The Flyers Can Be Better Than They Are, Then the Winning Might be Sustainable.
Yesterday, the Flyers defeated the Ottawa Senators by a score of 2-1. You can read a recap of the entire game here.
Broadly speaking, it continued a season-long trend of the Flyers being out-shot and out-chanced, but winning the game thanks to a brilliant effort from their burgeoning star netminder: Carter Hart.
But watching the game closely, I was hit by just how curable this phenomenon is. The Flyers could have the puck more than they currently do, without making a single roster change.
Recently, I kicked a hornets’ nest on Twitter by sending this tweet:
Admittedly, I worded the tweet in the most inflammatory way possible. Accusing John Tortorella of causing extreme regression in nearly every single player on the team is hyperbolic.
But I stand by the core of what I said.
The Flyers are playing worse–from a possession standpoint–than they should be playing. Yes, they’re a bad team. But no, they shouldn’t be as bad as they have been.
The numbers suggest they’re playing significantly worse than last year in this regard. Per Natural Stat Trick, they went from a 47% expected goal share in the final 25 games of the 2021-22 season, to a 38% expected goal share in the 11 games played this season.
It isn’t just the evil analytics that would say this, either.
If you watched a game from last season–especially after the trade deadline–then watched a game from this year? You would see an impressively worse team.
How did this happen? The answer didn’t leap out at me until watching that game against Ottawa.
Most of the players on this Flyers roster are scared to death to make plays. Actually, I should credit the person who originally said this: John Tortorella!
As recently as their game against the Maple Leafs, Tortorella had this to say:
“Playing in our own end as much as we have starts with not having the puck. Not making enough plays. Somehow, we’ve gotta instill some confidence in our players to not be afraid to make a mistake and make some plays.”
While I generally agreed with Tortorella’s sentiment at the time, I also thought the game against the Maple Leafs was the worst time to bring it up.
The Maple Leafs outplayed the Flyers so thoroughly that they didn’t even have the opportunity to touch the puck very frequently. They didn’t get the chance to make plays, because they weren’t ever allowed access to the puck.
But in this Senators game? They had the puck more, as John Tortorella himself so astutely observed.
“The brightest spot, for me, was that we had the puck more during the game. We had more forechecking.”
Torts is right. They did have the puck more. And yet, they still failed to generate more dangerous chances than the other team.
That’s because gaining the puck is only the first step if you want to have more scoring chances for your team and less for the other team. Once you gain the puck, it matters what you do with it.
What the Flyers did with it, more often than not, was simple: dump it into the zone.
And oddly enough, that philosophy came with the blessing of John Tortorella.
“Especially the guys where we really don’t expect them to be making great plays crossing the blueline. I want them to play to their strength a little bit. And for some of those guys–especially guys who are just making their way into the league–that’s putting the puck behind the defense and just playing under the hashmark.”
I’m sorry, come again? Now we don’t want them to make any plays?
Maybe there is some conceivable way to reconcile these two statements. John Tortorella certainly tried to reconcile these dueling philosophies, when he talked about “recognizing the point in the game” and “momentum” and all the rest of it.
But when you peel through all the explanations and all the excuses, you get to one simple truth.
John Tortorella wants his team to make plays, just so long as those plays never fail or backfire. He loves when an attempt to carry over the blue-line results in a goal! But he hates when an attempt to carry over the blue-line results in a turnover.
That is an immature, emotionally invested fan’s way of seeing the game. That’s all well and good for the fans to lament every bad thing and rejoice in every good thing, with no regard for the process or the psychology behind each play.
But it is completely unacceptable behavior from a coach.
If you don’t want your young players to be afraid to make a mistake, then you can’t breathe down their neck every time they make a mistake. It’s as simple as that.
Hold them accountable, by all means. If their mistake results in a turnover, and they’re lazy on the backcheck? Bench them, admonish them in the media, go the distance in excoriating them.
But if you hold young players “accountable” for making mistakes, then all you’ll get is young players afraid to make mistakes. And that’s exactly what we’ve seen out of this team.
Look no further than Noah Cates.
Noah Cates has 1 goal, 1 point, and 5 shots on goal through 11 games this season. He’s averaged 17 minutes and 38 seconds time on ice.
Last season, Noah Cates had 6 goals and 4 assists for 10 points through 16 games. He had 28 shots on goal in those games. And he averaged 14 minutes and 58 seconds of time on ice.
How did Noah Cates become such an offensive nonfactor?
Originally, the thought was that playing center robbed him of his offensive tendencies. But in the last 4 games, all of which have come on his natural left-wing, he has 0 points and 0 shots on goal.
So it wasn’t the position that robbed him of his offensive capabilities. Maybe, just maybe, it was the coach? And the suffocating philosophy that’s been adopted?
Is There A Solution?
Of course. John Tortorella simply has to pick a lane, and live with the results.
If he wants the young players to be “perfect” in the plays they make, then their lack of ambition will lead to a team which is permanently caved in. And these young players will remain completely stagnant in their development, if not regress.
But if he’s willing to accept that young players are going to make mistakes, and lets them play with any level of freedom and license, then maybe they can recapture some of what they had last year.
If he’s willing to play Morgan Frost with other playmakers like Noah Cates and Owen Tippett, then give them free reign to create, maybe he’ll see some of the magic that interim coach Mike Yeo saw from them last year.
Tortorella certainly talked a big game about wanting to see mistakes of aggression, and claiming: “that’s what we have a goalie for.”
Well, Torts, we have the goalie. Carter Hart literally could not be doing better. The ball is in your court now.
What If They Were Better?
The Flyers do not have the firepower to be a contender in the east this season. Most likely, they don’t even have the firepower to be a bubble playoff team. But they absolutely do have the firepower to be better than they are right now, and much better at that.
They have the capacity to be much better, because they were much better last season.
And if they do get better, they have a goalie who seems to be announcing his breakout as a superstar in the league.
A superstar in net can overcome a great many woes in the NHL. Just look at the Flyers, who have created scoring chances about as well as the Arizona Coyotes… and yet have a 6-3-2 record in 11 games.
If the Flyers do get better, and if Carter Hart’s apparent breakout turns out to be real… then maybe this team is much better than any one of us thought.
And besides being good, fun to watch hockey… maybe we could actually develop the young talent we have for a change. Then, maybe–just maybe–we really won’t be 2-3 years away from being 2-3 years away.