When the Philadelphia Flyers waived Blair Betts earlier this week to trim their regular season roster to 22 with a 23rd on the injured reserve, the team finished off the gutting of the players who piled up defensive minutes for the team in 2010.
Gone were Darroll Powe, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Nikolay Zherdev and Dan Carcillo, and while only two of those players are “household” names, the other two, along with Betts, have more in common with Carter and Richards than you might think: they were forwards who started more shifts in the defensive zone than the offensive zone.
It takes little less than a math whiz to explain that the difficulty in securing possession for your team with a faceoff in the defensive zone is tougher than that in the offensive; for one, a lot of coaches primarily deploy their top forwards in offensive situations. A giveaway will cost you more closer to your net than the other as will losing the key faceoff. It’s harder to prevent shots against your own net and harder to take shots on the opposing net when you start with the puck 200 feet away.
Betts, in fact, started 26.2% of his shifts in the
defensive offensive zone last season (neutral zone starts are eliminated from this percentage—It’s just offensive and defensive) which was second in the entire NHL just to Manny Malhotra in Vancouver. If you click on that link and scroll through the list, you’ll see that a lot of players who had lower than 50% rates were shipped out of town this summer.
Was it craftiness on the part of General Manager Paul Holmgren? Shrewd? Crazy is more like it. The new additions that went into the opening night roster who were in the league last season, Maxime Talbot, Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds, only Simmonds had a start rate of under 50%, but he barely creaked through at 49.5%.
The opening night roster did not exactly feature a lot of players who have been tested handling heavy minutes last season. Overall, head coach Peter Laviolette sent rookie Matt Read and Talbot out to the wolves opening night. The pair started 20% of their shifts in the defensive zone against the Boston Bruins. Problems creeped up all night for the Flyers in their own end: the two were a combined 2-9 on faceoffs. Despite winning just 33% of the draws all night with problems in all zones, the Flyers managed to get a couple of first period markers and sit on the heels of Ilya Bryzgalov and let him earn some of the money he was paid over the summer. He stopped 22 of 23 but was not awarded a game star.
Rookies tend to not succeed playing those difficult minutes, so it will be interesting to see whether or not Read will stick. Joey Crabb, the rookie who “led” NHL forwards in defensive zone starting percentage last season, had a Corsi rating of minus-15.16 (Corsi is an expanded +/- statistic which factors in all shots, including missed shots and blocks) last season, which was well below an average of players with similar zone starts (minus-5.25 for the ten players above and ten players below his start rate).
While Joey Crabb is just one example, it’s apparent that protecting rookies is something that many coaches prefer to do, as having young players handle the defensive zone minutes isn’t befit to their talents. Since a hockey game can turn on a dime with a blown coverage or a bad giveaway, mistakes are preferably made as far away from the puck as possible. While Talbot is a good fit in that role, it’s certainly not one for Read, or Couturier who had one offensive and three defensive starts at 5-on-5 in his first NHL game (at 40% on draws, however, he was Philly’s second best faceoff man).
The sheltered minutes, stretches of play in the offensive zone, predictably went to some of the Flyers veterans who were handled in a similar fashion last season. While the strategy seemed to work in one game as the Flyers outshot the Bruins 29-23, much of their success depends on the more invisible fact that Boston missed the net a few times. In fact, Boston put 52 attempts on net to Philly’s 47 in Game One of the NHL season.
Is it a path for sustainable success, or will Paul Holmgren note the issue and pick up a forward, preferably a centreman, who is more accustomed to handling those tougher minutes? He’s giving Laviolette a lot of scoring talent up front, but little to work with in the defensive end, and an extra, proven player could be the difference between a win and a loss, particularly if Philly wants to keep playing close, 2-1 hockey games against championship teams.