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On Wednesday night, the Philadelphia Flyers lost again.
It wasn’t a major shock to most. Not only was it the team’s third straight loss and fifth in sixth games, but because it adhered to what has become a familiar script for the Orange and Black in recent years.
The Flyers, to be blunt, have become the ugly duckling of the Philly sports world, missing the playoffs in four of the last five seasons. Sure, they may have re-energized some core fans by shaking up management, announcing a rebuild, and rebranding the entire Flyers project as a “New Era of Orange.” But for everyone else — from leaguewide observers to casual local fans who have always put the hockey team fourth in their “4-for-4” rankings — the Flyers’ current place in the standings (11th worst record in the NHL) was expected. If anything, most prognosticators thought they’d be even worse.
But the Flyers’ current 4-5-1 record masks a hidden truth, one that only those who have attentively watched the team every night realize.
The Flyers are playing pretty darn good hockey.
They’ve outshot the opposition in seven of ten games, leading 334 – 267 (+67) in aggregate. They’ve outchanced opponents (per Natural Stat Trick’s public chance metrics) in seven of ten games as well. We’re not dealing with small sample sizes anymore, either — the ten-game mark is generally accepted in the analytics community to be when team-wide metrics start to become meaningful, particularly at five-on-five. And at five-on-five, the Flyers have earned a 55.91 percent expected goal share, ranking them seventh in the NHL, and well above where they finished in 2022-23 (47.24 percent — 24th in the league).
This is a team that has made real, measurable improvements.
Now, that doesn’t mean the Flyers are destined to embark on a surge towards playoff contention in the coming weeks and months. They still lack star-level talent up front; they’re still dressing a blueline corps nightly half-filled with non-blue chip rookie prospects and AHL veterans. And if Carter Hart — who left Wednesday’s game with a “mid-body injury” — misses extensive time, there’s a solid chance that all the shots on goal and expected goals in the world aren’t going to be enough for them to overcome their weakness in net.
But the Flyers are playing better. This has gone on long enough to be reasonably confident that their on-ice improvement is real. Which leads to the obvious question: How have they done it?
Roster adjustments and role tweaks have been part of it. But more than anything else, the Flyers are controlling games more often because of a change in on-ice mentality. In short, they’re opening things up.
When Tortorella took the job at the start of last season, “opening things up” was the furthest thing from his mind. His focus was on implementing the kind of habits and structure that he believed had fallen by the wayside in Philadelphia over the preceding few seasons.
“We just need to get our foundation straightened out and try to play as hard as we can, the right way,” Tortorella said way back in 2022. “That’s my expectation that we’re going to try to get to.”
The result was a heavy focus on defense. Players knew that if they didn’t have all of their defensive details in line, if they weren’t adhering to the new Tortorella mandate of becoming a sounder, more structured club, they were going to hear about it.
“With the coach that we have in Torts, if you’re not doing the right things defensively, I think everyone knows that you’re not gonna play,” Kevin Hayes noted last December. “So it’s kind of hard to ‘cheat for offense.’ Because if you’re trying to cheat and (the puck) ends up in the back of the net, you’re probably not gonna step on the ice (again). I think our team knows that. Everyone’s trying to be their best defensively.”
In other words, Tortorella was strongly incentivizing “playing strong defense” over “taking risks.” Players quickly realize which way the wind is blowing, and they want to stay in the lineup and remain in their coach’s good graces. So they might hang back in the neutral zone rather than exploit what could be a numbers advantage on the rush but also could lead to an odd-man rush going the other way. They would dump the puck into the offensive zone even if they instinctively felt there was a 60 percent chance they could maneuver around an oncoming defender, out of concern for the consequences if it went the other way.
It didn’t make for fun hockey most nights. But Tortorella firmly believed that last year was recalibration for a club that had lost its way.
“I felt it was so naked in front of Carter, how we played, (in) the tape I watched when I first came here. It needed to be straightened out,” Tortorella recalled on Wednesday morning.
But this year, things are different. Last season, the focus was on re-introducing good habits. Now that the good habits are back? It’s time to give Flyers players more freedom to make plays within that structure.
All metrics five-on-five only. xG courtesy of Evolving-Hockey; high-danger chances courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.
“There’s been a couple of instances for me already this year when players have turned pucks over, they come to the bench, and I can tell they’re looking at me when they’re coming to the bench, thinking they’re gonna be talked to. And I didn’t,” Tortorella noted. “Because I think that’s how you free players up. I do not want to overcoach them. I want us to take chances. I do.”
The extent of the resulting stylistic adjustment has been staggering. Last season, the Flyers were an extreme dump-and-chase team, befitting a club told by its coach to prioritize structure and safety over creativity and risk. In the 59 games I tracked last season, the Flyers carried the puck into the offensive zone at five-on-five on just 42.24 percent of their zone entries, which was significantly below the league average of 49.1 percent that tracker extraordinaire Corey Sznajder found in his league-wide work.
This season? They’re all the way up at 51.19 percent controlled entries (eight of ten games tracked), a near-ten percentage point jump.
Note: Edmonton and Minnesota games not yet tracked. 5-on-5 only.
Even casual hockey fans intuitively understand that carrying the puck into the offensive zone tends to lead to more shots and chances than dumping the puck. The latter involves purposely relinquishing possession, and there’s no guarantee that the puck will ever be retrieved. The former, on the other hand, is more associated with rush-based offense — odd-man rushes, breakaways, and the general chaos that comes from a defense having to react to speedy oncoming forwards with creative options. It should come as no surprise that carry-ins on average generate a little over double the unblocked shot attempts as dump-ins do.
In other words, if a team is looking to generate more offense, they should aim to improve their controlled entry rate — which is exactly what the Flyers have done thus far.
And it’s because this year, they have more freedom. Because at its core, the carry-in vs. dump-in decision for a player is less about X’s and O’s and tactics, and more an unconscious weighing of risk vs. reward — both on-ice and off-ice.
Sometimes, like on a 2-on-1, the choice is obvious (carry it in, of course). But say a forward is a few feet from the opposing blueline and staring right at an opposing defenseman. The gap between the two isn’t loose — the d-man isn’t backing up in abject fear Andrew MacDonald-style — but it’s also not so tight that a successful poke check or crushing body check is a near certainty if the forwards tries to maneuver around him.
So what will said forward do?
Last year, figuring that a turnover at the blueline might result in Tortorella stapling him to the bench or chewing him out in a closed-doors tape study, the forward likely just got the puck deep and tried to chase it down. But this year, after watching a teammate the previous game commit a turnover on a 50/50 entry attempt and not be punished by Torts? The split-second mental equation changes.
The same risk/reward balance goes for “stretching” the neutral zone without the puck, as well. Another way for a player (and team) to generate more controlled entries is for one player to make himself a target for a stretch pass at the far end of the neutral zone, well ahead of the play.
Cherry-picking, in other words.
If a player nabs that pass, he’s off to the races, likely in the form of a dangerous odd-man rush or breakaway. But if the pass fails, or if the team loses possession before the feed can even be attempted? The opponent has their own numbers advantage on the attack.
How does a team like the Flyers, who are trying to open things up without completely sacrificing their defensive soundness, decide when to stretch the neutral zone, and when to hang back?
For Tortorella, it’s the distinction between “anticipating” and “cheating.” One is desirable, even encouraged in the new environment in Philadelphia. The other? Not so much. Luckily for the rest of the Flyers, they have a player in the locker room who has a knack for almost always falling on the “anticipating” side of the ledger, who the young players can watch as an example.
“Cam Atkinson is so good at leaving the zone, but (when) he knows we’re gonna get first touch in the corner, he’s out at the red line by the time we get the first touch, so we’re stretching the offensive zone. He’s so good at it,” Tortorella raved.
But anticipating can quickly turn into cheating, Tortorella warns, if players overuse the tactic.
“When it starts working — and it has, I think we have played a much quicker pace and a much, much quicker style offensively — when it starts working, they think they can do it all the time,” he said. “And they start anticipating maybe a little bit too quickly on our first touch. And that’s when it starts turning into cheating.”
So far, Tortorella is happy with the balance from his players, both in terms of carry-ins vs. dump-ins with the puck, and anticipating vs. cheating without it. The defensive numbers at five-on-five back up his belief.
- 4th in the NHL in shots on goal against/60
- 3rd in expected goals against/60
- 5th in high-danger chances against/60
Despite the early positive signs, Tortorella is fully aware this shift in mentality comes with risk, calling it a “180” from their approach last season. He doesn’t want to lose the defensive gains from 2022-23. But in Year 2 of his tenure, he wants the Flyers to be controlling games more often, and score more goals in the process. So he’s working to bite his tongue when some of the on-ice risks lead to chances and goals against, in pursuit of transforming the Flyers into the kind of club that can compete for Stanley Cups down the road.
“That’s a big part of my coaching here this year, is if there’s a mistake made — a turnover when they’re trying to make a play at the blue line, or leaving the zone to try to create offense. If I think they’re doing it for the right reason, and it’s the right timing, and they’re trying to make plays and it doesn’t work? I don’t say anything,” he explained.
Controlled entries? Encouraging risk? Ranking in the top-10 in basically every advanced five-on-five metric? Is John Tortorella an analytics coach now?
Let’s not go that far.
“You know I’m not a big number guy,” he said on Wednesday.
Tortorella acknowledged that the coaching staff does pay attention to tracked stats like controlled entry and dump-in totals, that he relies upon assistants Rocky Thompson and Brad Shaw to comb through the data and pick out any positive or troubling trends that appear, and present that information to him if they deem it necessary. But it’s not like Tortorella has “55 percent controlled entry rate” written on a dry-erase board in his office as a target for his club. He’s still going by his eyes and his gut to tell him what the right balance is, when anticipation is crossing over into cheating or when players are starting to stray a bit too far from the structural gains they made in 2022-23.
It’s just that right now, his eye test is matching the stat test.
“I want you to understand that I’m not totally against numbers, but I like my gut,” he said. “I like my eyes and feel. I like using that. It allows me to coach that way, and not be rehearsed from numbers. I think when you have numbers, you’re a rehearsed coach. I like just the split-second coaching. I think that’s very important.”
So Tortorella bets that his eyes will tell him what he needs to know most of the time as he works to implement this stylistic adjustment, trusting that his assistants will step in if the numbers begin to paint a different picture.
“I’ve always said: sometimes the head coach gets blinders on,” he admitted. “Sometimes the analytics (have) to bring me back, (if) something really good is going on, or we’re going off the rails in this area. My coaches let me know.”
And the flexible approach to tactics and style is justifiable. After all, it’s never been true that every successful team has to generate more controlled entries than uncontrolled ones; Tortorella himself pointed out on Wednesday that the Carolina Hurricanes — analytics darlings that they always are — have long been one of the most dump-in heavy clubs in hockey. There’s more than one way to play a winning style of hockey.
But Tortorella and his staff absolutely believes that it’s important for the club to be more creative and take more on-ice risks in Year 2 than they did in Year 1, and thus far, they’re doing just that.
“I like the attitude of how we play. I see a lot of good things in how we’re playing,” Tortorella said after Wednesday’s 5-2 loss. “And how we’re playing, the aggressiveness of our play, we’re going to have some breakdowns.”
Maybe they might lose a game by a 6-3 score playing this way that they may have won 2-1 if they played a lower-risk style. But Tortorella believes they’ll be better positioned to win more in the future if they master the balance between risk and structure now.
So far, so good.