Flyers underwhelming playing new, 'overloading' system

Posted: February 19, 2013

UNIONDALE, N.Y. - Understandably unwilling to share his secrets, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette will at least admit that his team's system, setup and scheme has been different this season. How different?

"I'm probably going to keep away from talking about it, describing it or going into any detail," Laviolette told the Daily News. "I don't like to delve into specifics. I don't want my system in the newspaper."

Laviolette says there have not been "wholesale changes," but it certainly seems that way on the ice. When you rewatch games on video, it becomes apparent that the Flyers' defensive-zone setup has caused them growing pains in the other two zones of the ice.

Make no mistake, Laviolette says, the Flyers have not become a trapping team. That is a misconception.

"We don't trap," Laviolette said. "Never have. Still don't. I'm not going to call 'it' anything."

Instead, the Flyers have chosen to adopt a trend in "overloading" the corners in the defensive zone to better the odds they'll come out with the puck. It isn't unusual to see three guys in one corner now, digging for loose pucks.

The two teams in the Eastern Conference finals last year - the Devils and Rangers - used a similar setup. It worked. Everyone else noticed. Montreal, Tampa Bay and even Toronto have bought in in the copy-cat Eastern Conference.

A theoretical benefit of overloading is that it will cut down on the number of chances your goaltender should face. That means it's possible that some, but not all, of Ilya Bryzgalov's much-improved numbers have come from these new wrinkles.

The problem for the Flyers is that it has set back their attack moving up ice, since players are beginning the transition from lower in their own zone. Suddenly, they become easier to defend in the neutral zone with opponents hustling back.

Once they're in the offensive zone, the goal is a sustained cycle. The problem is that they're facing so many teams who also choose to overload, where the goal is to prevent cycling. You would think doing the same thing would prepare the Flyers better to defeat it, but it hasn't.

Not coincidentally, nine of the Flyers' 13 points have come against three teams that do not overload: Carolina, Winnipeg and Florida.

Rather than keeping a forward higher in the slot for scoring opportunities, the Flyers have been forced to play that extra man deeper in the zone because his teammates are outnumbered.

There are two solutions to beating the setup: genuine hard work in battles, which captain Claude Giroux said Saturday the Flyers are not doing enough of, and getting defensemen involved.

One course of action is to reverse the ice and rim the puck around the boards to a "weak" or "far-side" defenseman. The Flyers' largely immobile defense corps is not built for that. Kimmo Timonen is their best-equipped defenseman to handle the puck at the blue line, but he's lost a step with age. Andrej Meszaros is next best, but sidelined with a shoulder injury.

Teams are so deft at blocking shots, it takes a magician to get a shot through to the net. That has made life difficult for the Flyers. It partially explains why they had just six shots on goal in Montreal through the first 32 minutes of Saturday's 4-1 loss.

The Flyers are 24th in goals-for through the first third of their season, averaging 2.38 per game. They've scored more than two goals just five times in 16 games after averaging 3.22 goals per game last season.

The money question: How much has this new system played a role in the Flyers' unacceptable start? Laviolette couldn't put his finger on that, but did not use it as an excuse.

"There's always a learning curve," Laviolette said. "Regardless, it's got to be better. There's always a curve where you're trying to do what you're doing better. We need to teach it better. Everything. All aspects.

"Nobody is sitting here saying that we're proficient in what we're doing right now. We need to do it better in all aspects of the game."

One thing is undeniable: No gameplan is an excuse for mental mistakes, like going offsides four times in one period alone or a too-many-men on the ice penalty at a crucial time. It definitely isn't an answer for lacking a "compete level," as Giroux described.

In the NHL, a coach is usually the first person fingered and fired for not meeting expectations during a rocky start. Ed Snider has never been a patient man, but it's still way too early to be looking Laviolette's way.

The Flyers are 6-9-1. They were a similar 6-8-2 in his first 16 games as the Flyers coach in 2009, when he brought in an entirely new setup installed mostly by assistant Kevin McCarthy. This one is on Laviolette.

Yes, they have the third-worst points percentage (.437) in the league, ahead of only Columbus and Washington, but they entered Sunday just two points back of a playoff spot.

It took them about 20 to 25 games to fully grasp Laviolette's plan after he was initially hired. They finished on a 22-16-3 clip, snuck into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season and marched to the Stanley Cup finals.

The Flyers went 47-23-12 the following season, perhaps using Laviolette's aggressive offense as the vehicle. The other teams in the East caught up, and now he is making adjustments.

The other theoretical benefit of overloading is that it lends itself to playoff success, when games become tighter and space is even more of a premium; the Devils, Rangers and Lightning all have tangible proof. But the Flyers have to get there first.

STAT WATCH:

19-7 -- Rate at which opponents have outscored the Flyers in third periods. The Flyers trailed, 2-1, in Montreal on Saturday before the Canadiens pulled away with a 4-1 win. The only period in which the Flyers have won the scoring battle is the second (15-12)

1-6-1 -- Flyers' record when opponents score first, nearly as bad as their 2-8-0 overall road record.

5 -- Number of back-to-back sets of games the Flyers have played this season among their 16 contests. They're 2-3 in the second game, 1-4 in the first. They have five sets left in the final 32 games.

94.3 percent -- Efficiency for the Flyers' penalty kill (33-for-35) over the last nine games. They've killed off 16 straight penalties

32.04 -- Hits per 60 minutes of ice time for Zac Rinaldo, which far and away leads the NHL. He also led that category last season. Rinaldo has 47 hits (eighth in NHL) in 88 total minutes.

By comparison, Luke Schenn (59, second) has just 10.85 hits per 60 minutes of ice time.

77 -- Wins Peter Laviolette racked up as coach of the New York Islanders (2001-03), which still stands as third most in team history.

18 -- Goals for Mike Knuble against Marty Brodeur, second most among NHL players all-time against the living legend. Former Flyer Simon Gagne (19) is first and Jaromir Jagr (17) is third.

401 -- Faceoffs taken by Claude Giroux this season, tops in the NHL. No player has won more (222) or lost more (179) than Giroux, too. His 55.4 win percentage trails only Antoine Vermette, Tyler Bozak, Travis Zajac and Sidney Crosby among those with 250 draws taken. He snapped a personal streak of seven straight games above 50 percent on Friday night.

SCARY MOMENT:

As Springfield (AHL) forward Wade MacLeod was skating off the ice on Sunday after a hit from Phantoms defenseman Brandon Manning, he fell to the ice and began convulsing.

MacLeod was carted off the ice and taken to a medical center, where he was "stable and alert," according to the AHL. The Phantoms' game was suspended with 3:46 left in the second period. No word on when it will be resumed.

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