As the Philadelphia Flyers sit one point out of last place in the Eastern Conference, a lack of depth at the center position has been cited as one of the problems holding this team back. According to Dave Isaac of the Courier-Post, the Flyers apparently targeted a center in free agency but were unwilling to match the term this player eventually secured. Coach Dave Hakstol has chosen to keep Claude Giroux on the wing and this decision leaves the Flyers with the following options at center: Sean Couturier, Nolan Patrick, Jordan Weal, Scott Laughton, and Jori Lehtera.
We contend that the issue at center is less about depth and more about usage. While Hakstol's insistence upon using Giroux as a wing has created an artificial need down the middle, it is his deployment of the remaining centers that is contributing to the struggle of the overall team.
All eyes are on Nolan Patrick as he has failed to generate much offense in the first third of the season. After recovering from surgeries in 2017, Patrick finished the 2017-2018 season on a tear with 21 points in his final 33 games while averaging 2.4 shots on goal per game. Through 22 games in 2018-2019, Patrick has just nine points and has managed fewer than two shots on goal per game. Equally troubling are his possession stats which reveal a drop of nearly 5% in shot shares compared to last season.
To better understand what is happening to Patrick this season, we'll examine how he's being deployed by Hakstol. Below, we post the player usage charts for the Philadelphia Flyers from the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 seasons.
If you're unfamiliar with player usage charts, read our primer. These charts are published at the Left Wing Lock website for all NHL teams and are updated each morning. Briefly, the player usage charts tell you not only how a coach is deploying his players, but also how those players are performing in that specific role.
The most obvious difference between 2017-2018 (Figure 1) and 2018-2019 (Figure 2) is that Hakstol has chosen to use Patrick (and his linemates) in a much more defensive role. Patrick's offensive zone starts have dropped from 53% to 42%. It would not be an overstatement to call this change drastic. Essentially, when the Flyers find themselves pinned down in the defensive zone, Hakstol is choosing to put Patrick on the ice and the results speak loudly: with Patrick on the ice this season at even-strength, the Flyers are being heavily outshot and outscored. You might argue that Patrick's 55% success rate on face-offs is a good reason to use him in the defensive zone, but this would be ignoring the fact that Laughton, Weal, Giroux, and Couturier meet or exceed that success rate.
Couturier, a past Selke candidate, has shown an ability to drive play independent of zone starts; he excels as a two-way forward. Other NHL teams with Selke finalists generally use these forwards in a manner such that they eat up difficult minutes leaving other forwards on the team in more favorable offensive positions (e.g., Ryan Kesler, Anze Kopitar, Patrice Bergeron, Mikko Koivu, and Aleksander Barkov). Inexplicably, Hakstol has pushed for Couturier's line to see the most generous offensive zone starts of any Flyers' line this season. As a result of this change, the Flyers have become a one-line team. The player (and line) suffering the most from this choice is Nolan Patrick.
Moving Giroux to center (which would be an obvious, and likely successful, fix to the problem of center depth) appears to be off the table. Short of that, there remain two options for Hakstol.
The first of these options is to revert back to the deployment scheme of 2017-2018. That is, have the Couturier line start the bulk of their shifts in the defensive zone and allow for Patrick's line to benefit from the more generous offensive zone starts. Both Patrick and Oskar Lindblom shined in this role last season.
The second of these options (and the one we advocate for) is to use Patrick on a line with Travis Konecny while continuing to give this line generous offensive zone starts. Couturier would then center a line that starts the bulk of their shifts in the defensive zone. The idea here is that both top lines would then have a player who strongly drives puck possession (Konecny and Couturier) and Patrick would be shielded from having to carry the burden of a defense-first role. Since the start of the season, Hakstol has tinkered with the wings of the bottom three lines and occasionally scratched a bottom-six center. The result of these experiments is a team headed for a draft lottery pick. It's time for a real change that strikes at the heart of the Flyers' struggles: pair Patrick and Konecny on a line together and start them in the offensive zone as often as possible.
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