Exchanging Emails: Fixing the Flyers Defense

The hockey world is full of people who process and assess the game differently. Some people rely more on what they see with their eyes while others lean on numbers. Some people feel a team should stay patient and allow prospects to develop while others want to see their team constantly contend through making trades and signing free agents. We are no different here at Pod Street Bullies. We all have our own opinions and view the Philadelphia Flyers in different ways.

Eamon Smith and I certainly have different approaches to analyzing the Flyers and hockey in general. We have a lot of great discussions sharing our thoughts and giving each other different viewpoints. Now, we are taking those conversations to email and sharing them with you the reader. Enjoy

Fixing the Flyers Defense

Eamon: Hey, John. Just wanted to talk about spitballing ideas for how the Flyers can
work on their team defense and what exactly ails them in that area. Personally feel like the options are limited, but I have a few ideas, chiefly about usage and system. What do you feel like is the crux of
the problem so we can attack it together?

John: Hey, Eamon. Honestly, I don’t even know when to start. When you look solely at the blueline itself, outside of Ivan Provorov, you have players that either lack any sort of responsibility in their own zone, are prone to turnovers, or are a step slower than the competition due to age or just plain low skill-level. As a whole team, the larger problem, in my opinion, lies with extended time in their own zone. It is like a constant penalty-kill situation where they just look to clear the puck and then play the shell game. They never appear able to transition the puck into the neutral zone efficiently, leading to constant pressure from the opposition. Carter Hart has to be on his A-game at all times and that is not how you win hockey games. What are your thoughts

Eamon: The main issue that concerns me is the breakout system the Flyers are employing under Alain Vigneault. The “chip-and-charge’ style of zone entry is easily stopped by speedier teams with defensively responsible forwards, something we saw in the postseason; against a Montreal Canadiens team that was clearly less talented than them, the Flyers struggled mightily to win the offensive battle and largely took the
series through talent and goaltending, two variables that aren’t a recipe of repeatable success. While the defenders are clearly a talent-deficient spot on the roster (having Hägg, Braun and Gustafsson playing key roles with the big club is less than ideal) the forwards wouldn’t be creating nearly as much work for them if the team could actually enter and exit the zone with control. Hockey is a game of possession and transition, and the Flyers will continue to struggle to produce the former without the latter.

John: I totally agree with you and could not have said it better myself. It looks borderline lackadaisical and completely ineffective. I struggle to fathom how forwards so talented struggle so much with exiting the zone. I attribute a lot of the struggles to poor passing. They are either inaccurate or just a careless choice. It doesn’t take a pro to know that cross-ice pass attempts in your own zone are foolish. Don’t even get me started on the stretch passes. Philadelphia relies far too much on them, and they rarely connect. They are counting on the “big play” to connect and result in a goal. It does more harm than good. I get the knocks on the system, but I also feel like it is up to the players to make better decisions, especially the leadership group we are supposed to count on. There are too many times I watch a pass come off Claude Giroux’s stick and wonder what he’s thinking.

Eamon: I just wonder how much of this is a “the players are making bad decisions” thing and how much of it is a scheme issue. It’s well known that Alain Vigneault tends to dip a bit in terms of results when he’s
in year two with a team, continuing to hammer home a system without adapting to how opposing teams counter it. HockeyViz’s isolated coaching impact seems to slightly agree with this as well, inditing
Vigneault as a sub-par offensive coach who slightly improves team defense and relies heavily upon goaltending. I worry that we’re seeing the beginning of what will be an arduous decline like what Rangers
fans warned us about when AV got hired; I’ve seen stubborn coaching from a veteran all too recently ruin a good team (Nashville) and I’d prefer not to see it again.

John: I hear where you’re coming from. At the same time, I’m a little too hesitant to go that far at this point. Things are still early and Vigneault has done so much positive for this organization in the short time he has been here. Taking AV out of the equation, even though I know you don’t want to, are there any changes you’d make to the roster to try and improve this situation?

Eamon: I’d say the easy things to fix would be to pull Robert Hägg out of the lineup as soon as possible and try out Yegor Zamula in his spot. While Zamula is untested, he’s going to at worst be better than what Hägg
provides currently (bottom of the NHL caliber play); at best, he could fill in well for Phil Myers in the top four and boost this team’s long-term ability to compete. Mark Friedman also deserves a roster spot at this point. The dude draws penalties like a maniac, moves the puck well and provides a steadier presence on the blueline than Hägg ever has. Friedman’s second year in the AHL was better than any year Bobby Big Hits ever produced in the minors, and I really can’t understand why the coaching staff keeps giving opportunities to a
defender who struggles to pass the puck, shoot the puck or stay with his defensive coverage whenever there’s a pass coming across his face (seriously, the dude has the attention span of a squirrel with all the
puck watching he does). I hate to knock Hägg like this because he’s clearly a high-effort player, but he’s not cutting it and the Flyers need to try out internal options as soon as possible. There is the possibility of trading somebody to make this team more balanced, but it’s still incredibly early in the season and the Flyers need all of their forwards until Morgan Frost and Sean Couturier recover from their injuries.

John: If there were a better alternative to putting Robert Hägg in the lineup, the Flyers would do it. As much as we all love to play armchair coach and general manager, we have to trust the actual people in charge know what they are doing with the talent they possess. If Zamula were ready for the NHL, he would be in the lineup. His ceiling is much higher than Hägg’s, but if he is not ready, putting him in the lineup can do more harm than good for his long-term development. As for Mark Friedman, we are getting the chance to see how he does with Phil Myers’ absence. The truth is that if this team wants to improve their defensive unit, they need to look at external options. The internal ones barely move the needle in a shortened season. As you mentioned, though, it’s tough to make deals when Philadelphia is missing key pieces to the forward group as well.

Eamon: With all due respect to Alain Vigneault, Chuck Fletcher and anyone who does work within the NHL, people who work in this league are often very, very wrong about the strengths and weaknesses of players. Hägg is a perfect example of a guy whose massive flaws are overlooked because coaches like his willingness to block shots play conservatively, etc; while I don’t feel that I could confidently be a member of a professional organization, I do think that I can point out a bad hockey player, and that’s Robert Hägg to a T. Zamula isn’t playing and while it’d be nice to refrain from rushing him to the NHL, he was a member of the reserve group in the playoffs last year for a reason. If he’s bad after a tryout, pull him back, but whatever he is will at least refrain from rewarding poor play from Hägg. I haven’t even mentioned Gus or Braun because they’re a whole other story, but that’s beside the point. The Flyers are in a bad spot and I don’t currently see another way to attempt an escape.

Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire

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