficult for the team to overcome, particularly on the man advantage. Hartnell, who led the team with 16 power play goals in 2011-12, was invaluable to the Flyers’ attack last season. His ability to produce one-timer goals from the slot gave Philadelphia a consistent weapon on every power play.

Free agency also tore holes in the Flyers’ power play. Jaromir Jagr, who scored 20 power play points and ranked fourth in PP ice time per game for Philadelphia in 2011/12, has also been missed. His puck possession ability helped Flyers to set up their cycle game quickly and efficiently.

The loss of Matt Carle (2:38 PP minutes per game) also has hurt Philadelphia, as he ranked second among Flyers defensemen with nine power play assists in 11/12. His point shot, while not particularly strong, was used to generate deflections in front of the net on the power play to great effect.

The task of replacing Hartnell and Jagr has largely fell to sophomores Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn. While both entered the season with high hopes for breakout offensive seasons, the two have so far combined for no goals and two assists during their power play ice time.

Even more frightening, despite the increase in power play minutes, both have struggled to generate shots on net this season. Despite receiving 3:26 minutes of power play ice time per game (up from 0:26 seconds in 11/12), Couturier has taken only 10 total shots on net in seven games. Schenn has been even worse – averaging 3:43 PP minutes per game, Schenn has taken only eight shots in six games.

For Philadelphia’s power play to rebound to anywhere near the heights of last season, when the Flyers were ranked 6th in the NHL, Schenn and Couturier’s offensive games will need to take significant steps forward in the coming weeks. And for the 20-year old Couturier and 21-year old Schenn, such a dramatic leap may be too much to ask.

Regardless, the offense needs to come from somewhere. Tye McGinn and Mike Knuble have also received power play ice time, and could be given expanded roles if Couturier and Schenn continue to struggle.

Luckily for Philadelphia, they remain a solid five-on-five team, and are receiving fantastic goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov. But their issues on special teams have so far proven difficult to overcome.

To exit the Atlantic Division basement, Philadelphia needs to find a solution, and quickly.

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