Before I begin, it would be revisionist for me to neglect the fact that my article has pretty much been about finding new ways to say that the Flyers are not a playoff team. In fact, my pessimism for this squad is so strong, that I even went as far to say that, “…if the Flyers make it to the playoffs, they did so through social promotion.”
That being said, the Flyers are totally going to make the playoffs!
So, why the change of heart?
Put simply, the Flyers are dominating puck possession these days. It was the game against Montreal on 2/19/16 that I really began to see that the Flyers were really controlling games from beginning to end. So, if we look at the basic possession numbers over the 14 games since then, we see that the Flyers CF% 49.35 which is remarkably better than what this team was producing at the start of the season.
Your first thought would probably be that ‘such a marked spike in puck possession must surely be attributable to “puck luck” and is doomed to regress back to the mean.’
A completely fair concern that I had as well until I noticed two changes that Coach Dave Hakstol has made to the forecheck. In fact, I bet many have begun to notice that the Flyers are forcing a lot of turnovers as opposing teams try to break out of their defensive zone. This isn’t just coincidence, this is systemic.
To better understand what’s different, we have to understand why the forecheck wasn’t working up until about a month a go.
The diagram above illustrates the forechecking scheme that Hakstol utilized while at North Dakota and attempted to implement at the beginning of his tenure with the Flyers. As we saw earlier in the season, this 3-2 forechecking scheme was too damn aggressive.
The concept was sound in that applying a ridiculous amount of pressure on your opponent’s breakout is a great way to produce turnovers. However, this is The Show and defensemen in The Show don’t crack under pressure. So, instead of skating into the bottleneck trap that Hakstol’s 3-2 system was designed to create, opposing teams would just wait for the Flyers to over commit and generate all of the odd-man-rushes to go and score all of the goals against us thusly:
Hakstol’s over aggressive style admittedly had me really worried, and I think I even called him “Chip Hakstol” because I thought his college smoke and mirrors weren’t going to work in the Big Leagues.
Fortunately for us, Hakstol is much smarter and has way less of a God Complex than the ye old Chipper.
More specifically, Hakstol was able to see that his theory was correct in that you can trap opposing breakouts with super aggressive forechecks, but it takes a little more subtlety than throwing the kitchen sink at the primary puck carrier.
In the diagram above, we see that F1’s job is to still go right after the puck carrier to reduce the amount of time, space, and decision making ability. We also see F2 go straight after their near side winger as he is the safest, and therefore, most likely person the puck is going to be passed to. In this regard nothing has changed. Again, opposing teams learned to draw all 3 forwards (and sometimes the strong side defender) to the puck, put the puck in open space allowing their unmarked teammates to go on to score all of the aforementioned goals.
What we see now is that F3 will stay back just a foot or two in front of our defense acting like a safety valve for the aggressive routes of F’s 1 and 2.
The old Hakstol system had F3 positioned similarly, but instead of falling back, F3 had to hunt the puck no matter where it was, and no matter how far out of position it put him if he didn’t come up with that puck.
F3 still has that option when an acceptable amount of risk allows him to do so. We now see that F3 has more of a defensive directive. Much more commonly we’ll now see a three man fence in the middle of the ice all the way back to the goaltender when the opposing team is able to breakout.
From a shot-suppression standpoint, this is genius! Reason being is that, sure, you’ll give up more zone entries on your side, but if you are able to take away the middle of the ice the entire way you see less shots against, and whatever shot do get through, they come from lower quality shooting angles.
The other new nuance to Hakstol’s refined system is that we see less D pinching these days that almost always resulted in slam dunk odd-man rushes and/or breakaways.
What we see now is that when F3 elects to activate himself on the forecheck, the 2 D fall back beyond the red line. It took me a while to realize but what is happening is that when F3 goes after the puck, that’s the full-court press that an opposing team just has to float the puck past to get goals; which they still attempt to do.
The difference now is that when the opposing team puts the puck in a soft area of the ice in hopes that one of their teammates can scoop it up and go, our defense has already vacated the zone and are ready and waiting for this passive breakout pass.
As soon as this happens our defense recovers the puck, falls back and makes a D-to-D regroup pass. By the time our forwards to get on-sides, the far side defender is able to put the puck back into the offensive zone either by dump or pass to start the possession all over again. The worst thing that happens is that the defense is not able to recover the puck, and they go back into the zone 2-on-2; 3-on-2 at worst.
In conclusion, I am still very well aware that for the Flyers to get into the playoffs, successive things out of their control have to happen, but I at least know that the Flyers have made the adjustments to hold up their end of the bargain.
Basketball is definitely not my game (I don’t even know the rules), but that Villanova game last night was far and away the most entertaining sporting event I have seen in quite some time!
When that North Carolina kid hit that incredible 3 pointer with 4 seconds left, that “Philly gut feeling of doom” fell upon me.
But HOLY CRAP! Seeing Jenkins ice that 3 at the buzzer is the reason why we watch sports.
Magical stuff, and congratulations to the incredible Wildcats!