The Flyers nabbed a playoff spot last year in large part due to elite special teams play. As a subpar possession team, the Flyers relied on top-10 units in both the power play and the penalty kill to carry them through the season. This year the power play unit has unsurprisingly picked up right where it left off, producing at a 23.5% clip that is good for 4th in the NHL. The penalty kill, on the other hand, has a been a gigantic disappointment. After finishing 7th in the league last year (84.8%), they sit in dead last for 2014-15 with over a quarter of the season gone. This is certainly problematic for a group that will need to rely on special teams if they want to contend for a playoff spot.
Obviously personnel changes have played a part in the PK struggles thus far. Kimmo Timonen averaged 3.35 min/60 shorthanded last year and was amongst the team leaders in shot suppression. Adam Hall was a useful penalty killer who played nearly 3 minutes shorthanded each night. They have also had some important penalty killers miss time. Braydon Coburn, Luke Schenn and Michael Raffl have all missed extended periods of time already, which certainly hasn’t helped.
Personnel changes and injuries aside, the Flyers still have enough depth on the roster to ice an above average penalty kill unit. Here are some suggestions on what needs to change for the Flyers to see more success when down a man.
A lot of the discussion here will focus on both CA/60 and CF/60 rates. The term CF/60 refers to the average number of shot attempts taken by a team within a 60 minute period. CA/60 refers to the average number of shot attempts taken against that team during 60 minutes. Because shot suppression on the penalty kill is extremely important, CA/60 rates should be afforded substantial weight when evaluating player performance. (All stats are from war-on-ice.com and stats.hockeyanalysis.com).
USE RJ UMBERGER LESS
After the annual June 23rd trade, a lot of analysts were talking people off of the ledge by asserting that RJ Umberger would still provide value as a special teams player. 22 games into the season, we have certainly not yet seen that occur. In fact, Umberger has been an extreme detriment to the penalty kill unit so far. Here’s a look at both CA/60 and CF/60 rates for the Flyers forwards on the penalty kill this year
(Chart from war-on-ice.com)
As you can see, Umberger’s special teams play has been just as problematic as his even strength play. He is the worst amongst Flyers forwards at shot suppression so far. This seems to be consistent with his results from the last 3 seasons in Columbus, where he was their least effective forward at suppressing shots on the penalty kill.
I’d say the ideal move here is to keep Umberger’s use on the PK very, very limited. Splitting his time between Claude Giroux and Scott Laughton could go a long way towards improving the overall PK numbers.
USE NICKLAS GROSSMANN LESS
Nicklas Grossmann could very easily be the biggest problem for the Flyers PK. For whatever reason, Flyers management and coaching does not seem open to the possibility that Grossmann might be bad at hockey. Let’s take a look at the CA/60 and CF/60 rates for the defensive unit this year.
(Chart from war-on-ice.com)
Grossmann is, by a good amount, the worst Flyers defenseman at shorthanded shot suppression. This is no anomaly for Grossmann either; Since his arrival in Philadelphia he has been their worst defenseman (>100 Min played) in this category.
Grossmann is second amongst all Flyers this year in PK TOI/60, playing over 2.5 minutes each night. I will talk about one of the better options later on.
MORE CLAUDE GIROUX
Simply put, Claude Giroux is one of the best penalty killers in the game. BroadStreetHockey’s Kurt R wrote a great piece about this before last season.
Over the last 4 years, amongst forwards with 200+ PK minutes, Giroux leads the NHL in shorthanded CF%. The top 10 are pictured below. Giroux is 8th in terms of shot suppression and 3rd in terms of shot attempts for. It isn’t a stretch to suggest that he is the best penalty killer in hockey.
(Data from stats.hockeyanalysis.com)
Everybody knows that Claude Giroux is a great penalty killer. Most of the discussion has been centered around whether or not it is ideal to use him there. I generally think that another 60-90 seconds per game would help get the most value out of his skill set. The penalty kill was getting by last year with Giroux being used sparingly. This year it is not. Giroux is an extremely capable two-way player and needs to be used as such. Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Toews, and Anze Kopitar all average at least 1.5 PK minutes per game. Giroux shouldn’t be used as often as Sean Couturier and Matt Read, but he should certainly be seeing more than 55 seconds per night. When somebody is the best in the league at a particular skill, it makes a lot of sense to put him in a position to use that skill, especially if it is a skill that your team has struggled mightily at.
MORE MICHAEL DEL ZOTTO
Michael Del Zotto is currently 6th amongst Flyers defensemen in terms of PK TOI/60, playing just 1.30 Min/60. There are many reasons for this to change.
While he has struggled in terms of CF/60 this year, he is the Flyers second most effective defenseman in terms of shot suppression, allowing over 20 less shot attempts per 60 than both Grossmann and MacDonald (Refer to the chart above).
Here’s a look at the PK numbers for the New York Rangers defensemen during Del Zotto’s 3 years with the club.
(Chart from war-on-ice.com)
These are very intriguing. During over 200 minutes on the PK with the Rangers, Del Zotto was quietly the second most effective defenseman at shot suppression in addition to being the most effective at driving play the other direction.
This suggests that Del Zotto should be one of the more heavily used defensemen on the PK. If he ever gets out of the press box, he certainly he seems like an ideal candidate to take PK time away from Grossmann and MacDonald.
The Flyers need to get the job done on special teams in order to be competitive. It’s as simple as that. Despite the loss of some key players, they are capable of maintaining a strong penalty kill by optimizing their lineup. Moving away from the need to have size and grit on the penalty kill would be a big step towards doing that.