By Brad Keffer (@Brkzone)
After a disappointing season that saw the Flyers selecting their highest draft pick since 2007, they bounced back in a huge way by getting back into the playoffs for the 18th time in the past 21 seasons. While it was mainly driven by superb goaltending and the call-up of a rookie phenom, the changes made by Ron Hextall during the off-season can’t be overlooked. One of the more surprising performances came from a defenseman that was looked at as a “thrown in” addition in the Coburn trade.
While some players could’ve had more of an impact if they were given more opportunities (Medvedev), others stepped up and helped shore up what was looked at as Philadelphia’s main weakness coming into the 2015-16 season. The defense took a hit at last year’s trade deadline when Hextall dealt Braydon Coburn to the Tampa Bay Lightning, but other players taking major steps forward has made the loss almost completely insignificant. This years defense lost Nicklas Grossmann, Luke Schenn, and for a while, Andrew MacDonald while adding Radko Gudas, Evgeny Medvedev, and of course, Shayne Gostisbehere. Brandon Manning, while not new to the Flyers, found himself with a constant roster spot once Schenn was traded to Los Angeles, so we’ll count him as an “add” for this reason.
I’ll be the first to admit that I really did not expect Gudas to be more than a 6th/7th defenseman who would possibly be gone at season’s end but after watching him play 82 games over the course of the regular season and playoffs, my thoughts have taken a complete 180°. Radko’s regular season numbers were fantastic; ranking 21st in CF% and 4th in CF/60 among all defenseman playing >500 minutes at 5v5 even strength. What may be the most impressive is his stats relative to his team. Ranked 8th league-wide, he led all Flyers skaters with a 5.25RelCF%. While driving the play offensively, Gudas still racked up numbers in the defensive zone. Ranking 2nd among all skaters in hits during the regular season with 304 and 19th in blocked shots (157) he showed that he can help the team, however they need him to, whether it’s a middle-pair defenseman who is looked at to be an offensive player or a bottom-pairing defenseman who spends most of his time on the penalty kill as a “shutdown” type. Every pairing he played on this season had great success in possession stats, except his short time with Nick Schultz.
The Gudas & Manning pairing was 2nd-best on the team, just behind Shayne Gostisbehere & Evgeny Medvedev (60.54CF% in 105 minutes). Being that this was his first season as a full-time NHLer and is probably one of the more underrated guys in the league, his impending contract should be pretty team friendly. If they can get him on a multi-year deal under or at $2 million per, it’d be a fantastic signing.
Michael Del Zotto
Isn’t it nice to bring in a player that a rival team has given up on and have him succeed? Del Zotto’s contract has to be the one of the best signings in the Hextall era but with only one year left at a $3.875M cap hit, he may be in for a pay increase following next season. Although a season-ending injury only allowed him to play in 52 games, Del Zotto proved that last season wasn’t a fluke and that he’s really blossomed into a reliable puck mover which is something the Flyers had desperately needed. Ranking 30th league wide and 3rd in Flyers defensemen in RelCF% with a 3.38, Del Zotto’s play picked up right where it left off last season. Del Zotto played in every situation and filled the “#1” defenseman role for the Flyers prior to injury leading to his 23:24 TOI/GP which ranked him 27th in the league and led all Flyers skaters this year.
After four seasons spent primarily in the American Hockey League with the Phantoms, Manning played his first full-NHL season. While a RelCF% of 2.11 (45th best league-wide) is not close to same impact Gudas had, it’s still a good sign that he performed well once he secured a constant roster spot. He wasn’t a detriment on the ice, which is all I can really ask for from a 3rd-pairing defenseman with a physical style. It’s yet to be known if the Flyers will give him a contract renewal, but it seems likely that they would.
The Flyers main issue this year was goal scoring, and maybe one of their biggest weaknesses was depth forwards. Individual players still had strong seasons, and based on past performances, it should be expected to continue. The team moved out forwards Vinny Lecavalier, Zac Rinaldo, and despite him still being on the roster, let’s also count RJ Umberger here. The only additions that played more than ten games were Sam Gagner and Nick Cousins.
What a find by the Flyers scouting staff. In his third season in Philadelphia, Raffl’s strong play led to leading all Flyers forwards in CF% for the second season in a row. His 54.36CF% was 54th among forwards and his RelCF% of 5.06% was good enough for 29th . After scoring 21 goals in the 2014-15 season, his goal production dropped to 13 this past season. This probably has something to do with the lack of ice time on the top line with Claude Giroux. While I feel he is capable of being a top-6 forward, it will be tough for him to find a constant spot there considering that the Flyers seemingly only have one top-6 forward spot available. The other 5 will surely be taken by Giroux, Voracek, Schenn, Simmonds, and Couturier. With Konecny and Leier pushing for roster spots next season, Raffl could very well find himself in a third line role for the majority of the season where he would still make a positive impact no matter his linemates. He was even almost able to drag Schultz to 50CF%! That’s impressive in itself.
Couturier took a huge step forward this season and it showed on a nightly basis. Not only was he second in Flyers forwards in CF%, but he also led all Flyers forwards in 5v5 P/60 by scoring at a 2.07P/60 ratio. Couturier managed to produce offense better than any other forward at 5v5 while playing some of, if not the, hardest minutes on the team.
Couturier will certainly see some Selke trophy votes come his way, whether he’ll get enough to be the first Flyers nominee since Mike Richards is yet to be seen. Here are some comparable players that are also known as “defense-first” forwards around the league.
There’s no question that Read’s goal scoring and point production have dipped over the past two seasons, but he still drives possession and is good on the forecheck, much like Raffl. His 53.30CF% ranks 3rd in Flyers forwards but for some reason, it didn’t translate into points as his 1.02P/60 ranked 4th-worst on the team, only ahead of the 4th line, better known as the untouchables. An 11-goal, 26-point season really isn’t that bad for a 3rd line checking forward and while we’ve come to expect more from Read after two 20-goal seasons, he’s an effective 3rd liner and penalty killer.
Honorable mention: Sam Gagner. Ranked 8th among Philly forwards in 5v5 CF% and his play only got better once the playoffs started. While six games is a very small sample size, Gagner led all Flyers skaters with a 55.6CF%. He hinted that he may want to come back but isn’t sure if the Flyers will put a contract on the table.
Every player brought into the lineup this season (Gudas, Medvedev, Manning, Gostisbehere, Gagner, & Cousins) ended the season at or above a CF% of 50% which can all be seen as upgrades over Grossmann, Lecavalier, Rinaldo, and Umberger’s performances from last season. The only two positive corsi players that were moved out of Philadelphia were Luke Schenn and Braydon Coburn. Ron Hextall is turning this team into something great, and with a guy like Dave Hakstol behind the bench, I see nothing but good things in the immediate future.