What was behind the Flyers’ November success?
Philadelphia Flyers fans will tell you the team’s 10-2-4 record in November gives you every reason you need to see as to why they’re quickly becoming one of the best teams in the league.
They currently have the fifth-best winning percentage in the league, behind only the Bruins, division foes in the Capitals and Islanders, then St. Louis. They’re doing it with solid, albeit not-overwhelming, underlying numbers on the whole, and that might give you reason to think they’ve built a solid foundation on which to build their nascent empire.
But what that ignores is a string of narrow results built on a foundation of getting outplayed in all situations. In the entire month of November, they had the seventh-worst expected-goals difference in the league (in the same neighborhood as your Chicagos and Edmontons, just to give you an idea). A lot of their results were the result of a successful run of special teams play, particularly on the PK, where they only allowed six goals all month.
Let’s go through the bad news first: Yes, the Flyers only lost twice in regulation in November, but half of their month’s haul of wins were in overtime and three more were effectively one-goal games (including a two-goal game with an empty-netter against rival Carolina).
In all, they went to OT nine times in 16 games, which definitely helps but also isn’t a long-term solution to getting the points you need to remain in the divisional race, especially in a division with so much parity. Over a long enough timeline, one-goal games become coin-flips. You gotta put together more convincing results to be truly competitive.
They were better than their overall numbers at 5-on-5 — which makes sense because Alain Vigneault’s teams always have worse-than-you’d-think underlyings due to his preference of a counterattacking style — but make no mistake: Their success was buoyed by that PK. Vigneault has them humming along near the top of the league in PK effectiveness, but that’s masked by Brian Elliott of all people looking like a world-beater. Five power-play goals against on 8.5 expected goals is pretty far outside his wheelhouse.
Sure, he’s never been coached by Vigneault or played behind this particular group of penalty killers, but this is shaping up to be his best PK season since he played for Ken Hitchcock. I’d personally expect those results to thin out, and with it, see a few of those one-goal wins no longer come out in their favor.
The big problem for the Flyers is that they have a handful of good or even great players (Sean Couturier is a legitimate “most underrated player in the world” candidate, Travis Konecny and Travis Sanheim look like real players, Oskar Lindblom has been great early, etc.), a few fading stars (Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek), and a few guys who should be contributors but are now underperforming (James van Riemsdyk, Shayne Gostisbehere).
What they don’t have is a reliable game-breaking talent, let alone the two or three needed to really make a difference over the course of the full 82 and, yes, into the playoffs. There’s a reason most models have, say, Pittsburgh — which is currently trailing the Flyers in the standings — as being more likely to make the postseason, and actually get deep into the spring. It’s because for all their problems they still have Crosby, Malkin, and Letang. Those three guys alone can win you a round or two or more.
Only Couturier is even remotely in the same category, and he’s a shade below both those other forwards. No shame in that since they’re two of the best to ever do it, but it’s the difference between being meaningfully competitive and maybe being able to figure out a way to win a round.
There are encouraging signs for this team, no doubt. They’re putting points in the bank and are generally playing well, though not as well as the standings would suggest. They probably don’t have the juice to catch up with the Isles or Caps. The only question is whether they can fend off the Canes and Pens, let alone the more talented, deeper Leafs (whom they admittedly smoked Tuesday) and Lightning.
You always want to have a good month, and in the standings, the Flyers surged. Now that we’re past Thanksgiving, they’re far more likely than not to make the playoffs.
But as far as reliable long-term success goes, you should want to see a little more from that month than what they showed.
Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.
All stats/salary info via Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, CapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.
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