The Flyers' undoing

Posted: April 30, 2013

SINCE 1967, exactly 74 teams in the NHL have finished a regular season ranked in the top five in both the power play and penalty kill.

Only three of those teams have failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs - as the Flyers did this year despite finishing third in the power play (21.6 percent) and fifth in penalty kill (85.9 percent).

General manager Paul Holmgren said the reason for the Flyers joining that dubious company was their even-strength play. The Flyers finished 25th in five-on-five goals-for/goals-against ratio, at 0.86 goals-per-game, meaning they gave up 0.14 more goals at even strength than they scored.

"At five-on-five, we didn't do a good job," Holmgren said. "We didn't score enough and we didn't generate enough offense at the end of the day."

Scott Hartnell seems to believe that the root of their offensive struggles stemmed from the defensive zone, where Peter Laviolette installed a radically different, approach to play at the beginning of the season. (For an in-depth look at the Flyers' "overloading" system, go to http://ph.ly/overload)

"Our five-on-five play was absolutely awful," Hartnell said. "For our team, we have a lot guys who can make plays and be offensive and score. Our 'D' zone was trying to be like a couple other teams in our division. We're not used to that system."

Holmgren made it clear on Sunday that Laviolette will begin his fourth full season behind the Flyers' bench in October as the third-longest-tenured boss in team history.

Frankly, Laviolette should be the Flyers' coach. The same shortcomings everyone predicted would be a problem - an overall weak blue line - ended up biting them. Holmgren said Sunday he held himself accountable for that.

But that doesn't mean valid questions weren't raised by Hartnell, the first of the Flyers players to publicly voice their concerns about the system and setup.

Professional sports is full of copycats. Laviolette tried to install a system that, as he explained on Sunday, provided better "layered" protection for his goaltender. The Devils, Rangers and Lightning - teams that routinely crushed the Flyers last season - all employed a similar system.

Interestingly, the Flyers - and two of those teams - will be watching the playoffs from home, while the Rangers hung on for the sixth seed.

"Personally, I do [think it affected our offense]," Hartnell said. "We're a quick team. We were an attack-oriented team. It seemed like we were just, I don't know, everyone was standing still, personally, and we couldn't get much going from the defensive zone."

Laviolette said some of his system got "washed away a little bit when the personnel changed at the end of the season and the practice time decreased."

When asked if that meant he changed to a more simple system to benefit newcomers Erik Gustafsson, Kent Huskins, Oliver Lauridsen, Brandon Manning and Matt Konan, Laviolette answered: "Not at all."

"It was still there," Laviolette said. "We did talk about a simpler game, keeping the puck simple in more simple areas."

Could a simpler defensive zone be the reason the Flyers reeled off a 10-5-1 record over their final third of the season? It's a question worth asking. The Flyers scored 3.13 goals per game over the final third, significantly better than their other two-thirds performances (2.81 and 2.38).

Training camp opened on Jan. 13. The puck dropped against Pittsburgh on Jan. 19.

Was tinkering with an entire scheme a smart thing to do with a mostly intact roster already accustomed to a specific style? It's fair to wonder, especially in a season when you know practice time will be limited.

The Flyers started 2-6-0. Hartnell said with another 34 games, the Flyers would have made the playoffs. Hard to argue, given their performance to close, and the fact that this is precisely the point in an 82-game season when teams like the Islanders, Senators and even Maple Leafs traditionally fall apart.

"This year, I don't think we could afford that adjustment period," Hartnell said. "We dug ourselves a hole. It was frustrating to watch it, frustrating to play it."

The frustrating part was watching a team play without an identity - an aggressive style that was such a staple during Laviolette's first 2 1/2 seasons behind the bench.

Holmgren refused to use a system change as an excuse.

"I think sometimes players tend to overthink these things," Holmgren said. "There's lots of teams that play a similar style to what we were trying to do. Pittsburgh plays a similar style and they finished No. 1 overall in the East. There's probably some validity in saying maybe we didn't have enough time with it. But that's not an excuse for me, we just didn't get the job done.

"We didn't perform to a level that we needed to perform. I'm not pointing at any individual or any system. We just didn't get the job done."

Laviolette said it was an "uneasy feeling," sitting at the podium 2 days before the playoffs were to start, knowing his team would not be participating.

"Certainly, it's not where we wanted to be," Laviolette said. "I think that when things like this happen, I feel responsible. I'm the head coach of this team."

Hartnell said he was "sure" the Flyers' system would be addressed this summer. Now, with 5 months between games and his job status secure, Laviolette will have plenty of time to play mad scientist.


On Twitter: @DNFlyers

Blog: ph.ly/FrequentFlyers

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