Over the past few weeks I’ve mentioned throughout my tracking posts how the Flyers have problems in the neutral zone. Most of that focus has been at their inability to defend the blue line and the issues they were going to face after losing their best neutral zone defender at the trade deadline. While they continue to have trouble defending the blue line and with their gap control, their struggles are not just limited to the defense. We’ll take a look at the collective miscues that the Flyers have as they try to defend throughout the neutral zone.
The idea for this article came about after the game against Vancouver on Tuesday night. All game long, the Canucks appeared to be focused on making a stretch pass to try and beat the Flyers forwards and defense through the neutral zone. It happened numerous times throughout the game and the Flyers struggled to defend against it all night.
The Flyers send one forward into the offensive zone to pressure the puck carrier. The first real trouble occurs between the wingers in the neutral zone. They hang back and shadow opposing forwards that are attempting to give their defender a viable option to start the transition. However, they seem to stay in their own lanes during this entire process. There is never any shifting that occurs to try and close the gap at center ice between them. Their inability to close the gap between them gives their opposition an easy outlet to start the counterattack. I’m not sure if this is strictly a systems issue, lack of communication, or a collective effort of mental lapses. I’m inclined to believe it might be a bit of everything. It’s happening far more frequently and is becoming increasingly frustrating to watch.
The defense isn’t doing much to help the situation either. After Coburn’s departure the Flyers were only left with two defensemen, Streit and Del Zotto, who have done a respectable job of breaking up opponents’ entry attempts. Their ability to step up at the blue line and close the gap have helped lead to success in that area of the game. Unfortunately, this is a talent that most of the defense lacks.
The image above is kind of an extreme example of their gap control issues. Couturier (not pictured) was pressuring the defense in the offensive zone. The wingers started to go off on a line change. Once the new forwards stepped onto the ice the Canucks defender made and outlet pass to start the transition. We have two players below the blue line as an opposing player is attacking their zone. MacDonald is hanging out at the blue line waiting for the player to make a move. You’d think at some point someone would make an attempt to step up and pressure the puck carrier and attempt to force their hand to make a play. That never happens and MacDonald actually ends up dropping back and allowing the puck carrier to enter the zone unopposed with possession. Look, I know it’s asking a lot of the defense to break up a majority of entry attempts that come their way. It’s difficult and requires good timing, decision making, and maybe a little bit of luck on the defender’s end. With that being said, they can still be successful even if they aren’t breaking up entries at every turn. Challenging forwards and forcing them to dump the puck in would have a more positive impact than just letting them walk into the zone unopposed. They are far too passive at the blue line and it’s been a problem all season long.
This isn’t an easy problem to fix. It’s something they’ve had trouble with all season long and unless there is an unlikely roster overhaul by next season we’ll have to see more of the same next year. On the bright side, there’s only nine more games left!