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    How freedom & communication has helped Brad Shaw fix the Flyers' PK

    Charlie O'Connor Avatar
    December 6, 2023

    In his earlier coaching days, Brad Shaw was what some might call a micromanager.

    It wasn’t that he didn’t trust his players. But given his cerebral and analytical nature, Shaw simply felt the need to tell his players everything he saw, all of the time.

    “(How) I used to run my meetings, I used to try and deal with every scenario,” Shaw reflected.

    But it rarely worked as intended.

    “When we were in Columbus, he’s gone through it where some players just kind of lost themselves because they got too much information,” Flyers head coach (and longtime coaching partner of Shaw) John Tortorella recalled. “(I told him), there is not a chance you can give them all that information that’s going on in your head. They will not be able to pick it up.”

    So Shaw adapted. He shortened his meetings. He pulled back on the sheer volume of data and tactical information that he once would use to bombard his players. He began to pick his spots in terms of giving direct advice — a short on-ice conversation here, an impromptu tape clip there — but always ensured it came wrapped in the bias towards aggressiveness that has always been the foundation of his on-ice tactics.

    “I’m way better at it now than I used to be,” Shaw chuckled.

    So is the vastly improved penalty kill in Philadelphia, which Shaw runs. After 25 games, the unit stands at an 85.4 percent efficiency rate — seventh in the NHL, and the best a Philadelphia PK has performed since 2013-14. But Brad Shaw hasn’t merely tightened up the goal prevention aspects of the PK. He’s turned it into a unit that — at least so far — is playing like the best attacking penalty kill since the league began tracking advanced shot-based metrics back in 2007.

    And Shaw’s informative yet collaborative coaching style is a major reason why.

    “I think he’s a great teacher of the game,” Scott Laughton noted. “We’ve learned a lot from him.”

    Just as Shaw has learned from the Flyers.

    An attacking mentality, but upgraded

    It’s no surprise that a Shaw-coached penalty kill has an attacking mentality. There’s a reason why his best units in Columbus (also under Tortorella) earned the “power kill” nickname in the latter half of the 2010s — they took any opportunity to carry the puck down the ice while shorthanded and try to create shots and goals.

    But this one is on an entirely different level.

    In over 134 minutes at 4-on-5 this season, the Flyers have allowed eight goals. They’ve scored just two fewer themselves. The Philadelphia PK has also racked up a whopping 40 shots on goal, while allowing only 82 of their own. For every four goals the Flyers allow, they’re scoring three. For every two shots an opposing power play generates, the Flyers are getting at least one.

    Those results aren’t merely impressive — they’re unprecedented. The best full-season Goals For Percentage at 4-on-5 for an NHL team over a season since 2007-08 is 34.21 percent, produced by the 2011-12 New Jersey Devils. The Flyers currently have collected 42.86 percent of the goals. Their 32.79 percent shot share would also be the best of the analytics era, just ahead of the 2022-23 Calgary Flames (28.54 percent) and the 2018-19 Columbus Blue Jackets (28.19 percent) — another Shaw-coached group.

    Penalty kills never generate this much offense relative to what they allow. Yet the Flyers are.

    Oct 2, 2023; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Flyers right wing Travis Konecny (11) celebrates his goal with center Scott Laughton (21) against the Boston Bruins during the second period at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    “I just think they’re all in sync,” Tortorella offered. “And I think they’ve picked the right times to push, to be aggressive. When a team’s bobbling the puck, or their back is towards the play. I think they’ve picked the right times to go.”

    And as the stats imply — since the other half of the shot and goal share equations account for what the PK allowed — the Flyers aren’t sacrificing defense in order to generate all that offense. At 4-on-5, they’re first in the NHL in shots allowed per 60 minutes. fifth in attempts against/60, and first in expected goals against/60, per Evolving-Hockey’s model.

    If anything, the leaguewide ranking of 7th undersells what Shaw and the Flyers penalty killers are doing in Philadelphia. So how is Shaw pulling it off?

    “He knows what he wants, and he tells you that. But he also gives you the freedom to kind of play with your hockey sense,” Ryan Poehling explained. “I think all those things combine for a great coach. He learns from us and we learn from him, which is important.”

    Shaw’s aggressive penalty kill philosophy does partially explain their success. Shaw constantly encourages his PKs to attack, to “hunt,” in his words. Poehling contended that out of all of his NHL stops thus far, Shaw’s PK is the most aggressive he’s seen. But in Shaw’s mind, the Flyers actually are not one of the league’s most attacking penalty kills — results notwithstanding.

    “I think there’s actually a few more teams that are using that ultra-aggressive, top-down pressure. We haven’t got into that mode,” Shaw argued.

    So if constant aggression isn’t the silver-bullet explanation, how are they creating so many shots and goals for themselves, while relinquishing so few?

    “I think we have a smarter version of pressure, I would say, when you add guys that have done it for a long time,” Shaw said.

    The Flyers certainly did add a number of experienced penalty killers to their mix this season. Longtime PK anchor Sean Couturier returned from injury, as did Cam Atkinson, a stalwart on Shaw’s penalty kill in Columbus. UFA signing Garnet Hathaway has done it for years, as has defenseman Sean Walker. Poehling has been a PK option for multiple teams. On paper, it’s absolutely a better shorthanded group than the one that ranked 26th in 2022-23.

    But the improvement isn’t merely due to the more experienced personnel. It’s what Shaw is letting the experienced personnel do, both on and off the ice. He’s allowing them the freedom to deploy their unique styles, their preferred brands of pressure.

    “Guys like that take our concepts and our ideas that we talk about in meetings and in one-on-one interaction, and then sort of put their own spin on it and take it into games and see how it works,” Shaw explained.

    Of course, Shaw has his overarching system, his non-negotiable philosophy. But within that system, it’s very much a back-and-forth between players and coach in terms of how the philosophy is executed.

    “It’s guys who have done it for a long time. So they actually have ideas for me. They have suggestions for me, we have dialogue back and forth,” Shaw noted. “I ask them questions, actually. I’m actually picking their brains at times, because they’ve done it for so long. You know, nobody has all the answers.”

    It’s a far cry from the micromanaging style that Shaw once utilized. And his players very much appreciate the respect that he shows them.

    “Shawsy — especially with the X’s and O’s — has been great, and then giving us the freedom to see something, talk to him about it, and just have a really open discussion about what we see might help,” Hathaway noted. “And I think he understands each player individually really well, understands his strengths and how we read the game.”

    Nov 7, 2023; San Jose, California, USA; Philadelphia Flyers head coach John Tortorella instructs goaltender Samuel Ersson (33) during the third period against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center at San Jose. Mandatory Credit: Robert Edwards-USA TODAY Sports

    Those discussions may not happen every day with each individual player. Shaw doesn’t want to overwhelm his penalty killers with information, as he fears he did in the past. But keep a close eye out on practice days, and you’ll see Shaw picking his spots — chatting with Cam York after the end-of-practice stretch, or bringing his laptop into the locker room to have a quick tape study session with Travis Sanheim and Travis Konecny, as he did this Monday while media members were still in the room.

    And then, Shaw unleashes them on unsuspecting power plays, bolstered by the pieces of knowledge he imparted, and the knowledge that their coach trusts them to take those tidbits and deploy them on their own terms.

    “One thing I like about Shawsy is he kind of allows me to do what I do, and anticipate where I kind of go off the reservation a little bit, and trust my instincts in that sort of thing, in different situations,” Cam Atkinson explained.

    “He knows what he wants, and he tells you that. But he also gives you the freedom to kind of play with your hockey sense,” Poehling added.

    The consistent message from Shaw: I want you to attack. But how you attack is up to you.

    “That’s really been an attribute of every guy we put on the ice, is that they are looking to press. But it looks different (for each player),” Shaw said. “Couturier is going to do it totally different than Cam (Atkinson), totally different than TK. And same with Poehling and Hathaway. They all have their own sort of little flavor that they add to it. But at the end of the day, we’re all looking for the same results.”

    Letting the duos hunt

    The sheer number of quality PK options that the Flyers have — especially up front — make it even easier for Shaw to justify giving them the green light to attack freelance-style. Shaw has been able to strategically spread the workload around for his forwards far more than most teams can, keeping them fresh and able to close gaps quicker and carry the puck down the ice faster.

    Entering Monday, Atkinson led the Flyers forwards with 48 minutes at 4-on-5 — just 36.22 percent of the overall time that Philadelphia had spent in the situation. That’s the fourth-lowest share for a “top” PK forward in the NHL. Increased energy on the part of the penalty killers is only part of the benefit — it also allows Shaw to constantly throw different pressure looks at opposing power plays, given the stylistic freedom he allows them.

    Nov 30, 2023; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Flyers right wing Cam Atkinson (89) shoots against the New Jersey Devils during the first period at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

    “I think when you can keep the power play off balance a little bit, by having some different personality, or different style killers, I think it gives you a little bit of an advantage,” Shaw explained.

    Their primary forward duos are certainly distinct. There’s the Laughton-Konecny pair — a high-risk duo which is both the most adept at creating shorthanded chances and least adept at preventing them. There was Atkinson and Noah Cates, which combined an instinctual freelancer with a player perfectly content to hold down the fort defensively (Couturier has unsurprisingly taken Cates’ spot since his injury).

    And then there’s the Poehling-Hathaway duo, which at least by the numbers, might be the best of the Flyers’ three when it comes to doing the most important job of penalty killers: keeping opposing PPs from generating quality chances and goals.

    All data 4-on-5 only, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.

    “I like how they’re aggressive to a fault,” Shaw noted regarding his duo of fourth line stalwarts. “They’re not backing off. They’re continually on their toes, and they’re continually conversing with one another after each shift.”

    And if any of the duos falter? The Flyers have quality reserve options in droves. Joel Farabee — who certainly appears to be faster and stronger after a big offseason — has killed penalties in the past and showed flashes of high-end upside in the role. Nicolas Deslauriers was long a PK regular. Owen Tippett was tested out in the role last year. Even Morgan Frost was a major shorthanded threat in junior hockey.

    On some teams, the penalty kill is thankless work, a place purely for painful shot blocking and grunt work down low. It’s not that the Flyers’ penalty kill doesn’t contain those elements. But it’s also active, aggressive, and run by a coach constantly preaching the importance of “200-foot clears” and encourages those clears to come via transition rushes, and not merely slapping the puck down the ice. Getting PK minutes means an extra opportunity to score, not merely more minutes spent defending.

    It may be a fun penalty kill for Flyers fans to watch. But it’s also a treat for the Flyers players on it — as long as they don’t lose sight of the overarching goal.

    “Every defenseman that we have killing, makes great outlet passes and has poise with the puck,” Hathaway noted. “But the most important thing still for us is to kill the penalty, it’s not to get a goal. And that’s understood, and we can still make plays with without compromising that.”

    Keeping up the success

    It’s been a decade now since the Philadelphia Flyers have had an elite penalty kill; even the oasis of 2019-20 (11th ranked, under Mike Yeo) proved be a mere mirage in the desert. And perhaps Shaw’s PK will drop off over the final three-quarters of 2023-24 as well.

    “This usually works out that when you do the article on the penalty kill, that it has a tough stretch, it’s the Murphy’s Law of the whole process,” Shaw cracked.

    But both by the eye test and the numbers, it appears that Shaw and the Flyers have found a formula that works — a formula that will be tested over the final 57 games of the season.

    “The challenge is to not stay out in front, but keep finding solutions, both through work away from the ice, and through pre-scouts and through video and through meetings, but also the feedback from the players from the ice back to me on what’s working and what’s not working,” Shaw said.

    “I think the more we can communicate, the better we can execute.”

    So yes, Brad Shaw’s penalty kill has been successful because of its aggressiveness. But it’s also a result of player/coach communication, and the unique degree of freedom that Shaw grants to his PKers.

    He’s a long way from the guy back in Columbus who would overwhelm his players with instructions and data.

    “(Now), he’s getting to athletes at the right time and giving them the right amount of information at that certain time. One of the brightest minds I’ve been around,” Tortorella said.

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