Grading the 2019-20 Flyers Defensemen and Goalies
Until it was put on hold due to coronavirus, the 2019-20 season was a promising one for the Philadelphia Flyers. A new coaching staff and an aggressive summer combined with the old core and emerging young talent led the Flyers to the sixth best record in the NHL this season, leaving Philly just one behind Washington for first in the Metro.
While this season was an undeniable success for the Flyers as a team, each individual player has their own story to tell. Some players rose above the pack, surprising fans in a positive way. Others disappointed, failing to meet expectations. Most are somewhere in the middle.
With the Flyers next game likely not being for at least a few more months, now seems like a perfect time to see where everyone stands. This is part two of this series; part one graded the Flyers forward corps. Every skater who played at least twenty games in the NHL this season (whether they were for the Flyers or not) will receive a mention, and since the Flyers didn't use eight goalies like last season, I'll give analysis on all three that did suit up this season.
I'll be taking several factors into consideration to come up with the grades. Points and traditional stats will play a major role, as will analytics. Specifically, Corsi and Expected Goals For% will be the two main fancy stats I take into account, since they show how well a player is driving play, which is what leads to goals, which is what leads to wins. Veteran presence and intangibles may not be quantifiable, but if a player goes above and beyond in that area, it can give them a little boost.
Grades will be given relative to a player's expectations and cap hit. AHL work of players will also be considered for players that suited up for the Phantoms this year, although that won't be a major factor in the final grade. Keep in mind that the Flyers only played 69 games this season compared to 82 last year when looking at point totals. Now, let's see who made the grade and who will be trying to hide their report card from their parents (half this team is under 25, don't tell me their parents won't be all over them if they get a bad grade).
2018-19: 7 G, 19 A (26 PTS), 47.58% Corsi, 49.08% xGF
2019-20: 13 G, 23 A (36 PTS), 51.79% Corsi, 52.43% xGF
Now this is the Ivan Provorov we know and love. Provorov's career trajectory took a surprising negative swing last season. After bursting onto the scene with a solid rookie season, Provorov broke out in 17-18. His 17 goals were tied for the most of any defenseman in the league, the last of which was the game-winner in the Flyers playoff-clinching game 82 against the Rangers. His underlying metrics were ok for the first 100 or so games playing alongside noted pylon Andrew MacDonald, but once given a good partner in Shayne Gostisbehere for the second half of 17-18, they took a jump as well.
However, last season was a sobering one for Provorov. His struggles started back in Game 5 of the Flyers first round series against Pittsburgh, when Provorov suffered a grade 3 AC shoulder sprain, an injury that should have sidelined him for six to eight weeks. He played in Game 6 two days later, but wasn't the same; post-game, Provorov said his arm went numb as the game progressed. Though he denied the injury played a role in his performance in the 18-19 season, it's certainly possible that it was lingering at least early in the season.
Provorov started the 18-19 campaign back with Gostisbehere, but the two couldn't rekindle their magic, and were separated about ten games into the season. He spent the entire second half alongside another good puck-mover (Travis Sanheim), but for whatever reason, Provorov seemed to be fighting the puck all season long. His passes were no longer crisp, his decision making was not nearly as sharp. Maybe it was the injury, maybe it was the pressure of being a restricted free agent in the summer, bad luck, or some combination of those three. But it was certainly a concerning step back for Provorov, who, for as good as he had looked in the NHL, only had half a season of quality advanced metrics. The argument that MacDonald dragged him down was no longer an end-all, be-all after his struggles in 18-19 alongside Gostisbehere and Sanheim.
Chuck Fletcher knew that in order for the Flyers to improve this season, Provorov needed to rediscover his A-game. First, Fletcher went to work finding the right partner for Provy. He settled on Washington's Matt Niskanen, an experienced puck-mover who is also dependable in his own zone, something that couldn't always be said about Ghost and Sanheim. And despite his concerning junior year, Provorov signed a 6-year contract the day before training camp began with a cap hit of $6.75 million, a sign of trust in the 23-year old defenseman.
As a result, Provorov returned to form this season. He looked like his confident self all year. His mistakes were cut to a minimum, and he continues to thrive in big minutes; Provorov has lead the Flyers in time on ice every year of his career. Provorov's dependability is also a nice trait; he became the second defenseman in NHL history this year to play the first 300 games of their career for the same season without missing one (joining Dan Girardi of the New York Rangers). His 13 goals are top ten in the league this season, and he's returned to second half 17-18 form with outstanding analytics.
If there's one area Provorov could improve in, it's his power-play work. Yes, his seven power-play goals led all defensemen, but that has more to do with his outstanding shot than anything. Provorov's expected goals for percentage was the sixth worse out of 60 defensemen with at least 100 power-play minutes this season. His outstanding shot masks the fact he's not an outstanding power-play quarterback, but that's probably nitpicking. Provorov is a legit top-pair defenseman, already making his contract look great, and should be an impact player for years to come.
2018-19 (WSH): 8 G, 17 A (25 PTS),
2019-20: 8 G, 25 A (33 PTS), 52.2% Corsi, 53.93% xGF
Provorov's bounce-back season could have happened without Niskanen. But there's no doubt the 33-year old was the ying to Provorov's yang all year long. Niskanen's stellar season makes it easy to forget the doubt that surrounded the trade when it happened. Niskanen's 18-19 season wasn't great, and at 32, there was concern he could be falling off. Add that it cost the Flyers an advanced stats darling in Radko Gudas and the Flyers retained $1.005 million of Gudas' deal (while Niskanen is making $5.75 million), and Niskanen had his fair share of doubters before he even played a game in Orange and Black.
After starting the season alongside Sanheim, Niskanen was paired with Provorov for the first time in the Flyers sixth game of the season against Dallas. Despite all of the line juggling and changes that coaches make during a season, these two stayed together from that point on. While Provorov was the flashier, more dynamic of the two, Niskanen provided a stabilizing presence that allowed Provorov to take chances with little worry. Niskanen is dependable in his own zone, but isn't a true defensive defenseman; he's a solid puck-mover too. In fact, Niskanen spent the entire season on the Flyers second power-play unit, scoring his most power-play points since 2015-16 with 13.
Chuck Fletcher bet on Niskanen's track record and that a short summer after the Capitals Cup run in 2018 was the biggest reason for Niskanen's disappointing 18-19 campaign, rather than a drop off in ability. Boy, was he right. The Flyers won this trade by a pretty big margin, especially since Niskanen is under contract through next season and Gudas had a bit of a down year himself in DC (and will be a UFA this summer). His effect on the locker room is also great. In a poll with The Athletic in January, Niskanen received nine of twelve total votes for the "Most Responsible/Team Dad" designation. Kevin Hayes has made his nickname Steadzo Glensky common inside the Wells Fargo Center. Fletcher bought low on Nisky, and emerged with perhaps the perfect fit for the Flyers defense.
2018-19: 9 G, 26 A (35 PTS), 49.8% Corsi, 52% xGF
2019-20: 8 G, 17 A (25 PTS), 52.35% Corsi, 51.49% xGF
Travis Sanheim can still be a good player and may have been better, or at least more important, to the Flyers last season. Those two things aren't mutually exclusive. And truthfully, Sanheim's 2018-19 season may have been a bit misleading. Yes, Sanheim spent the entire second half on the top pair alongside Ivan Provorov and put up 35 points. He was one of the few players to put anywhere close to positive advanced metrics, barely being outshot and actually out-chancing opponents at 5-on-5, something almost no Flyer did, especially under Scott Gordon.
The two biggest reasons Sanheim didn't take a step forward this season (which is different than taking a step back) is less ice-time and bad luck. Last season, Sanheim averaged 1:02 of power-play time per game, usually playing on the second unit. Matt Niskanen not only booted Sanheim from his place next to Provorov, but took over his role on the power-play. Sanheim almost never had consistent power-play time this season, usually coming out during the final seconds of unsuccessful man advantages. His second unit role sometimes came back when Shayne Gostisbehere was scratched, but Sanheim only averaged 54 seconds of power-play time this year.
Secondary assists also tend to fluctuate a lot year-by-year. Primary points (goals and primary or first assists) are much more consistent for players. Sanheim had 13 secondary assists last season, about 2-3 more than he was on pace for this year. That's not much, but every point counts, especially for a defenseman. Scoring aside, Sanheim did become a more complete player this season. He was more dependable in his own zone, played over a minute more short-handed time, and helped the guy who is coming up next take a step forward as well. Sanheim remains a mobile, puck-moving, two-way defenseman perfectly suited for the modern NHL and the Flyers system.
2018-19: 1 G, 1 A (2 PTS) in 21 GP, 48.81% Corsi, 39.17% xGF
2019-20: 4 G, 12 A (16 PTS) in 50 GP, 51.43% Corsi, 50.34% xGF
Today, it's easy to forget that Phil Myers actually started the 2019-20 season in the AHL. After 6 dominant games (4 assists, 59.89% Corsi) and a 5-5-1 start for the parent club, Myers was called up, this time likely for good. He came into his second NHL stint guns blazing, becoming the first Flyers defenseman since Mark Howe in 1987 to score a goal in three straight games.
Myers cooled down a little after that hot start, and went through some growing pains as the season progressed. When Shayne Gostisbehere and Justin Braun went down with injuries in January, he was elevated to the second pair with Sanheim. The two had great chemistry as a pair for the Phantoms in 2017-18, but the NHL presented a much greater challenge. However, after a few rough weeks, the two became to gain confidence and rediscovered their chemistry. For Myers, that meant being a little less aggressive at times, staying in good position and using his big reach as a tool, not relying on it at all times. Even when caught, Myers' outstanding closing speed and recovery ability was on display countless times. You can get Phil Myers down, but it's hard to get him out.
The undrafted Myers spent the last twenty-five games of the year, averaging the fourth-most minutes on the Flyers backend (17:40) from January 8 on, compared to sixth-most (17:06) from November 1 (his first game after being called up) to that point. He's closing in on being a bona-fide top-four defenseman, and at just 23, there's reason to believe his ceiling is still a ways away. His decision making is sometimes flawed, but he's got every tool you want for a defenseman. He's big and physical but a smooth skater that can move the puck and isn't afraid to jump into the rush when the chance presents itself. If Myers makes as big a jump as the one he made this year next season, watch out. Even if he doesn't, Myers is well on his way to becoming an impact NHL defenseman.
2018-19 (SJ): 2 G, 14 A (16 PTS), 50.7% Corsi, 52.19% xGF
2019-20: 3 G, 16 A (19 PTS), 50.71% Corsi, 50.52% xGF
Like Niskanen, the Braun trade received mixed reviews initially, but ten months later, it looks like the best case scenario for the Flyers played out. Braun actually had a great season analytically last year for the Sharks, but those numbers seemed like an outlier as it was the first time since 2016 he drove play. Add in that the Flyers couldn't get the Sharks to retain any of his $3.8 million cap hit and it cost a 2nd and 3rd to acquire him, there were worries the Flyers had overpaid for a right-handed defenseman for the second time in about a week.
However, Braun fit in Philadelphia seamlessly. After briefly starting the year with Provorov, Braun spent most of the rest of the year alongside Sanheim, Gostisbehere, or Hagg (one of those names is not like the other). The Hagg pairing was gashed for chances consistently but lucked into 68.42% goals for thanks to a sky-high 108.2 PDO (the average is 100, in case you were wondering). The Gostisbehere pair was the exact opposite - respectable underlying metrics but a 928 PDO held them back. Braun was at his best with Sanheim; they outshot, out-chanced, and outscored opponents.
Braun added stability to the right-side of the Flyers blue-line, something the team hasn't had for a long time. Radko Gudas was basically the only notable right-handed defenseman of the decade (I guess Luke Schenn was notable too, albeit for all the wrong reasons), which explains why the team hasn't won a playoff series since 2012. Braun chipped in a little more offense than expected (a 25-point pace, which would've been the second highest mark of his career), but is more known for his PK work and ability to eat minutes against quality competition. The Flyers cap crunch might lead Braun to walk in the offseason, but Fletcher once again hit on his evaluation. Braun isn't the most significant part of the Flyers revived blue-line, but he is a positive factor that helped the Flyers take a step forward this season.
2018-19: 9 G, 28 A (37 PTS), 50.86% Corsi, 49.79% xGF
2019-20: 5 G, 7 A (12 PTS) in 42 GP, 52.01% Corsi, 46.96% xGF
No Flyer had a more disappointing season than Shayne Gostisbehere, and it isn't really close. When an offensive defenseman making $4.5 million scores at a 24-point pace and is healthy scratched for weeks on end, it's hard to argue anything but. The Flyers hoped that Gostisbehere would bounce back like so many other key pieces than disappointed a year-ago. A new coach on defense (Mike Yeo) and acquiring a stay-at-home defenseman in Braun that could allow Ghost to do his thing when paired together seemed like promising steps.
However, once the season began, everything crashed and burned. The pair with Braun didn't work out as well and didn't last very long. Ivan Provorov took his spot on power-play one and never let go thanks to his above-average shot. Gostisbehere found himself with the blackhole of Robert Hagg more often than any other teammate. When paired with anyone else, Gostisbehere's Corsi (+3.4%) and Expected Goals For (+7.85%) both when significantly up.
But spending so much time with Hagg doesn't absolve Gostisbehere completely. It doesn't explain why his scoring took such a massive dip. It doesn't explain why Niskanen and Sanheim averaged more points per 60 than Ghost on the power-play. For those not analytically inclined, this stat basically measures scoring efficiency, showing how much a player scores relative to their ice-time, because obviously the more you play, the more you'll score, but not everyone plays the same amount in hockey. It doesn't explain why the Flyers were 21-17-5 with him in the lineup and 20-4-2 without him. Maybe you can mark these up to bad luck in a vacuum, but all together they're a damning statement on how much Gostisbehere struggled this season.
There have been rumors about Gostisbehere being un-coachable for a while, dating back to exit interviews in 2017 when Ghost famously quipped, “I’m going to make plays and I don’t care if I get yelled at but I’m going to play my game and make my plays." The year before he scored 46 points in 64 games and was runner-up for the Calder. He followed that Jimmy Rollins 2007-esque quote with a Jimmy Rollins 2007-esque performance, scoring 65 points and receiving Norris votes. That player is still there, somewhere deep inside of Shayne Gostisbehere. But it's clear that he's lost his confidence, and after consecutive disappointing campaigns, it's legitimate to question if he can rediscover it in Philadelphia. If not, Fletcher can probably find a trade partner willing to bite on a bounce-back even at his modest $4.5 million cap hit, but a Gostisbehere trade is almost certainly a deal the Flyers will lose.
2018-19: 5 G, 15 A (20 PTS), 44.25% Corsi, 44.53% xGF
2019-20: 3 G, 10 A (13 PTS) in 49 GP, 44.7% Corsi, 45.63% xGF
There are two schools of thought when it comes to evaluating Robert Hagg, and there's pretty much no in between. The old school fans see him as a quality defensive defenseman who blocks shots and kills penalties and has grit and character and all the intangibles you could ever dream of. They see him, or at least the type of player he is, as a necessity for any contender. These are the people who yell at the Hurricanes for being a "bunch of jerks" and scream "SHOOT" 10 seconds into a power-play when there's like eight guys in the lane. Don't be these people.
The other side sees Robert Hagg as a possession liability who can't move the puck and offers little value in the NHL. They see him as a player who hasn't changed much since his rookie season three years ago and, at 25, is unlikely to change much going forward. They see him as a player that every single Flyer who played at least 50 minutes has a better Corsi (shot attempt differential, which is a pretty big deal) and almost every Flyer is more likely to score a goal than give up one (Expected Goals For%). This is what I see Robert Hagg as.
In fairness, blocking shots and throwing hits are still valuable in isolation, but when you repeat them over and over, they tend to lead to bad things. Pretend you see a rat in your house. Of course you shouldn't just sit there and let it run around in your pantry - you should set a rat trap. That's normal. But if you see a hundred rats in your house, it probably means you've got a bigger problem at hand. Now pretend each rat is a Robert Hagg blocked shot. Do you see now why his play is so concerning?
The biggest problem with a blocked shot or a hit is that they can only occur when your team does not have the puck. The average Corsi for a player in the top 10 in the league in hits is 48.186%. That's not company you want to associate with yourself with (Hagg is 17th in the league despite playing than all but three players in the top 50). He's a solid 7th defenseman, but with the cap crunch facing the Flyers, the fear is he'll be a regular next season. Barring a major leap for Hagg over the summer, hopefully it doesn't come to that.
2019-20 (AHL): 3 G, 15 A (18 PTS) in 45 GP, 50.5% Corsi
2019-20 (NHL): 0 G, 1 A in 7 GP, 39.44% Corsi, 37.5% xGF
If the Flyers can't afford to bring back Braun or trade Gostisbehere and don't bring it another blue-liner, Friedman is the most likely to usurp Hagg for sixth on the depth chart. Friedman's NHL work wasn't spectacular by any stretch - just one assist in seven games (albeit without much ice-time) and poor underlying metrics (although Friedman never had the luxury of playing with a Flyer not named Hagg, who we'll get to later).
The reason Friedman still makes the grade is because of his work for the Phantoms. Friedman was on pace for a solid 30-point season in a full AHL season (76 games) and his underlying metrics were strong, especially compared to his teammates (his Corsi was +2.34% relative to the average Phantom). He's a solid two-way defenseman with good enough puck skills, instincts, and defensive play that he could be a solid third-pair defenseman someday. It might not be next season, although Friedman is no longer waiver-exempt next year (though it's certainly plausible he would clear - Aube-Kubel did at the start of this season). The 24-year old right-handed shot Friedman certainly showed positive steps this season, regardless of where he was playing.
2018-19: 16-13-1, .917 SV%, 2.83 GAA, 6.97 Goals Saved Above Avg
2019-20: 24-13-3, .914 SV%, 2.42 GAA, 4.47 GSAA
One of the biggest reasons for optimism in September was that Carter Hart would be starting 30-50 games for the team. After 30 years of waiting for an elite goaltender, the Flyers finally had their savior. From Everett to Team Canada to the Phantoms to the NHL (at 20 years and 4 months), Hart dominated every level since the Flyers took him 48th overall in the 2016 Draft. Unlike last season, Hart came into the season as the starter, and aside for a two-week slump in mid-late October, never let go of the role.
A lot was made of Hart's drastic home-road splits over the season. Hart was unbeatable at the Wells Fargo Center, sporting a .943 save percentage and winning 20 games, tied with Jordan Binnington for the most in the NHL. However, Hart didn't win a road game in regulation until February 13, and his poor .857 mark on the road raised some eyebrows.
While I'm no goalie expert, I'm not afraid that Hart is going to be a below-average goalie away from Philadelphia for any extended period of time. After all, Hart was better on the road than at home last season (.928 vs. .912 save percentage). Most teams play better at home, and the Flyers were no exception: 51.69% Corsi, 52.2% xGF at home; 50.3% Corsi, 49.1% xGF. In actual words, they were elite in Philly and basically average everywhere else, which certainly didn't help Hart's numbers. Two of Hart's final three road starts also left the impression he was turning it around, holding off late pushes from the Panthers and Rangers (combined .907 save percentage).
Overall, it's hard to ask for anything more than what Hart delivered in his first full NHL season. His .914 save percentage is very good. Hart made some incredible saves (his desperation glove saves on Mikko Rantanen and Taylor Hall one-timers stand out), and kept the Flyers in games they didn't deserve to be in. It will be exciting to see how Hart performs in the playoffs. He's always been technically sound and calm in the crease, traits that lend themselves to playoff success. It's clear the Flyers have a good one in Cahtah Haht, and his career has only just begun.
2018-19: 11-11-1, .907 SV%, 2.96 GAA, -2.21 GSAA
2019-20: 16-7-4, .899 SV%, 2.87 GAA, -8.02 GSAA
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I was a little surprised and a little uneasy about the Flyers decision to re-sign Elliott in June. After all, Moose missed over 60 games in his first two seasons as a Flyer with injuries, and entering the season at 34, it was fair to wonder how he would hold up. If Hart struggled and Elliott needed to play 40-50 games, could he do so at a high enough level to keep the Flyers competitive?
Thankfully, that question never had to be answered, as Hart performed well and only missed three weeks with a right lower abdominal injury. When Elliott played, he was mostly what the Flyers expected him to be: an average backup. Elliott ranked 48th in the league in save percentage; so if you consider the first 31 goalies to be the starters, Elliott would be the 17th best backup out of 31. Early in the season, he stole quite a few games early in the season (.916 save percentage in the first two months), but struggled more as the season progressed (.883 the rest of the way). It just so happened that whenever Elliott and Hart's struggles never coincided; whenever one struggled, the other flourished. Elliott was usually the former in that scenario, but he certainly had his moments, too.
Now at 35, and coming off the worst season of his career, another reunion for the Flyers and Elliott seems even less likely than it did twelve months ago. Because of his age and injury history, it's possible if not likely that Elliott falls off a little more next season. A nine point drop in his save percentage took him from fringe starter to average backup; another similar drop leaves Elliott as a fringe NHLer. Of course, it's not guaranteed that Elliott will continue to decline - goalies are always random, after all. But with a 22-year old starter still susceptible to growing pains as your starter, you want to make sure your plan B is as good as it can be.
In Flyers history, Elliott will go down as one of the many stopgaps between Ron Hextall and Carter Hart. He probably was never appreciated as much as he should have been. He kept the team competitive during the 10-game losing streak in 2017, then was leading their turnaround until core surgery sidelined him for 25 games. He returned with two games left in the season, clearly playing hurt. He struggled for the most part, but did record a 16-save shutout in game 82 to clinch a playoff spot and stopped 30 of 31 in a Game 2 win. Last season, everyone thought the Flyers playoff hopes were done when Carter Hart when down in February. But the Flyers were 5-1-1 under Elliott during Hart's absence, keeping the club in the race.
Perhaps we over compensated for our harshness this season - it seemed like Elliott got more praise than ever despite putting up his worst season in Philly. If this is the end, thanks for holding down the fort, Moose. We needed you more than most people realized.
2019-20 (AHL): 11-14-5, .913 SV%, 2.69 GAA
2019-20: 1-1-0, .890 SV%, 3.55 GAA
This season and last were pretty much the same for Alex Lyon. He spent most of the season as the Phantoms starter, playing well. He received a brief NHL call-up, and played pretty mediocre until the goalies in front of him got healthy. Lyon is two years removed from putting up a .918 save percentage in his second call-up of the 17-18 season over eight games (in three games in his first call-up, he was a dismal .860).
Lyon is a dark horse contender to take over the backup role next season, but the odds of that happening are very low in my opinion. Like I mentioned in Elliott's review, the Flyers want to know what they'll get from their backup. A 27-year old with sixteen NHL games to his name can't give you that. Betting on Lyon would be taking a gamble, and as Maple Leafs fans can tell you with Garret Sparks (a Calder Cup winning goalie with a career .924 AHL save percentage who burped out a .902 mark as the team's backup last season and ridiculed by Leafs fans all year before being traded to Vegas). Good AHL stats are nice for a goalie, but they're far from a surefire indicator of NHL success; Hart himself was a sub-.900 save percentage before being called up in December 2018.
To be honest, between Elliott and Lyon, the Flyers could probably find an adequate backup for 2020. But considering the goalie troubles this franchise has had before, playing it safe is definitely not the wrong answer. I got to see Lyon in person against the Avs. He stopped 28 of 31, including a two-on-one in the first minute, a diving desperation save (at least I think it was a save - there was a Flyers defenseman in the crease too and it may have hit him, but I've looked at the replay and I'm pretty sure Lyon's stick got a piece) and a breakaway with the Flyers up one in the 3rd. He definitely has potential, and you don't stop 94 of 95 shots in a 5OT AHL playoff game without skill. The cards are stacked against Lyon, but he has the talent to pull out a winning hand, whether it's in Philly or somewhere else.