Since the completion of the All-Star break, one of the more common complaints regarding the Flyers is that they have been playing up or down to their competition. This often-used, seldom-justified narrative idea implies that the Flyers have been motivated to play well against skilled opponents while not being able to duplicate that intensity against lesser ones.
As I drove home from work this past Friday, I (mistakenly) turned on the Philadelphia sports talk radio station 94.1 WIP. The first caller who made his way onto the air blamed the Flyers’ struggles on the fact that their team has not yet appointed a sports psychologist who can help them to stay motivated against bad teams. The host of the show responded in earnest, suggesting that Craig Berube or possibly Claude Giroux might be at fault for their recent results against subpar teams.
Alright… so most of the talk is not that farfetched, but this idea still seems to be fairly widespread amongst fans and analysts alike.
Here is some of what has been said over the past few weeks in reference to the Flyers’ struggles against low-lying teams.
This year, the Flyers are 28-26-13, and the biggest indictment of Berube is this: With a playoff spot in sight, the Flyers have lost their last five games against teams that are not in playoff positions: Columbus, Buffalo, Carolina, Toronto, and New Jersey.
How can a team that has recently beaten the likes of Nashville, St. Louis, Washington, and the Rangers be so ineffective against league lightweights?
Berube has to take some of the blame for not having his players ready.
Ditto captain Claude Giroux, who has virtually disappeared at the most important time of the season.
–Sam Carchidi, Philly.com
It happens so often, it has become a common theme among losses this season for the Flyers.
Play up to the big boys in the NHL. Give them fits. Steal points off them like the Flyers did against Nashville and Washington over the weekend.
Then a few days later … the Flyers don’t even bother to show up against children of a lesser NHL god…
–Tim Panaccio, CSN Philly
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about PDO (Team Sv% + Team Sh%) and how it can shape the narratives and discussion about a team. While PDO can be somewhat indicative of skill levels over a large sample, short term PDO fluctuations can often be driven entirely by luck.
Using PDO along with possession statistics, I wanted to see how much legitimacy there is to the idea that the Flyers have been playing up or down to their competition. Because this narrative has really taken hold since the All-Star break, I will focus on the games that have occurred between now and then. Separating teams based on their playoff standing (as of 3/9), let’s take a look at how the Flyers have fared. All of the data used below is from War-On-Ice.com.
Over the last 19 games, the Flyers have had significantly better luck against teams that are currently in possession of a playoff spot. Their absurdly low 96.23 PDO against non-playoff teams has been a big part of why they could only obtain 44.4% of the points in play when facing those opponents. Against playoff teams, an above average PDO of 100.98 has helped them to obtain 80% of the points at stake.
At the same time, the Flyers have been much more successful at controlling puck possession when matched up against non-playoff opponents, generating over 55% of shot attempts. Yes, that number is definitely inflated by two games against an astoundingly poor Buffalo Sabres team. Even with those two games removed from the equation, the Flyers generated 53.6% of shot attempts against weaker opponents. While they haven’t fared poorly (49.5%) against top teams either, possession stats do not suggest that the Flyers are playing up or down based on the quality of their opponents.
Looking at the big picture, the Flyers have played their best hockey of the season since the all star break. They have managed 52.3% of shot attempts and come away with 24 of the 38 points available during that time.
So is there any legitimacy to the idea that the Flyers are ‘playing down’ against low quality opponents? Probably not. While it is certainly frustrating to see them losing to teams like Buffalo and Toronto after beating teams like Nashville and New York, the answer is not necessarily that they are lowering their level of play against weaker opponents. There were some losses, particularly against Carolina and Columbus, where a better performance could have been expected. However, the idea that the Flyers are playing down to their competition seems to be relatively unfounded.
Yet here we are, once again, with the leadership of the team being called into question. There are several legitimate reasons to want Craig Berube out of Philadelphia, but this is not one of them. Over the course of a season, NHL teams go through swings of both good and bad luck. Every now and then, a streak of poor luck happens to line up with a stretch of games against below average teams. While narratives like this are convenient and easy, it is almost never a matter of a team playing down to their competition. With sympathy to all of the unemployed sports psychologists in the Philadelphia area, I’d look for work elsewhere.