Monday, October 06, 2014

Philadelphia Flyers 2014-15 Season Preview: Special Teams



Welcome to the Phanatic's continuing analysis of the 2014-15 Philadelphia Flyers.

For the fourth and final time, Rob Riches brings you a Monday column, breaking down the club's power-play and penalty-killing units.  

With the puck set to drop on the National Hockey League's 97th season in a mere two days, the Philadelphia Flyers will look to continue strong special-teams play at both ends of the ice. Both the power play and penalty kill units were among tops in the league over the past several seasons, and Craig Berube's club will only look to continue that trend.

The twin man-advantage units have reason to be confident headed into Wednesday’s opener against the Boston Bruins. In eight exhibition games -- including the split-squad tilts against Washington and Toronto on the first day of their preseason schedule -- the Flyers scored nine goals on the man-advantage, the most in the league.

The Orange and Black also pumped home 58 power-play goals last season on 294 opportunities -- clicking at a 19.7 percent success rate, placing eighth-best in the league. Of those 58, Wayne Simmonds was responsible for 15 -- third-most in the league, behind only San Jose’s Joe Pavelski (16) and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (24). One area which needs improvement, as is the case for a majority of the NHL, is the 5-on-3 advantage, which only resulted in four goals last season, 14th-most in the league.

Here, Simmonds talks about some early-season struggles as the team as a whole collectively failed to light up opposing goaltenders:


Along with Simmonds, Claude Giroux, Kimmo Timonen, Jakub Voracek and (now former Flyer) Scott Hartnell led the charge on the power play, as each player logged over 3:15 of power play time per game. Thirty-seven of Claude Giroux’s 86 points came from the power play (including 30 assists), while five other players contributed at least 15-or-more points while up at least one skater.

With Timonen out indefinitely, it is expected that Mark Streit’s role on the power play will increase due to his being the dean of the blueliners in terms of age and the closest to Timonen in terms of shot choice and quickness. Streit notched four goals and 15 points on the man-advantage last season, while averaging 2:41 of ice time. As the other offensive-defenseman on the roster, expect Michael Del Zotto to earn significant power play ice time as well -- as long as he performs better than he showed at times in the preseason.

Joe Mullen also returns as assistant coach to lead the power-play unit, a position he’s held since 2007-08 and during which he has periodically come under fire. Based on percentage, the Flyers have consistently been a top power play team under his leadership, finishing as high as second (2007-08). Philadelphia has been a top-10 club in each of Mullen’s seasons with the exception of 2010-11, when the defending Eastern Conference champions only finished 19th at 16.6 percent.

Mullen -- a 500-goal scorer and three-time Stanley Cup champion -- consistently utilized the umbrella formation here, where one defenseman parks at the blue line, two skaters set up at the top of the circles and the last two set up in front of the net. The umbrella constantly generates scoring chances, and, done right, has kept the home team near the top of the rankings for seven seasons. Mullen additionally utilizes a 1-3-1 system to supplement the umbrella.

Either way, to utilize Voracek best -- who tends to float in the right circle at times -- a forward has to be mindful of digging the puck out from behind the net as James Neal was for Evgeni Malkin in that successful Pittsburgh pairing.

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The Flyers’ penalty killers finished seventh last season, allowing a mere 48 goals on 316 times shorthanded for an 84.8 percentage. In spite of Berube's insistence on instilling discipline, those 316 attempts were the second-most in the league behind Ottawa (320), and both teams were the only clubs that were shorthanded on more than 300 occasions. With eight short-handed goals scored, the Flyers were middle-of-the-pack, as they tied with five other teams. They also boasted the second-best road penalty kill (85.9 percent), and allowed more than one power play goal in just eight games.

Curiously, that stands in sharp contrast to the belief that the club has been missing something without  Mike Richards -- owner of an NHL record with three lifetime 3-on-5 tallies -- waiting to pick off errant passes and rush the other way. If Sean Couturier keeps up the following, there's enough anticipation to put pressure on the enemy power play:


Braydon Coburn, Sean Couturier, Timonen and Matt Read were among the league leaders in short-handed ice-time per game. Coburn led the league at 3:59, while Couturier, Timonen and Read finished with times of 3:25 (7th), 3:24 (9th) and 3:04 (18th), respectively. All good players, wasting valuable time trying to prevent the opposition from gaining the upper hand. Augmenting the effort are the plodding but sizeable Andrew McDonald and Nick Grossmann, whose expertise in blocking shooting and passing lanes carries over to the kill.

The unit will continue to be led by Ian Laperriere, who enters his first full season as assistant coach. Laperriere gained his current duties three games into last season when Berube, who previously handled penalty-killing duties, was promoted to head coach. In his lone season as a Flyer in 2009-10, the Quebec native established himself as one of the most memorable penalty-killers for fans, thanks to his toughness, grit and unfortunate career-ending propensity for blocking shots.

As much as we may not like it, Laperriere's relationship with Zac Rinaldo at times has held the key to success while at least one man down.

The Flyers have silently established themselves as a good special teams club, finishing among the league’s best on the power play and when killing penalties. Between a consistent power play and new personnel leading the penalty kill, that trend should only continue. With technical advances, aggressive penalty kills and the usual failures to execute, outages on the power play are to be expected, and there will be nights where teams torch the Orange and Black and make them suffer for taking penalties.

Special teams units have been very steady in recent seasons, and thanks to leadership and personnel on both units being essentially the same as it previous years, they’ll most likely remain among the league’s best in 2014-15.

Check out Rob's previous three weekly previews:
From  September 15 on the Flyers' offense
From  September 22 on the Flyers' defense
From  September 29 on the Flyers' goaltending
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