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Is There Hope for the Flyers?

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Now that the Philadelphia Flyers have moved beyond the Bobby Clarke/Ken Hitchcock era, I thought I'd take a detailed look at their performance to see what stylistic changes in their play have accompanied their improved record as of late (they were 1-6-1 before Regime Change, and are 6-8-2 afterwards).

The most basic indicator of performance is the Goals For/Against ratio, which is our strongest guide to determining win/loss results for a team. The improvement there has been dramatic:

Goals For/Game Goals Against/Game Goal Ratio
Before 1.875 4.125 0.455
First 8 After 2.25 4.00 0.563
Last 8 2.75 1.75 1.571

It would appear that they floundered early on, continued their poor play in the wake of the shakeup, but then have actually turned things around in the last 8 games. Granted, 8 game snapshots aren't much of a statistical sample, but if they made enough sense for Flyers management to flush a front office down the drain, it's good enough for blogwork.

The wierd part here is that the Goal Ratio is improving, while the Shooting Ratio (Shots For/Shots Against) has taken a dive. The goaltending is hot in Philly these days, with Antero Niittymaki taking the lead job away from the injured Robert Esche. Save percentage was .862 under Hitchcock, .856 in the first 8 games after his departure, and .949 over the last 8 games. Clearly the current pace is unsustainable, but anything around the .900 mark would give the Flyers a fighting chance. As for the shooters, the improvement has been equally dramatic. Shooting percentage was only 5.8% early on, 6.6% in the second 8 games of the season, and 11.7% over the last 8. Considering that league-wide shooting percentages tend to be around 9-10%, if the shooting percentage comes back down a bit but the number of shots returns a more normal level, the overall offense should remain about the same - mediocre.

Shots For/Game Shots Against/Game Shot Ratio
Before 32.25 29 1.11
First 8 After 33.9 27.9 1.22
Last 8 23.5 34 0.69

Another noteworthy aspect is that Shot Quality wasn't a factor in their early performance. I like to make fun of Derian Hatcher's glacial speed as much as the next guy, but using my (relatively crude) measure of Shot Quality, an average shot had a 9.88% chance of going in last season. Philadelphia's opponents took shots that would be expected to score anywhere from 9.5% to 9.8% of the time, using the three 8-game periods we're discussing here. On the offensive end, Flyer shooters took above-average shots. Before the front office change, 10.1% of shots would be expected to score, and in the immediate aftermath, that measure rose to 10.7%. In their latest 8-game stretch, they've reverted closer to the norm at 9.95%. So what does all this mean? Basically, the Flyers gave up a normal amount of relatively average shots, yet their save percentage wallowed in the mid-.800's through the first 16 games. Clearly, goaltending was to blame more than a lumbering defense. On the opposite end, they also ran into some hot goaltending (Philly's actual shooting percentage was much lower than Shot Quality would have indicated).

As far as Hits go, we don't see a huge shift in either direction, just an overall reduction of about 10% in hitting by both the Flyers and their opponents:

Hits For/Game Hits Against/Game Hits Ratio
Before 15.4 19.6 0.78
First 8 After 15.5 14.4 1.08
Last 8 14.5 16.3 0.89

Looking at Takeaways, there has been clear improvement in this area - the Flyers now swipe the puck away more often than their opponents, rather than getting it stolen away constantly:

Takeaways For/Game Takeaways
Takeaway Ratio
Before 5.13 7.75 0.66
First 8 After 4.88 6.88 0.71
Last 8 7.25 6.88 1.05

As for Giveaways, there isn't any strong trend here, and as discussed previously, Giveaways haven't been shown to have a strong correlation with performance. It may well be that a team with a large number of Giveaways just has the puck more often, and thus more opportunities to cough it up:

Giveaways For/Game Giveaways Against/Game Giveaway Ratio
Before 10.63 9.75 1.09
First 8 After 16.5 9.75 1.69
Last 8 12.38 10.63 1.16

Team commitment to defense appears to be rising - Blocked Shots per Game went from 11.63 before Hitchcock walked the plank, 13.38 in the first 8 games after, and 14.9 over the last 8. If the Flyers continue this focus on their own end, and Niittymaki manages to post a save percentage anywhere north of .900, the team has a shot at getting back into the playoff picture. Perhaps they don't need to hit the panic button and trade Peter Forsberg away after all...